Can El Salvador’s New President Fix What’s Driving Citizens Out?

Nayib Bukele won in a landslide. Now, he needs new policies to reduce violence in his country.

Nayib Bukele (second from right), his wife, Gabriela Rodríguez (right), and Vice President-elect Félix Ulloa (second from left) celebrate after Bukele won the Salvadoran presidential election in San Salvador on Feb. 3. (Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)
Nayib Bukele (second from right), his wife, Gabriela Rodríguez (right), and Vice President-elect Félix Ulloa (second from left) celebrate after Bukele won the Salvadoran presidential election in San Salvador on Feb. 3. (Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—On Sunday, 23-year-old Fátima Cárcamo cast her vote for former San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele, becoming one of more than 1.3 million Salvadorans who swept him to victory in the first round of presidential elections, over the candidates of the country’s two dominant parties.

Sitting on a bench outside a worn-down soccer field waiting for a taxi to the voting center, Cárcamo said she is worried about insecurity, inequality, and lack of opportunities in her country, which have led many friends and family to migrate in recent years. “Many people here have left. They have completely abandoned their houses. Here you can’t live in peace,”Cárcamo said. “What a new president needs to do is improve security and implement more programs for youth.”

Bukele, the winning candidate, has promised to do just that, with a security plan that focuses on violence prevention through sports and cultural programs and the revival of public spaces. He has also promised to create more jobs, particularly for youth. But he has a daunting task ahead of him: El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the world, with more than 3,300 murders last year in a country the size of Massachusetts. The ongoing violence has caused thousands to leave the country in the last few years.

To address root causes of migration, the incoming administration has to “lay the groundwork for someone to be able to survive and thrive in their own context and community,” said Celina de Sola, the co-founder and vice president of programs at Glasswing, a nongovernmental organization that works in vulnerable communities in El Salvador.

Bukele believes he is the man for the job, and he has had some success through past projects as the mayor of two major cities in El Salvador, including the capital. But analysts worry that his plans are not developed enough to address the complexity of violence and insecurity on a national level. Superficial proposals, along with a lack of alliances in the country’s legislative assembly, could make it difficult for Bukele to bring about real change and provide hope to Salvadorans that they can improve their situation while staying in the country.

Gangs formed in Los Angeles and exported to El Salvador through deportations continue to exercise an iron grip on entire communities. A lack of educational and employment opportunities for youth and high rates of gender violence exacerbate the problem. Salvadoran politicians are finally starting to propose solutions to some of these structural problems, in a departure from the firm-handed policies, known as mano dura, used in El Salvador for the past two decades. These policies have led to extrajudicial killings, a burgeoning prison population, and an increasingly militarized police force, while failing to drastically improve the security situation. Homicides have been dropping since 2015, one of the most murderous years on record, but still have not dropped below levels in the early 2000s when mano dura policies began to be implemented. Instead, these policies have terrorized whole communities and destroyed trust in police and government institutions.

During El Salvador’s presidential campaign, candidates, including Bukele, favored a violence prevention approach in their plans for addressing gangs and security, which focused on providing alternative opportunities for youth who might join gangs. But analysts say that their plans were too narrow to address the root causes of the violence. “[Addressing security] has to do with social dynamics, impunity, and the weakness of state institutions. The issue of security is mixed with all these other problems in the country,” said Veronica Reyna, a security expert with Passionist Social Service, a San Salvador-based human rights organization.

Bukele has implemented some successful projects that have contributed to an increased sense of security, albeit on a smaller scale. As the mayor of San Salvador, Bukele’s signature project was the revival of the city center, an area of highly concentrated gang activity. He persuaded vendors at the local market, a hub for gang activity, to agree to a reorganization plan that would move some vendors to another area in an effort to re-establish government authority over the city center. He also restored three parks, enacting aesthetic changes like improving lighting to promote safe spaces. The project has led to a revival of the local economy in the center and a newfound sense of pride in the area.

Previously, as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, a city on the outskirts of San Salvador, Bukele promoted other urban renewal projects to increase security in public spaces. These projects have been lauded as largely successful by many Salvadorans. “As mayor, he did wonderful things,” said Aidé Ticas, a 70-year-old Bukele supporter and resident of San Salvador.

But the incoming administration will face challenges in translating its urban strategy to the entire country, where violence in rural areas has unique dynamics, and a lack of education and job opportunities form significant barriers to reducing conflict. “The rural part of the country is really neglected,” de Sola said. “A lot of attention needs to be paid to making sure that opportunities are decentralized.”

Confronting the complex factors that lead to youth unemployment in El Salvador is a task that must include not only the government, but the private sector and the police force as well. Simply creating more jobs is not enough, de Sola said. Many companies refuse to hire youth from neighborhoods stigmatized by gang violence. Punitive policing has led to the criminalization of these young people, who can be arrested on the slight suspicion of gang involvement, resulting in a criminal record even when they are released without charge, which can hurt their job prospects in the future.

Unemployment has been one of the major issues causing men to leave El Salvador. But in 2014, more women and children from El Salvador crossed the U.S. border, drawing attention to gender-specific violence and inequality in the country. Any policies focused on youth in El Salvador must consider the experiences of young women and girls, who experience violence in different ways and face unique challenges to stay in school and find work, de Sola said. Security conversations often revolve around gangs, but women also face violence at the hands of their partners and family members. Pressure to carry out familial responsibilities can lead them to drop out. Young motherhood can hinder their opportunities to pursue further studies or enter certain sectors of the workforce that prefer not to employ mothers.

Bukele has dedicated an entire section of his government plan to addressing gender issues, but serious discussion of the problems facing Salvadoran women and girls was lacking during the presidential campaign as candidates prioritized other issues. As president, Bukele will have to consider gender-specific issues to effectively address the root causes of immigration.

In recent years, there has been a growing understanding that stability in El Salvador is a cross-border problem in which the United States has a vested interest: An increasing number of Salvadorans began requesting asylum in 2014, one of many factors contributing to a yearslong backlog in the immigration court system. Since fiscal year 2015, the United States has provided more than $2.6 billion to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to tackle corruption, improve insecurity, and develop youth programs, in an effort to curb migration from the region. These funds, when spent on effective programs, could help El Salvador improve conditions in the country.

For this investment to continue, the international community is looking for a stable partner in El Salvador. “What any new administration needs to do is keep and increase the confidence of the U.S. government to pump in money for social investment and development,” said Ken Baker, the co-founder and CEO of Glasswing, which receives part of its funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. “If you have an administration that comes across as putting the money to good and not being corrupt, the U.S. will be a good partner. It will be able to help address the circumstances and root causes.”

During his campaign, Bukele has portrayed himself as the only candidate who would fight corruption, help youth get ahead, and improve security in the country. Analysts say he still has much more work to do to form concrete proposals based on solid evidence if he is serious about keeping these promises. It’s no easy task as tens of thousands of Salvadorans continue to leave their country each year. “There’s no silver bullet to this,” Baker said. While sports centers, cultural opportunities, and revived public spaces may be part of a solution, a comprehensive plan to fight insecurity, corruption, and inequality requires much more resources invested over time.

Widespread discontent with politicians and two decades of failed policies mean that many citizens remain skeptical of Bukele’s promises despite voting for him, including his supporter Cárcamo.

“The candidates said they are going to help the young people, but it’s about who will follow through.”


Anna-Catherine Brigida is a freelance journalist based in San Salvador covering immigration, human rights and security in Central America. Twitter: @AnnaCat_Brigida

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