Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is not worried about being called an authoritarian or a human rights violator. At the peak of popularity, he is described as the “cool dictator” that transformed and rescued a country terrorized by gangs.
With the support of 90% of Salvadorans, this 42-year-old millennial publicist, the most popular president in Latin America according to Latinobarómetro 2023, is almost assured of his re-election in Sunday's elections.
“The Savior “It went from being the most dangerous country in the world to being the safest in Latin America.”says the president, who claims that gangs have killed at least 120,000 people since the end of the civil war in 1992.
At his request, Congress established in March 2022 a exceptional regime under which more than 75,000 alleged gang members were arrested. The number of homicides plummeted.
But some 7,000 innocent people have been freed. Human rights organizations denounce arbitrary arrests, torture or deaths in prison. In response, he accuses them of defending gang members.
Despite the accusations and controversy, his fame has crossed borders and into other countries on the continent. There are voices calling for “a Bukele” to stop crime.
Nayib Bukele's popularity transformed him into a social phenomenon. Photo Bloomberg
Accompanied by the military and police, he went to Congress in February 2020, dominated by the opposition, to press for a loan for his security policy.
The following year he obtained an overwhelming parliamentary majoritywhich allowed him to dismiss the prosecutor and the judges of the Constitutional Chamber who later enabled his candidacy for re-election, prohibited by the Constitution.
With gelled hair and carefully trimmed beard, he usually wears tight sweaters. Never tie. She doesn't make grandiloquent speeches either, but take care of the scene for postcard-style images.
In pressing circumstances, Bukele has reacted with vigor: when gangs spread a rumor that they were going to kill people at random in response to repression, threatened to leave imprisoned gang members without food.
He popularized the phrase “money is enough when no one steals”, but his opponents criticize him for not being accountable to anyone.
Before becoming president, he catapulted his image through social networks, where he usually writes in English.
Nayib Bukele's image appears everywhere. AFP Photo
Makes important announcements via Xin which he calls himself “Philosopher king” and mocks his critics.
“A cult phenomenon that settled in the country”thanks to its media machinery on social networks, summarizes the Director of Research at the Francisco Gavidia University, Óscar Picardo.
However, it has not managed to get Salvadorans to massively use bitcoin, which Bukele introduced as legal tender in 2021 on par with the dollar.
He was born on July 24, 1981 in San Salvador. He is the son of the industrial chemist and representative of the Palestinian community Armando Bukele (died in 2015) and Olga Ortez.
As a child “he was always seen smiling, he was never seen desperate,” architect Marleny Carranza, who worked in the Bukele companies, tells AFP.
“I was a regular student“Óscar Picardo, who was his teacher in high school, told AFP.
Since then he already showed his sarcastic style. In the school yearbook he described himself as “Class terrorist.”
He studied law at the Central American University, but he didn't graduateand chose to work from the age of 18 in his father's advertising agency who campaigned for the leftist Farabundo Martí Front (FMLN, former guerrilla).
During those years, he was also the manager of a nightclub in San Salvador.
He began his political career in 2012 and under the flag of the FMLN He was mayor of the town of Nuevo Cuscatlán and the Salvadoran capital from 2015 to 2018.
After an incident with a councilor, he was expelled from the FMLN in 2017. “I don't consider myself to be either right or left,” Bukele now says.
He rose to the top of power in 2019 by connecting with the young and the disappointed of both parties who alternated in the government after the civil war (1980-1992).
Little tolerant of criticism, has a small circle of trust where his brothers Karim, Yusef and Ibrajim are. His government included former classmates from the bilingual school where he studied.
He married Gabriela Rodríguez, a psychologist and ballet dancer, in 2014, with whom he has two daughters, Layla and Aminah.