Sign up for newsletter >>
A Nation Reborn
Photo by Ricardo Ardon / Unsplash

A Nation Reborn

President Nayib Bukele’s Historic Transformation of El Salvador

A revolution has taken place in a small Central American nation. Once gang-infested streets are safe. The economy is flourishing. Volcanoes are powering Bitcoin miners.

Up until just a few months ago, you may not have heard about El Salvador at all. Geographically, it’s the smallest country in Central America, about the size of Massachusetts, with a population of about 6.5 million. Its national dish (stuffed tortillas known as pupusas), idyllic beaches, and kind-hearted people might be better known if the country weren’t held back by extreme violence and instability—until now.

Like much of South America, the history of the country is characterized by political instability and extreme violence. In 1980, a bloody 12-year civil war sparked between the right-wing nationalist government — which had just taken power in a coup d’etat — and a coalition of left-wing rebel groups, the culmination of escalating tensions, stark poverty, and skirmishes over territorial control. And even after the civil war ended in 1992, it wasn’t long before gangs rose to power with horrific brutality, including the infamous MS-13.

By 1990, more than one million people were displaced in the war, with many migrants crossing the border into the United States. My mother was one of them.

Since leaving her homeland at the age of 17 in 1987, she has only traveled back to the country a handful of times. Like many Salvadoran immigrants, she was traumatized by the daily scenes of violence and death. Going back there has never been top of mind.

Still, I traveled there twice with her and my father in the 2000s to see family. But our trip was extremely limited, as there were only certain regions (and certain times of day in “safe” areas) that were less dangerous to visit.

In 2015, El Salvador had the grim distinction of becoming the murder capital of the world, registering 6,657 murders that year, primarily due to a sharp escalation in gang violence. That’s a homicide rate of 104 per 100,000. By contrast, the United States’ rate was 5 per 100,000, according to the FBI

But by the close of 2023, the country’s homicide rate had shrunk to 2.4 per 100,000, or 154 total murders according to Salvadoran police, lower than the U.S. murder rate that same year. 

In just a few short years, President Nayib Bukele has achieved what Salvadorans had lost hope for — a safe and livable country.

A Leader Arises

A creative rendering of Nayib Bukele (Source: Midjourney)

The 42-year-old leader, who has dubbed himself “Philosopher King” in his Twitter/X bio, quickly distinguished himself on the international stage. Entering the presidency via a third-party in 2019, he quickly overtook both the established left- and right-wing parties and launched his own, called Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas). Despite fierce opposition and obstruction from both parties at the outset, his party now dominates both the legislative and judicial chambers, instituting radical and rapid changes.

After he took office in February 2019, the crackdown on violence began, as reported by Foreign Policy:

During his first 150 days in office, the murder rate has dropped precipitously. The first seven months of 2019 were the least violent months in the last 15 years (except for 2013 and the 2012 gang truce). On July 31, not a single killing was recorded—only the eighth murder-free day in 19 years.

In response, the usual suspects have come out of the woodwork to criticize Bukele’s regime. “El Salvador's murder rate has fallen dramatically - but at what cost?” reads one headline from ITV.  “Nayib Bukele shows how to dismantle a democracy and stay popular,” reads a screed from The Economist. Detractors decry the “erosion of human rights” and the resultant “mass incarceration.”

But, the overwhelming majority of El Salvador support Bukele’s efforts. A plethora of polls and surveys have consistently demonstrated an approval rating hovering around 90 percent, easily the best in South America, and likely the world.

In response to his critics, Bukele directly addressed the concerns:

“On the topic of human rights, even though nobody disputes that prisoners have human rights, I believe… they haven’t defended the human rights of our honest citizens. In general, they defend — and the whole international approach to human rights, and even the NGOs — are focused on the rights of criminals.
For 30 years in this country we were shot at, killed, shaken down, raped, extorted, threatened, living in fear, and nobody said a word. But if the killers, extortionists, and rapists are arrested, all of a sudden their human rights are important. Of course they have human rights, but the human rights of our honest people are more important.”

As Bukele implemented his agenda, the atmosphere among my corner of the Salvadoran diaspora changed. The initially cautious hope, tempered by decades of despair, rapidly gave way to a fully edified faith in the man. My mom’s sister, extended family, and friends explained how they could suddenly visit markets and towns in formerly gang-controlled zones, at night. The results were at once unfathomable and indisputable.

As the same aforementioned piece from The Economist concedes:

Human-rights groups are outraged, but most Salvadoreans are delighted.
“Before, this neighbourhood was ruled by a gang, and you couldn’t leave it [without their permission],” says Miguel, a shop owner in Sonsonate, a small town 65km (40 miles) from the capital, San Salvador. Violence was routine. Three gangsters murdered Miguel’s sister because she broke off a relationship with one of them. Since Mr Bukele locked up the thugs, life has grown easier, he says. His murdered sister’s daughter, whom he adopted, can walk around without worrying.

The dramatic turnaround has naturally resulted in greater international interest. As reported in a Santander white paper, tourism is up 30 percent year over year, as of this September. A survey of Salvadorans living in the US conducted by the country’s central bank found that 60 percent of respondents intend to return to El Salvador to reunite with family, retire, or permanently relocate.

This all culminated in my mother, father, brother, and I taking a week-long trip, along with three other families, to El Salvador in the latter part of October. What we saw was not only a renewed country but a new kind of a nation: an amalgamation of old-world, indigenous sensibilities, combined with silos of tech-forward development, mobilized by an uncompromising regime walking the line between social-democratic principles and divinely inspired rule.

Putting aside the hype around it being a volcanic-Bitcoin-tropical paradise, there are still wide, dense areas of extreme poverty. Any travel beyond the capital city will quickly reveal swaths of Salvadorans living in tin shacks, selling coconuts on the side of the road to earn a meager living. But the country is undoubtedly full of natural beauty, warm people, and it’s growing fast.

An armed guard stands watch over a construction site (Photo by Jano Tantongco)

The capital city San Salvador, home to about 1.6 million residents, is as technologically and commercially advanced as a mid-sized American city. While I was there, there was construction nearly round the clock, surely also in preparation for the Miss Universe pageant that would be held on November 18th. Almost every construction site had police and/or military to keep workers safe and prevent theft of materials and equipment.

The smaller towns, like Suchitoto — 30 miles north of the capital — famous for the Colonial Spanish-era Santa Lucia Church built in the 18th Century, are also quickly renewing themselves as part of the government’s robust development program. While we were there, San Rafael Cedros, to the east, held its annual fair celebrating its eponymous patron saint, with festival-goers celebrating way into nightfall — unthinkable in years past. Concepción de Ataco, to the west, had a sprawling market and at least a dozen coffee shops, with tourists eager to sample the local brews.

The country’s public transit is still limited and depends largely on buses. But now, many have said that ridesharing apps like Uber are now viable. Where drivers would once stop short of many destinations to avoid encroaching on gang territory, they can essentially go anywhere now. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Public Works is embarking on sweeping improvements to the highways and overpasses.

There is a palpable sense of optimism in the country. It may be measured tangibly in approval ratings, but is more properly gauged by seeing both residents and expats gushing over their home. All of this has been made possible because of Bukele’s thorough handling of the public safety crisis.

He has also mobilized the Nuevas Ideas party, which has shaped up into a youthful coalition, seeding and bearing fruit as a new crop of grassroots, patriotic leaders.

Herbert Esmahan, 34, a Nuevas Ideas party member and former pre-candidate for the Legislative Assembly, ran a spirited campaign to represent San Salvador, but lost the 2023 primary election by a close margin. The dual-national also worked on the Trump campaign in both 2016 and 2020.

Esmahan grew up in Florida, moved to El Salvador in his late teens, then came back to the U.S. But in 2020, he was visiting the country when COVID-19 hit and was forced to extend his stay. Seeing how Bukele handled the pandemic — and more broadly, how he was revitalizing the country — made him decide to move back.

“There was a certain positivity, this certain hope when President Bukele got elected,” he told the Pamphleteer in a phone interview leading up to the trip. “We had a government, a president, that was responsive to the people… He keeps it simple and clean.”

He saw the rapid growth, emphasis on traditional values, and public safety transformation firsthand. He highlighted the country hosting surfing competitions, the Caribbean Games, and Miss Universe as events that he never imagined would take place there.

“I thought at some point it was going to cool down, and it’s actually getting bigger. El Salvador is developing, not just in a political sense, but it’s physical. You can see it.”

Régimen de Excepción (State of Emergency)

Santa Lucia in Suchitoto (Photo by Jano Tantongco)

A cornerstone of his campaign, Bukele swiftly executed his six-phase security plan, called the Territorial Control Plan, upon taking office. Despite some pushback from the establishment parties, he was able to secure funding, disrupt the gangs, provide resources for youth, and achieve serious public safety gains.

2020 saw the murder rate cut almost in half to 19.7 per 100,000, already down from its recently unprecedented low of 36 per 100,000 in 2019. The rapid improvement stalled in 2021, at 17.6 per 100,000.

Even so, there were still acute spikes of uncontrolled gang violence. Bukele deployed military patrols after the country saw 30 homicides over two days in November 2021. 

March 26, 2022 marked the deadliest day in El Salvador since the civil war ended, with 62 homicides that day. There were 79 homicides for the entire month prior.

The next day, Bukele declared a “régimen de excepción” (state of emergency), which shifted his administration’s already primary focus into even higher gear. In the first 15 days, the president said 9,000 gang members were arrested, with his administration deliberately calling them “terrorists.” To this day, the state of emergency has been made continuous, being extended numerous times.

Earlier this year, the government opened the 40,000-capacity Terrorism Confinement Center (CECOT) high-security megaprison. The viral footage from the facility shows thousands of shirtless, tattoo-clad gang members under tightly regulated, militaristic imprisonment. As of December, more than 74,000 suspected gang members and associates have been incarcerated.

The footage — and state of emergency crackdown, in general — had the naysayer laptop class once again screeching about the “repressive” measures. But, in a stunning admission, El Faro, a Salvadoran news outlet famously critical of Bukele, was forced to declare this February that the president had indeed broken the back of the gangs after the state of emergency was implemented.

To verify this, El Faro visited 14 communities who for years lived under gangs’ ironclad control in the west, center, and east of the country; traversed the old criminal borderlines in the Center District of San Salvador; spoke to a veteran gang leader on the run and no longer in El Salvador; interviewed business people of different levels who for years were extorted by these groups; and conversed with police officers, religious leaders, NGOs, and political parties. The conclusion is that the gangs do not exist in this moment as El Salvador knew them for decades.

Higher Ideals

San Salvador at night (Photo by Jano Tantongco)

Though the work remains unfinished, a page has turned on the security crisis, and thereby, on the future of the country. There is a notable shift in the Bukele administration. He’s always been an adept marketer throughout his presidency. But now, his attention is moving to infrastructure.

Throughout the country, I saw development in every region. It seemed like if there was dirt, there were shovels. Entirely new communities were being built with requisite power lines and water mains. Workers were even trimming trees on main roads.

This year, he’s unveiled a modern, 78,740-square-foot National Library; a hydroelectric dam that will provide enough additional energy to cut electric bills by 14 percent; and the rebuilding of a long-abandoned hospital with funds from the already existing tax base, which he said has long been pilfered by previous politicians.

With the U.S. as something of a frenemy under the Biden administration in the background, Bukele has opened the doors of foreign investment to unlikely allies. The National Library, with a price tag of $54 million, was funded by a $500 million unconditional grant from China.

As of September, construction is up 19 percent, year over year. Its international bonds are rallying. The country has established a seven-year partnership with Google Cloud services to modernize government, healthcare, and education.

When we visited the National Palace in San Salvador, adjacent to the newly built National Library, a family friend who hadn’t been back to the country in years warned us over the phone to be careful. The square was once known to be as seedy and dangerous as Times Square in the 70s and 80s. But today, it’s filled with vendors selling light-up toys, busking musicians, and even a photographer shooting on-the-spot portraits for families. Police with rifles patrolled the area. It felt safer than most American common spaces like San Francisco’s Union Square or New York City’s Penn Station.

Bukele has described his philosophy behind investing in public spaces and infrastructure as “collective inheritance,”

Before, in ancient Greece and Rome, the public spaces were the best. If you look at the ruins of the homes of nobility, they were certainly nice homes, but they were nothing compared to the luxury of the Parthenon or the Senate, or the public plaza, where people even went to protest or celebrate when the victors came in.

As Aaron Renn writes, Bukele’s populist infrastructure achievements are a marked departure from those of someone like Trump, and more closely resemble the regimes of Huey Long or FDR. This is because there is a lack of vision among American conservatism, he concludes. He adds, “It doesn’t take a Central American strongman to build libraries, roads, parks, etc.”

Certainly not. But, as we’ve seen over three years, it does take a strongman to cut through not only crime, but the administrative state. Whether you support it or not, it’s hard to disagree: Bukele’s concentration of power has enabled a kind of efficiency that we’ve scarcely seen in modern times.

This isn’t Latin America’s first brush with such tactics. In fact, it has been implemented so often that it is colloquially known as “mano dura,” or strong hand. But for as many times as it has worked in the short-term, mano dura has often failed to yield lasting results.

But clearly, there’s something special about Bukele’s version. His self-characterization as philosopher king gives us a hint. The phrase comes from Plato’s “Republic,” which describes an ideal hypothetical ruler:

Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy ... cities will never have rest from their evils,—no, nor the human race, as I believe,—and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.

In an hour-long English interview with Tucker Carlson last year, Bukele pulled back the veil on his worldview, showing his deep understanding of legacy media as propaganda, common-sense economics, and how traditional values are under attack — likely in a concerted effort:

“There’s fundamental human values that are universal… If you are a believer, you will say God. I would say God myself… The ones in power, they want to change that. They want to change these universal concepts that are very strong within everybody.”

Asked what is Bukele’s guiding philosophy, Esmahan looked toward the heavens.

“This government’s inspiration comes from God. We are a God-fearing nation, and we truly believe that without God, 100 percent of what’s being done wouldn’t be achievable… This is a rebirth for El Salvador, and we have to make not only the most of it, but we have to make sure that we honor God in the process.”


Playa El Tunco (Photo by Jano Tantongco)

When I sat down for coffee with Esmahan in San Salvador, he donned a Nuevas Ideas cap in the familiar light blue, a bright motif that the party is famous for. He highlighted that the next priorities in the administration would be cultivating foreign investment and empowering youth. As an example for what’s in store, he lifted up the CUBO initiative, which has established educational “third spaces” throughout the country to engage children and keep them away from gangs.

After our chat, he left to attend a rally at the Salvadoran election commission to celebrate Bukele’s imminent signing of documents to register his candidacy for 2024.

Since then, the president has actually stepped down temporarily, ceding the role of acting president to Claudia Rodriguez, the current head of the National Directorate of Municipal Works. The hiatus also satisfies a condition that was set by the Supreme Court in permitting his second run:

The constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice ordered the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to enable a president who had not been in office ‘in the immediately preceding period to participate in the electoral contest for a second occasion.’

In speaking with Salvadoran family and friends on the topic of re-election, the constitutionality of his run was an afterthought, a blip on the radar compared to their emphatic support. In fact, their primary concern was how they could participate in the upcoming February election via absentee voting. They believe his re-election is all but certain, but they still want to make sure, firsthand, with their own votes.

“The people in El Salvador have been craving to be able to live a normal life without fear of being extorted, murdered, raped, without gear of sending their kids to school, simple day-to-day activities that the weren’t able to do before,” Esmahan said.

“The previous governments, they never listened, they never cared. And the people were tired of it. And that’s why President Bukele managed to defeat a two-party political system… The people democratically elected President Bukele, and they’ve gotten the solution they’ve been asking for. And if that’s not democracy, then what is?”

In every local market in each town I visited, there were shirts, mugs, wooden decorations featuring Bukele’s likeness. When I asked family friends if this was the case with any previous leader, they said they’ve never seen anything like it before.

It’s hard to argue with the people’s will, as well as Bukele’s clear-cut results. But, if we put ourselves into the shoes of his critics — the NGOs, obsolete media, and establishment bureaucrats — it’s clear to see what they’re afraid of: if the people understood how simple (simple, but not necessarily easy) it was to fix society’s problems, they would not want anything else.

Despite continued criticism from the withered political establishment and legacy media, polling is showing overwhelming approval for his second term. A survey from August showed 68.4 percent support for Bukele, 4.3 percent for the right-wing ARENA party as his next closest opposition, and just 2.8 percent for the left-wing FMLN.

Salvadorans will be casting their ballots for president on Sunday, February 4th. With an expected landslide brewing, Bukele — and the Nuevas Ideas caucus — seem poised to edify their regime. This presidential election, held every five years, is a rare overlap with legislative elections, held every three years.

As Esmahan believes, Bukele has triggered a “serious domino effect.” Before our eyes, the national populist archetype is surging in popularity. From the fiery, chainsaw-wielding Javier Milei in Argentina, to the immigration-restrictionist Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, there is emerging a distinct reaction to the globalist monoculture that has infected so many nations of the world. They won’t all be as successful as Bukele, but they are showing the world that another way is possible.