We Need an American Bukele
The relationship between the United States and its hemispheric neighbors has long been a critical driver of both foreign and domestic policy. Since the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has, to varying degrees, sought to instruct the nations of South and Central America on how to manage their affairs. Today, Americans must reverse that paradigm and look to a small Central American nation as a blueprint for restoring law and order to its rightful place in governance: El Salvador.
When Salvadorans elected President Nayib Bukele in 2019, they gave him a clear enough mandate: Fix things. Since the conclusion of the Salvadoran Civil War, which raged from 1979 to 1992, El Salvador has experienced modest economic growth. However, persistent corruption and inflation hampered quality of life, and emigration to the United States drained the nation of productive members of its labor force.
Bukele directly addressed the problems facing El Salvador when he took power. As he told VICE News in an interview, “The gangs have been running this parallel state. They charge taxes, they control territory, they provide security. But I’m not [going to] convert their de facto power into formal power.”
Bukele was referring primarily to two gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, which de facto controlled vast swaths of El Salvador and brought drug and sex trafficking, violent crime, and extortion to every community. Traveling between Salvadoran towns put lives at stake, as gangs controlled public transportation. MS-13, in particular, has also exported its destructive violence abroad, including to the United States.
But rather than take the approach typical of far too many American politicians-talking about the problem, creating committees to study it, and ultimately doing nothing to solve it-Bukele took decisive action. He promptly launched the popular Territorial Control Plan to rein in gang violence.
It was not enough. After a sudden spike in homicides in March 2022, which resulted in 87 deaths over a weekend, Bukele did not just offer thoughts and prayers to his nation; he cracked down hard. With the strong backing of Salvadorans ( over 90% of them approve), Bukele expanded the rights of Salvadoran law enforcement and empowered them to detain gang members for immediate processing.
Within a month, Bukele’s language became more firm: “There are rumors that [gang members] want to start taking revenge on random, honest people. If they do that, there won’t even be one meal in prisons. I swear to God, they won’t eat a grain of rice, and let’s see how long they last.”
Salvadorans applauded. Safety returned to the streets. The nation dropped from the most dangerous in the world to the safest in the Americas.
And what did the United States and the so-called “human rights groups” do? They complained about it. They simply could not accept that the Salvadoran people have a sovereign right to govern their nation in accordance with their own laws, and for the benefit of their own people.
Amnesty International whined about purported “human rights violations.” Human Rights Watch claimed that “officers refused to provide information about the detainees’ whereabouts.” The complaints from the “human rights community” were predicated on the idea that gang members had an inherent right to continue terrorizing their fellow citizens, and that the Salvadoran government had no authority to constrain them.
These groups apparently want Salvadorans to live in fear for their lives, with innocent blood spilled every hour to protect gangbangers’ “human rights.”
Fortunately for the lemmings at Human Rights Watch, their concern around detainees’ whereabouts will, in short order, be addressed. Bukele commissioned a new facility, the Terrorism Confinement Center, doubling the detention capacity of El Salvador’s prison system, and began filling it on February 24. As he noted, “This will be [the gang members’] new house, where they will live for decades, mixed up, unable to do any more harm to the population.”
The single facility will house, in safe but unluxurious conditions, a majority of the 63,000-plus gang members identified by Salvadoran security forces. The point is clear: Join a gang, go to prison.
El Salvador is not the United States, and identical standards of detention should not be applied here. However, the responsive mentality to crime that Bukele has demonstrated stands in stark contrast to the permissive attitude that American politicians at the federal, state, and local level have adopted in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter riots and concomitant years-long crime wave.
Put simply: American society has been subsumed by rampant criminality, and it must end.
Police must be empowered to detain and arrest criminals without fear of losing their livelihood or suffering prosecution on bogus charges of unnecessary force. Prosecutors must seek the highest reasonable charges for crimes-not negotiate them away. Judges must sentence as harshly as possible for sound deterrence, rather than perpetuate a plea deal conveyor belt. Politicians must stop their ridiculous histrionics about our criminal justice system being “racist”; the American people are capable of an adult conversation about how the distribution of criminality does not directly mirror demographic statistics.
American justice must be fierce; it must scare the would-be thief into the pursuit of an honest life, and it must assure American citizens that their lives will not be upended.
Bukele’s spirit has shown that this model can succeed. We now need a champion to bring it home.