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A Brutal Crime Crackdown Is Emboldening Leaders Across Latin America

Nayib Bukele’s decisive actions against violent criminal gangs in El Salvador have transformed the nation from one of the most perilous in Latin America to a remarkably safe haven in just two years. While his success has skyrocketed his popularity, concerns are growing about the impact of his authoritative tactics on civil liberties.

As Bukele stands on the brink of securing another five-year term in the upcoming election, his robust strategies are resonating across borders. Leaders like Honduras’ Xiomara Castro and Peru’s President Dina Boluarte are adopting aspects of the “Bukele plan,” utilizing states of emergency and military involvement to combat organized crime. Even in Ecuador, President Daniel Noboa is considering Bukele-inspired mass detention centers and innovative ship-based prisons to address the surge in violence linked to drug gangs.

El Salvador’s remarkable transformation hasn’t gone unnoticed, with the New York Times highlighting it as a top destination for 2024. The nation’s bonds witnessed an impressive return of 114% in 2023, indicating restored investor confidence. However, questions persist about the compromises made in terms of civil liberties.

While Salvadorans express satisfaction with their democracy, there’s criticism of Bukele’s authoritarian shift. Legislative moves, including the dismissal of judges and control of the top court, have contributed to a decline in civil liberties, placing El Salvador unfavorably in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s assessment.

The paradox lies in citizens’ apparent acceptance of these trade-offs. A Latinobarómetro poll indicates Salvadorans are the most content with their democracy in the region, despite concerns about civil liberties. This apparent contradiction serves as a cautionary tale for global policymakers, highlighting that prioritizing safety over democratic norms can significantly boost a leader’s popularity.

The success in reducing crime has propelled Bukele’s approval rating to approximately 90%, with polls forecasting a significant victory in the upcoming election. However, the cost of diminished civil liberties remains a contentious issue, underscoring the delicate balance between security and individual freedoms in the region.

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