Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has been labeled as an authoritarian and a human rights violator, yet he seems unbothered by these accusations. With a soaring approval rating, he is often referred to as the “cool dictator” that has managed to transform and save a country plagued by gang violence.
Enjoying the support of 90% of Salvadorans, Bukele, a 42-year-old millennial publicist, is the most popular president in Latin America as per Latinobarómetro 2023. His re-election in the forthcoming Sunday’s elections looks almost certain.
In the eyes of Bukele, El Salvador has transitioned from being the most dangerous country in the world to being the safest in Latin America. He attributes this shift to the reduction in gang violence, which he claims has claimed at least 120,000 lives since the end of the civil war in 1992.
In March 2022, Congress, at Bukele’s request, established an exceptional regime that led to the arrest of more than 75,000 alleged gang members. This move drastically reduced the number of homicides.
However, about 7,000 innocent people have been released. Human rights organizations have raised the alarm over arbitrary arrests, torture, and deaths in prison. In response, Bukele accuses these organizations of defending gang members.
Despite the controversy, Bukele’s popularity has transcended his country’s borders. There are calls in other countries for a leader like Bukele to combat crime.
In February 2020, Bukele, accompanied by the military and police, pressed for a loan for his security policy in the opposition-dominated Congress.
The following year, he secured an overwhelming parliamentary majority. This allowed him to dismiss the prosecutor and the Constitutional Chamber judges, paving the way for his re-election candidacy, which was constitutionally prohibited.
Bukele, known for his gelled hair and neatly trimmed beard, often dresses in tight sweaters and avoids ties. He doesn’t make pompous speeches but pays keen attention to his public image.
When faced with threats from gangs, Bukele has reacted strongly, even threatening to starve imprisoned gang members if they acted on their threats to kill people at random.
While he popularized the phrase “money is enough when no one steals”, his critics accuse him of lacking accountability.
Prior to his presidency, Bukele boosted his image through social media, often posting in English.
Bukele often makes important announcements via social media, where he refers to himself as a “Philosopher King” and often mocks his critics.
Bukele’s media presence on social media has made him a “cultural phenomenon that settled in the country,” according to Óscar Picardo, Director of Research at Francisco Gavidia University.
Despite his efforts, Bukele has not been able to promote widespread usage of bitcoin, which he introduced as legal tender along with the dollar in 2021.
Bukele was born on July 24, 1981, in San Salvador. He is the son of industrial chemist and Palestinian community representative Armando Bukele and Olga Ortez.
As a child, architect Marleny Carranza, who worked with the Bukele family, remembers him as a cheerful and calm boy.
Bukele was an average student in high school, according to his teacher Óscar Picardo. Even then, he exhibited his characteristic sarcastic style, referring to himself as the “Class terrorist” in the school yearbook.
Bukele studied law at the Central American University but chose not to graduate. Instead, he started working at his father’s advertising agency at the age of 18. The agency ran campaigns for the leftist Farabundo Martí Front (FMLN, former guerrilla).
During this time, he also managed a nightclub in San Salvador.
Bukele launched his political career in 2012 and served as the mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán and the Salvadoran capital from 2015 to 2018 under the FMLN banner.
Following a dispute with a councilor, he was expelled from the FMLN in 2017. Bukele now claims he doesn’t identify with either the right or the left.
Bukele ascended to the presidency in 2019 by connecting with young people and those disillusioned with the traditional parties that had alternated in power following the civil war (1980-1992).
Known for his intolerance of criticism, Bukele maintains a close circle of trust, including his brothers Karim, Yusef, and Ibrajim. His government includes former classmates from the bilingual school he attended.
Bukele married Gabriela Rodríguez, a psychologist and ballet dancer, in 2014. The couple has two daughters, Layla and Aminah.