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El Salvador: Democracy Is Under Siege. Biden Needs to Speak Up

The man who has referred to himself as the "world's coolest dictator" appears to be strolling toward another election victory. President Nayib Bukele, a millennial who sports a trademark backward-facing baseball cap, is the odds-on favorite to win El Salvador's presidential contest on Feb. 4.

The fact that Bukele's campaign violates a constitutional ban on consecutive presidential terms is just one reflection of his brash disregard for the rule of law. Before he has a chance to strengthen his autocratic grip on power, the Biden administration and other world governments must speak out and denounce his assault on democracy.

Late last year, more than four years into Bukele's reign, one of us joined a fact-finding delegation to this Massachusetts-sized country of 6.3 million. We already knew that in the name of fighting crime, Bukele had pressed the national legislature every month since March 2022 to pass a "state of exception," suspending such constitutionally guaranteed rights as freedom of association and assembly, the right to know why you have been arrested, and the right to be brought before a judge within 72 hours.

We knew that Bukele's police and military had used this sweeping authority to arrest over 71,000 people, including five water defenders who became heroes around the world for a successful campaign to make El Salvador the first nation to ban toxic metals mining to save the country's rivers. We knew that the small country is now home to the Americas' largest prison.

And we knew that the Biden administration and many members of Congress, led by Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), had been quite critical of these violations of the rule of law and of human rights, and that U.S. lawmakers had protested Bukele adopting Bitcoin as legal tender (along with the dollar), since cryptocurrencies facilitate money laundering.

Yet what shocked us on the ground in El Salvador—as we detail in a new report, State of Deception—was the cruelty and corruption of this regime.

Several individuals who had been imprisoned and family members of the incarcerated recounted horrific conditions in overcrowded prisons, including the use of torture. Most avoided mentioning Bukele by name, so great was their fear. A woman who helps family members of the imprisoned told Newsweek, "One told us her son was forced to walk in burning oil. Another lost several teeth as he was beaten. One woman's daughter was forced to give birth in jail in chains."

Although many of those arrested were members of gangs, thousands more were not. Despite Bukele's claim that he is targeting only gang members, we learned that he has arrested at least 17 labor leaders in addition to the five water defenders, along with countless municipal workers who staged protests when the financially strapped Bukele administration failed to transfer enough funds to local governments to pay their salaries.

We were also shocked to learn that Bukele's administration, despite his grand promises to eliminate corruption, has instead become the perpetrator of corruption. The U.S. State Department's 2021 human rights report on El Salvador characterized the impunity for official corruption as endemic. In one of the more egregious examples, an independent investigation found that Bukele diverted one third of a $600 million loan from a Central America bank to pay for the adoption of Bitcoin in 2021.

Given all this, we were confounded a few months ago when the Biden administration stopped issuing public disapprovals and apparently embraced Bukele, donating military helicopters and hosting a D.C. press conference between U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and El Salvador's foreign minister. The Biden administration also appears to be softening its well-founded objections to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Bukele that will prop up his regime economically, providing funds that can fuel more corruption.

We were heartened in October when Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols pledged to a human rights audience in El Salvador "the unwavering U.S. commitment to supporting & protecting civil society actors in El Salvador." But where is that U.S. concern and action now, when it matters most—before the election?

Without such criticism, Bukele will likely interpret his almost-certain win as a blank check to arrest more civil society and opposition leaders without any concern for due process.

This is what the Biden administration needs to say forcefully now: If Bukele wants the world to believe that his sole intent is to end criminal gangs, then he needs to drop charges against labor, human rights, and water defenders, as well as ordinary workers who simply want to get paid. If not, the U.S. should oppose the IMF loan and end security assistance. Locking up innocent people is anything but cool.