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EP. 1 Alguien como Bukele

EP. 1 Alguien como Bukele
EP. 2 Muévete rápido, rompe cosas
EP. 3 La hora de la medicina amarga
EP. 4 El evangelio (del Bitcoin) según Bukele
EP. 5 ‘Batman’ descubre el viejo negocio de la violencia
EP. 6 La última elección
Tráiler – Bukele: el señor de Los sueños
EP. 7 Después de Bukele

EPISODE 6. The last election

Central BESDLS Ep 6 Cover 1400x1400 1

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: We have tried a path for 200 years and the results couldn’t have been worse.

[Silvia Viñas]: It is September 15, 2022. El Salvador is celebrating its Independence.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: For many who lost their family members, it was hell at its worst.

[Eliezer Budasoff]: Nayib Bukele is giving a speech to a room full of people in the Presidential House. It is being broadcast live on the national network.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: The only way left for El Salvador is this. We have tried it, too. It is not a campaign promise. We have tried it, and it is working for us. And we are not going to abandon it.

[Silvia]: His wife Gabriela is by his side. Behind him are four flags of El Salvador and a painting of Monsignor Óscar Romero, the Salvadoran priest murdered in 1980… known for his defense of human rights. 

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: We are not going to abandon it, no matter how many protests come from abroad.

[Eliezer]: Bukele has been speaking for more than 20 minutes when he finally says…

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: That is why, after talking with my wife Gabriela and with my family, I am announcing to the Salvadoran people that I have decided to run as candidate for the Presidency of the Republic…

[Silvia]: The applause lasts more than a minute. And then you start hearing this:

[Archive soundbite, public]: Re-election! Re-election! Re-election!

[Eliezer]: People are shouting: Re-election.

[Gabriel Labrador]: He is leveraging the fact that independence is being celebrated. It is statement—what seems to me like a statement of ownership of the country and its future.

[Silvia]: Gabriel Labrador, the Salvadoran journalist from El Faro who focuses on politics and with whom we begin this series. He is going to join us in this final episode.

[Gabriel]: And I think this is worth comparing with the announcement he made—do you remember?—when he announced that he was going to run for president; we’re talking about 2017. He makes an announcement on Facebook Live. Totally alone, in a small room in his house, a politician believing in a seemingly crazy cause, right? But he has this dream of winning the election. And that contrasts greatly with the announcement that he makes in 2022, in a rather important room with a number of high-level political guests.

[Eliezer]: There are ministers, legislators. There is his family… and also the Attorney General and the President of the Supreme Court… officials imposed by the Bukelist-controlled Assembly.

[Gabriel]: When Bukele makes the announcement, the President of the Supreme Court raises his two thumbs as if saying to Bukele, Good, good, I agree with what you are doing. Next to him the Attorney General smiles. And then, while everyone around then is clapping and cheering, the two of them shake hands. And then, that evening at the Presidential House, many officials, including the Supreme Court judges, stay to chat at a cocktail party hosted by the Presidential House. And I published that picture and well, it went a little viral because of course, I mean, we are in a country with no rule of law, with no division of powers, and I think that is demonstrated in the picture—the country’s most important judges at a cocktail party celebrating a decision as unconstitutional as the president’s re-election.

[Silvia]: You see, the Salvadoran Constitution is clear: re-election is prohibited. This is stated in six Articles. And it is something that Bukele himself explained on a television program in 2013, years before he was a presidential candidate for the first time:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: The Constitution does not allow the same person to be president twice in a row. He can be president 80 times if he wants, but not in a row. So… That is to ensure that he does not remain in power or use his power to stay in power. If he leaves power and returns, it is because the people wanted to him back…

[Silvia]: And he said it again in March 2021 as president, in the interview he gave to Luisito Comunica, one of the ten most popular YouTubers in Spanish.

[Archive soundbite, Luisito Comunica]: Is there re-election here in El Salvador?

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: No, there is no re-election. And I would be out of the presidency at age 42.

[Eliezer]: So, how is it that a few years after saying this Bukele runs for re-election… and with the support of the people responsible for ensuring that the Constitution is enforced? That’s what we wanted to understand in closing this series. Because it is the culmination of what we have been telling you in the last 5 episodes. And the answer is important for El Salvador, yes, but also for the future of democracy far beyond its borders.

[Silvia]: This February 4 election in El Salvador is one of the first in a historic year. In 2024, more people than ever will go to the polls around the world. About 4 billion. But democracy is more than casting a vote… And this is something that has been written about quite a bit. We find reports on how crucial this year is for democracy in international media such as The Guardian, Forbes, The Economist, New Yorker, Vox, Al Jazeera. None of those I just mentioned talk about El Salvador in their articles. They mention Russia, the United States, Taiwan, India, South Africa…

[Eliezer]: But they ignore the impact that one of the smallest countries in Latin America can have. The Salvadoran elections start the electoral calendar in our region, where seven presidential elections will be held. After El Salvador comes Panama, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Uruguay, Venezuela and, as we already mentioned, the United States. The result in El Salvador will be a signal to citizens and politicians who see Bukele as a role model… 

[Gabriel]: The February 4 election is going to change our idea of what we understand by democracy.

[Silvia]: This is El señor de Los sueños, a podcast from Radio Ambulante Estudios. I am Silvia Viñas.

[Eliezer]: And I’m Eliezer Budasoff. Episode 6: The last election. 

[Silvia]: The idea of Bukele running for re-election is not that recent. Gabriel explained that it began to be speculated about quite early in his government, when they announced they wanted to reform the Constitution. We are talking about September 2020.

[Gabriel]: And the vice president, Félix Ulloa, was tasked with reforming and finding those reforms that could improve the Constitution that dates back to ‘83, 1983. And since then, the idea of re-election began to circulate among all legal analysts because there were already certain traits of populism that permitted us to say that President Bukele might seek to remain in power. That raised alarm bells. But with the pandemic and the emergency regime, this issue remained a bit on standby.

[Héctor Lindo]: Salvador’s Constitutional history is very consistent. 

[Eliezer]: This is Héctor Lindo, historian and professor emeritus at Fordham University, in New York. We asked him in what context the Articles of the Constitution that prohibit re-election were incorporated. And he told us that it that goes back much further than 1983, the most current Constitution.

[Héctor]: After 1886, Salvadoran Constitutions have categorically rejected re-election, in order to counteract the 19th-century tendency of Salvadoran rulers to perpetuate themselves in power. 

[Silvia]: By the way, this last statement may sound very similar to something we’ve already heard: not staying in power is something that Bukele himself mentioned in that television interview in 2013.

[Héctor]: On several occasions in the 20th century, prohibiting reelection was not so important because the presidency was not very personalistic. It was simply the instrument of economic groups that continued to hold power even when the current president changed. There is a very clear prohibition that has been enforced. But we could talk about examples of presidents who tried to be re-elected.

[Eliezer]: We can highlight dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who found a way to get around the ban.

[Héctor]: The Constitution that was written under his Administration prohibited re-election, but the Constitutional Assembly, which was totally controlled, introduced a formula that said, in essence, that on this occasion, and given the special circumstances the country is experiencing, we will allow the President to be re-elected. In other words, in principle, the Constitution prohibited re-election, but in practice, they opened a door for re-election. 

[Silvia]: And something similar happened this time. Bukele found his own formula to run for re-election. The first thing he did, Gabriel explained to us, was attack the Constitution.

[Gabriel]: That is the modus operandi of the Bukeles, of the Bukele Clan, which is to discredit something, attack it, hit it, distort its reality, the facts surrounding the matter, and then impose its own view. 

[Eliezer]: The strategy was to say that the Constitution had been designed by a right-wing politician…

[Gabriel]: That is, Roberto D’Aubuisson, founder of the ARENA party, linked to the death squads, in fact, and in fact, also linked to the murder of our saint Monsignor Óscar Romero. So Bukele uses that image of D’Aubuisson to say that that Constitution, if it had passed through the hands of D’Aubuisson the murderer, then it was bad. Which is a rather simplistic, crude, somewhat ridiculous argument, it seems to me, because D’Aubuisson did participate in the drafting of that Constitution, but it wasn’t just D’Aubuisson. Besides, this Constitution reflects the spirit of the other 13 Constitutions that El Salvador has had throughout its history, ever since its founding as a Republic. The spirit of our Constitutions prohibits re-election.

[Silvia]: So attacking the origin of the Constitution came first. But in practice, that was not enough. This is when the Constitutional Court comes in, which at this point was already made up of judges who had been appointed by the representatives of the Assembly controlled by Bukele. On September 3, 2021, the Court issued a resolution that says that it is up only to the people to decide whether the president should continue.

[Gabriel]: Yes, there is a small, vague effort at argument, but it falls apart at the first opportunity. I mean. There is an Article in the Constitution that clearly says that the presidential term is five years, not one day longer.

[Silvia]: Another says that if a President stays in power one more day, that forces an insurrection.

[Gabriel]: And there are others that say, for example, there is an article that says: it is the obligation of the Legislative Assembly to disown a President who intends to remain in office. And so there are about four very specific articles and two articles that indirectly, like the last one just mentioned, support this idea that the spirit of the Constitution is that re-election is not allowed. So what the Constitutional Court does is latch on to one small word to open a door. And this little word is candidate.

[Eliezer]: Because all the articles that prohibit reelection are written in presidential code. That is, they talk about the reasons why a sitting president cannot be re-elected. But there is one article, 152, that specifically talks about the requirements to be a candidate. And it says that someone who has been president for over six months during the period immediately preceding cannot be a candidate. Nor if he held office within the last six months before the new presidential term. So, in simple terms, according to the Constitutional Court, the requirement for Bukele to be able to run for re-election is that he leave his position as President six months before the beginning of the new presidential term.

[Gabriel]: This is specifically stated in this document, this resolution from the court. And, as the main argument, the argumentative point that the Bukelism uses to say, whether all I have to do is step away, or does the man have to step aside during six months before taking possession.

[Silvia]: Now, in electoral matters, the highest judge, the highest authority, is the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. They are the ones who must ensure that all Constitutional requirements and all laws are met in an electoral process. But in this case, this Tribunal did not put any objections to the Court’s ruling. The next day they published a statement in which they indicated that they were going to comply with the ruling of the Constitutional Court. And they said that if President Bukele signed up, they would guarantee his participation.

[Gabriel]: They do not assume their role as arbitrators and as the highest authority and of complying with the Constitution. They forget all that and, on the contrary, they play into Bukele’s hands.

[Eliezer]: Here it is important to mention that the type of control Bukele has over the Supreme Electoral Tribunal is not the same as that he has over other powers, such as the Assembly, the Constitutional Court or the Prosecutor’s Office. The judges of the Tribunal were appointed for the period from 2019 to 2024 by an Assembly that was not yet controlled by Bukelism. So, in this case, four of the five judges on the Tribunal voted in favor of this resolution and three explained that they supported what the Constitutional Court said about re-election.

[Gabriel]: It is clear that the Tribunal is, in fact, divided. There are some judges who try to show some resistance to the Court’s reasoning. But the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, at least since the Bukele era, has been under a lot of pressure from President Bukele, from officials, such as the president of the Assembly, who is a close friend of Bukele. And well, even Bukele’s Legislative Assembly approved a reform so that any official who prevents the registration of a candidacy is prosecuted with prison or punished with prison if found guilty. So by what logic is an official like the Supreme Electoral Tribunal going to refuse to register the candidacy of the most popular politician if there is that article that promises you jail if you become an obstruction?

[Eliezer]: This ruling of the Constitutional Court came only months after May 1, when the Bukelism-controlled Assembly dismissed the Attorney General and the judges of this Court. It was actually the ruling of a body made up of officials close to the President. So the international community condemned the sentence as another authoritarian move by Bukele.

[Silvia]: Gabriel says the most important reaction was from the United States. At that time, it did not have an ambassador in El Salvador. Its highest representative in the country was Jean Manes, who had the title of Chargé d’Affaires of the embassy. Manes had worked as a diplomat in the country. When Bukele was mayor of San Salvador they established a close relationship.

[Gabriel]: Following the announcement from the Constitutional Court, he decided to burn the ships. And in a press conference, as rarely done by a diplomatic representative, he levels harsh criticism at the decision of the Constitutional Court.

[Archive soundbite, Jean Manes]: This ruling is the direct result of the decision on May 1 by the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly to unconstitutionally remove the sitting judges from the Constitutional Court and install replacements loyal to the executive.

[Gabriel]: And he says that basically this is the path taken before by Venezuela.

[Archive soundbite, Jean Manes]: Where Chávez was democratically elected but was trying step by step to get more and more power and limit independence. And at the time, I think many Venezuelans thought they were living in a democracy. Because there were reasons for electing him. But when he is little by little removing the independence of the country’s institutions, we know where this path leads.

[Gabriel]: And comparing him to Chávez is, let’s say, one of the most explicit things the United States has done.

[Silvia]: Two months later, in November 2021, Manes announced that he was leaving El Salvador and that the United States had decided to put its relationship with the country on hold. 

[Eliezer]: A year later, in September 2022, Bukele made the announcement we heard at the beginning of the episode. And if you remember, he mentioned that they are not going to abandon the path they have tried, which he says works, no matter how many protests come from outside.

[Silvia]: But what does he use to justify being a candidate again? Because the first time he ran, as we saw, the discourse was against the traditional parties. But he can’t repeat that again, I imagine. So what does he say to justify re-election?

[Gabriel]: At that moment he focuses on selling the idea that the fight, the war against the gangs, is getting results. By then, the state of exception has been in effect for six months. Nearly 50,000 people have been detained, many of them innocent, of course, and they were proven to be innocent. There were also 73 people who died in prison without even being convicted, you know? In other words, there was a serious human rights crisis. But at the same time the state of exception was making Bukele very popular because he was giving something tangible to the people.

[Amparo Marroquín]: He has a communication team skilled enough to find the opportunity in each narrative. I think no one imagined that this big push that begins in 2022 with the state of exception, was really going to make the population feel calm. 

[Silvia]: This is Amparo Marroquín, professor of Communications and Culture at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University of El Salvador. Amparo is part of an international group of academics studying far-right movements in countries such as Turkey, Hungary, India, the Philippines, and, of course, El Salvador.

[Amparo]: I think what happens there is that we have a communication campaign that is effective in people’s daily lives, right? I mean, when Nayib Bukele says we have the largest hospital in Latin America, people do not feel in daily life that their health improves. When Nayib Bukele says we have a bitcoin policy that will give us much more financial power, people do not feel this in everyday life. But when Nayib Bukele says we are fighting the gangs, people feel that this is documented in their daily life.

[Gabriel]: And that is why his re-election announcement focuses on freedom, because Bukele says that without the gangs, Salvadorans—mainly ordinary Salvadorans—are enjoying unprecedented freedom as never before; that they can now go out, get to know the country safely, without feeling threatened, and that is not debatable. I mean, it’s a fact. The streets look different and there is a different atmosphere.

Amparo: Daily life has changed, and that is the best bitcoin you can have for re-election.

[Eliezer]: We’ll be back after a break.

[FLIP/Article 19]: In the presidential elections in Guatemala, it became evident that the stigmatization and harassment of journalistic work are forms of censorship aimed at discrediting journalists. These practices often intensify during electoral coverage, a concerning situation for the upcoming elections in countries like Mexico and El Salvador.

For the Foundation for Press Freedom in Colombia and Article 19 in Mexico and Central America, defending journalists during the electoral process is crucial to ensuring citizens’ access to information.

[Daniel Alarcón]: The production company behind «Bukele, el señor de los sueños» is Radio Ambulante Estudios. And we have two other podcasts you should listen to. Every Tuesday, we release Radio Ambulante. Stories of families, migration, adventure, and love. And every Friday, we release El hilo, where we cover and thoroughly explain an impactful news story from Latin America. Look for Radio Ambulante and El hilo on your preferred podcast app.

[Silvia]: We are back. When we talked in this series about the first time Bukele ran as a candidate for the 2019 presidential elections, we saw that it was quite a bureaucratic and long process. And of course, the scenario was completely different. Bukele wanted to run with a new party but couldn’t because of deadlines, but now he has his party already, Nuevas Ideas. He is already in power. But this time, he still had to go through several steps in order to submit his candidacy, and we’re going to go over them quickly, because the way Bukele approached each step reflects that he wanted to take advantage of the communication potential of each situation.

[Eliezer]: First, he had to register as a candidate for the internal elections of Nuevas Ideas. A step that sounds quite basic, simple. But he did it on the last day, at the last minute. It was at the end of June 2023. The following month he won those internal elections, without opponents.

[Gabriel]: That left one of the last steps remaining, which is to present that candidacy, after a supposedly democratic party election, to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The official election calendar gave a deadline of October 26. All the candidates who emerged from the internal party elections had until midnight to submit their paperwork, etc. He says, well, I’m going to register with the SET, I think on October 24. It seemed strange to me that he would say that date, because the deadline was the 26th, not the 24th. And what this caused was a big media operation from the 24th, even from the 23rd, in front of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, as if waiting for Bukele’s registration. Then you saw you tubers…

[Archive soundbite, youtuber]: We are still here, look at the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

[Gabriel]: Stationed permanently, almost from dawn to dusk. 

[Archive soundbite, youtuber]: There are certain rumors among the people who are waiting here that the president might not come today, because if he comes tomorrow, this will be too crowded with people and they will not be able to control it.

[Gabriel]: During the 24th, 25th, waiting for Bukele’s arrival. Of course, we journalists knew, from various sources, that Bukele was not going to arrive on those days, that he was going to wait until the last minute. But it caused this whole wave of expectation. As a good publicity guy, he knows that hype campaigns work very well.

[Silvia]: And the day of the registration deadline, October 26, was… dramatic.

[Eliezer]: It was night, and Bukele had not arrived yet. And messages began to circulate from the people closest to him, such as Ernesto Castro, the president of the Assembly and a long-time friend of Bukele… who tweeted, quote, «Our prayers with you, Mr. President.» This sparked rumors about Bukele’s health and that of his wife Gabriela, who was pregnant. It created a lot of expectation, even more than before because of all that time some followers had been waiting outside the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

[Gabriel]: And well, everyone starts to doubt if he is going to arrive on time, etc.

[Silvia]: Gabriel says that it was never confirmed what happened, and no official explained the reason for those messages of support.

[Gabriel]: But by around 20 minutes before midnight, a big commotion breaks out, the presidential motorcade leaves for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and he arrives with his brothers…

[Silvia]: What you hear is the people outside, welcoming him.

[Gabriel]: He looks a little tired, his face a little pale, nothing that is too compromising, but he manages to register that night.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: We have gone from being the most unsafe country in the world to being the safest country on the continent, but there is still a long way to go…

[Silvia]: That night he spoke through a megaphone to his followers outside the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: And we are going to do all that in the next five years.

[Amparo]: Nayib Bukele has turned politics into a show that, many, is worth seeing, a show that is enjoyable. What Bukele achieves is a show that is much more melodramatic, much more serialized—this is no longer a soap opera, it’s an American series. So this first season is where we have seen him. It has all the elements, in other words, the next day you can discuss with people where we left off in yesterday’s episode. We are in a country that doesn’t have Televisa, that doesn’t have Rede Globo, that doesn’t have Caracol, that doesn’t have… So the production of melodrama in this country has always been from politics, and now we have a president who is a showman, who has a PhD in melodrama production.

[Eliezer]: Lawyers and other political parties had submitted requests for Bukele’s candidacy to be canceled, both before and after October 26th. Before he was registered, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal argued that they could not decide on something that had not yet happened. And once registered, they also gave him the green light. On November 3, 2023, they made Bukele’s registration official as a candidate for the 2024 elections.

[Silvia]: That was not the only support Bukele received for his re-election. The United States changed its discourse. Under Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Brian Nichols visited Bukele at the Presidential House in those days. It was an official visit. And then he said this about his re-election on a television show:

[Archive soundbite, Brian Nichols]: I believe the decision to allow re-election and who will be the candidate preferred by Salvadorans, is an issue for Salvadorans. There must be a broad debate about the legality and legitimacy of the election, but it is a debate for Salvadorans.

[Eliezer]: According to a survey by the Central American University, seven out of ten Salvadorans agree that Bukele should be a candidate for re-election.

[Silvia]: Now, with Bukele officially registered, the question still remained of what he was going to do. Would leave office before the end of his presidential term or not. Remember the Constitutional Court had said that to be a candidate, he had to leave the presidency six months before the beginning of the next period. That was before December 1, 2023.

[Gabriel]: So by November 30 he sends a request to the Legislative Assembly. He’s supposed to hand in a resignation. But in the wording of the text —and we saw it that same evening— he talks about distancing himself, but that he will maintain his position as President and will have all the prerogatives he has maintained until now. What happens, according to what he writes, is that he will not perform his functions […] He asks the Assembly to maintain his security detail, the use of the presidential battalion, his transportation personnel, the use of presidential residences, and “any prerogative aimed at his legal security.” And this speaks specifically to Bukele’s need to continue being protected by law and continue enjoying all the benefits of being President. So it is not a resignation as called for in the Constitution; it’s like a pantomime in which he stops governing.

[Eliezer]: That request that he sends to the Assembly puts the name of his private secretary, Claudia Rodríguez, as the Acting President. Rodríguez in her position managed the budget of the Presidential House and has accompanied Bukele and her brothers for over ten years. She worked in his companies. She is trustworthy. But in the documents she signs, she does not show up as interim president or presidential appointee. Her title is: “chargé d’affairs.”

[Silvia]: And in this very particular scenario, how has the campaign been heading into these presidential elections?

[Gabriel]: Well, the presidential campaign in El Salvador has been unprecedented, it seems to me. One, because as political scientist Álvaro Artiga says, there is a notion, for the first time, that there is already a winner. Previously there was at least nominal competition. That is to say, there were probabilities—not possibilities—probabilities that any party would win, mainly the two big ones, ARENA or FMLN. The presidential elections were always very close. In the Legislative Assembly there was always a correlation in which the winning party always needed satellite parties to carry its agenda. But we do not foresee this happening in 2024. Plus the fact that there have been a whole series of legal reforms to the electoral map: the number of representatives was reduced, the number of mayoral municipalities was reduced drastically. And this not only shatters the opposition’s chances at winning, it also helps Bukele continue on this path of concentration of power.

[Eliezer]: Gabriel finds it striking that this electoral campaign is not evident in the streets… There is a collective notion that Nuevas Ideas is going to win.

[Gabriel]: Even in the opposition there is a current of thought that says that the opposition should not have competed in the presidential election because it is known beforehand that Bukele was going to win. So efforts had to be focused on the Legislative Assembly, where the Executive Branch could be counterbalanced. So on the street you don’t see this electoral hype, the banners or the ads on TV. What you see is a path towards a hegemonic party where the ads you see the most are those of the Presidency of the Republic and those of the official party.

[Silvia]: Let’s talk for a moment about voting abroad. What has Bukele done to increase voting abroad?

[Gabriel]: Look, historically, voting abroad in El Salvador has not been so relevant in numerical terms. Although the possibility of voting was enabled for the diaspora, electoral among the many people who are outside—and there are millions—, participation has been very low.

[Eliezer]: In the last election, in 2019, less than 4,000 people voted. Since it was enabled in 2013, it has been difficult to vote from abroad. You had to register and send the ballot by mail.

[Gabriel]: And this year the feature has been that Bukele has supported a number of decisions that are kind of stoking the possibility that the vote abroad may increase significantly for the first time. And I think it is a way that Bukelism found to compensate for the votes lost here in the local territory, in Salvadoran territory. Maybe it is a little complicated to understand, but we have to understand something here: El Salvador has 3 million people abroad, we have 6 million inhabitants but 3 million are abroad, the vast majority of them in the United States. Bukele—and I think the audience knows it—is a phenomenon not only continentally, but even globally. And I do not think this is the work of the Holy Spirit. Rather, it is like a very effective media operation that President Bukele has implemented. And one way to do it is precisely that—it’s broadcasting a lot of messages outwards and especially to the community of Salvadorans abroad. 

[Silvia]: Like this one posted recently on TikTok by the official media outlet, La Nota… The music is theirs, by the way.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: The new Legislative Assembly approved voting abroad, which had been promised to our entire diaspora, so that after so many years they can participate in our country’s decisions. This is a historical moment, when Salvadorans have begun to be truly free and sovereign.

[Eliezer]: In fact, as we already saw, voting abroad was approved years ago. What the Assembly did is enable electronic voting for the diaspora. This has raised doubts in the opposition about how secure it will be if there is no voter registry abroad, if no one is observing the vote, like when it is in person, for example. The concern is that there could be fraud… But this vote has already started. It has been available since January 6 for Salvadorans abroad. Two election officials confirmed to The Associated Press that more than 50,000 people voted in the first three days. Twelve times more than in 2019.

[Gabriel]: The propaganda messages sent out to the United States are many and constant, and not only from the presidency. A lot of YouTubers are actually living in the United States. And they are propagators of the President’s narrative. 

[Archive soundbite, youtuber]: The story is not that Nayib Bukele seeks re-election. The story is going to be that Nayib Bukele is re-elected by all of you. That’s what we’re waiting for, right?

[Archive soundbite, youtuber]: These people from the opposition who say that security doesn’t feed anyone, of course it does, because if there weren’t so much security right now in El Salvador, all those people wouldn’t be visiting from abroad.

[Gabriel]: In fact, the official news program of El Salvador, the State Canal Diez newscast, changed its programming so it could broadcast here in Salvadoran time at 04:00. Which coincides with the early hours, let’s say 06:00 on the east coast of the United States—New York, where there are many Salvadorans. So there is a very obvious effort, a great effort by the government to communicate with those people who are abroad.

[Silvia]: Because the diaspora has a lot of influence in the country. It is fundamental for the economy. Remember that remittances represent at least a quarter of El Salvador’s Gross Domestic Product.

[Gabriel]: In other words, the day remittances are cut off, if that were to suddenly happen, I don’t know, but if they are ever cut off, the Salvadoran economy implodes, it would collapse immediately. We depend greatly on people who send remittances. And I think that relationship is like a son or daughter who depends on his father, who sends him money. If the father or mother who sends money tells their dependent to vote and that the best option is Bukele, they will do it. 

[Silvia]: And what can we expect on February 4?

[Gabriel]: I think at that point the door to dictatorship will officially open, with the support of the majorities. 

[Amparo]: I think what the outcome of an election like this does is confirm two things. First, Bukele’s political communication strategy is the most successful in the region. The narrative he sets up allows democracy to be dismantled and everyone agrees that democracy is not the best system, so the antidemocratic narrative wins and it is shown that it has won. And the second thing is, I think that in Central America as a region there is a lesson that is important to remember, and that is the lesson that Juan Orlando Hernández and Daniel Ortega left us, which is: Never give up power, so you can die peacefully in your bed. 

[Silvia]: Juan Orlando Hernández, of Honduras, was the first President of that country to seek re-election since the return of democracy. And he achieved it. But when he left power, he was extradited and charged in the United States for drug trafficking. On the other hand, Ortega, in Nicaragua…

[Amparo]: Everything indicates that he is going to die peacefully in his bed, without ever being judged, without ever being held accountable to Nicaraguan society or to the Central American region for what he has done. So, I think that what Bukelism also understands is that if you have opted for power without checks and balances, that power has to be maintained in a region like ours, because the moment you lose power you are in trouble. Therefore, we have to defend that power like a cat that’s belly-up, as my grandmother would say, to the extent that political communication allows you and to the extent that the coercive arm of the State allows you.

[Gabriel]: To pursue an agenda, I think, that is more intolerant and more repressive.

[Eliezer]: Because Gabriel says that, by winning re-election, Bukele will be able to say that the people voted for him and that means they are on the right path… It gives him permission to continue.

[Amparo]: I don’t know which way the script-writers are going to lean, but let’s say I have a feeling like when you say well, how do you think the second season will be? Is it going to be the same or not? I think the second season can continue the same if Bukele’s popularity continues, it will remain basically the same. I am afraid that if Bukele’s popularity declines, Bukele will get the Army out.

[Silvia]: Deploying the army, for many societies in Latin America, is a very simple way to evoke life under a dictatorship. In 2021, Bukele promised to double the number of military personnel in the country from 20,000 to 40,000 within five years. By 2022, the year for which we have the most updated data, it had already increased to 24,500, making it the largest army in Central America. But he hasn’t just sent them to the streets; he has strengthened their image and resources and prioritized their role in internal security over the civilian police.

[Eliezer]: When we were reporting for the episode on the state of exception, we asked lawyer Zaira Navas, who researches the rule of law, what it meant in practice for this measure to become a form of governance. Zaira told us that, after the civil war, El Salvador had managed to build democratic institutions, a series of organisms and controls aimed at preventing the abuse of force and the return of dictatorships. She mentioned that this government had adopted a war security approach, with an added element: a tremendous advertising campaign.

[Zaira Navas]: Now the Armed Forces take center stage in security matters, openly speaking about national security. They openly talk about internal and external enemies. The amount of weaponry purchased for the Armed Forces does not correspond to the situation in the country.

[Eliezer]: Bukele, as Gabriel says, often uses a numerical argument to laugh off those who call him a dictator: he was democratically elected by the majority. «There are the polls,» he says. The people support him.

[Silvia]: We asked historian Héctor Lindo if he thought the word «dictatorship» was too strong to describe Nayib Bukele’s government in El Salvador. Because, for many of us who have lived or know the recent history of the region, it is more associated with seizing power by force, with the military overthrowing a democratic government, not supporting a very popular president. Héctor told us that popularity did not define whether it was a dictatorship or not.

[Héctor]: I believe that dictatorship also refers to governments that function without the limits that come with the system of checks and balances by three independent powers of the State. It is a form of government that does not have those limits that the Constitution normally imposes. 

[Silvia]: And he told us that, to him, this was clear in the direction that Nayib Bukele’s Government had taken:

[Héctor]: I see an accelerated dismantling of all the limits that a healthy political system has in place to avoid the excesses of power; and this has a long-term effect, especially for the most vulnerable groups of the population that depend on the rule of law for some, some legal security.

[Eliezer]: Neither violating the Constitution, nor clinging to power, nor governing under a state of exception are new in the history of El Salvador, Héctor told us, despite Bukele’s obsession with presenting everything as a historic revolution. He explained to us that in the past, for example, the relationship between the degree of authoritarianism and advertising spending had also been very direct. What seems extraordinary to him is the degree and skill with which Bukele has done it. And there something else that does seem new to him: 

[Héctor]: He has internationalized his speech. Part of his efforts on social media is not directed only at Salvador, it is also directed at the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Argentina. This is something very bold and very innovative, that helps him gain legitimacy within the country. That is to say, this idea that the Dominicans want a Bukele, that the Argentines want a Bukele helps him to integrate internally, and that is something very new in his strategy.

[Silvia]: For months, we asked again and again about this: What had Bukele done to become the exemplary model for Latin American politicians who seek popularity by attacking democracy in Latin America. One answer: Convince a society plagued by inequality and violence that empathy is incompatible with efficiency. That to have security, rights must be waived. That there wasn’t room for everyone. 

[Amparo]: What Bukele is proving to everyone is that there should be no human rights, there should only be rights for good people. And who decides who are the good people? He does. To me, that’s the big problem. We spent the entire 20th century insisting that we all had human rights, that we all had the presumption of innocence. What Bukele is pointing out is that this has been the problem and that is why crime grows in the shadow of human rights.

[Eliezer]: Nayib Bukele built his power on the cracks in democracy. In 2018, when he ran for president, El Salvador had the lowest belief in democracy in Latin America, according to the Latinobarómetro survey: only 28% of respondents supported it. And what Bukele did during his presidency, as we have seen in this series, was not to repair those cracks but to exploit them.

[Silvia]: Now, for Salvadorans, the concentration of power is a minor issue, according to a January 2024 survey. It did not reach 2%. The same survey conducted a mock vote for February 4th. They asked respondents to mark the ballot as they would on that day. Almost 82% of those who agreed to participate in the simulation chose Bukele.

[Eliezer]: Throughout this series, we contacted former collaborators of Bukele, former campaign advisers, former justices of the Constitutional Chamber, current allies of the president in the Legislative Assembly, and other actors in Salvadoran politics who did not respond. They either could not or did not want to give their testimony. We also contacted the international press coordinator of President Nayib Bukele for an interview, but we did not receive a response.

Of course, why would he speak?

He has already won.

[Silvia]: This series was made possible thanks to the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Free Press Unlimited, Article 19 Mexico and Central America, the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), and Dejusticia. Additionally, we thank FLIP for their advice and legal review, and Riesgo Cruzado for their valuable support in protection and security matters.

The producers and reporters of «Bukele: el señor de Los sueños» are Eliezer Budasoff and me. Gabriel Labrador is our reporter and on-site producer. Desireé Yépez is our digital producer. Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura are our editors. Carlos Dada is our editorial consultant. The fact-checkers are Bruno Scelza and Desireé Yépez. Selene Mazón is the production assistant. The music, mixing, and sound design are by Elías González. The graphic design and art direction are by Diego Corzo. The web development is by Paola Ponce. Thanks to Jonathan Blitzer for his support.

«Bukele, el señor de Los sueños» is a podcast from Central, the series channel of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

From Radio Ambulante Studios, the production co-directors are Natalia Ramírez and Laura Rojas Aponte, with the assistance of Paola Alean. The audience and digital production team is formed by Samantha Proaño, Ana Pais, Analía Llorente and Melisa Rabanales. Press and community management is handled by Juan David Naranjo.

Camilo Jiménez Santofimio is the director of alliances and financing. Carolina Guerrero is the executive producer of Central and the CEO of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

You can follow us on social media as centralpodcast RA and subscribe to our newsletter at

I am Silvia Viñas. Thank you for listening.


Produced and reported by: Silvia Viñas and Eliezer Budasoff

Produced and reported on site by: Gabriel Labrador

Digital Production: Desireé Yepez

Edited by: Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura

Editorial Consulting: Carlos Dada

Fact-checking: Bruno Scelza and Desirée Yépez

Production Assistant: Selene Mazón

Music and Sound Design: Elías González

Graphic Design and Art Direction: Diego Corzo

EPISODE 5. ‘Batman’ discovers the old business of violence

Central BESDLS Ep 5 Cover 1400x1400 1

[Silvia Viñas]: At the end of 2021, Nayib Bukele was the president of Planet Bitcoin and sometimes came down to Earth in a spaceship to show the future. This is how he appeared in an animated video at the end of that year during a cryptocurrency event on the beach, where he announced the construction of the first Bitcoin city: a technological sanctuary by the sea where no one has to pay taxes on their wealth, and which was going to use geothermal energy from a volcano.

The government was trying to attract foreign investors and tourists with a utopian image of El Salvador, which until recently was known mostly for its brutal gangs. It was difficult to reconcile that image with the one Bukele offered in his speech in English: that of a promised land where the foundations were being laid for the oases of tomorrow.

Most Salvadorans didn’t seem too excited about the prospect of investing fortunes they didn’t have in Bitcoin. But the truth is the real country they inhabited had its own oases, its own corners of peace, even if they were far less glamorous than Bitcoin City. On the coast of El Salvador, for example, in a bay of the Pacific Ocean, there’s an island full of coconuts where people live off palm fruits and fishing and gather mollusks to survive; a place where children leave their bikes lying in the street and no one remembers the last time there was a murder. A community that, for decades, had been coping with deprivation without much trouble, apart from the feeling of fear pervading most of the country. Until something happened that changed everything: the government issued an announcement.

[Archive soundbite, announcement]: We need your help to continue winning the war against gangs. Call 123 to give any information that will help us capture terrorists. Your call is completely anonymous and the call center is open 24 hours a day. National Civil Police. Ministry of Justice and Public Security. National Civil Police…

[Sandra]: He wanted numbers, he wanted numbers, that’s why he gave the phone number… and everyone started calling. It was on TV: report it. Your call is confidential. In the long run it’s not confidential…

[Silvia]: This is El Señor de Los Sueños, a podcast from Radio Ambulante Studios. I’m Silvia Viñas.

[Eliezer Budasoff]: And I’m Eliezer Budasoff. Episode 5: Batman discovers the old business of violence.

[Sandra]: My childhood was very nice. Well, I was raised by my uncles and aunts, because my mom abandoned me when I was six months old, so my grandmother raised me, rest in peace, right?

[Eliezer]: The woman you are listening to, the one who spoke at the beginning, her name is Sandra. She is 42 years old and a driver: she drives a motorcycle cab through the dirt streets of El Espíritu Santo, a rural island on the coast of El Salvador, which is less than a three-hour drive from the country’s capital.

[Sandra]: Before the internet and phones arrived, every night, most of us would usually be watching cartoons at home, others playing ball in the street in the evening, others on bikes, others keeping an eye on their girlfriends.

[Eliezer]: Crickets can be heard in the background because it’s nighttime. Away from the coast, the island feels like being in the countryside. It’s a day in late November 2023 and Sandra is trying to explain how life here changed almost two years ago, when Nayib Bukele’s government imposed an emergency regime on the country.

In March 2022, when Bukele had been president for almost three years, El Salvador experienced the most violent weekend so far this century: 87 murders in three days. Amid this wave of homicides, Bukele requested the Legislative Assembly to decree an emergency regime, which includes the possibility of suspending some constitutional rights in extreme situations such as catastrophes, epidemics, or disturbance of public order. The constitution stipulates that these rights may only be suspended for 30 days, with the possibility of extension for the same period.

When I went to the island in November 2023, the regime had already been in place for almost two years without interruption. There, Sandra told me what it was like to grow up in a community where the children weren’t afraid of gangs, but of the “cadejo”: a ghostly dog dragging a chain that scares those up late, a Mesoamerican version of the boogeyman. 

[Sandra]: What time did I go home? At 10, 11 o’clock at night. My grandmother said: «Don’t come back at night, the cadejo will get you». And yes, before it was the cadejo and the so-called «duende» (goblin). That’s what we were afraid of. If there had been crime, do you think we would have stayed out playing in the streets until 10, 11, or 12 at night?

[Carlos Martínez]: Espíritu Santo Island is an extraordinary vantage point to understand the scope of the emergency regime and its consequences. Firstly, because it’s an island and therefore the population is limited. There are about 1,300 to 1,400 people. Everyone knows each other…

[Silvia]: This is Salvadoran journalist Carlos Martínez, a special investigations reporter at El Faro.

[Carlos]: So it’s very easy to have an overall idea of all the people who live there and the effects that the regime has on a micro-society like this.

[Silvia]: Carlos has researched and written about violence in El Salvador for many years. In mid-2022, he received information that dozens of people had been detained on that island under the emergency regime, which suspended basic rights such as the right to defense or the presumption of innocence. That wasn’t unusual, because people were being detained everywhere. But they told him something that caught his attention:

[Carlos]: They took people from an island where there were no gangs.

[Silvia]: That’s the second reason why Carlos says that this island is an ideal place to understand the scope of the emergency regime and its consequences: because there were never gangs here.

[Carlos]: It was surprising for me because after a decade of covering gangs, every time I thought a place didn’t have gangs, it did. And what I found on that island, after the many months I spent reporting there, has fully convinced me that there was never a criminal group operating on the island.

[Silvia]: Carlos recounts that what he found in El Espíritu Santo was something uncommon in the country. It was a community of poor farmers and fishermen who had managed to resist the two things that had shattered the collective life of Salvadorans in the last forty years: the civil war first, and then the presence of gangs.

[Carlos]: It was a place with such an intact social fabric, so difficult to find in a country as fractured as El Salvador, even the civil war hadn’t damaged it. A civil war, by definition, divides a country and the people who inhabit it. The presence of gangs meant people couldn’t trust even their neighbor’s child. And they managed to survive that. They managed to endure over time, considering that they inhabited a place where their neighbors were allies or at least known to each other.

[Eliezer]: All that began to break down with the emergency regime, when police and soldiers arrived on the island and, in different incursions, arrested more than 20 people in the name of the war against the gangs. Sandra was there, waiting for passengers with her motorcycle cab, when they took the first group: five boatmen who worked ferrying people between the island and Puerto El Triunfo, located opposite it. The locals got scared, Sandra says.

[Sandra]: If in the time of the war we didn’t experience this, why is it happening now? So people were afraid, asking: “Why? Why? What happened? Why did they take him away?” I mean, people started asking questions, well, because everyone who was taken away, we’d known them, as I said, since we were little. I’d grown up with some of them and watched others be born and grow up.

[Carlos]: The arrests that were made were unheard of. Everyone on the island knew exactly what everyone was up to, what each person did for a living, and everyone also realized the circumstances under which they were arrested.

[Eliezer]: The arrests in El Espíritu Santo began pretty much at the start of the regime. Soon, the inhabitants stopped going out at night. Other boogeymen appeared.

[Carlos]: The terror, for example, the fear of the night and the fear of the soldiers and the police, the awareness of their absolute power and, on top of everything, the abrupt rupture of the social fabric they had managed to maintain despite everything.

[Silvia]: Since it was decreed in March 2022, the emergency regime has become a form of government in El Salvador. It has already been extended to 22 months, accumulating thousands of reports of arbitrary arrests, abuse, and torture. It is possibly President Nayib Bukele’s most commended measure, one that ultimately made him one of the most popular politicians in the Americas. It was also a perfect excuse for the government, who had never been a big fan of transparency, to block access to key information such as state purchases or detailed statistics on homicides and disappearances. It placed the country in a state of war and left it in the dark, forced to believe.

[Carlos]: Right now, as we are talking, the number of people detained under the emergency regime has already exceeded 75,000. The emergency regime has also been characterized by absolute opacity. All the trials involving those detained under the emergency regime have been subject to absolute secrecy. No one can talk about what happens inside those courtrooms, and neither the press nor anyone else can attend those trials. We also lack, for example, information on how many individuals have been arrested and from which gang, nor do we have a breakdown of data on where they are from, their age, or their gender. We don’t even know when the trials are underway, or what these people are accused of.

[Eliezer]: The emergency regime and the images of the war against gangs have been so heavily publicized, and are so inseparable from Bukele’s image today, that it’s hard to remember this: during the first years of his presidency, he used a very different strategy to lower the number of homicides. One that previous governments had already used: negotiating with criminal groups. It’s difficult to know now if the idea of putting the country under a police and military state, of removing any limits on the use of state force, and conducting mass arrests was something that Bukele and his advisors came up with as they went along when the pact with the gangs backfired on them. Or, if they already had a file saved with a plan B, with the regime as an alternative plan.

[Carlos]: There’s no doubt about its effects in terms of popularity. And to understand this, it’s necessary to grasp, even though it’s complex, the level of damage and the level of humiliation that these criminal organizations caused to most Salvadorans. It’s very difficult for a person who isn’t from El Salvador to understand what it meant to live in the communities controlled by these gangs, which were the majority. The level of violence, the level of brazenness, the level of cruelty with which they subjected a huge number of people, is difficult to put into words. They committed unspeakable atrocities.

[Silvia]: Of all the promises and achievements that President Nayib Bukele claims credit for, there’s one that almost no one disputes, even with his opacity, his barrage of propaganda and his questionable accounts. It was in his plans from the beginning:

[Archive soundbite, EuroNews]: It has taken Nayib Bukele two months since the start of his term as President of El Salvador to achieve something that seemed impossible: to drastically reduce the number of murders in one of the most violent countries in the world.

[Archive soundbite, Telemundo]: The figures are backed by the Attorney General. 

[Archive soundbite, Raúl Melara]: There has been a drop in extortions, and homicides have decreased.

[Archive soundbite, Telemundo]: For Bukele, it is thanks to his security plan, about which not much is known because the government says it is classified.

[Eliezer]: El Salvador closed 2018 with a rate of 52 homicides per hundred thousand inhabitants, more than triple the average for the Americas. By the beginning of 2020, before Nayib Bukele completed one year in office, the homicide rate in El Salvador had halved. So, let’s start with a fact: Bukele’s government lowered El Salvador’s violence figures drastically. The problem lies in explaining how he did it.

[Carlos]: There’s the official version, which is that due to the extraordinary result of the plan known as the Territorial Control Plan, the gangs’ possibilities for action had been reduced. The president told us one thing about the plan: that it was classified, and that 90% of it couldn’t be disclosed for the sake of its success.

[Eliezer]: The name, the Territorial Control Plan, appears again and again as a wild card in his government, and is often mentioned as the key to the Salvadoran miracle. No one has any idea what it’s about. Bukele announced it shortly after becoming president, but never provided a document describing it. It was confidential. Officially, the government limited itself to saying that the plan consisted of seven phases, with names like Incursion or Extraction. Every now and then, the president appears and says that he has begun phase 3, 5, or 6.

[Silvia]: For some organizations, this plan is nothing more than a publicity strategy to push for high amounts of funding and to attack the division of powers. As we told you in previous episodes, when Bukele entered the Assembly with the military, he demanded that the legislators allow him to negotiate a loan of more than $100 million for the Territorial Control Plan. What they were asking for precisely was that he give details on how the money was going to be spent.

[Zaira Navas]: We can’t say that the Territorial Control Plan is a public policy, nor, strictly speaking, can it even be considered a security plan.

[Eliezer]: This is attorney Zaira Navas,  Head of the Rule of Law and Security department at the El Salvador Cristosal Foundation,  and former Police Inspector General. Zaira leads a group that has systematically investigated allegations of human rights violations, arbitrary detentions, and deaths under the emergency regime.

[Zaira]: What is certain, and what has already been proven by media investigations, is that Bukele had already planned to negotiate with the gangs.

[Silvia]: Zaira is referring to a series of official documents obtained and published by the newspaper El Faro in various reports. They revealed that the Bukele government had made a deal with the gangs to reduce homicides and for electoral support in exchange for improvements in prison conditions and other concessions.

[Eliezer]: Those documents, which were part of an investigation by the Attorney General of El Salvador and also support an accusation by the United States Attorney General, revealed that the government had a system:

[Carlos]: They had appointed an official intermediary with these criminal organizations, Carlos Marroquín, the director of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit, who functioned as a spokesperson, let’s say for the President or for the Government with these criminal organizations. They had invented a complex system so that the gangs could even give orders to their leaders on the outside, allowing the leaders from outside to enter the prisons without going through any security checks, and without any record being kept. However, a record was kept, which we later obtained, and that is how we made this information public.

[Silvia]: The system worked for a while. Homicide numbers were decreasing and Bukele maintained a public narrative as the people’s avenger against the gangs. When there was a spike in murders, he would retaliate. I’m sure you remember the photos that went around the world in 2020, which we mentioned in other episodes, with hundreds of prisoners in their underwear on the floor, packed in rows. That was when he decided to put rival gang members together in the same cells. And he also announced on Twitter that he was authorizing the use of lethal force.

[Eliezer]: Bukele accused previous administrations or politicians from other parties of having illegally negotiated with the gangs, but Zaira Navas says that he had seen in practice how it worked for the government of Mauricio Funes, who was president for the FMLN when Bukele was mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán for the same party.

[Zaira]: He had a clear route: negotiating with these groups and that has been proven. Bukele’s security policy has been based on negotiating with these groups. When it got out of hand and these groups began to gain strength, to charge more money, to demand more, he turned to the emergency regime.

[Silvia]: That is, the measure we already mentioned: a suspension of rights that started in March 2022 and has been in place for almost two years. Carlos says that it was born as a reactive measure. It was a breaking point, where the parallel realities in which Bukele moved collided. The wave of homicides began on Friday, March 25, 2022, and lasted until Sunday, March 27.

[Carlos]: That weekend, I would say, everyone was in the dark, because we were all baffled by what was going on.

[Eliezer]: On Saturday, Carlos was reporting with two colleagues from El Faro in a community controlled by gangs, but they were ordered to leave and return to the newsroom until they knew what was going on. The death toll was rising steadily. There was no official data, and the only information they had was what was shared with them by the police union.

[Carlos]: The information that the police had, and had leaked through the union, made it clear to us that the people who were dying didn’t have a gang profile, nor were they soldiers or police officers; they weren’t registered or listed as gang members by the police. And in the initial inspections that look for tattoos or clues in their clothing, they also didn’t identify the presence of gangs…

[Silvia]: Because of the locations where the bodies appeared, they thought it was the Mara Salvatrucha, says Carlos, but the deaths didn’t match the gang’s usual violent activities, which generally focused on their rivals or state agents. They seemed to be killing people at random.

[Carlos]: So we were all in the dark; that is, we didn’t know exactly what the hell was going on there and nobody was giving us an explanation.

[Eliezer]: That Saturday night, Bukele asked the Assembly to decree the emergency regime. That day ended with 62 deaths, the largest death toll in 20 years. Among them was a body thrown at the side of the road leading to Surf City, the tourism and bitcoin paradise the president was trying to sell.

[Silvia]: It seemed clear that it was a message to the government, and a clear clue that homicides had been kept down by some kind of deal that, at that point, had been broken. There was no official explanation. Bukele shared a message on Twitter about an alleged US-led conspiracy to bring him down. A few months later, a journalist from France Press asked exactly that to El Salvador’s Vice President, Félix Ulloa.

[Sounbite archive, journalist]: And how then do you explain the fact that at the start of Nayib Bukele’s term homicides went down and then they suddenly went up again? Some say it was because those agreements with the gangs were broken and it was like a chain reaction.

[Archive soundbite, Félix Ulloa]: The people who say that do not understand El Salvador, nor do they understand how this government is run…

[Eliezer]: The Vice President began with a classic response: he said that the drop in homicides had been achieved thanks to the Territorial Control Plan. But then he told the journalist something surprising: that the sudden wave of homicides had nothing to do with a broken pact, but with El Salvador’s global success.

[Archive soundbite, Félix Ulloa]: The spike in gang activity was because in El Salvador we have been at the forefront of many economic measures that have established the country as a world leader, such as Bitcoin.

[Silvia]: Because major investors were coming in, Ulloa explained, the criminal groups saw an opportunity, and they also had support: 

[Archive soundbite, Félix Ulloa]: …Supported by the de facto powers and politicians of the past, who were ousted in the last elections, they launched an attack to discredit the government’s image.

[Eliezer]: In other words, the Vice President is basically saying that the gangs, with the help of opposition politicians, saw that the country was attracting large investments due to its pioneering economic measures, and they went out to kill people to tarnish Bukele’s success. 

[Carlos]: To this day, the government of President Bukele vehemently denies, with increasingly diminishing credibility, its agreements with these criminal organizations. The problem is that reality has caught up with him.

[Eliezer]: Carlos says this because, some time later, the Mara Salvatrucha not only confirmed to El Faro that they had killed 87 people when they felt the government had betrayed them, but they also shared quite telling recordings about that weekend.

[Silvia]: In those audio files you can hear how the official who was acting as an interlocutor between the government and the criminal groups tries to keep the agreement going while on the street they are killing people.  There he recognizes, among other things, that the Bukele government released one of the gang’s founding leaders, known as Hollywood Crook, who was in a maximum security prison in El Salvador, where he was to serve 40 years. He also had a formal extradition request from the United States for terrorism.

[Carlos Martínez]: To continue to maintain dialogue with the Mara Salvatrucha, he reminds them:

[Archive soundbite, Carlos Marroquín]: And I took the old man out from inside, brother, in a way to help everyone and to show you my loyalty and that you can trust me.

[Carlos]: He took this person out of the country and drove him personally, he insists personally, to Guatemala.

[Archive soundbite, Carlos Marroquín]: I personally went to bring him there and I personally went to leave him in Guatemala.

[Silvia]: Marroquín is trying to show that the government has indeed fulfilled its part of the pact. And it was important to convince them because the Mara Salvatrucha had given the government a 72-hour ultimatum to meet their demands and resume negotiations. In this audio, Marroquín says that he told Bukele…

[Archive soundbite, Carlos Marroquín]: I already told Batman that he has 72 hours to give an answer.

[Silvia]: But in that conversation it’s understood that there is no going back…

[Archive soundbite, Carlos Marroquín]: He didn’t take it well, he took it badly, like “don’t go around threatening me” and so on.

[Eliezer]: Batman, as they called Bukele in those negotiations, apparently wanted nothing to do with it anymore. He had met with his security cabinet and was about to discover the benefits of another strategy used by previous governments: the iron fist. But in this case, with superpowers.

[Zaira]: Just as they extorted the Salvadoran population, the gangs also extorted Bukele and his government. And we’ve seen how Bukele complied with them, right? He took several gang members out of prison, he moved them to different places to receive medical care, like private hospitals. He moved them from maximum security prisons to lower security prisons, etc. But this pressure kept rising and rising, until it eventually reached breaking point, and the gang tried to pressure Bukele by showing their strength. What they hadn’t realized is that during this time Bukele had taken over the institutions of state control.

[Silvia]: Zaira explains that Bukele didn’t have any new ideas, but rather recycled what the traditional parties in her country had already done. Almost 20 years earlier, for example, President Francisco Flores, of the ARENA party, launched the «iron fist plan” to combat gangs. 

[Archive soundbite, Francisco Flores]: I want to tell our people clearly that I am not concerned about the welfare of criminals. I am concerned about the welfare of honest Salvadorans…

[Eliezer]: Then came President Antonio Saca, also from ARENA. This time, he announced the «super iron fist» plan to combat gangs. 

[Archive soundbite, Antonio Saca]: To the criminals and thugs, with great certainty and determination, I say that time is up. Tonight, fulfilling the presidential promise for a safe country, we are launching the super iron fist plan…

[Silvia]: Carlos tells us that, every time, it was pretty much the same: overdramatic advertising campaigns that had no real impact. Or, if anything, they made the situation worse. But Bukele had something they didn’t have.

[Carlos Martínez]: This iron fist was characterized by the absolute control of the State, including the Judiciary, the Attorney General, the Police, the Army, the Legislative Assembly, and the Supreme Court of Justice, which should have exercised constitutional control over the emergency regime.

[Eliezer]: But, in addition, he says that the government had managed to co-opt gang leaders, with whom he had made a deal.

[Carlos]: So, when the Mara Salvatrucha decided to carry out that horrible massacre of civilians in the street, and the government went after them, it found a gang without leaders, without leadership, and it had all the resources to act. Without rights, without guarantees, without press, without anything, it could do whatever it pleased. And indeed. I mean. That’s another characteristic of this iron fist approach that the previous ones didn’t have; they dismantled the gangs.

[Eliezer]: This is key because it substantially changed the lives of communities controlled by gangs. Carlos uses this phrase to describe the effect it had on the population: the majority of people, he says, felt like «a hand was taken off their throat.» At least momentarily, the government had achieved something that seemed impossible: dismantling the gangs, and that explains the enormous popularity this measure had. Many people experienced for the first time what it was like to live without fear, and the price to pay for that didn’t matter. When the scorched earth policy worked, the Bukele government understood that it had a weapon of enormous effectiveness, which justified everything.

[Carlos]: They quickly realized that this was an extremely powerful tool in terms of popularity, due to the real effects it had produced in relieving people’s suffering. There were also the infinite possibilities it had for propagandizing and marketing this measure, until it converted anyone who questioned the emergency regime for its human rights track record, legality, rule of law, or presumption of innocence among gang allies.

[Silvia]: To the government, anyone who asked uncomfortable questions about its war policy was a traitor. This is what the Vice President of El Salvador, Félix Ulloa, said when a journalist asked him what happened to the detainees of the regime who had died in prison without any charges being proved against them.

[Archive soundbite, Félix Ulloa]: In a time of war, and I am going to quote the words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who says that in a besieged city any dissent is treason. Those who are currently questioning, whether from the journalistic field, from the so-called institutions that supposedly defend human rights, or political analysts, who are attacking the government’s policies, be careful because they are playing into the hands of organized crime, of gangs, and it is an act of betrayal to the people.

[Eliezer]: We’ll be right back.

[Daniel Alarcón]: The production company behind «Bukele, el señor de los sueños» is Radio Ambulante Studios. And we have two other podcasts you should listen to. Every Tuesday, we release Radio Ambulante. Stories of families, migration, adventure, and love. And every Friday, we release El hilo, where we cover and thoroughly explain an impactful news story from Latin America. Look for Radio Ambulante and El hilo on your preferred podcast app.

[Carlos Martínez]: We are right now traveling along the Litoral highway, which is the one that runs along, let’s say, the whole of El Salvador’s Pacific Coast by the sea, and we are going to Puerto El Triunfo, from where we are going to embark on the trip to Espíritu Island.

[Eliezer]: It’s a Thursday in late November, and it’s only a few minutes to Puerto El Triunfo, where we have to be before noon. The crossing to Espíritu Santo is quick, 15 or 20 minutes by boat, but if it’s low tide when we get to the port, we have to wait for it to rise again before we can leave. Carlos is telling me how he first came to the island without gangs, as he described it in a text he published more than a year ago.

[Carlos]: When the emergency regime began, especially in the first few months, the number of arrests increased exponentially every day, every week. And we as a newspaper started paying attention to what was happening, I received a call from a lady who works for a charity that offered scholarships to people who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity and they had a scholarship program on the island. So, this lady calls me in shock to tell me that they had already arrested 22 people on the island at that time, and it’s a very, very, very… it’s the definition of rural. But also, as in the story I just told you, there were no gangs on the island, which made the aggression and injustice very, very obvious.

[Silvia]: Because of this, in El Espíritu Santo you could see how the different methods of arrest under the emergency regime operated openly, and the reason for the opacity of the judicial process.

[Zaira]: At the beginning they started entering houses under the excuse that they were implementing Operation Safe House. That’s how the regime started knocking on people’s doors. Yes, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. Accompanied by a big publicity campaign that stated terrorists would go to jail. And if you are innocent, don’t worry, nothing will happen to you. At the beginning it was one policeman with three soldiers, and later just soldiers.

[Eliezer]: The people of the island say that this is how they captured a group of six people in El Espíritu Santo in early July 2022, about three months after the beginning of the emergency regime. Among them was a minor, Samuel, 17 years old, the only one convicted so far of those detained on the island. The boy’s mother, Mrs. Virginia, says that on the evening of July 3, soldiers arrived and asked all the men to leave the house with their IDs. She was with her husband and children. Samuel was eating. 

[Mrs. Virginia]: When he came out, they told him to show his ID and he said “No, I’m a minor.” “So give me your, your, your minor’s card…”

[Silvia]: Virginia says that they took his ID, compared his photo with one that the soldiers had on their phone, and took him away.

[Eliezer]: That’s how they went looking for people that whole night, in the same way, house by house, according to the accounts of their families. This is Mrs. Betty, mother of one of the men taken away that night.

[Betty]: It was a Sunday and they came to take them away starting at six in the evening until about eight, nine, ten o’clock at night. When they came, when they took my son from here, they took him at 7:30 at night. They made everyone go outside the house.

[Silvia]: They all say the same thing, where they were, what day it was, what time the soldiers arrived to look for them, because the official version of how they were arrested is very, very different.

[Carlos Martínez]: An Army sergeant, Sergeant Ángel Montesinos, claims that on the morning of July 4, he found a group of six individuals on the basketball court located a block and a half away from the military post on the island. They had gathered to take food and supplies to gang members who were hiding, according to him, in the mangroves…

[Silvia]: El Espíritu Santo Island is surrounded by mangroves, a forest of trees that grow where the land and marine environments meet.

[Carlos]: …and that when he intercepted them, they tried to escape, but through a flanking manoeuvre he was able to capture them and among them he recognized the only one in the group who was a minor. He claims that he had seen that boy on a previous occasion, although he can’t remember which day or month, entering the mangroves with supplies and leaving without supplies.

[Eliezer]: The grounds that the sergeant used to justify the capture of those men was absurd in any situation, but on that island, it was also obscene because the community wasn’t broken by indifference. When they held the court hearing for her son Samuel’s case, the youngest of those taken that night, Mrs. Virginia said that she couldn’t contain herself when she heard the soldier lying like that.

[Mrs. Virginia]: I began to feel distressed when Montesinos was saying that he had caught them on the court and that they were putting food there. I thought, what can I do deep down? I grabbed my husband’s hand and squeezed it, telling him that what they were saying was a lie.

[Silvia]: And so, after her son was convicted, Mrs. Virginia decided to do something unusual in light of the imbalance of power that the inhabitants of the island were experiencing: report the sergeant for false testimony. 

[Carlos Martínez]: That is, to go to a trial, to go to a judge, and to ask the Attorney General to accuse an Army sergeant on their behalf for lying in court. And because those lies led to this boy’s ten-year sentence. The boy’s mother sought solidarity from others who also had their sons in prison. And, far from fearing reprisal from the State for speaking out, for speaking to the media, for going to the Attorney General’s Office and for telling their truth, they supported her, knowing that all the possibilities I have just mentioned are more than real at this moment in El Salvador.

[Eliezer]: When we went to the island, in November 2023, Mrs. Virginia had had to sell two of the four pigs she owned in order to pay for the journey and to feed the people who accompanied her, those who hadn’t left her alone. I asked her what the soldiers had told her when they went to look for Samuel, what their excuse was for taking him away.

[Mrs. Virginia]: They just came with what was supposedly a photograph of him and they told him: “They call you ‘blade’.» “No”, he told them, “They call me ‘leftie’”, because my son’s dream was to go abroad and play to help me out. He told me, “Mom, with this left foot” — and he’d touch me with his little foot — “with this left foot you are going to eat”.

[Eliezer]: Mrs. Virginia told me that she didn’t care about the money, that she just wanted her son back. Now, even the money she had received from the government during the pandemic seemed to hurt her. 

[Mrs. Virginia]: Money can’t buy happiness. As I say to Mr. President, I thank him because he gave us $300 and those $300 have tripled what we have given. I don’t blame the President because he’s not guilty. The guilty ones are those who are out there doing things they shouldn’t be doing. I’m just telling him to examine what’s going on inside, the people who are working there. Because if he’s saying that he wants to clean up the Salvadoran people, then he should start examining those who are working on the inside.

[Silvia]: A fortnight after the start of the emergency regime, in April 2022, the police union began to report that the authorities were demanding «daily arrest quotas,» and that this was leading to misconduct. On the island, the relatives of some of those arrested told Carlos and Eliezer that the police and military were receiving money for each person captured. This was their explanation for what was happening in their community.  Because, on that island where everyone knew each other and knew what everyone was up to, they began to ask where the names of the detainees had come from, why they had gone to look for them.

[Eliezer]: Below the surface, the arrests on the island began to unravel the fabric that had held the community together for decades. Carlos says that what neither the civil war nor the gangs had been able to break became possible with a tool that the government made available to the population in the first months of the regime: the telephone number to make anonymous accusations.

[Zaira Navas]: All the countries that have lived through dictatorships or authoritarian regimes have suffered from anonymous accusations, informants, or whatever they are called in each country. Anyone, because of debts, because of bad blood, even because of inheritance disputes, or because of personal reasons, can call a telephone number that has been published and placed in any corner of the country to accuse another person and say this house or this person with this name who sells in this place is a gang member.

[Silvia]: In El Espíritu Santo, people began to suspect that those arrested had been accused by their neighbors. Out of envy, because they wanted someone else’s partner, because of a dispute, because they were competing for the same clients…

[Carlos Martínez]: Since the accusations are anonymous, people make assumptions that are in some cases more or less informed. But yes, the idea of the boogeyman of the island has been created, that is to say, that there are neighbors who are willing to stab their neighbors in the back. And I don’t know how to undo that.

[Sandra]: Now there is immense pain in families, in the families of those arrested. And the families of those arrested already know who the people are who grabbed that dagger and stabbed them mercilessly. It’s a lie to say that this community will be united again, that this community will become bearable like it was before. Before, we shared each other’s pain. Before, if someone died, everyone was there at the vigil, sharing the family’s pain. And now?

[Eliezer]: Once in San Salvador, after returning from the island, I asked Carlos what it meant to him, after so many years of covering and investigating gangs and criminal power dynamics in his country, to be covering the emergency regime today:

[Carlos Martínez]: Trying to understand, for example, a community that has been attacked in a way that seems cruel to me, well, it’s tough. Right now, this is the situation that this country is in. Somehow, reporting politics in a way that I never expected to cover, well, because we’re focusing on a word that only appeared in the sepia-toned images of my parents and their generation that led to a civil war: dictatorship. So, when I discover the horror of the testimonies of people who have been through the regime’s prisons and the unspeakable torture and horrors they have seen in those prisons. Or, when I go to a community of farmers who never had gangs, I understand that I’m covering the future of my country and that I’m covering the essence of what the power is made up of in the country and therefore I see it as political coverage.

[Eliezer]: By the end of 2023, seven civil organizations reported that reports of human rights violations they had received under the emergency rule totaled more than 5,700 cases. The grounds for the reports range from arbitrary detentions to inhumane treatment and torture, limited access to healthcare, internal displacement and enforced disappearance, among others. The organizations also recorded 189 cases of death, most of them in state custody.

[Silvia]: Zaira Navas explained to us that, according to Cristosal’s investigation, only 10% of the people who had died in the penal centers under the state of exception had ties to gangs. In the report they published one year after this measure, they provided a staggering statistic: less than 1% of the detainees up to that point had been charged with specific crimes associated with gangs, such as homicides and extortion. The vast majority of arrests, the report says, were made under ambiguous charges like Criminal Association, which allowed for discretionary and arbitrary arrests.

Shortly after the beginning of the emergency regime, a journalist asked the country’s Vice President, Félix Ulloa, what happened to those detainees who had died in the penal centers without having been formally charged. He defined it simply:

[Archive soundbite, Félix Ulloa]: Always, in a war, there will be innocent victims, there will be collateral damage, which must be corrected…

[Eliezer]: In December 2023, a court ordered the immediate release of Samuel, the son of Mrs. Virginia, who had been sentenced to ten years in prison. This court, a higher chamber than the one that convicted Samuel, considered that there was not enough evidence to sentence him and that there were inconsistencies in the sergeant’s version. With the release order in hand, Virginia has gone to the juvenile detention center where her son is three times, but the authorities refused to release him, without any explanation. When he was arrested on the island of El Espíritu Santo on June 3, 2022, Samuel was 17 years old. He is now 19 and still in prison.

[Eliezer]: In the next episode…

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: The Constitution does not allow the same person to be president twice in a row.

[Héctor Lindo]: Salvadoran constitutions have rejected reelection in a very strict manner.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: After talking it over with my wife Gabriela, and with my family, I am announcing to the Salvadoran people that I have decided to run as a candidate for the President of the Republic…

[Amparo Marroquín]: The result of an election like this one confirms that Bukele’s political communication strategy is the most successful in the region, isn’t it? That is to say, that the narrative he promotes allows for the dismantling of democracy, and everyone seems to agree.

[Gabriel]: Basically, it’s going to be the ticket that the President needs to launch a more intolerant and repressive agenda, I believe.

[Eliezer]: This series was made possible thanks to the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Free Press Unlimited, Article 19 Mexico and Central America, the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), and Dejusticia. Additionally, we thank FLIP for their advice and legal review, and Riesgo Cruzado for their valuable support in protection and security matters.

The producers and reporters of «Bukele: el señor de Los sueños» are Silvia Viñas and me. Gabriel Labrador is our reporter and on-site producer. Desireé Yépez is our digital producer. Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura are our editors. Carlos Dada is our editorial consultant. The fact-checkers are Bruno Scelza and Desireé Yépez. Selene Mazón is the production assistant. The music, mixing, and sound design are by Elías González. The graphic design and art direction are by Diego Corzo. The web development is by Paola Ponce. Thanks to Jonathan Blitzer for his support.

«Bukele, el señor de Los sueños» is a podcast from Central, the series channel of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

From Radio Ambulante Studios, the production co-directors are Natalia Ramírez and Laura Rojas Aponte, with the assistance of Paola Alean. The audience and digital production team is formed by Samantha Proaño, Ana Pais, Analía Llorente and Melisa Rabanales. Press and community management is handled by Juan David Naranjo.

Camilo Jiménez Santofimio is the director of alliances and financing. Carolina Guerrero is the executive producer of Central and the CEO of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

You can follow us on social media as centralpodcast RA and subscribe to our newsletter at

I am Eliezer Budasoff. Thank you for listening.


Produced and reported by: Silvia Viñas and Eliezer Budasoff

Produced and reported on site by: Carlos Martínez and Gabriel Labrador

Digital Production: Desireé Yepez

Edited by: Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura

Editorial Consulting: Carlos Dada

Fact-checking: Bruno Scelza and Desirée Yépez

Production Assistant: Selene Mazón

Music and Sound Design: Elías González

Graphic Design and Art Direction: Diego Corzo

EPISODE 4. The gospel (of Bitcoin), according to Bukele

Central BESDLS Ep 4 1400x1400 1

[Nelson Rauda]: The first time I heard the word Bitcoin, I heard it from the mouth of a young gringo named Jack Mallers, who announced to the world and to me that we, Salvadorans, were going to have a new currency.

[Eliezer Budasoff]: This is Nelson Rauda, a Salvadoran journalist. He writes for El Faro about politics, violence… But in recent years he has become a kind of correspondent for Bitcoin, this new currency he is talking about. 

[Nelson Rauda]: I’ve written over 40 Bitcoin articles in the last three years, so I never know whether to say sorry or have people thank me.

[Silvia Viñas]: That moment Nelson just mentioned, when a young American announced that El Salvador was going to adopt Bitcoin, was Saturday, June 5, 2021, at a Bitcoin conference in Miami. The young man is Jack Mallers. In his twenties he launched an application called Strike to make payments in Bitcoin. In 2021 he appeared on Forbes’ “30 under 30” list.

Mallers announced from the stage that El Salvador would have a new currency. He was wearing a sweatshirt with a hoodie and a cap. Under that, he would later reveal, he was wearing the jersey of the El Salvador soccer team. Mallers told a little of what went on behind the scenes…

Archive Audio, Jack Mallers: They asked me to help write a bill, and that they viewed Bitcoin as a world-class currency… and that we needed to put together a Bitcoin plan to help these people

[Eliezer]: He says that the Bukele Government, which saw Bitcoin as a world-class currency, requested his support to write a bill. They said this plan was to help Salvadorans. He continues talking, and you can sense the emotion in his voice. He says this project was to give people hope. Quality of life.

Archive Audio, Jack Mallers: To give them hope, to give them a quality of life, so that you can live where you’re born and you don’t have to leave and when you send money home they’re not going to take fucking half of it [applause].

[Silvia]: Mallers says this is so that Salvadorans can stay where they were born, and so that, when they send money, half of it won’t be taken away. He is referring to commissions for remittances. This is important, because every year the country receives millions of dollars from Salvadorans living abroad. In 2023, for example, remittances were 9 billion dollars. That is more than 20% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

Mallers says that he worked very hard on this project, that he lived in El Salvador and made friends who, he hopes, will one day come to his wedding. And then, he introduces Bukele:

Archive Audio, Jack Mallers: I’d like to invite now someone I’ve spent some time with to share a message.

[Eliezer]: A video of Bukele begins, with the volume a little low at the beginning. 

Archive Audio, Bukele: My name is Nayib Bukele and I’m the President of El Salvador…

[Eliezer]: He announces, in English, that he is going to send a bill to the Legislative Assembly for El Salvador to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender. As a second currency, because the main currency, since 2001, has been the dollar. The audience in Miami is so excited that they start applauding before he finishes explaining everything.

Archive Audio, Bukele: ….outside the formal economy. And in the medium and long term…

[Silvia]: Bukele had just made a historic announcement for Bitcoin fans. And in the end, it was a message for them, that’s why it was in English. The Salvadoran president was opening the doors for them so they could fulfill their crypto dreams. How it would affect Salvadorans seemed secondary. They found out that Bitcoin would be their legal tender that day as well, in this announcement that was made in Miami, in English.

[Nelson]: This is not a public policy made for us. We pay for it.  We finance it. It is done with our resources. But it is directed at other people.

[Silvia]: This is El señor de Los sueños, a podcast from Radio Ambulante Estudios. I’m Silvia Viñas.

[Eliezer]: And I’m Eliezer Budasoff. Episode 4: The Crypto-Evangelist President.

[Nelson]: Bitcoin is one of Bukele’s first policies that he made after democracy was dismantled. You couldn’t do this in a democracy.

[Eliezer]: Let’s remember that the month before this announcement, in May 2021, the new Legislative Assembly had begun in El Salvador, controlled by the Bukelists. And the first thing the representatives did was to dismiss the magistrates of the Constitutional Court and the Attorney General. You see, the judicial power made Bukele uncomfortable. The judges had blocked some of his policies to combat the pandemic, and the Prosecutor’s Office was investigating the Government for its negotiations with gangs and for irregular contracts during the health crisis. In their place, the representatives appointed people connected to the Government.

It was the end of the separation of powers, and a triumph for Bukele, although it came at a cost: the international community criticized these moves as authoritarian. So Bukele, as he had done at other times, found a way to distract from this negative attention. And, in true style, he did it quickly. Three days after that announcement in English that we heard a moment ago, Bukele sent the Bitcoin Bill to the Assembly.

[Nelson]: I remember I was at my father’s house. We are watching a soccer game with the Salvadoran team. The game was just starting and I was about to sit down to watch the game, when my boss calls me, and he said, look, this is happening at the Assembly, get on it. And I said, ok. 

[Eliezer]: So Nelson went to the Assembly and began to listen to the representatives, to see what this bill was about. One said that it was not going to be mandatory to adopt Bitcoin. But Nelson realized that at the same time, there was a live conversation in Spaces, on Twitter, that contradicted what was being said in the Assembly. President Bukele and his brother Karim were participating there, speaking in English…

[Nelson]: Explaining to investors and other people, gringos and Europeans: Well, yes, this is going to be mandatory. At McDonald’s they will have to accept your Bitcoin. So I… while in the Assembly, I stopped listening to what the representatives who were going to approve the bill were saying and I started listening to Space, and they were saying much more, giving more valuable information.

[Eliezer]: The committee in charge of examining the law took 85 minutes to review it.

[Nelson]: And the soccer game thing was on purpose because a soccer game lasts 90 minutes plus stoppage time, right? So the game started, it wasn’t over yet, and they had already finished discussing it, and even after they finished, El Salvador scored another goal and we were 3 to 0. I think we won, which I think was the only victory that day for the country.

[Eliezer]: The Assembly approved it in 5 hours, total.  

[Silvia]: What has been the most complex, the most difficult part of this whole process?

Nelson: Understanding it. I mean, this is a super, super complex topic. That is, cryptocurrencies do not have any inherent value; they are pieces of computer code not tied to anything in the real world. I mean, yeah, if you talk about the shares of a company like Apple, well, Apple produces iPhones and computers and I don’t know what, so those are… it’s tied to something real. What is cryptocurrency tied to? Nothing. In the case of Bitcoin, in the case of other things, right? Because there are more than 20,000 cryptocurrencies. So it was like that pressure of having to understand, and having to understand it in spite of the fact that I was looking at this with a lot of skepticism and sometimes with anger. I mean, as a Salvadoran it did make me very mad and angry that a little gringo guy at a conference in Miami, who was weeping, wearing the jersey of Salvador’s national team, would say we are going to change the world, everything is going to be wonderful, whatever. When I know what this country is, I am from here; when, when I know the situation, the inequality, when I know this government quite well.

[Eliezer]: We’ll talk more about the Bitcoin Act in a moment, but first, like Nelson when he started covering this topic, we need to understand the basics… 

[Silvia]: How do you explain what Bitcoin is in one or two sentences to someone who doesn’t know what Bitcoin is?

[Nelson]: In one or two sentences. Bitcoin is a financial alternative, let’s say. It is an alternative in which if you distrust the banks and the monetary system, you can use this alternative thing, as an experiment, you see? Let’s say that the simple way these people explain it to you is that with Bitcoin you are your own bank, you get these things and the central idea, let’s say, of its creator or creators, which is an anonymous entity that calls itself Satoshi Nakamoto, is a peer-to-peer exchange, an exchange between people without any entities as intermediaries, such as a bank or something else. That is basically the idea. 

[Eliezer]: Bitcoin is considered the first cryptocurrency. It began operating in January 2009, but was born in 2008, in the midst of widespread discontent due to the global financial crisis. Many people lost their homes, their investments and savings because of bad decisions by the people who control the financial system. And then the US government bailed out the banks, at taxpayers’ expense. So, Bitcoiners are convinced that the financial system does not work, that it is unfair.

[Nelson]: And they propose this other way that in theory is a… I mean, it has its logic, it has its appeal.

[Eliezer]: In Latin America, the countries that have adopted this cryptocurrency the most are those with the highest inflation: Argentina and Venezuela.

[Tatiana]: The roots of Bitcoin are very different from how it works now. Bitcoin does not mean that the roots have been good.

[Eliezer]: This is Tatiana Marroquín, a Salvadoran economist. She worked in the Legislative Assembly as a technician on fiscal and Treasury issues and is now an independent consultant. Tatiana explained to us that, in general, in the world, Bitcoin is now mostly used as a speculative asset, that is, an investment that involves a risk.

[Tatiana]: That’s why a friend could come up to me and say I want to invest in Bitcoin because that’s the logic, right? You don’t say I want to invest in dollars, right? At least on a day-to-day basis, that’s not the case. So, what I would say to my friend would be, well, only invest what you are willing to lose because you can win a lot, but you can also lose a lot. So if you want to invest in that, go ahead. Or here are other slightly less risky options.

[Eliezer]: The risk exists, in part, because the price of Bitcoin is very volatile. In 2023, for example, its value fluctuated between 16 thousand and 44 thousand dollars per unit. But that is not the only risk.

[Nelson]: As an alternative to the traditional financial system, well, there are some things about the financial system that I think are not superfluous. That is, all its money-laundering preventions. When you mention KYC to a Bitcoiner, which is the banks’ know-your-client policies to prevent money laundering, they make a face because that is like a way for them to control your money. Also Bitcoin has to do with a lot of libertarian ideology, Ayn Rand and this type of freedom to the end thing.

[Silvia]: So, is there an ideology behind Bitcoin? No? What is it that moves people to get into this? What are their motivations?

[Nelson]: I think they believe they are going to change the world. I have a Christian background, that is, I have been in evangelical churches all my life. So, listening to these people, I saw many similarities and then there are people who said so directly. I was beginning to hear phrases like a Guatemalan who told me that it was easier for the sun to go out than for Bitcoin’s price to reach zero. There are people who compared it directly to Christianity. They call themselves evangelists. There are apostles, that is, great gurus on this subject, who go around the world preaching the gospel of Satoshi Nakamoto. So, when I began to understand it as a cult, I said ok, I understand them.

[Eliezer]: And in his attempts to understand the philosophy behind this cryptocurrency, there is a question that Nelson asks Bitcoiners:

[Nelson]: “Bitcoin is supposed to be a way to separate the currency from the State because you don’t trust the State. That’s the philosophy. So why are Bitcoiners so quick to embrace an authoritarian government? That is, did you want the State or did you not want the State?” Bitcoiners always say— their slogan is always, «don’t trust, verify», because that is what the system is supposed to do: it doesn’t trust an intermediary, so it verifies through mathematical transactions conducted by computers. So why do they trust Bukele’s government so much? And why don’t they verify what he says? Bukele has tweeted that he buys one Bitcoin every day. Have you verified it? Do you think he is telling the truth? Why do all the governments in the world lie, but this one is suddenly honest and wonderful and sincere and God’s gift to the world? And I still haven’t found one Bitcoiner who can satisfactorily answer that for me.

[Silvia]: What is known about when or how Bukele became interested in cryptocurrency?

[Nelson]: Very little, because the Bukeles, of all the virtues that people attribute to them, transparency is not one of them. Since the Bukeles have not expressed, and the President has not explained, that origin, much of what we know in El Salvador we know from the mouths of Bitcoiners who have confessed or said, in English, how this happened. The first thing was Jack Mallers.

[Eliezer]: Mallers was in El Zonte and one of Bukele’s brothers contacted him. In an interview, Mallers said he was very scared because he didn’t know what they were going to say to him.

[Nelson]: But he went to the meeting, and from that point on he began to talk with them, and that is where the talks began that led to that announcement in 2021.

[Eliezer]: Two weeks after this announcement at the Bitcoin conference in Miami, which we heard at the beginning of the episode, Bukele gave an interview to Peter McCormack, an Englishman who has a podcast about Bitcoin. 

Archive Audio, McCormack: Hello again. Mr. President, thank you for having me here, you’ve made quite some history…

[Eliezer]: McCormack asks him what led him to make El Salvador the first country to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender. Bukele says that there are two types of decisions. Some have to do with historical debts, such as fighting the gangs. And others are decisions that look forward, towards the future…

Archive Audio, podcast, Bukele: Not to foresee the future, but at least to know where the world is going and to get there first, so your people will get some benefit out of it.

[Eliezer]: Not to predict it, says Bukele, but to see where the world is moving, to be able to get there first and have the people benefit from it. Bitcoin, of course, is this second type of decision. Bitcoin is the future.

Archive Audio, podcast, Bukele: The Bitcoin system is so perfect, I think it’s going to be the future.

[Eliezer]: He says there are also practical reasons for doing this, such as being able to receive remittances immediately, with almost no fees, or reaching the 70% of people who do not have a bank account. He also says that this will bring investments in tourism, and that it will make the country, which is dollarized, less dependent on the production of new dollars and the inflation of those dollars.

[Silvia]: So, to achieve this, make it public policy, and there is the Bitcoin Act, which, as Nelson told us, was expressly approved by an Assembly controlled by Bukele. It is a brief. It has sixteen articles and they are quite general.

[Nelson]: The law essentially says that Bitcoin is legal currency and that all of us who make transactions are obliged to accept it the way we accept dollars, which is our currency, American dollars.

[Silvia]: A few weeks after the Assembly approved the law, Bukele went on a national network to explain what it was all about. 

Archive Audio, Nayib Bukele: This law was made to generate employment, to generate investment, and it will never affect anyone, as the opponents have tried to say with their dirty campaign and trying to confuse Salvadorans by making them believe that they are going to be affected by a law that has no other objective than to benefit them.

[Silvia]: It lasted almost an hour… More than once he refers to Article 7, one of articles that caused most concern, because it seemed that the law forced people to use Bitcoin.

Archive Audio, Nayib Bukele: By taking it out of context and putting only Article 7, well yes, it would seem that everyone is obliged to accept Bitcoin as a form of payment and therefore receive the Bitcoin. But it’s not like that. Economic agents, that is, businesses, are obliged to accept Bitcoin but not to receive it. 

[Silvia]: Accept, but not receive. People began to joke on social networks about what the difference would be between accepting and receiving. It made more sense when Bukele announced, on that same national network, an electronic wallet called “Chivo” or Chivo Wallet. Chivo in El Salvador means something similar to “cool.” With this wallet, which is an app that you download to your cell phone, people can send you Bitcoins and if you want, you convert them to dollars. So, Bukele was saying, don’t worry, you have no obligation to receive Bitcoins because with this app, this Chivo electronic wallet, you can convert them to dollars automatically. So, if you are a seller and someone wants to pay you in Bitcoin, you have to accept it, but since the Chivo Wallet can convert it to dollars, what you receive can be dollars, if you want, rather than in Bitcoin.

Bukele announced an incentive for people who downloaded the Chivo Wallet: everyone would receive $30 in Bitcoin.

[Nelson]: Then people used the Chivo Wallet to get their $30 and many of them never used it again. The Chivo Wallet was a spectacular failure. People gave it a chance. The app was horrible, it crashed, transactions were not recorded, people lost money. There were many people like me who couldn’t get the $30 bonus because someone used our DUI, someone used my DUI, my ID, to get those $30 and transfer them to their account. That happened to thousands of people. The government has taken prosecuted people very discreetly—this was published by Factum Magazine—people who committed fraud with the Chivo Wallet. People who, for example, one day transferred $20 from their Chivo Wallet to their bank account, but the $20 was not debited from their balance in the wallet, so they did it again and it worked again, and they kept on doing it until they got thousands of dollars from people because the app was very defective, so the prosecutor’s office went after them. So people are very patient in El Salvador and have allowed Bukele and consented to everything. When he got involved with money, they said look, we don’t have that much.

[Nelson]: The first major protest that took place on September 15, 2021 was days after the Bitcoin Law went into effect. Bitcoin was one of the reasons why people went out to protest, not the only one, but one of the reasons why they went out to protest. Then, as he realized that it was unpopular, that people didn’t like it, and that his Chivo Wallet had been a failure, he started talking less about Bitcoin. He no longer mentions Bitcoin. Not in Spanish.

[Silvia]: Bukele went almost a year and a half without tweeting about Bitcoin in Spanish. In June 2022 he tweeted, quote: “I see some people are worried or anxious about the price of Bitcoin on the market.” His advice is to stop looking at the graph and enjoy life because, if you invested in Bitcoin, your investment is safe and the value will grow… He says the key is to be patient. This, by the way, is similar to what we’ve seen him do before: he takes something negative and changes its meaning to make it seem like a victory, or at least something logical. When the price is falling, he talks about Bitcoin in Spanish as an investment. But the law he promoted does not refer to Bitcoin as an investment… The law made it legal tender. An official currency is used for daily transactions, not for investing. But if people are not using it in their daily lives, all there is left is to tweet about Bitcoin as an investment. 

The next time he tweeted in Spanish about Bitcoin was in December 2023. Again, almost a year and a half later. He shared an explanatory video—in Spanish with English subtitles—about why El Salvador does not sell its Bitcoins. This video, by the way, was posted when the price of Bitcoin was rising.

[Silvia]: Nelson told me that when Bukele talks about Bitcoin, he does so in English, like it is a more outward-looking policy. Do you see it that way too?

[Tatiana]: Yes, yes, yes. In El Salvador, to talk about Bitcoin is to remember the failure of the government. So I think where they are in Bitcoin, apart from the business that the government has with some people, which we know very little about, Bitcoin, the part of the government that has remained is the tourism attraction. So I think they have held on to that and that’s why continue to speak to this niche of people.

[Silvia]: How does the fact that this Bitcoin law exists and that on paper, it is legal tender, affect the average Salvadoran?

Tatiana: I think that at this point, the way it affects you, well, first, that there are many components of the law that can be applied and that have not been applied, such as the payment of salaries, for example.

[Tatiana]: So let’s say the law is still a risk, even if it’s not being enforced that way. But in practical terms it clearly affects the public funds.

[Silvia]: The Government says that it has been buying Bitcoin with public funds since 2021. But we do not know how much it has bought. And that is only part of the expenses, because the Chivo Wallet, the ATMs, the bonus, the propaganda—all that It costs money.

[Tatiana]: We do not know how public funds are being used. We know that they are being used, that there are new institutions, that they have created institutions related to Bitcoin, that they continue to create laws for cryptocurrencies, etc. And all that involves state offices, state personnel, etc. The same goes for what was invested in Bitcoin, we don’t know where all that money is, and it is not being used for priority issues for the Salvadoran population economically, for example. So I think that is where it’s affecting us the most.

[Silvia]: Do you by any chance accept Bitcoin here?

Seller 1: No, we haven’t implemented that yet…

Seller 2: Bitcoin? No.

[Silvia]: Really, oh ok. It’s fine.

[Silvia]: One question, do you accept Bitcoin here? If someone wanted to pay in…

Hotel employee: Yes, of course

[Silvia]: Oh okay. Got it.

[Silvia]: When I was in San Salvador, almost every time I bought something, I asked if they accepted Bitcoin. Only two places said they did. The one you just heard, which is a hotel belonging to an international chain, and a Mexican food restaurant in a mall.

[Silvia]: Out of curiosity, do you accept Bitcoin?

Restaurant employee: Yes.

[Silvia]: You do? Ok, but is it common for people to pay in Bitcoin?

Restaurant employee: No, no, it’s about one person every two weeks.

[Silvia]: It can’t be heard very clearly, but she says it is not common. That one person pays with Bitcoin every two weeks.

[Silvia]: And foreigners, I imagine?

Restaurant employee: Yes, just like you.

[Silvia]: Yes, foreigners, “just like you,” she said.

[Eliezer]: This, of course, is not a very large sample, nor scientific. But surveys and studies have been carried out on the use of Bitcoin in El Salvador. An early 2023 survey by the University Institute of Public Opinion found that 74% of Salvadorans did not use Bitcoin to buy or pay in 2022. Of those who did, a third had used it only once. And according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, only 20% of companies operating in El Salvador accept Bitcoin.

After the break. We’ll go to the beach that promises to immerse you in a Bitcoin economy, where it all began: El Zonte. We’ll be back after a pause.


[Silvia]: Where are we, Nelson?

[Nelson]: Entering El Zonte. Well, Surf City, but on the dirt road.

[Silvia]: The road from San Salvador to El Zonte, especially as it gets closer to the beach, is modern and a very comfortable drive. That, in July 2023, changed once you entered El Zonte. I’m with Nelson in a rental car. We’re going down a dirt road with a lot holes. That explains the noise, and our trembling voices.

[Silvia]: Surf City is the name Bukele gave it. 

[Nelson]: Yes, Surf City is… He has this tendency to name things in English. 

[Silvia]: Before becoming Surf City, what was El Zonte?

[Nelson]: I think it’s still more or less the same. It’s a surf beach that has now a little more infrastructure, a little more… a few restaurants, some hotels, but essentially it is still what it is. [Because when you hear Surf City, you say, how developed, that tourist enclave. Acapulco, right? It’s not that. This is Surf City: the women carrying crates on their heads, selling mangoes or selling something else, the man gardening on that piece of land. That’s Surf City.]

[Silvia]: Surf City is actually an area of several beaches that includes El Zonte. But we are in El Zonte because, as we said, this is where the history of Bitcoin in El Salvador began. It is a very nice, small spa, where on some streets you see modest one-story houses and other modern hotels with signs saying they accept Bitcoin.

[Nelson]: I mean, here we are in front of Palo Verde, which is one of the famous hotels. “Say Zonte”, which is “The Spanish Learning Experience”, right? In other words, it is a language academy. But it sounds nicer that way. 

[Silvia]: Of course.

[Nelson]: So here it was… This is what people like to call, the… the crypto brothers like to call it Bitcoin Beach, because this was what we might call the birthplace of Bitcoin Beach.

[Silvia]: This is where an experiment began. In 2019, two years before the country adopted cryptocurrency as legal tender, there was an anonymous donation of Bitcoin in El Zonte. This person—who people few know who he is—gave the Bitcoins to Mike Peterson, a Californian surfer who has lived in El Zonte since 2005. We tried to get an interview with him, but it didn’t work out. We did speak with one of the people from the town who, together with Peterson, launched the Bitcoin Beach project.

[Román Martínez]: Bitcoin Beach showed that Bitcoin could be a tool for communities that had never had access to a financial system, to a bank account, because here in the community we saw changes. When Bitcoin started being used, people’s mentality changed.

[Silvia]: That was Román Martínez, one of the founders of Bitcoin Beach. I interviewed him the day I visited El Zonte with Nelson. Román was born in El Zonte. And he describes Bitcoin Beach as a social project.

[Román]: Where we were focused on giving tools and knowledge to the children of our community with different projects in the area of education, in recreation, in the spiritual area, in the empowerment part. And three and a half years ago we began to use Bitcoin in the project as a form of payment, where initially the students got a prize for being good students, for cleaning the river, for cleaning the beach…

[Silvia]: And then the pandemic arrived, and it hit El Zonte quite hard because many families live off tourism, and that stopped completely.

[Román]: That’s when the project changed direction and we started helping local families with a donation in Bitcoin. El Zonte has about 500 families, so all the families helped each other out for a period of time. Every month they received a donation in Bitcoin and that opened the door to what is known today as the first circular economy within a Bitcoin ecosystem.

[Silvia]: This circular economy is something I heard a lot that day at El Zonte. Román explained it to me in simple terms.

[Román]: You come to the community and you can pay, you can live with Bitcoin, you can pay for the hotel, you can pay at the restaurant, for the electricity, the water, the telephone, whatever you can think of, right?

[Silvia]: I asked Román what the connection is between Bitcoin Beach and the step the country took to convert Bitcoin into legal tender.

[Román]: I think it was just like a link, is is just… Bitcoin Beach showed that Bitcoin could be that inclusive tool to provide more opportunities, to bring more tourism, more investments.

[Eliezer]: This look at Bitcoin Beach is the most “official”, let’s say. And of course, it makes sense that this is how one of its founders describes it. The Government has pointed to Bitcoin Beach as a model, and it has worked, because Nelson says that El Zonte has become a kind of Mecca.

[Nelson]: In other words, again with the religious symbolism, we are going to go on a pilgrimage here because we have finally arrived at a place where we can find a case of real-life use of this thing. And then people started going to El Zonte to try to buy things with Bitcoin. And they did, and still do. They are delighted with the possibility of turning their codes into a beer, a coconut, a hotel stay, into whatever. 

[Tatiana]: [With Bitcoin], as long as it is in the wallets of everyone in El Zonte or on some beach, it will work for them. Which was the same thing we saw at the beginning when they said look, on this beach it works in the sun. Does it work for you? Of course, because El Zonte is a few kilometers. So if they agree to do transactions with buttons, they will manage. The issue is when it is taken to a larger economy.

[Nelson]: The idea was that this would be replicated throughout El Salvador. I invite all Bitcoiners who believe that the media lies, that journalists lie: Come to El Salvador and do not bring cash or any card, just bring your Bitcoin wallet and try to stay in this country for a week, a few days, just paying in Bitcoin. Don’t believe me. Check, and try to do that, and you will find the answer there. This did not happen and in fact does not happen in El Zonte. The Zonte is not a circular economy where there is Bitcoin. El Zonte is a beach where in some places, and where I think it is the place with the highest concentration in El Salvador where you can pay with Bitcoin, in addition to paying with dollars. Cross the street in El Zonte, you leave your hotel in El Zonte, which has the big Bitcoin logo and you cross the street and try to pay the lady in the store in Bitcoin. Then you tell me. What I’m saying is, El Zonte is not what it is said to be.

[Wilfredo]: The truth is that we knew very little about Bitcoin. Currently it can also be said that we know very little about the subject.

[Eliezer]: This is Wilfredo Urias, a community leader from El Zonte. Silvia and Nelson interviewed him at a hotel that, by the way, did not accept Bitcoin. He works there doing various things. When they spoke, he was tending the poolside bar. But Wilfredo was also the president of the local Community Development Association. Those are organizations that are in charge of managing drinking water and bringing projects to benefit the community. They can be about sports, education, infrastructure…

Wilfredo mentioned what Román said a while ago, that the people of Bitcoin Beach helped the townspeople during the pandemic. And that Bitcoin supports community projects. But he also says that the use of Bitcoin has decreased… That the situation of Salvadorans from El Zonte like him, who have lived there before Bitcoin arrived, has in part become more difficult.

[Wilfredo]: A little more difficult because of the investments, which at the moment have not been inclusive. So there are more opportunities for investors and less opportunities for the locals.

[Eliezer]: Wilfredo refers to investments in, for example, land for hotels.

[Wilfredo]: Yes, they are buying quite a bit in the community. So it is a touchy issue, because currently there are still many people who do not have their own properties, who live in State areas, in areas—land that they have taken by right. And that now, with the appraisal of properties, is a problem. 

[Silvia]: The value has gone up.

[Wilfredo]: A lot. It’s excessive. In other words, a piece of land that five years ago could cost you $20,000, today costs you $200,000.

[Silvia]: Wow.

[Eliezer]: Some Bitcoin Beach real estate agents said a property would go from $125,000 to $200,000 in one week. And in Bitcoin City, which is 200 kilometers away, there were neighbors who agreed to sell their land to the government for $8,000 but to relocate to the same area they had to pay more than $40,000.

[Nelson]: The price of housing has skyrocketed, in part because there are many people speculating in land, wanting to live in this wonderful country called El Salvador, and a lot of places are being gentrified. People are being displaced.

[Eliezer]: In El Zonte there are 25 families under threat of eviction because they live on land where a public park called Bitcoin Beach Club de Playa is going to be built. It will have a volleyball court, a commercial area, massage rooms… When he announced the project, Bukele said it was necessary to invest in that beach because it is modest, the business for people there are the tourists, because they buy things from them, he said.

Archive Audio, Bukele: It is all about maintaining the atmosphere of the area. We don’t want to modify it, but we want to maintain the place. But no, people not living in a tin house, but people with houses, always suited to the surroundings, or a nice business, always suited to the surroundings.

[Eliezer]: In November 2023, the media outlet Mala Yerba revealed that, according to audio recordings of meetings to which they had access, the Minister of Housing contradicted this promise that they would improve the houses of the people who live on the park land. The minister said that they cannot have people living there, and gave them the option of moving three kilometers away, across from a sewage treatment plant.

But these types of evictions don’t only happen in El Zonte…

[Nelson]: For example, in the area of La Unión, in Condadillo, in Flor del Mangle for the construction of the airport, an airport that appeals mainly to Bitcoin investors coming to this country, to participate in a scheme in which President Bukele has they won’t pay taxes. 

[Eliezer]: This airport Nelson is referring to is for bitcoiners to get to Bitcoin City, which we mentioned a moment ago. It is a new city, the first Bitcoin city, that the Government is building. It is on the coast, at the foot of the Conchagua volcano, where according to Bukele, the geothermal energy of the volcano will be used to power the computers that will mine Bitcoin there. In Bitcoin City, no one will pay taxes. 

[Nelson]: I mean, Bitcoin is very good in El Salvador, if you are not Salvadoran.

[Tatiana]: One of the things that the Bitcoin law included was that there would be no taxes. Now, there are very few, very few ways around the world to trace Bitcoin transactions. So El Salvador is just being even more permissive than any of the Bitcoin dynamics. So, of course, if you come to El Salvador with money that has come from who knows where, well, you can continue doing transactions in El Salvador without saying where it originates. 

[Silvia]: But then, if I am a foreigner who has $250,000 in Bitcoin and I want to buy a house in El Zonte, nobody is going to ask me where those funds come from, right? So it’s a completely different transaction than if I were to buy a house with dollars.

[Tatiana]: Of course, because first he or she would have to declare where the money they brought was coming from, if it was brought it in cash or in what way. Yes, totally.

[Nelson]: In El Salvador, houses are sold in Bitcoin, that is, you can buy land in Bitcoin, do the transaction in Bitcoin and that poses several problems for me. What kind of people have money and do not want it to be known in a system that prevents money laundering? Bitcoin is a good alternative for people who don’t want others to know where their money comes from and what they do with their money. 

[Eliezer]: In addition to allowing these types of transactions and giving tax benefits to those who use Bitcoin, the Government has created a program to attract foreign investors interested in developing a «Bitcoin country», as the official website says, which is in English. The program is called “Visionary Freedom Program,” and it offers a Salvadoran passport to investors who meet certain requirements.

But not only that, in December 2023, the Assembly reformed the migration law so that foreigners can apply for Salvadoran nationality if they participate in government programs aimed at investing with capital in “legal tender”… which in El Salvador , as we know, is dollars and Bitcoin.

Investments in El Zonte are not only affecting the prices of land and houses… Or the people who are in danger of being displaced. This development is also having an impact on the water supply, as Wilfredo explains.

[Wilfredo]: [The population is growing and so the water flow diminishes.] Improving the water supply system is one of the biggest challenges in providing for the community and, especially everything that has to do with El Zonte.

[Eliezer]: El Zonte has a self-managed water system, which was built almost 50 years ago because the national authority did not supply it. And the community, which manages this water supply, grants licenses only for domestic use, not commercial use.

[Wilfredo]: Because we take care of it. It’s gold. Having water right now is gold. It is like having gold in your hands.

[Silvia]: That’s what Wilfredo told us as we left the hotel where he works.

On the way back to the car, I asked Nelson to explain in more detail what this water supply problem is about. He told me that the Assembly, controlled by Bukele, passed a law two years ago recognizing the human right to water, and creating something called the Salvadoran Water Authority, which oversees all of the country’s supplies. The law allows anyone who has the ability to pay to exploit the water commercially, to get a permit without limits.

[Nelson]: The country has a very serious water supply problem. So people like him tell you that it is like gold because they know that in communities you can walk ten, ten kilometers here or to the communities nearby and there is no water. 

[Silvia]: Wow.

[Nelson]: And because water is not a guarantee. In other words, ANDA, which is the National Administration of Aqueducts and Sewers, does not provide water to everyone, especially in the interior, far from San Salvador, so then people have a self-managed project like that, an alternative, artisanal project, because the Government never solved that problem. So now, the Salvadoran Water Authority, the law that the Assembly approved, says basically that they have authority over all bodies of water and I don’t know what else. And then what the Government wants is to generate tourism, commerce, all the environmental permits, what they call expediting. But at what cost? At the cost of local people who are running out of water so that tourists in the hotels can always have water.

[Silvia]: So now they would control this system…

[Nelson]: They would control the system…

[Silvia]: Wow.

[Nelson]: That is, yes, that is a problem and a concern people here have.

[Silvia]: That makes sense.

[Silvia]: After meeting Wilfredo, we headed out to a Bitcoin Beach “meetup.” It is a monthly event, free and open to anyone who wants to attend. The invitation promised a talk and the opportunity to ask questions to guests, a welcome drink, gifts and discounts on food and beverages… if you paid with Bitcoin.


[Nelson]: And of course, these people are going to tell you… Right now we are going to go to this thing and they are going to sell it to you: this is the best thing that has happened, and so on, but you come to El Zonte and you don’t think about the farmers who are on the other side of the street.

[Silvia]: Sure.

[Nelson]: With all this it’s like… don’t think about those invisible people, don’t think about the people who are being affected by this. And that is, in other words, it is a pattern that I see all over the country and that we are seeing all over the country, that this type of development is prioritized and the other is like, eh.

Ambi Meet up: Testing, testing, one, two, testing… 

[Silvia]: The event is on the terrace of a hotel called Palo Verde. There are tables where you can sit and have your complimentary drink, order food… and chat with foreigners curious about Bitcoin. In fact, the vast majority of us are foreigners. The host of the event is Román Martínez, one of the founders of Bitcoin Beach and whom we heard before. He wears a black t-shirt with the Bitcoin Beach logo and walks around the tables, greeting those of us who came to see what this is all about.

While I wait for it to start, I hear that there is a group of three people speaking Spanish, so I approach. They are university students who are doing a study on Bitcoin. I sit with them, we chat, and after a while, Román stands in front of us. Behind him is a sign for Bitcoin Beach and another for a real estate consultant: “For people interested in investing or moving to El Salvador” says the sign. Everything in English. Román grabs the microphone, and the first thing he asks is if there are people there who don’t speak English.

[Román]: Aside from you, who else doesn’t speak English?

[Silvia]: We had agreed that those who did not speak English could sit with us, so that I could translate for them. But no one else comes.

[Román]: Welcome. And so we’re going to do it in English because I think it’s it’s more… it make more sense. 

[Silvia]: Román says the event is going to be in English, because it makes more sense. But first, he addresses our small group of four who speak Spanish:

[Román]: But have you ever used Bitcoin? Have you? Have you done a Bitcoin transaction yet? Have you? Okay, well even better, so we don’t have to give it to them. Thanks for being honest. Thank you for being honest. So, welcome, guys. Welcome. We have this Bitcoin event… Once every month, so feel lucky you are here tonight. 

[Silvia]: Román says that the purpose of these monthly events is for new people to meet people who are already in El Zonte, so they learn about the Bitcoin Beach projects… And what follows is more than an hour of different people taking the microphone and talking about Bitcoin… For example, one Salvadoran from Bitcoin Beach says that every Friday, they visit schools to teach students about Bitcoin. Between one guest and another, Román makes comments. He is a good presenter, he looks comfortable, not nervous at all. At one point he refers to coverage of Bitcoin by the media who claim it’s not working.

[Román]: This is a bullshit that the media is, is, is, is trying to, to say…

[Silvia]: And that is why this meeting is important, he says, because it means that more people will learn about Bitcoin and will be able to go tell their friends, back in their countries, that the media are lying.

[Román]: Our next speaker is Miss El Salvador… 

[Silvia]: After a while, Román introduces the person who at that time was Miss El Salvador.

[Alejandra Guajardo]: Hello. My name is Alejandra Guajardo, and I’m the actual Miss El Salvador. I will give my crown this Sunday, but that doesn’t mean that I will continue to spread education about Bitcoin, of course… 

[Silvia]: You may remember her. She is the contestant who dressed up as a giant Bitcoin coin in the Miss Universe 2022 pageant. Alejandra Guajardo, who by the way is Mexican-Salvadoran, was going to hand over her crown that Sunday, but she says that doesn’t mean she’s going to stop educating others about Bitcoin. She has become a Bitcoin influencer of sorts. An evangelist, or crypto-evangelist, as Nelson told us a while ago, the self-proclaimed, people, who encourage others to adopt the cryptocurrency. In fact, as the minutes pass, it becomes clearer that the purpose of this meeting is just that, evangelizing about Bitcoin.

A Canadian investor says he sees El Salvador as a unique place to do business…

Canadian investor: As someone who’s invested in early stage companies, I look at this as investing in an early stage country. It’s very kind of similar in the whole way it’s approached and so on.

[Silvia]: And as someone who has invested in companies in their initial stage, he considers that investing in El Salvador is like investing in a country in its initial stage… Then, a woman who says she has a blog, in English, which translates to: Becoming a Butterfly, says she had been looking for a place to move to for a year. She sold her house and bought a one-way ticket to El Salvador.

Blogger: So. Yeah, Yeah, I’m not leaving. It gives me a lot of hope. And I’m looking for a sense of hope. Bitcoin gives me hope. 

[Silvia]: She says, Bitcoin gives her hope.

[Silvia]: At the end of it all, while the people who had gone to the event stayed chatting among themselves, Román and I moved away from the noise and I was able to ask him some questions.

[Silvia]: You said that the media says Bitcoin didn’t work, right? That it failed. Why? Why did you mention that?

[Román]: Because that’s what the majority of the media is saying. The media. But I believe that education is key. Making radical changes in people’s mindsets takes time. It took us two years, three and a half years now, working for this community, and even in the community you find people who don’t want to, that is, they don’t understand it, they are closed-minded. We knew that it would take time for people to see a benefit, for people to learn.

[Silvia]: After saying this, Román starts asking me questions: where do I live, when was the first time I heard about Bitcoin… I didn’t remember… I think 2018, 2019…? Before the pandemic. And I tell him that I don’t have Bitcoin.

[Román]: That’s the point. You are a person who has grown up with technology. Access to a bank account, access to assets, access to being able to make transactions. And if you haven’t bought even a small portion of Bitcoin yet, since you first heard it in 2018, that means you don’t understand it. It takes time. It takes time. The only thing I do hope is that the Salvadorans don’t take too long, as you have for so long.

[Silvia]: Today I met someone who said that he is worried about investments and that prices are rising a lot and it is becoming very expensive for the locals.

[Román]: Correct. And that’s one of the things that we say can make people worry, it’s true. But… development brings good things and things that are less good, you know? And that’s the story. 

[Román]: But that is something we have to be aware of. We have to do our part, our part. Because if we just complain but do nothing, nothing is going to change. Our situation is not going to change. So, I think that what is happening is true, but it is also a time of many opportunities. 

[Eliezer]: In early December 2023, Bukele tweeted—in English—a triumphant announcement about Bitcoin. The price had risen, and he said that if El Salvador sold its Bitcoins at that time, the country would recover 100% of its investment. In addition, it would have a profit of 3 million dollars. He clarified that they do not plan to sell because that was never the objective and they know that the price will continue to change. He said this does not affect his long-term strategy.

[Silvia]: The message that Bukele sends in this tweet is for the people who he says “ridiculed” his supposed losses, for the authors of critical articles. He says the responsible thing is for them to retract, to apologize, or at least recognize that El Salvador is now making profits.

[Eliezer]: Bitcoiners celebrated the announcement, but the economists and experts cooled things down. For several reasons. Including something we have already mentioned: what it has cost to implement this policy, the public funds that have been used for the government’s electronic wallet, to create new institutions—funds that could have been used to deal with other problems of the population, such as access to water.

[Silvia]: And Nelson and Tatiana, whom I interviewed before Bukele made this announcement, pointed out several promises that have not been kept.

[Nelson]: Everything they told us Bitcoin was going to be didn’t happen. They promised us that it would make remittances cheaper; it didn’t. 

[Silvia]: When someone sends remittances in dollars to El Salvador, they have to pay a commission of almost 3%. If you use Bitcoin, you pay a 5% fee for selling Bitcoins, and the person receiving them has to pay the costs associated with withdrawing the money in dollars at ATMs. Sending remittances in cryptocurrencies has remained between 1.2 and 1.5% in 2023.

[Eliezer]: The Government also said that Bitcoin would bring foreign investment.

[Tatiana]: Well, since mid-2021 and all of 2022, El Salvador has been one of the only countries in Central America and the region that has had negative foreign investment, that is, there has been disinvestment in El Salvador; investments are being lost.

[Nelson]: They told us it was going to create jobs. I remember I went to an accountability of crypto companies and they said they had generated 400 jobs in one year, which is marginal for an economy like ours.

[Eliezer]: And, in fact, those 400 were indirect jobs. There were fewer direct jobs.

[Nelson]: So jobs weren’t created. And that it was going to generate tourism. The increase in tourism, which has happened, not as they claim, but if there has been an increase it is not attributable just to Bitcoin.

[Tatiana]: For example, Costa Rica is the country that attracts the most tourism. So there are ways to do it successfully and without all the risks and negative things that come with it.

[Nelson]: When everything they told us was going to happen didn’t happen, they changed the rules and said no, that Bitcoin has been a re-branding of El Salvador, from previously the country of gangs and homicides, to the country of Bitcoin and financial innovation. First. You are changing the rules. That’s not what you promised us. Second, it is the most expensive re-branding in history. And if it has worked, it has worked in those sectors. But it is an advertising investment and it is a lie. We are not a Bitcoin country. And I say again. Come on, try to buy using Bitcoin in this country.

[Silvia]: And Nelson says everything that has happened with Bitcoin is thanks to the fact that Bukele’s power as President has no control.

[Nelson]: This was a disaster in this country and no one has been held responsible. That can only happen in a place that is not a democracy, in a place where power is exercised without restrictions and in a place where there is authoritarianism. I mean, it wouldn’t be possible… In Finland you couldn’t do this.


Produced and reported by: Silvia Viñas and Eliezer Budasoff

Produced and reported on site by: Nelson Rauda and Gabriel Labrador

Digital Production: Desireé Yepez

Edited by: Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura

Editorial Consulting: Carlos Dada

Fact-checking: Bruno Scelza and Desirée Yépez

Production Assistant: Selene Mazón

Music and Sound Design: Elías González

Graphic Design and Art Direction: Diego Corzo

EPISODE 3. Time for the bitter pill

La hora de la medicina amarga

[Eliezer Budasoff]: In the last episode, we left off at a moment of maximum tension between Nayib Bukele and the Legislative Assembly. Bukele was in his first year as president and was very popular, but he was governing with an Assembly controlled by the traditional parties. He didn’t have much support among the deputies, so he had two options: either negotiate or declare war on them. And Bukele chose war. The justification? That the deputies were hindering him from moving forward with his security plan that would put an end to the gangs.

[Leonardo]: Bukele had been pushing for a loan of 109 million dollars to invest in security. And he started putting more and more pressure on the Assembly in an undemocratic way.

[Eliezer]: Former independent deputy Leonardo Bonilla was part of that Assembly, and in the previous episode he told us how Bukele had summoned them for a special session on Sunday, February 9, 2020. But not just them…

[Leonardo]: The President of the Republic himself had summoned his supporters to come to the Legislative Assembly to create pressure. He was even calling for an insurrection, in an unconstitutional manner, for the people to rise up against the Legislative Assembly. Concern was brewing because the summons was already a bad sign. In fact, there was uncertainty whether the government’s plans were to seat new deputies and stage a coup d’état there and then, because everything seemed to point to that.

[Eliezer]: What happened next, which we are about to tell you, marked a before and after in the Bukele government: the millennial president decided he could play with the symbols of democracy because he had nothing to lose. On the contrary, he was gaining ground.

This is The Man from Los Sueños, a podcast from Radio Ambulante Studios. I’m Eliezer Budasoff.

[Silvia]: And I’m Silvia Viñas. Episode 3: Time for the bitter pill.

We wanted to understand what it was like to be there, in the Legislative Assembly building, on February 9, 2020, the day Bukele had summoned both supporters and legislators for a special session. So, in addition to talking to former deputy Leonardo Bonilla, I also interviewed Lissette Lemus, a documentary photographer and journalist who works for El Diario de Hoy. We spoke in mid-2023, outside a café in San Salvador. Lissette, like Leonardo, was also at the Assembly on February 9.

[Lissette Lemus]: Days before, I had seen that there was quite a strong military presence around the Assembly, and we knew that the president was going to arrive at the Assembly. So there were already a lot of disputes on social media on the subject.

[Silvia]: In fact, the day before, on February 8, the Minister of Defense had said that his loyalty was to the president. So, this was the context in which Lisette decided to go to the Assembly on February 9.

[Lissette]: Well, that day I didn’t have to work. And I thought something interesting might happen because of the number of soldiers and the tension, so I volunteered to go and help take photos and to try to send them more quickly to the newspaper’s social networks.

[Leonardo]: The Legislative Assembly has two main entrances. And people had been summoned to one of those entrances.

[Silvia]: Leonardo remembers that there were people setting up a stage, a sound system… That stage, according to the local press, had been requested by Bukele. They were preparing everything so that the president would arrive to pressure the Assembly —with the people. This was not a spontaneous insurrection. And the government not only used public funds to set up this rally, but also brought supporters of Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, there in buses, in state vehicles, guarded or driven by the military.

[Leonardo]: We know that people from different parts of the country came to create pressure. It was known that that day was going to be a bit risky for the deputies who wished to participate. So the deputies entered through one entrance and the demonstration was at the other entrance.

[Lissette]: I think I arrived around noon. The event was scheduled for later, but I always like to arrive early. So, there was already all this, you know, the military presence that had been there in the previous days. They were heavily armed, as if they were preparing for a clash or some serious demonstration, you know? With shields, helmets, and everything, carrying firearms. But I also saw that the director of the National Civil Police was there talking to Assembly security. Then the Minister of Defense arrived to ask for the keys to enter the Blue Room.

[Silvia]: The Blue Room is where the deputies meet, where legislative decisions are made. The Minister of Defense ordered the door to be opened, because, well, it was Sunday. Leonardo says that there was no one to open the Blue Room. The security forces that were there threatened to break down the door if it was not opened. A deputy finally sent for the keys from the house of the person responsible for opening the door.

[Leonardo]: When the doors were opened, there was no one inside. The first people to enter the empty room were the police and the military.

[Lissette]: But, like, a platoon of soldiers. So, all the photographers and journalists who were there, we all started documenting that.

[Leonardo]: The military entered as if on a military operation, as if they were going to capture someone, in order, in a line, and they stationed themselves around, uh, the seats, the chairs of the deputies. We deputies entered on our own and sat in our seats.

[Silvia]: 28 of the 84 deputies that make up the Assembly were there.

[Lissette]: Some of the deputies looked a bit worried; you could see it on their faces. I remember that there were some of Bukele’s supporters who also looked concerned, because perhaps they did not expect the military to enter the Blue Room. I understood at the time that what was happening was something very serious. I worried about all of us inside.

[Leonardo]: And with the military all around the Blue Room. The deputies did nothing. We couldn’t debate because there wasn’t a sufficient quorum. Well, we couldn’t debate for many reasons. Firstly, because the session wasn’t official. Secondly, because the president of the Assembly wasn’t present, the agenda hadn’t been established, there was no agenda item, there was no documentation to analyze, and there were no conditions to start a debate. It was just a show put on by the government, that was all. At that moment I took out my cell phone…

[Silvia]: … And started recording a Facebook Live.


[Leonardo]: This isn’t how you play the game. This is worrying. Breaking the constitutional order. Now it’s in the hands of the Executive.

[Leonardo]: To denounce it, so that the international community, so that the country itself would realize what was happening. To see that it was something that really, as far as I can remember, hasn’t occurred in El Salvador.


[Leonardo]: I’m willing to give my vote to solve the country’s problems, but this is not the way, Mr. President Nayib Bukele.

[Silvia]: The fear that Leonardo was talking about at the beginning, that a coup d’état was brewing, was tangible then. To contextualize what was happening, it’s worth noting that not even El Salvador’s military governments took the Assembly with armed soldiers. Bukele was right about one thing: he made history that day.

The deputies inside the Blue Room didn’t know what was going to happen. They could only wait.

[Leonardo]: While we were inside the Legislative Assembly, the crowd was already becoming restless outside the Legislative Assembly.

[Archive soundbite, announcement]: Ladies and gentlemen, we are now going to listen to a message from the President of the Republic, Nayib Bukele. 

[Leonardo]: He gets up on the stage and starts stirring up the crowd even more.

[Archive soundbite, Bukele]: I promised you during the campaign that if we had to march to the Legislative Assembly, we were going to march to the Legislative Assembly. And today we are fulfilling that campaign promise. If we needed to march, we would march. And here is the Legislative Palace that we are about to enter.

[Leonardo]: We could hear it, because it was a few meters outside the Assembly and a few meters from the chamber, and there was a sound system at a high volume, which meant we could hear what was being said outside.

[Archive soundbite, Bukele]: We are making history, and if anyone says otherwise, let them look at this sea of people in front of the Legislative Assembly with their president speaking to them, with the support of the Armed Forces and the National Civil Police, who are here not to repress the people, but to support the people. 

[Leonardo]: I think Bukele was content; I think he was happy; I think he felt accomplished. He knew perfectly well what he was doing. I believe he already had the spirit of a dictator, saying, “What I say goes.” If someone were to tell him, “Mr. President, with all due respect, this isn’t legal, this isn’t constitutional,” he would just say, “Well, I want it, and that’s that,” and he’d do it.

[Silvia]: But, of course, he doesn’t say it so openly. In fact, in this speech outside the Assembly, he passes the buck to the people, to the 5,000 or so people who were there:

[Bukele]: I would like to ask you to let me enter the Blue Room of the Legislative Assembly, to say a prayer for God to give us wisdom for the steps we are going to take. And then the decision will be up to you. Do you authorize me? God bless you, Salvadoran people. I’m going to ask you to wait for me here. I’ll be back in a moment.

[Lissette]: Well, I got that part precisely because there were two of us photographers inside and we split up: one of us, we agreed, was going to stay inside, and I was going to stay outside. So, when he was going in, I was taking pictures. I thought he looked a bit annoyed; he wasn’t smiling; he looked like he was angry. He walked the red carpet and went straight in, right? Then, at the entrance, there was a kind of commotion and then most of us who were covering and taking pictures there were no longer allowed to enter.

[Leonardo]: And when he entered the heart of the Legislative Palace, he had a serious face, but ultimately, I think he was smiling inside, saying, “Here I am doing what I want.” He entered the Board of Directors’ area, he sat in the chair of the president of the Legislative Assembly, and he knew what that implied. Apart from being illegal, it implied a mockery. He sat in the president’s chair and even rang the gong, which is a bell that symbolizes the beginning and closing of a plenary session.

[Bukele]: We are going to begin the session summoned by the Council of Ministers in accordance with Article 167… 

[Leonardo]: There were deputies from the ruling party, and even with their votes, they wouldn’t reach the number of votes needed. So he knew that legally there was nothing to be done to achieve his goal. But I also understand that his goal that day wasn’t really to get the 109 million dollars approved, because he knew that nothing was going to happen. His specific goal was to deliver that blow, and all he said was, “Let’s say a prayer.”

[Bukele]: I think it is very clear who is in control of the situation. We are going to put the decision we are going to make now into God’s hands. So we are going to say a prayer.

[Leonardo]: He put his hands on his face. He was silent. No one did anything at all. We all stayed silent. And at that moment I just wanted to stop that situation and say something, but I think, like if you have an accident or if you are a victim of assault, you freeze; your brain can’t process in a coherent and fast way. I regret not standing up and shouting at him to get out of there, and I had the right to do so as a citizen and as a public official. But to reiterate, we were in shock with everything that was happening, as we didn’t expect it and we didn’t know how to react. He stood up and left.

[Lissette]: He goes out the same door and in the same way, right? I mean, like angry and in a hurry.

[Silvia]: Lissette had stayed outside the Blue Room. She saw Bukele leave surrounded by bodyguards.

[Lissette]: And the commotion starts again because we all wanted to document that moment when he was coming out, and he goes back to the place where he gave his speech before, where the people were waiting for him.

[Bukele]: With all humility, you know it, all Salvadoran people know it, our adversaries know it, the international community knows it, our Armed Forces know it, our National Civil Police knows it, all the powers that be in the country know it. If we want to push the button, we just push the button. 

[Silvia]: Pushing the button is what the deputies do to vote, but Bukele is saying something else: that they can override the Assembly.

[Bukele]: But I asked God, and God told me, “Patience.” 

[Silvia]: The supporters seem to disagree with that response from God. Bukele stays silent for about 15 seconds while the people shout. And then he repeats, “Patience…»

[Bukele]: Patience. On February 28, all those scoundrels will leave through the door, and we are going to get them out democratically.

[Silvia]: He is referring to the legislative election the following year. He is essentially campaigning, because what Bukele needs is for Nuevas Ideas and its allied parties to win enough seats in that election to have a majority and control the Assembly. It will be a very important vote, which we’ll get to in this episode. Now, back to Lissette and that February 9.

[Lissette]: After he had spoken, I went out. I managed to get to the back, let’s say, the back of the stage. I wanted to get close to take a picture, but it was impossible to get through. There were tons of soldiers.

Once he left, the people that had come also left. But obviously all the… comments and concern had already begun about what had happened and what it meant. So I think it was quite a serious event at that time and I think it gave us an idea of what could come later.

[Leonardo]: I think that this event was precisely an announcement of the direction he was headed. I think that February 9 was like an announcement of what he was capable of.

[Silvia]: Bukele’s entrance to the Legislative Assembly, his performance in front of the cameras, his magnanimous speech in front of the people gathered outside, showed the way he understood the political game and marked a change in tone. He raised the threshold of what could be tolerated. It was time to «swallow the bitter pill,» as he anticipated the day he took office. The moment to put aside old facades and begin a new era: epic gestures and grand stagings, which became a predominant way of focusing public attention on some issues rather than others.

[Bertha Deleón]: I was watching it and I swear I was incredulous because I was saying, “They are really taking this to the limit…» I mean, and he had only been in office for a few months.

[Eliezer]: February 9 was a turning point for Bertha Deleón, the lawyer who worked with Bukele, whom we’ve been hearing from since the beginning of this series. If you remember, in the previous episode we mentioned that when Bukele introduced his Nuevas Ideas party, he said that anyone could criticize him. Well, Bertha’s experience was one of several signs that, in reality, President Bukele would not tolerate any kind of criticism, and that if anyone dared to say anything negative about him, there would be repercussions.

Bertha remembers that on February 9 she was at the beach with her children. She saw everything in a little store that had a television showing what was happening in the Assembly live.

[Bertha]: No one had dared to do what he did, something so brazen. Creating a rupture that can’t be fixed. I was very curious about what his… whether he was going to give an apology for what he did or what he was going to do when he realized it, but it never happened.

[Eliezer]: That irreparable rupture that Bertha talks about was also personal. Let’s remember that she became very close to Bukele. She was his lawyer. And she says that she had even been offered a position as ambassador.

[Bertha]: It was like, “Hey, you’re really tired, go rest. That’s what the Man from Los Sueños says,” because in the end, they didn’t even call him by his name anymore. Instead, “The Man from Los Sueños says that there are still embassies available; it’s just a matter of which one you want.”

[Eliezer]: But the relationship had already started to deteriorate some time before. Bertha didn’t take the offer. And that February 9 was the end of it.

[Bertha]: Look, whenever I saw something I disagreed with, I told him, and I told him straight. I always told him what I thought. Starting from the premise that the guy wasn’t a genius, he didn’t know much about the law, but he had good intentions. That was the premise that I started from.

[Eliezer]: After seeing what had happened at the Assembly, she didn’t stay quiet either.

[Bertha]: I just started tweeting and criticizing, giving my opinion of what was happening as a citizen. I just said, “I’m afraid that this guy, with such a childish personality, has just started his government and the first thing he does is to take over the Assembly.” I mean, really the worst is yet to come. I tweeted it. And immediately they wrote to me. They told me to take it down.

[Eliezer]: Bertha says that Bukele himself wrote to her, as well as the president’s private secretary, Bukele’s right-hand man.

[Bertha]: I mean, why are you doing that? Relax. I mean, take it down. And he wrote to me, “I will never forgive you for this.” So… And obviously, I thought of everything except deleting the tweet, because for me it was also a clean break, because, even if I wasn’t working with them, people still associated me with them. So I simply wanted to say, “From now on, I’m not with them. I don’t support this, I don’t want this in my life. This is me setting my boundaries.” I never imagined everything that was going to come later.

[Eliezer]: The attacks started on Twitter. They made montages with photos of Bertha and gang members to discredit her as a lawyer, to make people think she was helping to free them. They invented sexual scandals and made memes. Bertha alleges that Bukele and his people were behind these attacks. That’s what people who were still in the president’s circle and whom she had defended told her. They advised her to stop criticizing him and to leave the country.

[Bertha]: I really didn’t want to leave El Salvador. I mean, I had made my life there. I had studied and worked hard for my career. I don’t come from a wealthy family, so to speak. So it was like, “Well, I’m not going to leave.” Besides, my litigation style was always against the grain, always risky. So you could say that I was used to dealing with a certain level of risk, but this got totally out of control. They followed me on a motorcycle; they put a drone in my backyard.

[Eliezer]: They sent people from the institution that collects data on Salvadorans to interrogate her son.

[Bertha]: I mean, it was really a psychological war that I couldn’t handle. 

[Silvia]: The consequences of February 9 were not just personal for people close to Bukele like Bertha, who later became more critical; they were not even only national. The international reaction to the takeover of the Assembly was immediate. Human rights organizations, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union embassies in El Salvador… All condemned the presence of the military in the Assembly. With February 9, international condemnations of Bukele’s authoritarian moves began. But, as a good publicist, he knew how to solve this image problem, how to take advantage of a situation to distract and focus attention on his apparent achievements. And the following month, a global crisis would become the perfect scenario to shift the spotlight.

We’ll be back after the break.

[Flip and Article 19]: In Latin America, the most violent region for journalists, protecting them should be a responsibility of society as a whole. With an impunity rate of 99% for murders in the last two years in Mexico and Colombia, the press, fearing reprisals, has restricted coverage of matters of public interest.

For organizations like the Foundation for Press Freedom in Colombia and Article 19, impunity is a harmful act to the journalistic profession, leaving in its wake places immersed in silence.

[Daniel Alarcón]: The production company behind «Bukele, el señor de los sueños» is Radio Ambulante Studios. And we have two other podcasts you should listen to. Every Tuesday, we release Radio Ambulante. Stories of families, migration, adventure, and love. And every Friday, we release El hilo, where we cover and thoroughly explain an impactful news story from Latin America. Look for Radio Ambulante and El hilo on your preferred podcast app.

[Silvia]: We’re back. A month after Bukele’s incursion with the military in the Assembly, the World Health Organization declared that we were in a pandemic. Journalist Gabriel Labrador, whom you have heard in previous episodes, says that this worked perfectly for Bukele. He could redirect negative attention toward his successes in managing the health crisis. And to achieve this distraction, he started making decisions quite fast.

[Gabriel Labrador]: It was surprising that the first reaction of a tiny country, a very small government would take this problem so seriously, a problem that seemed global and that still seemed very far away.

[Archive soundbite, Bukele]: We have decided to declare a lockdown for the entire country.

[Gabriel]: The first national broadcast came, in which he announced that they were going to take the first drastic measures. And he announced the closing of schools and of borders.

[Archive soundbite, Bukele]: This decision has not been made lightly. It has been made by consulting specialists; it has been made by consulting members of the cabinet…

[Gabriel]: That was March 11. A Wednesday. And it was one of the first decisions made by governments in Latin America and in the world.

[Silvia]: In the national broadcast, everything looked carefully planned, says Gabriel, but in practice the reality was a bit chaotic, because of how fast everything was moving. 

[Gabriel]: The president himself was saying that they had to act fast and that they were probably going to make mistakes and they were going to, let’s say, slip up a bit. But he preferred, according to what he said, to make mistakes by doing things.

[Silvia]: A few days after announcing the first restrictions, Bukele asked the Assembly to approve a state of emergency to deal with the pandemic. And they did. In practice, this restricts constitutional rights. In this case it was freedom of movement and the right to assembly. 

At the end of March, Bukele declared a mandatory 30-day residential lockdown by decree. And the consequences of not complying with the measures were quickly felt. On the first day of this lockdown, police arrested nearly 300 people for allegedly violating the rules. Those arbitrary arrests would continue for months. The police and military put thousands of people into what they called «containment centers.» These were hotels, gyms and other places converted into detention centers for people who did not comply with the lockdown. Under the state of emergency, the authorities could force people to go to these centers. Many of them lacked basic necessities.

[Gabriel]: The bathrooms, the toilets, were in a state of collapse. The food was terrible, they had nowhere to sleep, the heat was unbearable, etc.

[Gabriel]: Bukele’s justification was: it’s better to do this than to do nothing. It’s better to arrest everyone suspected of having the virus than to have outbreaks that we can’t contain. In other words, I believe that Bukele, knowing that El Salvador is a poor country, with a small budget, opted for an iron fist. He ignored human rights and set the tone of what would come much later, that is, the idea that, in reality, human rights are only a hindrance if you want to do things properly. And many people bought into that idea and began to see Bukele as the protective father who hits you because he loves you. And that was an idea that any specialist communicator could detect in all his communications. That is, Bukele tells you that you are a rebellious child and therefore you need a couple of blows to survive right now.

[Silvia]: And Gabriel says that Bukele’s messages were scaremongering.

[Gabriel]: They appealed to fear. And I think the president was playing a somewhat psychological mind game. Better to scare people so that they stay at home. And so it was like constant messages of: be afraid of your neighbor, be afraid of your neighbor. Don’t go out for anything in the world. The economy will come later, etc.

[Eliezer]: What Gabriel says about the economy is important, because in the midst of the arbitrary arrests and the state of emergency, Bukele announced several economic measures that managed to distract from the criticism of his heavy-handedness. In fact, they attracted so much attention, even outside of El Salvador, that they went viral.

[Archive soundbite, presenter 1]: Nayib Bukele is doing it again. 

[Archive soundbite, presenter 2]: After declaring lockdown in his country, with just a few cases…

[Archive soundbite, presenter 3]: He provided economic support of $300 to 75% of Salvadoran households. In addition, he suspended charges for electricity, water, phones, cable, mortgages and rent for three months. Bukele asked businessmen to accept losing part of their wealth to protect the health of everyone.

[Eliezer]: In May 2020, the government started distributing food parcels to people living in communities in extreme poverty. And this program continued: they gave out more than three million food parcels. The people who received them said that a president had never cared about them before. That Bukele put food on their tables.

And the President made sure to show his government’s generosity. On his official YouTube page there are several videos, produced as promotional videos, showing military personnel preparing and delivering food parcels.

[Gabriel]: What Bukele was doing to mitigate the impact, let’s say, on his popularity due to the lockdown, etc., was to create a lot of propaganda about these types of measures.

[Eliezer]: And to explain them in very simple language. He also gave an interview to Residente, from Calle 13:

[Archive soundbite, interview Residente and Nayib Bukele]

[Residente]: Here we are.

[Bukele]: Hey! What’s up? How are you?

[Residente]: How are you? Everything all right? All good. All good.

[Bukele]: Hello to everyone who has joined this, this Instagram live…

[Gabriel]: At that moment, you have a very popular president making headlines around the world. And you have an artist, let’s say, with the reputation of being anti-establishment and rebellious. And then Bukele shows up with his cap, his cap on backward, and he treats Residente as a friend and, you know, how great it is that they’re talking.

[Archive soundbite, interview Residente with Nayib Bukele]

[Bukele]: We have brought in a legal moratorium of three months with no water payments, three months with no electricity payments, three months with no phone payments, three months with no rent payments…

[Gabriel]: And then Bukele starts explaining all the measures he is taking in El Salvador, which as I say were already, like, pioneering or seemed pioneering.

[Eliezer]: After almost 40 minutes of talking about the pandemic, Residente

changes the subject… — radically.

[Archive soundbite, interview Residente with Nayib Bukele]

[Residente]: To take the opportunity to get to know you better, I was also searching for information, and I found some there, and something that was mentioned in one of the questions, for me to understand: why, what happened with the military? Why did you bring the military to Parliament? What was the aim of doing something like that? That news was all over the place.

[Bukele]: Yes, I saw it. Yes, of course.

[Residente]: And then the…

[Bukele]: I saw it in person.

[Residente]: Yes. So, I don’t know what that was about, whether it was undemocratic, etc., etc. For example, if that happens in my country, well, imagine, we would take to the streets, but we don’t know why it happened. That’s why I want to know about it.

[Bukele]: Yes. In this case people did take to the streets, but people took to the streets in support of what we were doing. 

[Eliezer]: Less than two months had passed since February 9. So, to start to explain to Residente why he went into the Assembly with the military, Bukele told him that before they came to power, El Salvador was the most violent country in the world. Let’s remember that the excuse for summoning his followers and the deputies on February 9 was a budget for the so-called Territorial Control Plan that promised to put an end to gangs. Something that Bukele tells Residente is already delivering results.

[Archive soundbite, interview Residente with Nayib Bukele]

[Bukele]: Well, yesterday there were no homicides; we didn’t even announce it. Today we are already… so far there are no homicides today. We haven’t announced it either because the government’s top priority is focused on the virus. But we have reduced crime a lot and we need resources.

[Eliezer]: And then, to justify his use of the military, Bukele says that in all Latin American countries it is common to see the army beating the people. But in El Salvador, he says, now it’s the other way around.

[Archive soundbite, interview Residente with Nayib Bukele]

[Bukele]: In El Salvador, the army supports the people, and then when you see the soldiers on the people’s side against the politicians, it’s a scandal.

[Eliezer]: As he said in his speech outside the Assembly on February 9, Bukele explains to Residente that he had promised that he would go out to protest with the people, if necessary.

[Archive soundbite, interview Residente with Nayib Bukele]

[Bukele]: So I promised and I delivered. Of course, that seems strange given the formality and hypocrisy of politics, where the police and the army are always against the people. And it’s strange when the police are on the people’s side. As I’m telling you, there was no one beaten… nothing. Why? Because the people were applauding the soldiers and the police, because they were with the people. And you don’t see that in any other country. But in El Salvador you do.

[Gabriel]: That interview seems to me to be a turning point in the sense that he realized that he had to start compensating for the deterioration in his image and figure out how to show the world that, in reality, the things he was doing were not so crazy or that they were justified.

[Eliezer]: And this time, it seemed to work. This is how Residente responded when Bukele finished answering the question about February 9:

[Archive soundbite, interview Residente with Nayib Bukele]

[Residente]: No, that’s a very clear answer. I mean, I understand it much better…

[Eliezer]: He had succeeded. He gave a new meaning to the events with a different narrative: what from the outside was seen as a threat to the division of powers, in reality, had been an act of loyalty to the people, with armed forces that (only in El Salvador) are on the people’s side.

This interview was a sign that no matter how authoritarian his actions were, Bukele could find a justification convincing enough for the people he had already won over.

[Silvia]: As we heard a moment ago, in his interview with Residente, Bukele highlighted that homicides were going down. And he was right. In part, it was a trend that had been coming since 2016, a gradual decline. But the pandemic increased that decline. Partly because of the conditions we mentioned before: a very strict lockdown where, if you broke it, the police or the army could seize you and take you to a containment center. Bukele said it was also linked to the Territorial Control Plan, his project to fight the gangs. But at the end of April…

[Gabriel]: We had been in lockdown for a month. There were 76 homicides in four days. I mean, this is alarming. This was like… it was unprecedented. 

[Archive soundbite, journalist 1]: Crimes attributed to the maras, which have around 70,000 members in the country.

[Archive soundbite, journalist 2]: No official, nor Bukele himself, has indicated the reason that has led the gangs to increase the number of murders in this short period of time.

[Silvia]: But the government’s response to these homicides was immediate.

[Gabriel]: At that time, April 2020, these images circulated in the country and around the world on the internet, everywhere. These images that would later become iconic and emblematic of El Salvador in the Bukele era.

[Archive soundbite, journalist 3]: Previously unpublished images. Members of different gangs together in the same cell.

[Archive soundbite, journalist 4]: The Directorate of Penal Centers showed, via Twitter, photographs of Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gang members, together, and wrote the phrase: «the State must be respected.»

[Silvia]: And they weren’t just putting them together. The authorities also published images of shirtless gang members, with their heads completely shaved, hands behind or above their heads, sitting very close one behind another.

[Gabriel]: They are images that are interpreted very differently here, compared to much of the world, I think. While here those kinds of images are celebrated because of the damage that all these gangs have caused, those videos and those pictures caused international shock, and I think they put El Salvador on the map again. Alongside the idea that Bukele was a millennial and fresh meat in politics, these images began to kind of clash with that: How can someone so young commit the same thing that was done before?

[Silvia]: That is to say, what other governments had tried: the iron fist. Bukele’s version, thanks to social media and the extent to which he used it, was more visible. He made capturing and imprisonment an act of publicity, like when people went to squares to see exemplary punishments, a spectacle of collective revenge.

In addition to mixing them, the government also installed metal sheets to seal off cells. And Bukele authorized, via Twitter, the use of lethal force. Meaning he gave security officers permission to shoot inmates or suspects in self-defense or to protect citizens.

[Eliezer]: After this spike in late April, homicides dropped again. In June, Bukele completed his first year as president, and despite what happened in April, overall, homicides had plummeted to historic levels that year. The government, of course, attributed it to its plan, to having more police and military on the ground, to having strengthened security in the prisons… But suspicions began to arise as to what was actually causing this dramatic drop.

[Gabriel]: It becomes evident that the explanation, more than the pandemic, which of course had an impact, was linked to strange factors. Factors that we didn’t understand and that weren’t on the discussion table or in the debate. Many crime experts, political scientists, and human rights experts began to question that, for example, if the Territorial Control Plan was so successful, why were there not, for example, many seizures of weapons? Why, if raids were being carried out and the gangs were being fought, why wasn’t that reflected in the courts? It wasn’t reflected in a large number of gang members being prosecuted for various types of crimes. The most common crime was that of unlawful associations.

[Eliezer]: In simple terms, this means being part of a group, with a particular structure, that comes together to commit crimes.

[Gabriel]: You would think that if there is an investigation and if the Territorial Control Plan is working, the crimes you are going to see in the courts are homicides, extortion, kidnapping, you name it. But there weren’t many investigations into that.

[Eliezer]: The answer to why Bukele had managed to reduce homicides came in September 2020: El Faro, the newspaper where Gabriel works, revealed that Bukele had been negotiating with gang members since June 2019. He would give them privileges in prison and in exchange they would reduce murders and tell people in their territories to vote for his party, Nuevas Ideas, in the legislative election that would come later. This negotiating with the gangs was something that other governments had done and El Faro had also uncovered. They have been covering the maras for years. So they have maintained a professional relationship with sources that are part of gang structures, and also with sources that work in the government.

[Gabriel]: Tremendously important information was revealed from the national government’s own documents, with written reports from prison guards talking about officials going into prisons to talk at length with this or that leader of MS13, the Mara Salvatrucha. More than 100 signed and sealed documents. It kind of all started to add up and make sense. And of course Bukele’s reaction was to discredit the work, to say that everyone knew that he treated the gangs badly. So that was his idea, to combat the narrative with another narrative and create doubt.

And, at least in that sense, I believe that the government has been quite skillful in attacking El Faro and not attacking the investigation with its arguments and with its evidence. 

[Eliezer]: His strategy was to attack the messenger. And that narrative has worked for Bukele. It creates a cognitive dissonance, Gabriel says. On the one hand, you have a serious media outlet revealing information about a deal, and on the other, you have the president showcasing on Twitter how they treat gang members in prisons. This conflict between two contradictory pieces of information was not difficult to resolve for Salvadorans, a society that has lived in fear of extortion and gang violence. It’s easier to believe what you want to believe, and what the president was doing was working. Later in this series we will dedicate an entire episode to Bukele’s war against the gangs.

[Silvia]: Bukele controlled the narrative, yes. He was still very popular despite these revelations. But behind the scenes, while he was attacking journalists and denying everything, the justice system began to take action.

[Gabriel]: When El Faro revealed these investigations, the Prosecutor General’s Office took action and went to the prison facilities to seize a lot of information, computers, disks, documents… And of course, that caused a political divide in the government, because it was a threat to the stability of the government itself. If it is, or was, discovered, or if charges were suddenly brought against officials for these negotiations, it would create a crisis for the president because this fight against the gangs was his strongest weapon. And after a while, these prosecutors began to experience harassment from the government. 

[Silvia]: They were not only investigating these negotiations with gang members. In those months, the Prosecutor General’s Office also began to investigate the Bukele government for anomalous contracts during the pandemic. Media outlets such as Salud con Lupa, El Faro and Gato Encerrado revealed several cases of corruption from the first few months of the health crisis. And by August 2020, the Government Ethics Tribunal, a public institution, had received 124 reports of misuse of funds during the pandemic. Some 90% of those complaints involved the executive branch, according to the court’s director. In November of that year, prosecutors raided the offices of the Ministries of Health and Finance.

[Gabriel]: We have a prosecutor who is a nuisance for the government. So the government tries to undermine him, but to do that, it has to get enough votes in Congress to have room for maneuver and appoint someone, let’s say, more agreeable to the Bukele administration.

[Silvia]: But in addition to the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Constitutional Chamber had also been making the Bukele government uncomfortable for months. They had nullified some of his measures to combat the pandemic.

[Gabriel]: And that’s why Bukele put together a whole narrative against them, accusing them of genocide and accusing them of being against the Salvadoran people. And there’s even an audio out there in which the president says, “Well, if I were a dictator…»

[Archive soundbite, Bukele]: What? Dictator? I would have shot them all or something like that if I were really a dictator. You save a thousand lives in exchange for five, right? But no, I’m not a dictator.

[Silvia]: He’s referring to the five judges of the Constitutional Chamber.

[Eliezer]: This, then, is the run-up to a crucial vote: the February 2021 legislative election that we mentioned earlier. There was a lot at stake. For Bukele, it was the opportunity to take control of the Assembly if his party, Nuevas Ideas, won a majority of seats. And everything seemed to indicate that they were going to do it, although they did have some opposition. Lawyer Bertha Deleón, despite all the attacks, ran as a candidate for the Assembly for a small party called Nuestro Tiempo.

[Bertha]: I was like, “Well, I have a clear agenda that I would like to promote as a congresswoman.” Of course I also wanted immunity because I knew that they weren’t going to leave me alone. So it was like, “Well, this is my last attempt to keep fighting in El Salvador.”

[Eliezer]: Her campaign was very critical of Bukele. This is the start of one of her promotional messages:

[Archive soundbite, Bertha campaign publicity spot]: You said that there’s enough money when no one steals, but you don’t have enough cash; that you were going to be the most transparent government in history, but every day new cases of corruption appear…

[Bertha]: And let’s say, I knew I was giving it my all, I mean, it was all or nothing, and I gave everything. I think that’s why I am also, like, calm now, because I say I did the impossible, staying, fighting, carrying on, and well, I lost.

[Eliezer]: On election day, more than 19,000 people selected Bertha on the ballot. But it was not enough to win the seat. In contrast, Nuevas Ideas wiped the floor.

[Archive soundbite, journalist 5]: President Nayib Bukele has managed to consolidate his power with an unprecedented victory.

[Archive soundbite, journalist 6]: Therefore, he would not need to team up with any other political parties to pass budget laws, nor to elect magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice or the Prosecutor General of the Republic, among other key positions.

[Eliezer]: Nuevas Ideas and its allied parties now added up to 64 seats, exceeding the qualified majority. That meant more than two thirds of the Assembly would be under their control. For Bertha, this resounding victory for Bukele was the sign that she had no other option but to leave the country.

[Bertha]: The truth is that I knew I had to leave from the moment they did the final count and I lost. I felt like a monster was breathing down my neck wherever I went. People told me, “There’s nothing left to do. You’ve already fanned the flames too much, it can’t be remedied, just look for somewhere to go.”

[Bertha]: And, well, I don’t regret it, no matter how much suffering this has caused me, as well as my family. I don’t regret having distanced myself from him.

[Eliezer]: A few months after the legislative election, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights granted precautionary measures in favor of Bertha. The Court considered that, being a critical voice against the government, she was in a situation described as «serious and urgent.» Even so, Bertha decided to leave the country. She sought asylum in Mexico. And she was granted it.

[Carlos Araujo]: The day he wins the Assembly, when he crosses the threshold of the qualified majority, that’s when I say, «Oh, this is serious.”

[Silvia]: This is Carlos Araujo again, whom we have already heard from in this series, and who worked with Bukele during his time as mayor of San Salvador. When we asked him at what point he started to really worry about the president’s authoritarianism, he didn’t say the moment when Bukele entered the Assembly with the military, or how he handled the pandemic… This was what he said: when Bukele gained control of the Assembly, and specifically, what he did on May 1, 2021, in the first plenary session under the Bukele system.

[Carlos]: We saw it in the first gesture of power he made that day. Their first act was to dismiss the prosecutor. In other words, their objective was to stop the scandals that were going to occur as a result of what was coming from the Prosecutor General’s Office. It had to be silenced. And he did it.

[Silvia]: The Assembly dismissed the Prosecutor General of El Salvador, Raúl Melara, and the five magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber. Gabriel explained to us that they did it in an illegal manner.

[Gabriel]: Without following any procedure that we could consider characteristic of a Rule of Law, because there wasn’t even a hearing, nor were the people involved ever heard.

[Carlos]: That means the two dismissals were totally illegal and were meant to stop all the accusations and what was already an institutional procedure on corruption and the pact he had with the gangs at that time.

[Silvia]: Many of the prosecutors who were investigating those negotiations ended up going into exile.

[Gabriel]: These prosecutors figured that if they knew too much and were in possession of evidence showing that the Bukele government had secretly negotiated with gang leaders behind the backs of Salvadorans, they had no choice but to leave.

[Silvia]: Carlos says that what came after this was a process of power concentration.

[Carlos]: And of dismantling the country’s institutions. There’s not a single institution in the country at this moment that isn’t suppressed, some through choice, and others out of fear. But not a single institution in this country at this moment is free from the intimidating pressure exerted by Nayib’s government.

[Silvia]: Bukele managed to concentrate the powers of the state in less than two years as president, although doing this so overtly cost him his international reputation, which was already damaged by February 9. European countries, the United States, and the Organization of American States all expressed their concern about the authoritarian direction, now clearer than ever, that Bukele was taking.

But it didn’t take him long to, once again, shift the spotlight to deflect criticism. Once in control of all branches of power, Bukele officially launched the beginning of a policy that allowed him to present himself as the young president against the global establishment, a crypto bro open to foreign investment from those looking to escape the traditional financial system and live a crypto fantasy.

In the next episode…

[Nelson Rauda]: Bitcoin is one of Bukele’s first policies, which he brought in once he’d dismantled democracy. You couldn’t do this in a democracy. 

[Roman Martínez]: Bitcoin Beach showed that Bitcoin could be an inclusive tool to create more opportunities, to bring in more tourism, and more investments.

[Wilfredo Urias]: So far it hasn’t been inclusive, though. So there are more opportunities for investors and fewer opportunities for local people.

[Silvia]: This series was made possible thanks to the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Free Press Unlimited, Article 19 Mexico and Central America, the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), and Dejusticia. Additionally, we appreciate FLIP for their advice and legal review, and Riesgo Cruzado for their valuable support in protection and security matters.

The producers and reporters of «Bukele: el señor de Los sueños» are Eliezer Budasoff and myself. Gabriel Labrador is our reporter and on-site producer. Desireé Yepez is our digital producer. Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura are the editors. Carlos Dada is our editorial consultant. The fact-checkers are Bruno Scelza and Desireé Yepez. Selene Mazón is our production assistant. The music, mixing, and sound design are by Elías González. The graphic design and art direction are by Diego Corzo. The web development is by Paola Ponce. Thanks to Jonathan Blitzer for his support.

«Bukele, el señor de Los sueños» is a podcast from Central, the series channel of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

From Radio Ambulante Studios, the co-directors of product are Natalia Ramírez and Laura Rojas Aponte, with the assistance of Paola Alean. The audience and digital production team is formed by Samantha Proaño, Ana Pais, Analía Llorente, Melisa Rabanales. Press and community management is handled by Juan David Naranjo.

Camilo Jiménez Santofimio is the director of alliances and financing. Carolina Guerrero is the executive producer of Central and the CEO of Radio Ambulante Studios.

You can follow us on social media as centralpodcast RA and subscribe to our newsletter at

I am Silvia Viñas. Thank you for listening.


Produced and reported by: Silvia Viñas and Eliezer Budasoff

Produced and reported on site by: Gabriel Labrador

Digital Production: Desireé Yepez

Edited by: Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura

Editorial Consulting: Carlos Dada

Fact-checking: Bruno Scelza and Desirée Yépez

Production Assistant: Selene Mazón

Music and Sound Design: Elías González

Graphic Design and Art Direction: Diego Corzo

Episode 1. Someone like Bukele

Episodio 1

[Eliezer Budasoff]: There’s a video from over a decade ago, May 2013, where you can see a draft of the future. 31-year-old Nayib Bukele is the young mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, a town on the outskirts of San Salvador, capital of El Salvador. He’s been invited by the only state university in the country to speak with students about “professional advancement for young people.” But he’s not there to teach them how to write a resume, Bukele says.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]:… or how to dress for a job interview, or how to shake hands or modulate your voice. We are here to talk about how we’re going to change things… for everyone.

[Eliezer]: By this point, Bukele has been a municipal mayor, his first elected position, for only a year. A couple of weeks before taking office, he was still president of El Salvador’s Yamaha motorcycle dealership. Six years later, he would become president of the country. But in this talk, Bukele already has a slideshow and an idea to sell: the cause of all the country’s problems must be attacked.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: What is causing these issues? If I ask you what the issues are, we all know them: poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunities. But what is the cause of these issues? What creates these problems?

[Eliezer]: In a few minutes, Bukele mentions the possible culprits for the country’s issues and proceeds to discard them: the oligarchy, the government, education, the media… none of them is primarily responsible. And then he says something unexpected: the real cause, he says, are paradigms.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]:A paradigm is, in the definition I bring, something planted in our heads, being made to look like the truth, even when they’re not. They’re not truths. Quite the opposite.

[Eliezer]: Standing in front of the students, Bukele sports a near-perfect beard, a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, dress pants, and gelled hair. Everything is impeccable. He hasn’t yet perfected his tech-rebel aesthetic, or his rhetoric, but the essence of his discourse is already there. His ambition is there. He looks like a young executive who is new to politics and says what no one else says: Salvadorans have been brainwashed with false ideas. Things that aren’t true. Paradigms. For example: politics is bad, so don’t get involved.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]:“People are poor because they’re lazy.” I’ve heard that one. Another paradigm goes:

[Eliezer]: Corporations create jobs.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: You’ve already heard this one: overspending. They say our government wastes money.

[Eliezer]:Everything he says is a bit arbitrary, but sounds convincing. He presents things in a way that makes them seem self-evident, stripped of ideology, only common sense. It’s like a TED talk. Until you get to the last example:

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]:And this is my favorite one: populism. You’ve heard that word before. It sounds ugly. Does anyone want a populist president?

[Eliezer]: The students don’t say anything.


[Eliezer]:Bukele raises his hand, smiles, and asks them again: “Nobody?”

[Archivesoundbite, Nayib Bukele]: Nobody? Well, I do. After you leave, I’d ask you to grab a dictionary and look up the definition of the word “populism.”

[Eliezer]:He says that, when he was on his way to the talk, he looked up the word in a Larousse dictionary, and reads the definition from a PowerPoint slide:

[Archive soundbite,NayibBukele]:“Populism: a political doctrine that seeks to defend the interests and aspirations of the people.” That’s a bad thing here. Defending the interests and aspirations of the people is considered bad in El Salvador. And I came here, to Universidad de El Salvador, asked whether anyone wanted a populist president, and no one raised their hand.

[Eliezer]:The talk is almost finished. The students have their eyes fixed on the politician who now challenges them. In six years, he will be their president. Later, he will take selfies at the UN, break into Congress with military forces, negotiate with gangs, amass all the State’s power. He’ll become the most popular president in the Americas. He’ll also persecute the press, prevent them from investigating corruption in his government, make Bitcoin the country’s legal tender, and dismantle gangs. He’ll turn El Salvador into the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, violate the Constitution, and be cited as an example by politicians and citizens throughout the continent.

Right now, though, he is just a young publicist, a town mayor with an idea to convey: the cause of the country’s problems are the ideas that were put in our heads, the things we believe are bad but are actually good. We are all locked in a cage, Bukele tells students.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]:Prison bars are paradigms. But we have the key.

[Eliezer]:And he knows which key opens the door.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]:Break the paradigms. That’s all we have to do.

[Eliezer]:This is The Man from Los Sueños, a podcast by Radio Ambulante Studios. I’m Eliezer Budasoff.

[SilviaViñas]:I am Silvia Viñas. Episode 1: “Someone like Bukele.”

[Archivesoundbite,JuanSoler]:I’m a Nayib Bukele fan to the core. That guy is showing that we Latin Americans can be good people.

[Archivesoundbite,Podcaster]:The balls on that president, the one from El Salvador.

-Nayib Bukele.

-Big balls he has.

[Archivesoundbite,CarlosPineda]:I mean, you could say he’s a cool dictator.


-But he’s a good dictator!

[Archivesoundbite,AngélicaVale]:Do you know who’s amazing? The president of El Salvador. Wow!

-Oh yeah, Bukele! What a genius.


[Silvia]: Nayib Bukele’s construction of power, the story that we’ll tell you about in the next six episodes, is an emblematic tale of our era, embodying the cracks through which the entire meaning of democracy leaks out.

In the last five years, El Salvador has become a kind of authoritarian experiment, a political model transforming at an unprecedented speed before our eyes. Bukele came to power in 2019 as the millennial president, the youngest in Latin America, who defeated traditional politics thanks to his charisma and communication skills. He’s now running for the 2024 elections, violating his country’s Constitution — which prohibits re-election in six different articles — while maintaining total control of the three public powers, and governing in a police state imposed by legislative decree. Literally nothing can stop him, because, also, his popularity is huge.

[Eliezer]:Today, politicians throughout the continent talk about the Bukele model, about applying “the Bukele Plan,” as they call it in Peru. In Chile,

Argentina, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and Colombia, mayors, candidates, legislators, party leaders and presidents talk about copying him and following his example. Nayib Bukele is the perfect model of a political current undermining from the inside the government system as we know it.

[Silvia]: But it’s not just them. Among the thousands of comments people leave for Bukele on social media, it is very common to find things like: “In our country we need someone like Bukele.” But what does “someone like Bukele” mean? That’s what we’ll talk about in this series, as we attempt to understand, along the way, how someone convinces society that the only way to repair things is to give him unlimited power, and when the promises of democracy no longer matter at all.

The first time much of the world heard about Nayib Bukele was in February 2019, after his victory in the first round of El Salvador’s presidential elections. When it happened, we all received about the same information:


[Medium1]: A 37-year-old PR specialist who doesn’t wear ties became the youngest president in El Salvador’s recent history.

[Medium2]: Businessman Nayib Bukele targeted his campaign at the media and social networks.

[Medium3]: He has empathy with young people and millennials.

[Medium4]: He’s broken with the traditional left-right two-party system in the country.

[Medium 5]: El Salvador has swerved to the right with Nayib Bukele. [Medium 6]: He identifies with young people and wants to end violence. [Medium6]:Also, he likes to wear jeans.

[Silvia]:Much of the media used the term outsiderto refer to him. But Nayib Bukele wasn’t an outsider in any way when he showed up on international news wearing a leather jacket. He had been in politics for about a decade, had a career as a publicist, and a strategy to build power conceived in a very small town. And before all that, he was a child in a bubble:

Gabriel Labrador: He was a very privileged child. He lived in a very wealthy area of San Salvador. On top of that, Nayib and some of his brothers studied in bilingual schools, which here in El Salvador are, let’s say, schools for the elite.

[Eliezer]:This is Gabriel Labrador, a journalist for the Salvadoran media outlet El Faro, where he has covered politics for years.

[Gabriel]: He remembers his childhood as a time in which he got a lot of intellectual influence from his father. He would see him reading, always surrounded by books, piles of books in his house, etc. But very little is known about his childhood.

[Eliezer]:In 2021, Gabriel published one of the most thorough profiles ever written about Nayib Bukele. When we started producing this series, we asked him to help us explore the president’s history and environment, to be our guide through the world that he knows intimately.

[Silvia]: We knew Bukele’s circle had become increasingly tighter as his power grew. Gabriel says he contacted 41 people in writing this profile. Only nine agreed to be identified. Some spoke anonymously. The rest rejected any possibility of it. People who have known him closely or have been part of his circle of trust are in one of these situations:

[Gabriel]:Now, they either continue with Bukele, they’ve had a falling out, or are on the outside and don’t want anything to do with politics or to talk about him again.

[Eliezer]:This is why, Gabriel says, little is known about his childhood. Bukele prefers to associate his childhood to the influence of his father, a main figure in

the mythology that he’s built about himself and, possibly, the central piece of the puzzle of his beginnings.

[Silvia]: Nayib is the fifth child of Armando Bukele Kattán, a businessman from a family of Palestinian immigrants who arrived in El Salvador at the beginning of the 20th century.

[Gabriel]: They started selling things in San Salvador’s city center. Then they set up factories.

[Silvia]:They set up businesses that sold textiles, furniture, machinery. They were talented merchants.

[Gabriel]: Which is a bit of the stereotype of Arab immigrants who came to this area of the world back then.

[Eliezer]:Between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of Middle Eastern immigrants landed in El Salvador. Nayib Bukele’s grandfather was one of them. Their ability to undertake businesses allowed many families to amass fortunes, but they never enjoyed a privileged social status. The traditional elites despised them for their origin, and their quick ascent didn’t sit well with local merchants.

[Silvia]:This discrimination not only limited Arab families socially, but also financially. In the mid-1930s, for example, the Legislative Assembly passed a decree forbidding owners of Arab, Palestinian, Turkish, and other backgrounds from establishing businesses, even if they had become Salvadoran citizens. Bureaucratic obstacles and contempt did not prevent them from becoming a thriving bourgeoisie. But it was clear that earning money was not enough for them to be treated equally, and Nayib Bukele’s father was aware of that.

[Gabriel]: Armando Bukele Kattán, apart from being an intellectual guy, is quite versatile. He’s someone who likes money and knows how to make it, getting good profit from everything he does. That becomes, I think, a breaking point for the Bukele family, as they also begin to get into politics.

[Silvia]:It’s natural, Gabriel says, for Armando Bukele, Nayib’s father, to have established relations with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (known by its acronym in Spanish, FMLN), the country’s traditional left-wing party.

[Gabriel]:The political left was trying to dismantle the status quo set up by the European-Creole elite. So it was normal for the Bukele family — or Nayib’s father — to lean towards the side challenging the power of this European elite.

[Eliezer]:Beyond his skills as a businessman, Nayib Bukele’s father was a notable character in Salvadoran society. He was a chemical engineer recognized in academia. He converted to Islam and founded the first mosque in San Salvador. He had six partners in his life. He was polygamous because his religion allowed him to be so. That’s why Nayib has nine siblings. For years, he maintained a televised segment called “Clarifying concepts,” where he talked about the national and regional state of affairs, history, a little bit of everything.

[Archive soundbite, Armando Bukele]:Integrity and honesty come first. If they aren’t present, it’s better to have a stupid and reckless person who steals less than a diligent and capable one… The biblical image of Eve as a temptress has had a negative impact on women in the Judeo-Christian tradition…

[Eliezer]: He made over 700 shows. Just him, a table, sometimes a plant, and his opinions on the world.

[Archivesoundbite,ArmandoBukele]:The problem in El Salvador is that there’s no money and an honest government is required. Zero greed, zero evasion, zero corruption.

[Silvia]:Nayib Bukele has set out to amplify his father’s intellectual relevance. He once described him this way in an interview:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: I think he’s the smartest man our country has ever given birth to… And I’m not the one saying it; his IQ test does: 157. I don’t know whether anyone has a higher one…

[Eliezer]:To give you perspective: Einstein is often attributed an IQ of 160, although he never took a test for it. But he was not Salvadoran.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: He developed patents, wrote a physics book, was nominated for a Nobel Prize…

[Silvia]: The Nobel Prize nomination is, basically, a fabrication. But, according to Gabriel, Bukele has reasons to so magnify his father’s image:

[Gabriel]:Nayib has used him at every opportunity because at the time he needed to present himself as the heir of a high-caliber intellectual.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: Actually, for me, the greatest school has always been my father.

[Eliezer]: Nayib Bukele inherited much more than businesses and money from his father, but not necessarily intellectual ambition. In high school, he wasn’t someone who stood out in the classroom. At least not for being a dedicated student.

[Óscar Picardo]: He was a regular student, let’s say… But he did have some… um, particular features.

[Silvia]: The person speaking is Óscar Picardo, director of the Institute of Science, Technology and Innovation at Francisco Gavidia University. Óscar is an academic and researcher, and has known Bukele for a long time:

[Óscar]: I was his teacher in primary school, in seventh, eighth and ninth grades at the Pan-American School. I’ve known him since he was a kid, basically.

[Silvia]:This is how Óscar describes Bukele when he was a boy:

[Óscar]:Discreet, a little quiet. Yes, he exercised leadership in a group of students who are precisely those accompanying him in the government today. His family had resources. I mean, that sometimes leads to natural leadership, right?

[Silvia]: The Salvadoran president’s close circle hasn’t changed drastically since he was a teenager. On the one hand, a group of friends he forged at Panamericana, a small, bilingual private school for children of wealthy families

— although, according to Óscar, not the most exclusive nor aristocratic one. On the other hand, as Gabriel explains, he has his links to the Arab community and his extended family.

[Gabriel]: At that moment, I think Nayib was forced to forge alliances, to weave networks with other Palestinian children, because the European caste here always looked down on Arabs. So Nayib, his father and his grandfather suffered rejection from our traditional economic elites. And that translates into the parents’ business world as well as the children’s world.

[Eliezer]: Picardo remembers a particular trait of Bukele’s as a student, besides his leadership skills:

[Óscar]:When it came time to define himself in the school’s yearbook, he curiously defined himself — and this is how it’s written in the yearbook — as the “class terrorist,” jokingly, because of the Arab connotation.

[Silvia]:The class terrorist graduated in 1999. Classic Bukele: his ability to appropriate what others consider bad and turn it around. Playing with these double-edged swords would become a hallmark in his profile and political discourse.

[NataliadelCid]:Someone uploaded that yearbook photo online, and it said “class terrorist.” And I honestly didn’t remember. I was even surprised because in my mind we had called him “class clown.”

[Eliezer]: This is Natalia del Cid, a specialist in immigration issues, and Bukele’s former classmate. They were together in a small class of only 13 students, and that is one of the things she remembers most about him, that he made jokes.

[Natalia]:He made a lot of jokes… When he was little, he would impersonate Mister Magoo perfectly. And he had quite big cheeks, so he could perfectly impersonate Quico, the character from El Chavo del Ocho, and did so very well. He made us laugh.

[Eliezer]:Were you surprised by Nayib Bukele’s emergence into politics?

[Natalia]: Not at all. I must confess, we all voted for him in our class. A teacher showed up and said we had to elect a class president. She asked who wanted the position and we all said no. So boring, right? That’s what you say when you’re at that age: “How boring, I better go party.” Maybe no one had that aspiration. Then Nayib said he wanted to be president. So we all said, “OK, he wants it”. So he unanimously received 12 votes, which was 100% of the classroom.

[Silvia]: In fact, none of them were surprised to see him enter politics, Natalia says.

Natalia]:No one was surprised because it was very clear to him. He would never say it out loud, but he already had the markings of a politician from a very young age. And he liked it. You not only need the aptitude; he actually liked it. And he always had very, very big ambitions…

[Silvia]: Bukele’s first contact with politics was behind the scenes. In 1999, after graduating high school, Bukele assumed the presidency of Obermet, the family’s advertising agency. He was 18 years old. At that time, the agency began to manage FMLN campaigns. Nayib’s father, Gabriel says, had built relationships with the leftist party’s leaders since the 1980s, when the country was in the midst of a civil war. One of these leaders was Shafik Hándal, one of five FMLN general commanders, also of Palestinian descent. With the peace

signing, in the early 1990s, these ties translated into an alliance that yielded political and financial zbenefits for the Bukele family.

[Eliezer]: From then until his first candidacy for mayor, just over a decade later, Bukele didn’t have a large public presence. He tried studying law for a couple of years, while working in advertisement at the family agency. He left the career, however, to dedicate himself full time to his father’s businesses. In the early 2000s, he ventured for a time as a businessman of the night, managing a nightclub called “Mario’s,” a name he changed to «Code.»

[Silvia]: Nothing known about his life before politics seems to lead conclusively to what Bukele would become later. The question is, then, how someone like Bukele, at age 30, came to run as mayoral candidate for his country’s traditional left-wing party.

[Gabriel]:Why does a businessman, a millionaire’s son, decide to jump into politics? It remains totally inexplicable, incomprehensible. According to him, of course, it’s because he wanted to change the country and stop sitting comfortably.

[Eliezer]: Bukele has used different variations of that explanation. In this interview, for example, the interviewer tells him that citizens only know one side of him:

[Archive soundbite, interviewer]: You know Nayib Bukele as the entrepreneurial guy, a successful businessman, but the question is: Who really is Nayib Bukele?

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: Well, I’m just another Salvadoran who loves his country and would like to see it change. I believe all Salvadorans dream of seeing our country take a different path, to see it flourish.

[Silvia]: To reinforce the idea that he sacrificed himself for his vocation to serve, Bukele has repeated that his father, his most important mentor, didn’t want him involved in party politics.

[Archive soundbite,NayibBukele]: One thing I thank my father for is that he didn’t want me to get into politics. But once I got involved, he supported me like no one else.

[Eliezer]: This is what he told influencer Luisito Comunica, one of the ten most popular Spanish-speaking YouTubers in the world, in a kind of interview they did years later. His father, Nayib explained, told him that getting into politics meant, automatically, making enemies, which wasn’t in his best interest.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukeleandLuisito Comunica]

[Nayib Bukele]: When I told him I was going to run for mayor, he got angry with me. Literally, he got very, very angry. But when I said, “No, I’m really doing it,” he said, “Well, then I’ll support you.”

[LuisitoComunica]:Did you ever tell him you wanted to be president of the country?

[NayibBukele]:No. I didn’t. He told me.

[LuisitoComunica]:He told you? “You’re… ?”

[Nayib Bukele]: Yes, he said, “You’re going to be president.” ”OK, dad, but I’m not even going to be mayor of the capital city.” And he said, “You are going to be president…”

[Eliezer]: There are those who see an important relationship between the contempt the country’s creole elite treated Palestinian families with and the Bukele family’s quest for power. Shortly after his son got into politics, Armando Bukele said in one of his television programs:

[Archive soundbite, Armando Bukele]: The Arab community in El Salvador is now strong enough to be dominant. But since we don’t have a hegemonic

consciousness, let us at least act to stop being controlled. El Salvador is also ours.

[Gabriel]: I think when Nayib begins to understand how political marketing works, he and his dad figured out that they have a winning formula.

[Silvia]: That winning formula would arrive in 2011. After leading companies, managing a nightclub and running FMLN campaigns for a decade, Nayib Bukele saw an opportunity in Nuevo Cuscatlán, a town of less than 8,000 people on the outskirts of San Salvador. In a video, he explains how he became a candidate. He met with a party leader to plan the following year’s electoral campaign and presented the idea to him, as if he had just come up with it:

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: We were organizing the 2012 campaign and I asked him whether he had a candidate for mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán. He said they didn’t and asked why. I said, ”Because here I am, if you want it that way.” They agreed, but said we had to meet with the people of Nuevo Cuscatlán to see whether they wanted it. This is how we met with our constituents, and they agreed.

[Eliezer]: The process was actually not as simple and much more revealing, and we are going to tell you about it shortly. But it’s understandable that his candidacy for mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán can be seen today as the first step in a strategy that had much larger positions on the horizon. For Picardo, academic and Bukele’s former school teacher, things are clear.

[Óscar]:He wisely decided to run for a small mayor’s office, a very small, strategic town, which made him shine with few resources. From there, he made the leap to the San Salvador mayor’s office, and from there to the presidency.

[Silvia]: After the break, we’ll go to Nuevo Cuscatlán. We’ll be back.


[FlipandArticle19]:In the last 5 years, 325 journalists from El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras have been forced into exile due to intimidation from politicians or armed groups. It’s a terrifying figure. Violence against the press affects journalists and hinders access to information.

For organizations like the Foundation for Press Freedom in Colombia, and Article 19 in Mexico and Central America, exile is a regional phenomenon that creates psychological and financial pressures, weakening democratic systems.

[DanielAlarcón]:The production company behind «Bukele, el señor de los sueños» is Radio Ambulante Estudios. And we have two other podcasts you should listen to. Every Tuesday, we release Radio Ambulante. Stories of families, migration, adventure, and love. And every Friday, we release El hilo, where we cover and thoroughly explain an impactful news story from Latin America. Look for Radio Ambulante and El hilo on your preferred podcast app.


[Silvia]:There’s the N.

[MaríaPazRivas]:Look, there’s the N.

[Silvia]:It’s everywhere.

[MaríaPaz]:The new city, yes, the new city, with all the concrete shoved into it.

[Silvia]: It’s July 2023 and I’m in a car with Gabriel on the road to Nuevo Cuscatlán, a town just outside San Salvador. It takes about 15 to 30 minutes to get there from the capital, depending on traffic. María Paz Rivas is going with us. She’s a veteran community leader who’s lived in this town since she was born. There’s a giant light blue “N” at one of the town entrances. There are similar ones distributed in public places. Those Ns mean we are in Nayib land.


[María Paz]: …As I was saying, when I saw the N seal, oh, man… That N makes me feel like saying a lot of things.

[Silvia]: Why?

[MaríaPaz]:Because how is it possible they just put that seal in the new city. Just threw some concrete on it, ruining the streets, destroying the land that feeds us. Everywhere, covered in concrete. This is progress

[Silvia]:The N symbolizes the transformation this town has experienced since Bukele became mayor in 2012, a little over a decade ago. Now it’s the town’s logo, which has the slogan “The New City” and is almost identical to the logo of the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas). And, of course, the N also stands for Nayib. Here you can find Los Sueños, a residential area where Bukele has lived with his wife for about ten years. It is a gated community with huge houses, large gardens and swimming pools, similar to other luxury residential complexes that have sprung like mushrooms in the area in recent years.

[Eliezer]:It’s the place where he began his political career, as he explained in an interview:

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: To me, Nuevo Cuscatlán is my baby. It’s my project. They’re my people, as are all Salvadorans. My country is 8,000 square miles and my people are the 7 million Salvadorans. But my baby, my project, my ideal was to build Nuevo Cuscatlán, where a lot has been done.

[Eliezer]: Nuevo Cuscatlán is Bukele’s golden dream, built to sell his management skills to Salvadorans. Approximately 6 square miles of green, mountainous territory surrounded by coffee farms. In it, several communities were formed by those who came to work on the farms. When Nayib ran for mayor, Nuevo Cuscatlán was already becoming a hub of residential developments for wealthy people, but this sped up upon his arrival.

[Silvia]: María Paz Rivas, our guide through town, witnessed Nayib’s arrival. In 2011, she was part of the local FMLN board. They had already started working

on the mayoral campaign and had, as candidate, an evangelical pastor who lived in town. But one day, they were called to an emergency meeting. There, the local party coordinator told them that the candidate was now going to be Nayib Bukele.

[MaríaPaz]:They said, “This is going to be our candidate.” And why does he have a sure win? Because he has money. Because he’s the owner of this and that. That’s how easily they started eroding our minds. That’s how Bukele imposed himself on us. But what hurt them the most was when I told them that it was an imposition. I made eternal enemies that day.

[Silvia]: The first objection FMLN militants raised, after working on the campaign with the pastor who was the other candidate, was quite elementary, María Paz recalls.

[MaríaPaz]:Where was he from? That was our first question: Where was he from? We had never heard of Bukele. Who brought him?

[Silvia]:No one had brought Nayib Bukele: he had proposed himself as a candidate. But the question made sense, since what little they knew about him had nothing to do with the ideology they defended. María Paz brought this up, she explains, in that first meeting:

[MaríaPaz]:I asked them, “How am I going to find Bukele relatable if he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth? I’ve been representing a community. What do you plan to do? Do you think he is going to be in our favor? In favor of the poor? Excuse me, colleagues, but that won’t happen, ever.” That was all I told them.

[Eliezer]:The decision, of course, had already been made. As we told you before, the Bukele family were old friends of the party. Nayib had been campaigning for FMLN for years, and had also convinced a couple of important leaders to get rid of their candidate by appealing to the polls, an indispensable tool in his political belt. He presented numbers that said they would lose if they

went with the pastor, and that he had a chance of winning. But, once he prevailed, he had to start fighting a natural prejudice against his image.

[Gabriel]: Class background is very important inside the FMLN. That defines your position in the world, your way of facing problems and proposing solutions. And I think Nayib was aware he didn’t really fit in on the left. But he took care of it by speaking about these alternative millionaires or these millionaires with a social conscience.

[Silvia]: That was, literally, the speech he used while campaigning for mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán. During an interview, Bukele was asked:

[Archivesoundbite,interviewer]: Is this a matter of political ambition or political vocation for you, understanding politics as a vocation of service?

[NayibBukele]:Yes, it is a vocation to serve, but it’s also about ambition, in a good way. Not ambition in the sense of wanting power. Because, really, my companies’ budget is much larger than Nuevo Cuscatlan’s mayoral budget. So it’s not ambition for the sake of money or power.

[Eliezer]:Bukele repeated several versions of this idea: that he had much to lose by getting into politics, but that it was his vocation. And in order to bolster this narrative, he began to carry out works around town before the elections, which, he claimed, came out of his own pocket.

[Gabriel]:We don’t know where that money came from, but before being in the mayor’s office, he began to pave roads and install LED lights in the streets. People saw that and said, “Great, a millionaire using money for good things.”

[Silvia]:Bukele would also give out money at campaign events to people who asked for a bed, a birthday cake, or a basket of food, María Paz says. He also promised to solve the town’s most enduring problems, such as water. He told the most precarious communities they would have free drinking water, every day, 24 hours a day. None of that would actually be free, María Paz says. Not

the water, the things he gave out, or the promises. But the price to pay would come later.

[Eliezer]: On March 11, 2012, Nayib Bukele won the mayor’s office by a difference of less than 300 votes (in an election where a little over 5,000 people voted). This turned Nuevo Cuscatlán into a preview of the managerial model that would characterize the Salvadoran president: one who doesn’t stop, who is not accountable, who promises and executes based on the publicity potential of his actions instead of future consequences.

[Gabriel]: He knows he has everything in that town ahead of him, a completely new avenue where many things can be done. And he certainly begins to show different projects: a radio station, a school with special resources, remodeling of parks, etc.

[Silvia]: He promised he would donate his salary as mayor for scholarships. He also published ads looking for “talented people” to give jobs to, visited neighboring towns to distribute food, and opened a free health clinic.

[Archivesoundbite,Nayib Bukele]: In this clinic, our patients will wait in an air-conditioned room, with coffee, comfortable chairs, and a plasma TV.

[Gabriel]: He starts spending a lot of money, and, of course, everyone begins to wonder: where is this money coming from?

[Archivesoundbite, Nayib Bukele]: How do we have enough money? Well, you can’t imagine how much money there is when no one steals.

[Gabriel]: That’s when he and his team revealed this wonderful phrase: “Money is enough when no one steals.” It’s a phrase that continues to be with him to this day. While this is happening — him inaugurating works, repeating this phrase every time he can — the reality is, the town’s credit card is maxing out, getting into a lot of debt, because there really isn’t that much money to do things.

[Eliezer]: Indeed, by the end of 2014, two and a half years after he took office as mayor, Nuevo Cuscatlán was running out of money. The Ministry of Finance classified the mayor’s office in the worst financial category, as its debt had grown by 320% compared to 2011. By then, though, Bukele’s mind was already on the next step. That August, he announced that he would run for mayor of San Salvador.

[Gabriel]: That’s what Nayib is about… Marketing above all. The message, above all. And if we have problems in the future, we solve them with more marketing and advertising, and with more rhetorical messages and street lights, etc.

[Silvia]: Nayib Bukele turned Nuevo Cuscatlán into his publicity material, a place to bring both desires and fears — the two elements that move advertisement — into reality. On one hand, he created an image of progress, which he associated with the idea that prosperity was possible when there was no corruption. On the other, he began to work with the most widespread fear of Salvadorans in order to sell something that seemed impossible: the hope of living without violence.

[Archivesoundbite,newscast]: In Nuevo Cuscatlán, no violent deaths were recorded in 2013. The town has promoted a zero homicides plan… Thanks to the management of Mayor Nayib Bukele, we’ve managed to successfully close 2013 as a zero-homicide town.

[Eliezer]: For a country that, even in the midst of a truce between the government and the gangs, had closed that same 2013 with almost 2,500 homicides — that is, over six murders per day — talking about zero homicides sounded incredible. But Nuevo Cuscatlán had never been a violent town. In all of 2012, only four homicides had been recorded, less than what the country suffered on average in a single day.

[Silvia]: Lawyer Bertha María Deleón, who would become part of Bukele’s legal team a few years later, knew that “zero homicides” was a marketing strategy rather than a managerial achievement.

[Bertha Deleón]: I knew that because I worked at the Prosecutor’s Office, in Homicides, and we never went to Nuevo Cuscatlán to inspect corpses.

[Silvia]: Before meeting him in person, what Bertha knew about Nayib Bukele was what he himself had put forward to show outside the town:

[Bertha]: I knew he was the mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, that he had a progressivist discourse. He spoke a lot about youth rights, for example, and would show up in a jacket and his cap on backwards. So it was like that coolness, let’s say. It gave the impression that he was capable of thinking differently from the politicians that we were already fed up with.

[Eliezer]: Indeed, Nayib Bukele seemed capable of thinking differently from his country’s politicians. His age and class background allowed him to look at the political game outside of traditional codes. He understood communication very differently from his more experienced adversaries. He was a strange figure on the left, because he came from wealth, and strange for the right, which would never take up the cause of “the people.” Over time, it became clear that he didn’t feel ideologically tied to anything that didn’t work towards his goals. That distance allowed him to turn everything into a narrative battle.

[Silvia]: Understanding that the facts didn’t matter as much as the narration of the facts made Bukele move forward quickly. When the FMLN decided that Bukele would be their candidate for mayor of San Salvador, his main opponent was Norman Quijano, a veteran of the ARENA party, who already governed the capital and was running for re-election. According to Gabriel, he was the best-positioned candidate at the national level, and the only great figure on the right.

[Eliezer]: During a television interview, before the campaign officially began, a journalist asked Quijano what he thought about the FMLN having decided to put Bukele to compete against him.

[Gabriel]: Norman Quijano, a longstanding politician in ARENA, anti-communist, etc., responds as a man with war wounds and several stripes on his chest. He says he has more experience than Bukele. That he’s a young man who is starting up…

[Archivesoundbite,NormanQuijano]: So I think it’s to be expected from Nayib, who is a very young man…

[Gabriel]: That phrase could have hit Nayib Bukele hard in a traditional campaign. But what he decides to do is to use it to his advantage.

[Eliezer]: So he meets with his team to see how they would respond.

[Gabriel]: To them, Norman Quijano is a politician they can easily hit, because he represents traditional politics. So they get together and start brainstorming and decide to use this phrase, turn it into a hashtag, print it on t-shirts and give them away in different parts of San Salvador.

[Eliezer]:They took the phrase, removed Bukele’s name and turned it into an affront to all young people: “You are very young.” That was the hashtag.

[Gabriel]:In a matter of 24 hours they set it up, drive around and start giving merch away. Then it shows up on social media, Twitter, Facebook. It goes viral, becomes a cool, defiant phenomenon that ends up hitting back at Norman Quijano. Just weeks later, Norman Quijano decides to resign.

[Silvia]:A couple of months later, ARENA chose a new candidate to run for mayor: a younger politician who was also a businessman. But Nayib Bukele had spent two and a half years building a resume as mayor and used all of it in his San Salvador mayoral campaign. In one of his interviews as candidate to govern the capital, he said:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: I can no longer run with the resume I ran with in 2012. I have to say what things I did as mayor. In 2012, I was elected as an entrepreneur. Today I’m mayor. Now I have to say what I did in my three

years as mayor. So this is it: we gave scholarships to young people, quality healthcare, safety, drinking water, and family food baskets for 100% of the elderly. We put Nuevo Cuscatlán on the map, infrastructure plans…

[Silvia]:He was prepared to answer every question journalists or adversaries asked about the enormous difference between running a town of less than 8,000 and a city of more than three hundred thousand. As he did with Quijano’s phrase, he turned weaknesses into strengths. He turned the difference in size, for example, into a difference in budget, to be able to say that he, in proportion, had done more things with less money:

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: Nuevo Cuscatlán has a budget of two million dollars a year and San Salvador has a budget of 86 million. That’s 43 times the town’s budget, and its population is only 28 times larger. Therefore, it has a larger budget than Nuevo Cuscatlán per capita.

[Silvia]: In response to the difference between facing insecurity in a town where almost nothing happens and doing so in the most violent city in the country, he used a clever resource: he presented himself as someone concerned about each individual life.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: After three years of not having homicides, we had the first one. Almost three years; we were going to close our term undefeated. And then we had one. Many people told me not to worry, that it was only one. But how can I not worry if he’s someone’s son?

[Eliezer]: Watching different interviews of Bukele back then, it’s easy to understand the effect he achieved. He’s a new face, saying that the things that concern Salvadorans the most are easy to solve, that he’s already done it, and he sets up everything as if it were a problem of scale and efficiency. It’s not surprising, then, that in March 2015, Nayib Bukele won San Salvador’s mayoral elections with just over 50% of the votes.

[CarlosAraujo]:When he won the mayoralty of San Salvador, he already had quite the discourse of a status quo agitator.

[Silvia]:This is Carlos Araujo, a historic politician from ARENA, the most important right-wing party in El Salvador.

[Carlos]:He stood out because, whether you like it or not, at that moment, traditional Salvadoran politics was already on its last legs. He seemed to attract a lot of attention and, the truth is, it was exciting. Leaders are like that, after all, and something that has to be recognized is that the guy is a leader.

[Silvia]: Araujo was a key election official for his party and has been working with technology and data processing, such as public opinion polls, for years. Despite being part of the opposition and today he still is, he told us that, back then, he also got excited with Bukele.

[Eliezer]: Carlos got to know Bukele’s management style in the San Salvador mayor’s office up close. When he won the elections, he and his brother, Walter

— also a right-wing cadre and today a political mercenary at the service of Bukelism — offered Nayib a service for his government:

[Carlos]: He had an application called Sívar, where citizens could use technology and phone apps to have a way to request solutions for services provided by the mayor’s office. Whether a light bulb burned out, or garbage needed to be picked up, streets needed repair, or trees needed to be pruned.

[Silvia]:Carlos and his brother were in charge of managing the service that powered the app. It seemed tailor-made for Bukele, because it offered the illusion that everyday problems could be reduced to a matter of technological efficiency. Nayib wanted to make his mark as mayor, and he wanted to do it fast.

[Carlos]: When he arrived at the San Salvador mayor’s office, he already had a route mapped out for where he wanted to go. And the San Salvador mayor’s office ended up being a stepping stone, because it is the government of the capital, the one with the biggest budget, the most media coverage, and he is

extremely media-friendly when it comes to those things. So it was an additional step he had to take prior to what he wanted to achieve.

[Eliezer]: Beyond an app, in order to use the San Salvador mayor’s office as a stepping stone, he needed public works, which have been a pillar of his political marketing from the beginning. His flagship project as mayor was the recovery of a small part of San Salvador’s historic center, and its star, at that time, was a market he named Cuscatlán, a word he uses a lot.

The Cuscatlán market: a multi-story building with escalators, computers, a library, rooftop bars and other unthinkable amenities for an area that had always been dominated by informal commerce, gangs and squalor.


[Gabriel]:Walking looking like this, with a visible recorder and an authentic tourist look… It would have been too obvious for the thieves, but aha, now it’s like…

[Silvia]:Now… you can do it?

[Gabriel]:Yes, you can do it.

[Silvia]: I went with Gabriel to tour the historic center on a Monday in July, 2023. I wanted to understand what the most emblematic project of Bukele’s administration had meant for the city and its people. We went in the afternoon, the sun was burning like embers, and the square where we were, called Libertad, was bustling with people. When Nayib became mayor, Gabriel told me, he knew he had to make something of a visual impact, and the downtown area was iconic.

[Gabriel]: Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans pass through here every day. This and another square were remodeled and equipped so that people could walk around and spend time here.

[Silvia]:Although Bukele usually talks about the “recovery of downtown,” Gabriel showed me that the project, until then, was reduced to only about six of the 250 blocks that are considered part of the historic center.

[Gabriel]:That’s why I say this is a marketing product. The difference is that you didn’t have this feeling of spaciousness before. I mean, everything seemed to be piled together. Prostitutes, thieves, probably. But it began to be seen on social media. They opened bars. So there was a resurgence, let’s say, of the downtown area, that was part of Nayib’s legacy. I think that, as mayor, it’s the most notable thing and the only thing he managed to do. He saw it as him doing new things that no other mayor had been able to do. But, of course, in order to get street vendors off the streets, he had to negotiate with gangs, and he did that through intermediaries from his own mayor’s office.

[Silvia]:We’ll talk about Bukele’s negotiations with gangs later in the series. But, for now, what needs to be understood is that the difference between Bukele and other politicians seemed to be, more than anything, that he was willing to do whatever it took to achieve his goals. His downtown recovery project had also bypassed heritage and architecture laws. The market space was rented at an almost double premium. Also, a later audit found, in its first evaluation, that the mayor and a group of councilors had made arbitrary decisions, without legal support, that harmed the town by millions of dollars.

[Eliezer]:Carlos Araujo, the ARENA politician who worked for a time with Bukele when he was mayor of San Salvador, says that, actually, arbitrariness was basically his form of management, not an exception to the rule. His close team already knew, Carlos says, that those were the conditions.

[Carlos]:I mean, it was a team of “yes sir, yes sir”, even if he was wrong, and they knew he was wrong about some things. He doesn’t allow discussion.

[Eliezer]:Nayib Bukele doesn’t like to be contradicted, and, at this point, the entire country knows it. But some of the first to know, besides his team, were journalists. This is how lawyer Bertha de León met him, when he was mayor of

San Salvador, over a case related to attacks on the media, which was known as “the cyber attack.”

[Silvia]:The case is complex, but it can be summarized like this: two of the most important newspapers in the country published things that Bukele didn’t like. To take revenge, people linked to Nayib designed replicas of these newspapers’ websites with news that mocked their directors, and put them online. They filed a complaint, and the investigation reached Bukele.

[Bertha]:It was stupid teenage stuff, basically taking the name of La Prensa Gráfica and Diario de Hoy, making parody covers, grabbing the directors’ photos, with a headline like “José Roberto Dutriz says that the pupusas he likes most are stirred.” And you read the news and it was pure nonsense. That was basically what happened. They set up parody pages. There was no cyber attack.

[Eliezer]:Bukele seemed to have felt so entitled to combat criticism he didn’t even bother to hide his involvement in the attacks, according to Bertha.

[Bertha]:Even Nayib himself wrote to La Prensa’s editorial director, taking credit for the parody. There were also chat conversations where he told them every action has a reaction and that, if they continued publishing things against him, he would continue with the attacks.

[Silvia]:Bertha was a high-profile lawyer who had earned a reputation as a litigator in important cases, so Bukele hired her to be part of his legal team. She was the only woman in a group of several lawyers.

[Bertha]:Several of us lawyers had to be involved constantly, not only in criminal matters. That’s because, well, he has a very impulsive personality. He would get into trouble quite easily, so I represented him in three criminal proceedings, not only about the alleged cyberattack, but also for expressions of violence and defamation.

[Eliezer]:According to how Bertha describes work meetings, Nayib Bukele didn’t seem like someone especially concerned about the consequences of his actions.

[Bertha]: We would be making decisions and he would start talking, for example, about something that appeared on CSI, and, “Do you remember this? And what about that?” He was very unfocused and spent much of his time on Twitter.

[Silvia]:Bukele hated it when journalists tarnished the image of the perfect politician to which he dedicated so much energy and resources. And that became more evident as he acquired more power. The problem is that, by then, he already had a political resume, which meant more spotlights pointing at him. He couldn’t distract the press with marketing tricks like he did in Nuevo Cuscatlán. And he couldn’t stop the newspapers from researching his past.

[Bertha]: For example, there were publications about alleged corruption, about unauthorized construction in Nuevo Cuscatlán, or excessive charges for construction permits. So he wanted to put a stop to that noise. His interpretation was that those people knew he could be president and that was why they attacked and posted pieces against him every day.

[Eliezer]:Bukele was already thinking about the next office he wanted to occupy, and it made sense he wouldn’t want anyone looking back at yesterday’s promises. Because some of his achievements, after having been announced as a panacea and exploited for publicity, ended up falling apart or becoming new problems as he moved away.

[Silvia]:This is what happened with the Sívar app, which we mentioned a few minutes ago. Carlos told us that it ceased to exist because they couldn’t respond to citizen demand and the mayor’s office didn’t comply with the payment to suppliers. This also happened with the Cuscatlán market, his flagship project in the capital, which was about 5 million dollars in debt by the beginning of 2023 due to unpaid rent. And, finally, it happened to Nuevo Cuscatlán, the golden land where it all began.

[Eliezer]: Today, ten years after Bukele became mayor of the town, its communities still don’t have water 24/7. However, the town has become a destination for housing megaprojects and commercial areas for people with money who are driving out the poorest residents.

When Silvia and Gabriel went to Nuevo Cuscatlán, they visited a community that had managed to stop an eviction, but they still didn’t know what was going to happen to them. And they weren’t the only ones in that situation.

[Antonio Ortiz]: Let’s start with Finca Santa Elena, which is where we are. Here, 20 families are on the verge of eviction. Monseñor Romero has more than 80 families. La Cuartería is here. Also, Tomás Rodríguez.

[Silvia]: This is Antonio Ortíz, a 55-year-old settler on a farm called Santa Elena, where he’s lived since he was born. Antonio says that the New City Bukele has sold is basically make-believe.

[Antonio]:Far from what people proclaim, the great city, the new city, is a front. If you look at the façade, it looks new. But, from the inside, from the back, how are we? Bad.

[Silvia]:What lies between that façade of progress and the people behind it, Antonio says, is the same old inequality. And that hasn’t changed.

[Antonio]:They’re safe. They always have been. The rich man has always been safe. The one who’s unsafe is the poor. We’re the ones who are unsafe. Even if there are 10,000 soldiers around, we are always unsafe.There’s always that uncertainty. Why? Because there’s no land, there’s no water… You go out to work and you don’t know whether you’re going to come back because, out there, they can accuse you of something and take you away. And your family is left in limbo.

[Silvia]:When we asked him about everything Nayib Bukele had publicized about his achievements as mayor, Antonio remembered an article that came

out a while ago, in 2014. It’s called “A dream town in El Salvador” and was broadcasted by Univisión, one of the main Hispanic TV channels in the United States. The video, which can’t be described as anything other than an advertorial, can still be found on YouTube:

[Soundarchive, Primer Impacto]: In this town, people no longer think about emigrating north in search of the American dream. On the contrary, those who have left now want to come back to live in this paradise called Nuevo Cuscatlán.

[Antonio]:The new city, yes, everything is beautiful here. See how beautiful. Come live here. But you have to have 250,000 dollars to come here. And those who live here, who are native settlers of the farms, you have to take them out. Where’s what he promised? How has he helped the people? Now we are being pushed aside, removed from our native land. He practically forgot all the promises he made.

[Soundarchive,PrimerImpacto]: Some believe that Nayib Bukele aspires to be president, that this is all part of a political campaign. The mayor categorically denied it, while young people say that they see nothing wrong with it: if this is politics, I can say that it’s beautiful, because we’re all benefiting: children, young people, adults, and the elderly.

[Eliezer]: In the next episode…


[Carlos Araujo]: The story was built by doing a lot of public opinion research to understand whether Salvadoran voters were mature enough for a third way to stand a chance, something that had never happened in this country.

[SilviaViñas]:And what did the surveys say?

[Carlos]:They said yes.

[GabrielLabrador]:He realizes that disappointment is final and that he has to take advantage of it.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: We will be in the elections seeking the Presidency of the Republic of El Salvador to truly change the country.

[Gabriel]: FMLN and ARENA believe they’re doing things well and that it’s just a matter of designing better campaigns, perhaps hiring one advisor or two, but no one saw the catastrophe that was coming. Or they didn’t want to accept it.

[Eliezer]:This series was made possible thanks to the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Free Press Unlimited, Article 19 Mexico and Central America, the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), and Dejusticia. Additionally, we appreciate FLIP for their advice and legal review, and Riesgo Cruzado for their valuable support in protection and security matters.

The producers and reporters of «Bukele: el señor de Los sueños» are Silvia Viñas and myself. Gabriel Labrador is our reporter and on-site producer. Desireé Yepez is our digital producer. Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura are the editors. Carlos Dada is our editorial consultant. The data verifiers are Bruno Scelza and Desireé Yepez. Selene Mazón is our production assistant. The theme music, music, mixing, and sound design are by Elías González. The graphic design and art direction are by Diego Corzo. The web development is by Paola Ponce. Thanks to Jonathan Blitzer for his support.

«Bukele, el señor de Los sueños» is a podcast from Central, the series channel of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

From Radio Ambulante Studios, the product directors are Natalia Ramírez and Laura Rojas Aponte, with the assistance of Paola Alean. The audience and digital production team is formed by Samantha Proaño, Ana Pais, Analía Llorente, Melisa Rabanales. Press and community management is handled by Juan David Naranjo and Adriana Bernal.

Camilo Jiménez Santofimio is the director of alliances and financing. Carolina Guerrero is the executive producer of Central and the CEO of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

You can follow us on social media as centralpodcast RA and subscribe to our newsletter at

I am Eliezer Budasoff. Thank you for listening.


Reported and produced by: Silvia Viñas y Eliezer Budasoff

On-site reporting and production: Gabriel Labrador

Digital producer: Desireé Yepez

Editedby: Daniel Alarcón y Camila Segura

Editorial Consulting: Carlos Dada

Fact-checking: Bruno Scelza y Desirée Yépez 

Editorial assistant: Selene Mazón

Music and Sound Design: Elías González

Graphic Design and Art Direction: Diego Corzo

Translated by: María Jesús Zevallos

Episode 2. Move fast, break things

Episodio 2

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: Hello! Thank you all very much for allowing me to come into your homes. It really is a great honor.

[SilviaViñas]:It’s October 2017, and this is a breaking point for Nayib Bukele. What you just heard is the beginning of a video you can still find on his YouTube channel or his Facebook profile. Bukele is in his home, sitting on a gray sofa. He’s wearing a black long-sleeved t-shirt. There’s a table next to him with some books and a photo with his wife, those that couples take on vacation. Behind him is a bookshelf with a vintage Kodak camera, a chess board and more books, including the saga that inspired the HBO series Game of Thrones and one about financial investments. There’s also a Life magazine with the Kennedys on the cover.

[Eliezer Budasoff]: This is the video Bukele uses to announce he’s going to run for president. With a title like “The Decision,” one would expect that the first thing he’s going to say is he’s decided to run for president. But that doesn’t happen until minute 16. And we’re talking about a 20-minute video. For the most part, he talks about his departure from the FMLN party, with which he became mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán and then San Salvador, the party where he began his political career.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: You all already know the events that have taken place in recent days, in recent weeks, that ended in my expulsion of what was, until a few days ago, my party, the FMLN.

[Silvia]:If you’re not Salvadorans, it’s likely you don’t know about the events he’s referring to. We’ll tell you about it in a few minutes. But even without knowing the details, it may seem strange that Bukele would dedicate more than two-thirds of such an important announcement to a party that just expelled him, and with which he’s not running for president. However, it makes sense, because this breakup will mark a before and after. It’s also part of a strategy, of a narrative that would become his hobbyhorse, and that he had already been rehearsing: he, like the rest of the Salvadorans, was a victim. Of the corruption and bad decisions of traditional parties. And, of course, the solution to this was for him to reach the height of power: the presidency.

[Archive soundbite,Nayib Bukele]: We will be seeking the Presidency of the Republic of El Salvador in the next election in order to truly change the country. Not “change it” like they promised to us in 2009 or in 2014. Or, as I’m sure, ARENA said in the 20 years they governed. No, I mean really change it, change it together, with the people.

[Silvia]:This is The Man from Los Sueños, a podcast from Radio Ambulante Studios. I’m Silvia Viñas.

[Eliezer]:And I’m Eliezer Budasoff. Episode 2: Move fast, break things.

Nayib Bukele’s break with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the FMLN, is a key point in the story of his arrival to the presidency. It’s also important because it shows a double narrative, something we’re going to see again and again: two different faces at decisive moments. On one hand, there’s what he shows outwardly, which sometimes seems a little impulsive. On the other, there’s what he weaves behind: carefully planned movements to get what he wants.

This breakup began to take shape while the FMLN was going through a good moment in terms of power. Let us remember that, since 2015, this was the party that led the San Salvador mayor’s office, the most important in the country, with Bukele himself as mayor.

[Gabriel Labrador]: The FMLN was a great party during the years of the presidency and such, so they were in good spirits.

[Eliezer]:This is Salvadoran journalist Gabriel Labrador. He works for El Faro newspaper covering politics, and is the author of the most thorough profile there is on Bukele. You heard him in the previous episode, and he’ll continue to be our main guide through this story.

The FMLN was in its second consecutive government, first with Mauricio Funes and then with Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who won the election in 2014.

[Gabriel]: But everything changes when this whole issue of the presidential election begins to appear on the horizon.

[Eliezer]:Gabriel explained to us that it’s normal for a party like the FMLN to already have its candidate about two years before the presidential election.

[Gabriel]:So halfway through his term as mayor, Bukele starts doing his thing, right? Presenting himself as a charmingboy.And well, basically convincing people he wants to be a candidate.

[Silvia]:It could sound conflicting: he supported the movement and, at the same time, he began to position himself as a critic. Carlos Araujo, who worked with Nayib when he was mayor of San Salvador and whom we heard in the previous episode, remembers this moment well. Carlos was part of a first group of trust with Bukele that assessed his electoral prospects. Karim Bukele, one of his brothers, was also there, and Carlos saw this up close.

[Carlos Araujo]: There was this rhetoric device of selling him as young, as new. Though not married to its ideology, but close to this government, he was going to add an element of modernity to the FMLN to try to get a third presidential

term. That’s how he sold it; that’s how he dealt with the FMLN leaders. Until he got to the point where he sat down with the FMLN leaders and told them what he wanted, and they said no. They told him that, in their opinion, he was still very young, and that he should help them consolidate this third term with another FMLN candidate. The term after that would be his turn.

[Silvia]:This is when, Carlos says, Bukele begins to build a story to leave the FMLN.

[Carlos]: That story was concocted by doing a lot of public opinion research to understand whether Salvadoran voters were mature enough for a third alternative to stand a chance, something that had never happened in this country.

[Silvia]:And what did the surveys say?

[CarlosAraujo]:They said yes.

[Silvia]: Carlos remembers the surveys showing that, if Bukele was the FMLN’s candidate, the party would win. When they removed him and put him in a new party, he would still win.

[Carlos]:So he starts doing things to annoy the FMLN. Part of what was discussed was provoking the FMLN to expel him, and victimize himself even more. In other words, no, that expulsion didn’t happen by chance. Those provocations were precisely so that the FMLN would fall into a trap. And it fell.

[Eliezer]: Now, perhaps you’re wondering why Bukele didn’t just resign from the FMLN. In other words, besides taking advantage of the moment to victimize himself… why would he spend time and energy provoking his departure? Well, the reason was – also – legal: if he wanted to run for president with another party, he couldn’t quit the one he already belonged to.

[Gabriel]:If he resigns, the law prevents him from participating in another party because then he becomes a turncoat, something punished by law here.

So he has to seek self-expulsion. And then a real show of provocation begins, off-color phrases, posts on social media.

[Eliezer]: There are many examples. So many that it took us a bit to choose the most illustrative one. But to give you an idea: at the end of 2016, he accused the FMLN government, on Facebook, of swindling the most vulnerable, and of co-governing with right-wing party ARENA. On Twitter, his favorite social media outlet, he complained about the obstacles placed on him as mayor of San Salvador. At the end, he included then-president Sanchez Cerén’s username, as if to say, “Take charge, this is for you.”

[Gabriel]:Comments and insults directed to party leadership, to the president.

[Silvia]: And then two key moments happen in September 2017 that speed up everything. The first was within the mayor’s office of San Salvador, where the FMLN governed together with Bukele. And, although he criticized them, it was still his party.

[Gabriel]:Nayib Bukele realizes that there’s a fight in the FMLN that he can take advantage of. It happened at a Municipal Council session. He wants votes for some municipal works. However, FMLN councilors, upset by Nayib’s separatist attitude, which is also very critical and leaves them aside, decide to rebel. He then, frustrated, suspends the council session and, as he walks away towards the exit, he throws an apple at one of his FMLN right-hand people, Xochitl Marchelli.

[BerthaDeleón]:According to her, he throws an apple at her and tells her to eat it, calling her a witch. That’s a totally immature, childish act.

[Silvia]:This is lawyer Bertha Deleón, whom we also heard in the first episode of this series. She knows the incident well, because she later defended Bukele in this case. The councilor he allegedly threw the apple at, Xochitl Marchelli, later filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office against Bukele for this. But, at the time it happened, there were several versions, and it’s difficult to determine which one is closest to what really happened.

[Gabriel]:There were arguments about whether the apple was, in fact, a projectile directed at her violently. Others say that he just slid the apple on the table, some others that it was, in fact, an attack, etc.

[Silvia]: The important thing here is that this incident became one of the FMLN’s justifications used to expel him from the party. Bukele has denied he verbally or physically attacked Marchelli.

[Eliezer]:The other moment that sped up his departure also happened in September 2017, while Bukele was in the United States, for a presentation of the San Salvador municipal ballet in Washington.

[Gabriel]:In one of those meetings, he says, “El Salvador doesn’t have a president right now. Where is the President?”

[Eliezer]: The sound isn’t the best, but this is the video – just a few seconds long – that was shared on Facebook:

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: El Salvador doesn’t have a president. When Mauricio Funes was there, we had a bad president, but at least there was one. Now there’s no president.

[Eliezer]: He’s referring to then president Salvador Sánchez Cerén. And he’s not just any politician. He was one of five FMLN general commanders. He led the largest army during the war. In other words, Bukele was directing all his criticism at the head of the party, the commander. It was a declaration of war.

[Gabriel]:That phrase causes a lot of pain, a lot of anger, a lot of rage and resentment to the party’s hardline militants. There are some FMLN leaders who try to calm the waters, but the party is already abuzz. He knows what he’s doing, though. Bukele knows that with this he’s contributing to something. At that moment, the party leadership calls its members to meetings at the national level, they play audio recordings of Nayib speaking in the United States, and then announce they’re going to separate.

[Archive soundbite newscast]: The FMLN Ethics Court expelled the mayor of San Salvador, Nayib Bukele, after a hearing that lasted over 18 hours.

[Silvia]: The party had opened a disciplinary process against him and, in October 2017, a month after the incidents, they expelled him. They accused him of, among other things, violating party rules and defaming the president and other members of the FMLN. But not only that. Let’s not forget the apple. As we said, Councilor Marchelli sued him before the Prosecutor’s Office. And, according to the party’s Ethics Court, what Bukele did was, and I quote, «disrespect of the human rights of women.»

[Bertha]: So that’s why they expelled him in the end, because they accused him of being a misogynist. They never accuse him of corruption. I mean, I don’t think the reason for his expulsion is a minor matter, but let’s say it doesn’t correspond to what the FMLN now says they knew about him.

[Silvia]:Now there are members of the party who resent that Bukele saw them only as a step in the political ladder. But, at that time, although they didn’t want him in the presidency and his criticisms were increasingly uncomfortable, the reality was that Bukele was one of their stars. So these were the arguments they found to expel him with: things that had to do with his behavior, not with the FMLN itself. They could victimize themselves. But so could Bukele. That’s why it worked for him. Also, his criticism of the party mirrored what many Salvadorans were feeling.

[Eliezer]: Back in October 2017, the FMLN had already been in the presidency for over eight years.

[Gabriel Labrador]:The wear and tear was beginning to show, a lot. There was also the passive attitude the FMLN had in considering the changes would speak for themselves and thinking propaganda wasn’t that important, when the other side had a communications beast like Nayib Bukele taking advantage of that, using it to undermine the FMLN, and to also hit the contending parties.

[Eliezer]:The thing is that ARENA, the traditional right-wing party, suffered from the same disease as the FMLN.

[Gabriel]:If one gets sick, the other gets sick, immediately, with the same illness. And the illness that afflicted these two parties back then was the deep wear and tear, the disenchantment of the people, the hatred that began to accumulate – or manifest itself – for cases of corruption. Neither ARENA nor the FMLN had shown tangible changes.

[Eliezer]: Also because, for decades, El Salvador had been immersed in a deep security crisis. In 2015, gangs made it the country with the most homicides per hundred thousand people in Latin America and the Caribbean. And no government had been able to solve it. We should also consider the lack of economic growth. In 2017, a third of the population lived in poverty.

[Silvia]: Less than a week after his expulsion from the party, in the video we heard at the beginning, Bukele announces he would run for president. 10 days later, he publishes another video on social media, where this narrative of wear and tear is already the protagonist. Once freed from the FMLN, he can now present himself as a political outsider and, at the same time, part of the people: another Salvadoran fed up with traditional parties, which, in the video, he calls electoral machines at the service of the oligarchies.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: We’re fed up with the two major political parties, we’re fed up with the two-party system, we’re fed up with the partisanship. We are fed up with ARENA and the FMLN.

[CarlosAraujo]:He was fed up with traditional politics…

[Silvia]:Again, Carlos Araujo:

[Carlos]: He talked about the democratic game of the FMLN and ARENA, and how a balanced Legislative Assembly ended up obstructing any results.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: 85% of the population doesn’t support any of the specific traditional majority parties. That means 85% of the population is being forced, with our tax money, to finance a political party that doesn’t represent us and that we don’t want to support.

[Carlos]:He became an avenger, the hero who would avenge citizens from those bad politicians who hadn’t solved their problems. He took on that role, and he, being a good publicist, definitely played it very well.

[Silvia]:This is a very important moment, because, as we saw in the previous episode, his desire for revenge was, at the beginning, an apparent driving force behind his jump into politics. Now, it was connected to the desire for revenge of many Salvadorans. The reasons why Bukele and other citizens want revenge may not be the same. But they have a common enemy. And now they have a savior.

[Eliezer]: In the same video he released 10 days after announcing he would run for president, we also see what we were talking about at the beginning: how behind his movements there is a calculation that is not so evident at first glance. Bukele was already preparing the ground for what was to come: a complicated campaign towards the presidency. He uses a saying that you may know: a single swallow doesn’t make it summer, but, he says, millions of swallows do.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: Because you can get rid of a swallow; whether it’s me or a candidacy, they could easily eliminate me. They have already made up several ridiculous lawsuits against me. I’m sure they can come up with another four or five.

[Eliezer]:This is all a preview, almost a warning. They can prevent him from registering as a candidate, he says. Or perhaps they’ll try to disqualify him. He even talks about the possibility of more… dramatic situations.

[Archive soundbite, NayibBukele]: They can put me in prison, they can kill me, etc. But they can’t do that with millions of swallows. They can’t prevent millions of Salvadorans from wanting their country to change.

[Silvia]:And, after warning that the path to the presidency will be difficult, Bukele presents, in that video, the movement he’s launching his candidacy with.

[Gabriel]:He describes it as a great citizens’ movement. Where “the people” will be able to participate directly in politics like never before, because neither ARENA nor the FMLN gave them true participation, only using them, etc.

[Silvia]:Bukele says this will be a movement without a general secretary, without hierarchies, where you can say and do whatever you want. Without naming them, he refers to his expulsion from the FMLN. Again, to say: we’re not like them.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: If you want to post something on Facebook citing something I said or in favor of something I said, well, I thank you very much for that. But if you want to criticize me, you can do so too, because in a real and horizontal movement there are no leaders. No one can be expelled by an ethics court for criticizing someone.

[Silvia]:But, in order for this movement to have an identity and for everyone to feel part of it, he says, he gave it a name:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: We wanted to call our movement Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas).

[Silvia]:The name of the movement wasn’t a new idea. This is the subtitle of the book his father wrote, ClarifyingConceptsinPhysics:NewIdeasand Answers. It’s also how he named his platform for mayor of San Salvador. In any case, Bukele gives two reasons for the name:

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: First, because we need new ideas. Second, because this way we’ll have an identity that will unite us in some way. Through our differences, and in our diversity, we’ll unite under this name: Nuevas Ideas.

[Eliezer]:If what Bukele says about his movement sounds generic, or vague, that’s because it is. The video doesn’t shed much light on the ideology of Nuevas Ideas. He doesn’t talk about what specific policies he’s going to promote. It’s clear his campaign flag is being different from the traditional parties. Once again, Carlos Araujo:

[Carlos]: When I describe him as a populist leader, it’s precisely that. He has no ideology; he adapts to whatever role suits him at that moment.

[Eliezer]:In the video, Bukele says the movement will only have two rules. Again, pretty… generic. The first is for its members to want the best for the country.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: It’s easy, right? And the second is for us all to think about adding, not taking.

[Gabriel]: He avoids talking about the issue. It’s a political party, but he insists a lot on the idea of a civic citizen movement. Very much a populist style, right? That is, talking about the people taking power.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: We’re Salvadorans who are fed up with them, and we are much stronger than them, and we are many more in number. And although we don’t have their resources, we don’t need them. We have the strength of the Salvadoran people.

[Silvia]:We’ll be back after the break.

[Dejusticia]: Defending democracy and human rights in Latin America requires many hands. Threats such as authoritarianism, the closing of democratic spaces, corruption, and bad governance continue to frustrate the possibility of a dignified life without discrimination. At Dejusticia, we combine research,

activism, litigation, training, advocacy, and strategic communication to collaboratively confront these and other threats in Latin America and the Global South. Our actions include solidarity programs for human rights defenders at risk, such as our scholarship program for activists from the Global South. Learn about our work at and follow us on our social media @dejusticia.

[Silvia]:We’re back. A few months after announcing that he was running for president, Bukele had a golden opportunity to take the temperature of political sentiments and reinforce his narrative of being fed up: the 2018 legislative and municipal elections. At that time, let us remember, he was already out of the FMLN. But Nuevas Ideas wasn’t yet an official party with which he could run in elections. It was a growing movement, but it wasn’t officially registered. So Bukele decided to promote a different type of campaign: he began to call on people to present a null or blank ballot, or, simply, not to vote.

[Gabriel]: He assumes people’s discontent, their anger and disappointment, and says he’s not going to compete. But, he also says, it’s a good idea to demonstrate and punish the traditional political forces: vote null.

[Silvia]: Bukele wasn’t the only one promoting the null vote. There were people on social media and traditional media talking about the idea as an expression of rejection of traditional parties. But Bukele was, indeed, a key character.

[Gabriel]:And, of course, in 2018, in the March 2018 election, the two major parties continued to reign in the political ecosystem, but the downsizing is drastic.

[Silvia]: The traditional parties won deputies and mayors, but this time they did so with fewer votes than in previous elections. And the null vote, on the contrary, skyrocketed. Never before in the democratic history of the country had so many Salvadorans chosen that option. El Faro newspaper, where Gabriel works, made the calculation: if the null vote were a party, it would have won six congress seats, which would make it the fifth-largest political force during that term.

[Gabriel]:It was a specific sign that, if Bukele made a call, there was a good chance people would respond and decide to follow that narrative.

[Silvia]:It was a perfect scenario for him: he had presented himself as just another Salvadoran, fed up with traditional parties. He called on people to spoil their votes to show that discontent. And they listened to him. There was no longer any doubt that everything was ready for Bukele’s arrival to the presidency.

[Eliezer]:Now, presenting himself with a new party wasn’t so simple. Several steps required by electoral law had to be followed, which takes time. And, Gabriel says, Bukele was well advised enough to know this.

[Gabriel]:When Nayib launches Nuevas Ideas, he and his advisors already knew. These people are very knowledgeable of electoral issues, so they knew they wouldn’t be able to participate in the presidential election with Nuevas Ideas.

[Eliezer]: They just didn’t have the time. They had less than a month to establish themselves as a party. But, facing his followers, Bukele insisted that anything was possible. Deadlines didn’t matter. With the support of all of them, they could achieve it. This is Bukele announcing the beginning of the official creation of the party:

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: Usually, parties take between 3, 4 or 5 months to get 50,000 signatures. Well, we have planned that, in three days…

[Gabriel]:He had to show muscle. He had to show that he had a lot of people with him.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: In three days, we’re going to get 200,000 signatures.

[Gabriel]:That is something that, to the politicians of yesteryear, to traditional politicians, sounded like, “What is this kid saying?” No party had the machinery to do it. But Nayib, having taken measurements back in the 2018 election, had already shown his message resonated. He just had to carry, once again, the disenchantment flag, and hit his two big foes, ARENA and the FMLN. With that, he thought he would be fine.

[Eliezer]:At the end of April, when the deadline to register as a party to run for president had passed, they dedicated a weekend to collecting signatures. And did so in a big way. They set up 25 points throughout the country where people could go to sign.

[Gabriel]:And of course, he got the signatures.

[Eliezer]: And he announced it to his followers in a square in San Salvador’s city center, through a megaphone.

[Archivesoundbite,Nayib Bukele]: I want to announce to all the Salvadoran people that we just got 200,000 signatures.

[Audience]:Nayib! Nayib! Nayib!

[Eliezer]: It was an achievement, without a doubt. Bukele showed he had a lot of support. But in practical and legal terms, it was of no use. It was already too late; the deadline had passed. And clearly, it was a setup. Because they knew they didn’t have enough time, while Bukele and his team staged this entire show with the registration of the party and the signatures, they negotiated under the table to present themselves for another party that could compete.

[Silvia]:But it wasn’t that simple. After trying out some small parties, he ended up allying himself with Cambio Democrático, which was disqualified a month after they made their alliance with Bukele public. This disqualification had real, full-fledged reasons. The party had not met electoral law requirements. But Bukele sold his followers the idea that this was another sign they would make his life impossible because they didn’t want him to come to power.

Lawyer Bertha Deleón recognizes that, although she is now very critical of him, there were several attempts to prevent Bukele’s candidacy. Bertha gave us, as an example, the case we mentioned in the previous episode: the newspaper parodies that circulated on the internet, La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy. Since it was discovered that Bukele was involved, there was very intense media coverage, to such a level that those newspapers called it «the cyberattack case.» But it was really about parodies and brand impersonation.

[Bertha]:So what did that do? It had the opposite effect. They made him a victim, “Poor thing, they want to set a trap for him. They don’t want him to reach the top.” You see? It’s not just… Some people would say, “Oh, but he’s a genius.” I mean, there are also a bunch of idiots who put it on a silver platter for him.

[Silvia]: Either way, Bukele had options, and he ended up getting a party to run with: GANA, Grand Alliance for National Unity. A fairly young right-wing political group – it was less than 10 years old at that time. But it hadn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a branch that split off from the traditional right-wing party, ARENA. It had supporters, offices in all towns, and a structure. It also had a pretty bad reputation.

[Gabriel]:Nayib decides to join them, assuming the costs of being linked to a party recognized as corrupt. GANA doesn’t have a good image; it doesn’t have that appeal for the reasoned vote. It’s a party known to be linked to drug trafficking, with Congresspeople who stole. Nayib decides to go with it because he knows his popularity is bigger and can justify it. And the way to justify it is, “Look at the journey I had to go through and the court wouldn’t let me. I have no other choice.”

[Eliezer]:In other words, Bukele allied himself with a party that represented everything he had been criticizing, right? And how did GANA react? Was he well received despite all that?

[GabrielLabrador]:Yes, he was.

[Archivesoundbite,followers]:You feel it, you feel it, President Nayib!

[Journalist]:Surrounded by controversy due to the last-minute registration of Nayib Bukele, supporters of the GANA party ratified its ticket to seek the presidency in 2019.

[GabrielLabrador]:I’m guessing GANA must have celebrated a lot that night when the alliance was made, because they welcomed it. They gave in completely; they decided to change their colors, from orange to cyan. GANA didn’t seem to have a problem giving up its history, its identity and culture. And the party gives itself to the project. Everyone seemed very happy with him. But there is division, in fact. The one who doesn’t want GANA is Bukele. He shows up and tells them, “Thank you very much, but I’m the one in charge here. I’m the star. I decide what to do. So you guys will do what I say.” And there’s nothing that can be done. The party leadership, those old political foxes, know that that is how it works. Where a captain rules, a sailor has no sway. And that’s how it was.

[Silvia]:The presidential campaign officially began on October 2, 2018. We contacted several of his advisors to tell us about his strategies, but they didn’t answer. However, as we have already said, Bukele started with several advantages. He had already shown that he understood the culture of being tired of it all, and that he had enormous popular support. He also understood the impact of social media. According to Gabriel, he’s never seen a candidate who used them so intensely, with a presence on all of them: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. Bukele’s rivals used this to say his support wasn’t real, that it came from fake accounts, from artificially invented hashtags.

[Gabriel]:The traditional parties continued to say that in public. I don’t know whether they really believed it. Maybe they just wanted to give a little confidence to their own supporters. In any case, Bukele also campaigns in large traditional media: radio, television, printed newspapers, and, like everyone else, with a lot of money. He received many, many campaign contributions

that, of course, he has never revealed. He’s never wanted to say who his donors are.

[Silvia]: Although he’s never provided financial information, the organization Acción Ciudadana has found some clues about the financing of his first presidential campaign.

[Eliezer]: For example, they revealed that GANA obtained 1 million dollars from a construction company during that campaign. When Bukele was already president, the company won a bid to work on the cargo terminal at the San Salvador airport. The amount exceeded 60 million dollars. In other words, they donated a million and earned, at least, 50 times that. A lucrative business.

[Silvia]: But this wasn’t known until later. During the campaign, financing was a mystery. And it didn’t seem to be something that worried his followers much.

The polls put him as the favorite, as the candidate who was going to change history and break with the two-party system in the country. For almost three decades, since the end of the civil war in El Salvador and the return of democracy, the presidency had only been occupied by leaders of ARENA or the FMLN, who dominated national political life. During the presidential race, Gabriel told us, the polls were a big issue, because the reaction of more traditional academics and political scientists was to question them.

[Gabriel]:They said that, if ARENA and the FMLN had been governing for 30 years, it would be impossible for anyone else to reverse that. They also said Nayib was a troll candidate who had no real supporters. He also has no ideology, and has surrounded himself with corrupt people. So they attacked him a lot and actually had arguments. But what they didn’t realize was that he had already connected with the people, and with the disenchanted voter who had never felt identified with any political project in his life.

[Silvia]:He managed to seduce those who felt marginalized, excluded.

[GabrielLabrador]:He was a democrat at that moment. He professed many democratic values, such as accountability.

[Silvia]:That is, he not only convinced those who are generally not interested in politics, but also those who traditionally go to vote.


[Medium 1]: Calmly but tensely, this is how Salvadorans await the results of the presidential election.

[Medium2]:The desire for change is embodied, for a large part of society, by Nayib Bukele. At only 37 years old, the former mayor of San Salvador leads all the polls and could exceed 50% of the votes necessary to avoid a runoff election.

[Archivesoundbite,pressconference]:Nayib! Nayib! Nayib!

[Eliezer]:On February 3, 2019, after the polls closed, Bukele held a press conference in a small private room. It was before the official results were given. In other words, what you’re hearing now is from a place where, it’s assumed, only his campaign team and journalists were present. Bukele gets on stage, wearing his jeans and leather jacket. After 30 seconds of applause and shouts, he takes out his cell phone, and turns around.

[Archivesoundbite,pressconference]:The selfie. [Eliezer]:And he takes a selfie. The audience explodes. [Archivesoundbite,pressconference]:[Screams]

[Eliezer]:Bukele says that, two hours earlier, they had already got results that marked a clear trend in their favor, and they were tempted to make them public. But they waited a while to have what he called a “mathematically irreversible result,” and also to see whether his opponents would come out and

concede the victory to him. But as time passed, and it wasn’t happening, he decided to make the announcement himself.

[Archivesoundbite,pressconference,Bukele]:Yes, we could.

[Sympathizer]:Thank God!

[NayibBukele]:We can announce with complete certainty that we have won the presidency of the Republic of El Salvador… in the first round!

[Eliezer]:He won with 53% of the votes. And the traditional parties collapsed. The FMLN had the worst result in its entire democratic history, and ARENA lost 60% of its voters. It was a resounding, historic victory. And Bukele was going to make sure that would be how his arrival to power was felt.

We’ll be back after the break.

[DanielAlarcón]:The production company behind «Bukele, el señor de los sueños» is Radio Ambulante Estudios. And we have two other podcasts you should listen to. Every Tuesday, we release Radio Ambulante. Stories of families, migration, adventure, and love. And every Friday, we release El hilo, where we cover and thoroughly explain an impactful news story from Latin America. Look for Radio Ambulante and El hilo on your preferred podcast app.

[Eliezer]:We’re back.

[Gabriel]: This is the cathedral… This is it, the Plaza Barrios. Nayib was inaugurated over there.

[Silvia]: When I went to tour San Salvador’s historic center, in mid-2023, Gabriel showed me the place where Bukele was proclaimed the country’s president. It’s a large square in front of the National Palace.

[Gabriel]: The stage for the transfer of command was set up there. For the first time, the transfer of power event was held here in downtown, and, well,

Bukele did it on purpose so that, when Congresspeople entered, the people, as a natural reaction, would shout at them, call them thieves and corrupt. And that’s how it happened. In the official transmission of the transfer of power, you can hear the screams.

[Archive soundbite, presenter]:We begin this solemn session with the entry of the honorable Legislative Assembly.


[Gabriel]:Insulting the deputies and such is part of what Bukele wanted to provoke.

[Archivesoundbite,audience]:Out, out, out!

[Silvia]: Usually, Gabriel told us, the transfer events had been in closed convention centers with restricted access. Always with an audience, but none like this.

[Gabriel]:So that event… I remember being there, listening to the screams, the shouting, the insults to traditional politicians. I also remember how people idolized Nayib, screaming at him, telling him, “We are with you, Nayib.”

[Archivesoundbite,audience]:Nayib, Nayib, Nayib!

[Gabriel]:There was a military aircraft show. And that makes me feel… in hindsight, it is like a sign of what was to come, right? That show was not only of paraphernalia, but also of the use of the army for political purposes.

[Archivesoundbite,NayibBukele]: Before starting, I want to make a special mention of the illustrious guests we have here today. I’m referring to each and every one of the Salvadorans here, in this square, and those who see us through the media.

[Silvia]: Bukele’s speech lasted about 25 minutes. What you just heard is the beginning. That day, he says, begins the new history they’re going to write together: Bukele and the people.

[Gabriel]:He also says something about El Salvador being like a sick child during his speech.

[Archive soundbite, NayibBukele,inauguration]:It’s like a sick child. Now it’s up to all of us to take care of it.

[Gabriel]: One who must be given medicine. And, at some point, all medicine is horrible. It hurts.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele, inauguration]: It’s now everyone’s turn to take some bitter medicine. Now it’s everyone’s turn to suffer a little. It’s now up to all of us to have a little pain, to assume our responsibility, as brothers, to help this child prosper, who is our family, our country, El Salvador.

[Gabriel]:And then I realized that he’s actually assuming, for the first time in his entire campaign, and in all these months, that things won’t be so easy.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele, inauguration]: And yes, there will be hard moments. There will be difficult times, but we will make those decisions bravely.

[Gabriel]: In other words, all the pretty things he promised during the campaign, that he’s going to transform the country and that they’re going to work and dedicate themselves to the country from day 1… He slows things down and says: “Look, it’s not going to be that easy. The remedy is going to be bitter.”

[Silvia]: In this speech, Bukele also shows a sense of parental guidance, which, Gabriel says, is a feature of his governing style: the harsh father who says he hits you because he loves you. Because he wants to protect you. Because it’s for your own good.

[Gabriel]:All policies have that pattern. On top of that, his wife, Gabriela, is pregnant during that event. So he shows his wife… It’s all a dance of symbols that they handle almost perfectly.

[Eliezer]: Between bitter medicine and fatherhood, Bukele begins his presidency by presenting himself, indeed, as a severe father. And he does it in public, so that everyone can see how he imposes discipline. Once in power, he used his favorite social media outlet, Twitter, to announce his decisions: “Such minister is ordered to remove such official.”

[Gabriel]: I was questioning how legal this is. I mean, Twitter is not a source of law, but it seems like he was doing it that way.

[Eliezer]:He wasn’t the first president to use Twitter that way. Donald Trump had already done it. For example, he fired his Secretary of State on Twitter a year earlier, in 2018. Bertha, who is a legal expert, wrote to Bukele to warn him that that way of announcing such delicate issues could get him into trouble. She said to him:

[Bertha]:“I don’t rule out that these people you are humiliating on Twitter could sue for moral damages. So, since I’ve already predicted things that happened to you many times, I’m telling you not to do that.” His replies would simply be, “Oh, what a party pooper.” Or things like, “We’ll figure out how to fix it later.”

[Gabriel]: Things like that would actually take his own cabinet by surprise. They had to execute those decisions no matter what, and no one had told them they would have to do that. So the joke was, “If you don’t have Twitter, they’re going to fire you in two days.” Because the ministers’ response was, “As you wish, Mr. President,” “Right away, President Bukele.” But it wasn’t that surprising to me because I knew he was a man of technology and social media.

[Silvia]: It’s part of his image: the millennial president who does things differently, who uses new technologies…

[Gabriel]:In those days, when he starts becoming news on Twitter, he knows he has to keep feeding that. So he and his team know he has to continue making headlines, so he changes his bio to describe himself as “The world’s coolest president.”

[Silvia]: And in September, just a few months into his mandate, Bukele tried to project this image on an international stage: the UN.

[Archive soundbite, UN]: The General Assembly will hear a speech by Mr. His Excellency Nayib Armando Bukele, President of the Republic of El Salvador.

[Gabriel]: He arrives at the UN, in New York, on his first visit as president. And they give him the floor. He takes the podium.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele at the UN]: I’m pleased to address you from this forum for the first time.

[Gabriel]:And he says hello. “Good morning, everyone, your excellencies. Allow me a moment.”

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele at the UN]: Now just a second, if you allow me…

[Gabriel]: And he takes out his cell phone from his jacket, a high-end iPhone, I don’t know what number it was. And he decides to pose for a selfie. He even takes a few seconds and smiles, and wants the UN logo to appear on the photo.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele at the UN]: The world, the new world, is no longer in this General Assembly, but in the place where this photo will go, to the largest network in the world.

[Gabriel]:And all that is done before the eyes of millions. I was like, “Man, this will make headlines all over the world. And we will become an eccentric

country, led by the eccentric Bukele.” And it certainly was so. That was like a manifestation of what was to come.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele at the UN]: Believe me, many more people will see this selfie than will hear this speech.

[Eliezer]: Gabriel believes that, for Bukele, the digital world was a place that he had to govern. And, in those first months of his mandate, he continued tweeting against the traditional parties. But now there was a new battlefield: the Legislative Assembly.

[Gabriel]: What happens is that the parties use their institutional political influence to try to undermine Bukele. I mean, that’s what they’ve always done, right? Let’s say I’m ARENA, and I try to utilize Congress. So my deputies try to block the FMLN, and vice versa. Then they, adopting a role as the opposition, begin to block Bukele in Congress. So he starts to realize – or perhaps he already knew – that Congress was going to be a big stumbling block.

[LeonardoBonilla]:From the very beginning of the Bukele government, I basically positioned myself as an opponent.

[Eliezer]: This is Leonardo Bonilla. He was a Congressman between 2018 and 2021. He’s the first and only independent legislator that has existed in the history of El Salvador. Leonardo had seen Bukele’s behavior since his beginnings as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán and says he realized that, by his way of acting, his decisions and the way he spoke, his intentions were always to become president.

[Leonardo]:He seemed too ambitious, so he didn’t feel trustworthy to me. However, I’ve always been a democrat and I refrained from commenting on what I personally believed about Nayib Bukele, because I could be wrong. Bukele ended up being president and, from the first days, I began to see that what I thought of him was becoming a reality: an egocentric, manipulative person. A dictator, right?

[Silvia]: We wanted to understand what the blockade of Bukele at the Assembly was like in those first months of his presidency. And both Leonardo and Gabriel told us about a particular initiative that caused a lot of friction. So much so that it would end up triggering the first public display of Bukele’s authoritarianism.

[Leonardo]:Bukele had been pushing for a 109-million-dollar loan to invest in security.

[Gabriel]:In his first months, he decides to promote the issue of combating gangs with his supposed Territorial Control Plan.

[Silvia]: That plan has never been officially detailed. What is known is that it has seven phases, which Bukele has been revealing, little by little, without giving many details. Back then, less was known about this initiative. We are talking about the second half of 2019.

[Gabriel]:So Bukele says: “I need money to buy weapons, to equip the poor soldiers, to give better uniforms and cars to police officers. And I need to protect Salvadorans. So anyone who opposes this loan is in favor of gangs killing Salvadorans.” It’s a very simplistic rhetoric and, furthermore, it greatly stigmatizes the opposition. Because what the opposition wanted, back then, was accountability.

[Silvia]: It was a loan that would be added to the country’s external debt, which was already quite high. So the opposition was justified in wanting to know, in more detail than the government gave, in which areas the money was going to be invested. Why the urgency? And why would this security plan work, when all others had failed before?

[Gabriel]:In other words, a well-made plan. And of course, Bukele didn’t have one.

[Leonardo]: Those funds would probably have been approved if he had approached it through another means.

[Silvia]:Had he searched for dialogue, for example.

[Leonardo]: But I personally believe that his idea was to remove the Legislative Assembly as a whole from the discussion.

[Silvia]:That is, Bukele portrayed them as a single group, which serves no purpose other than opposing him, instead of deputies from different parties, with different ideologies.

[Leonardo]:And that was the excuse he used to say that Congresspeople wouldn’t give him anything.

[Silvia]:Bukele was governing with an Assembly that was in the hands of the traditional parties, ARENA and FMLN. There were few Congressmen on his side. Without a majority in the Assembly, he had two options: either negotiate or declare war on them. Bukele chose war.

[Leonardo]:And he began to pressure the Assembly in an undemocratic way.

[Gabriel]:Bukele then announces he’s going to pressure the Assembly, and calls on Salvadorans to meet outside the Legislative Assembly on Sunday, February 9, so they can pressure.

[Eliezer]:Pressure legislators to approve the loan. But he not only summoned his followers. He also called on Congresspeople for an extraordinary session.

[Leonardo Bonilla]: He summoned the Assembly out of a whim; he manipulated the constitutional interpretation to say he had the power to do so. So, he summoned them in this irregular way, using the excuse of the 109-million-dollar loan, since it supposedly was an urgent matter for the country.

[LeonardoBonilla]:When constitutional scholars and others analyzed the situation, we reached the conclusion that the president didn’t have the power

to call a plenary session, at least not at that time and not under those circumstances. The Constitution gives him that power only under a state of emergency or calamity. I knew there was unconstitutionality in it, but nothing prohibited me from attending, nor did I think that, by going, I was endorsing this call. So I decided to go and find out what was happening.

[Silvia]:What happened that day raised the threshold for what Salvadorans could endure. It was Bukele’s first major public display of authoritarianism. A sign of what was to come, and a demonstration of what he’s willing to do to get what he wants.

In the next episode…

[Archivesoundbite,BukeleoutsidetheAssembly]:I promised during the campaign that if we had to march to the Legislative Assembly, we would march to the Legislative Assembly.

[Archivesoundbite,newscast]:The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, broke into Congress this Sunday, escorted by heavily armed police and military personnel.

[Archive soundbite, Bukele inside theAssembly]:With all humility, you know it, the entire Salvadoran people know it, our adversaries know it. The international community knows it. Our Armed Forces know it. Our National Civil Police knows it. All the de facto powers in the country know it. If we wanted to press the button, we would just press the button.

[Eliezer]:This series was made possible thanks to the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Free Press Unlimited, Article 19 Mexico and Central America, the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), and Dejusticia. Additionally, we appreciate FLIP for their advice and legal review, and Riesgo Cruzado for their valuable support in protection and security matters.

The producers and reporters of «Bukele: el señor de Los sueños» are Silvia Viñas and me. Gabriel Labrador is our reporter and on-site producer. Desireé

Yépez is our digital producer. Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura are our editors. Carlos Dada is our editorial consultant. The fact-checkers are Bruno Scelza and Desireé Yepez. Selene Mazón is the production assistant. The music, mixing, and sound design are by Elías González. The graphic design and art direction are by Diego Corzo. The web development is by Paola Ponce. Thanks to Jonathan Blitzer for his support.

«Bukele, el señor de Los sueños» is a podcast from Central, the series channel of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

From Radio Ambulante Studios, the product directors are Natalia Ramírez and Laura Rojas Aponte, with the assistance of Paola Alean. The audience and digital production team is formed by Samantha Proaño, Ana Pais, Analía Llorente and Melisa Rabanales. Press and community management is handled by Juan David Naranjo and Adriana Bernal.

Camilo Jiménez Santofimio is the director of alliances and financing. Carolina Guerrero is the executive producer of Central and the CEO of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

You can follow us on social media as centralpodcast RA and subscribe to our newsletter at

I am Eliezer Budasoff. Thank you for listening.


Reported and produced by: Silvia Viñas y Eliezer Budasoff

On-site reporting and production: Gabriel Labrador

Digital producer: Desireé Yepez

Edited by: Daniel Alarcón y Camila Segura

Editorial Consulting: Carlos Dada

Fact-checking: Bruno Scelza y Desirée Yépez

 Editorial assistant: Selene Mazón

Music and Sound Design: Elías González

Graphic Design and Art Direction: Diego Corzo

Translated by: María Jesús Zevallos