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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


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EP 3 . 08/02/2024

EPISODE 3. Time for the bitter pill

[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