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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 2 . 17/01/2024

Episode 2. Move fast, break things

[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