Bukele wiped out all checks on his power over the course of five years

Nayib Bukele completes his first five years as president of El Salvador having fully earned the label as a "populist autocrat." Populist, because he has gained power by developing enormous popularity in the Salvadoran public through an extraordinary propaganda and public image machine, and autocrat because he and his party Nuevas Ideas have accumulated the total power to govern in the country after having eliminated each and every institution which might provide checks or limits on Bukele's power.

The tactics Bukele used are a true dictator's playbook.

Undermine the press

Bukele started early to eliminate checks and balances by seeking to undermine the role of the press as a watchdog in a democratic society. Before he even took office as president, he was telling the public that impartial journalism does not exist:

@NayibBukele Tweet April 20, 2019

That those of the media who presented themselves as "independent" are going out now with a clear and totally subjective agenda shouldn't startle anyone.   It's clear that the media can't live on air, it has its sponsors and they must submit themselves to their agendas.

Shortly after that tweet, on April 24, 2019 Bukele made an address on Facebook Live (his first public address after being elected) where he spent a significant part of the address continuing this theme that all the press had agendas, had financial interests, had family interests and could not be impartial. Once in office, these depictions of the press as beholden to corrupt outsiders would continue nonstop. Today according to recent polling recent polling, most Salvadorans get their news from Facebook and YouTube, where Bukele invests heavily in his own image and in having influencers tout the Bukele project.

Obtain the Loyalty of the Military

Throughout the 20th century, El Salvador's military either directly ruled the country or ruled in tandem with a wealthy oligarchy. Keeping in mind that historical precedent, Bukele has assiduously worked to have the loyalty of the armed forces.

Bukele elevated the position of the military within the country, worked to expand their ranks by 20,000 soldiers, and has increased their annual budget by more than $110 million. The military has gone on a spending spree for armored vehicles, new weapons and body armor, all celebrated by Bukele and the government’s social media image machine.

This chart, published by GatoEncerrado, and using government data, shows the dramatic growth in the military budget under Bukele.

Budget of the Salvadoran Armed Forces since 1992

And the Salvadoran military has responded with expressions of its loyalty to Bukele. An early prime example of this occurred in February 2020, when Bukele was demanding the Legislative Assembly come into session to approve a $109 million loan to modernize equipment for the military and police. As the tensions with the Assembly mounted on February 8, the military issued public statements proclaiming their loyalty to Bukele. The top military command convened a press conference to read a statement without taking questions:

We are waiting orders from our Commander General, @NayibBukele, and we are
prepared to defend our country even at the price of our lives,"  Minister of Defense

The Salvadoran armed forces' twitter account sent out photos of the troops saluting Bukele:

All our troops have sworn allegiance to the
President of the Republic and Commander General of the Armed Forces
 and we will always be attentive to his orders

Show who's boss

After the expressions of fealty by his military leadership, on Sunday, February 9, 2020. Bukele marched into the chambers of the Legislative Assembly accompanied by armed troops. The Assembly was controlled by opposition Legislators and was not about to do everything the upstart young president asked of them.

The purpose of the special Sunday legislative session demanded by Bukele was to approve a $109 million international loan for the modernization of the military and police forces. The Legislative Assembly had declined to be told when it should and should not meet, and scheduled the time to take up the loan package one day after Bukele wanted.

So on Sunday, February 9, 2020, Bukele sent armed troops and squadrons of police throughout the capital city of San Salvador. He arrived with armed troops at the Legislative Assembly along with crowds of his supporters. Bukele then marched into the chambers of the legislature and assumed the seat reserved for the president of the Assembly. Having made his point of who was in charge, he assumed a posture of prayer for a period of minutes and then got up and left.

Bukele had made it clear that he had all the forces of security on his side, and should be expected to wield that power.

Use Emergency Powers

A little more than a month later, the COVID-19 pandemic would circle the world and reach into El Salvador. Bukele would make use of a new tool in his arsenal of autocracy -- the declaration of an emergency.

The crisis gave Bukele the opportunity to seize the spotlight as the strong leader who would use stern measures to confront the threat. On March 21, 2020, Bukele ordered a strict lockdown of the country confining everyone to their homes except certain essential workers. On May 5, that lockdown was tightened with only one person per household allowed to go out to buy food, medicine, or to bank, and only twice per week depending on the person’s identity card number. In a country where 40% or more of people work in the informal economy, and don't eat if they don't go out to work, the lockdown was painful. Some families resorted to waving white flags by the street to show there was a household without food.

One of the most controversial parts of the early lockdown phase was the use of “contention centers.” The contention centers held persons who entered the country from abroad, or persons who were found to be away from their homes in violation of the lockdown order. Ultimately almost 17,000 persons spent time confined in the centers because they entered the country from abroad or for being found out in public in violation of the lockdown orders.

At one point, Bukele sent troops to the coastal town of Puerto La Libertad to lock it down and enforce a total quarantine after he was angered by persons being found in the streets. In a tweet, he ordered the city to be cordoned off by the military with no one allowed to enter or leave. Residents were confined to their houses without permission to leave even to buy food or medicine. The military blocked all access to the city, and patrolled it wearing masks and toting semi-automatic weapons.

Bukele at opening of Hospital El Salvador for treating Covid cases

But some checks and balances still existed in El Salvador. After the several weeks of the pandemic crisis, the Legislative Assembly and the Constitutional Chamber began to reassert themselves while Bukle continued to issue decrees. On April 15, Bukele went on a twitter rampage to declare that his government would not comply with rulings of the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court. The conflict arose out of a series of rulings by the Chamber which rejected extremes of Bukele's measures against the novel coronavirus, especially the domestic quarantine, or stay at home order.

The Chamber ruled that Bukele exceeded his authority as he has been ruling by decree without laws passed by the Legislative Assembly supporting those actions. The Chamber declared that persons found outside their houses cannot be arrested and carried off to quarantine centers if they are not symptomatic; the police cannot impound cars of persons who violated the quarantine; the government must have a plan to allow Salvadorans stranded abroad to return home.

One hundred days into the pandemic's spread through El Salvador, the complete breakdown of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of government continued. President Bukele continued to rule by decrees which varied from laws passed by the Assembly, and although the Assembly passed laws to address the pandemic, Bukele vetoed those laws because they did not contain all the provisions which he demanded. The Assembly then overrode the vetoes, but when a veto is based on Bukele's claim that the laws violate the Constitution, the Constitutional Chamber then must rule on whether the law can go into effect.

Get control of the Legislative Assembly

So to eliminate the remaining checks and balances on his power which had frustrated him so much during the height of the pandemic, Bukele's newly-formed Nuevas Ideas party needed to take control of the Legislative Assembly in the 2021 national elections. In their election campaign, Bukele and Nuevas Ideas took advantage of all the prerogatives of the executive branch and its publicity machines. The government managed to get early deliveries of COVID vaccines, first from China and then from the US. Each delivery was greeted with thanks to Bukele and multimedia shows of vaccines being delivered throughout the country.

Computers began arriving to be delivered to school children in public schools. Little matter that the schools lacked internet access or teachers trained to incorporate the technology -- smiling children and sparkling technology made great campaign videos.

Bukele and his team are masters at social media. They worked with an army of social media influencers and trolls to trounce a weakened and fragmented opposition. Nuevas Ideas, along with its ally GANA, garnered a super majority in the Legislative Assembly. No longer would the legislature have the ability to check Bukele's agenda.

Fire the Attorney General and Supreme Court and replace them with your friends

Once control of the Legislative Assembly was in place, the Bukele team worked rapidly to eliminate both the office of the attorney general and the courts as checks on the president’s powers.

The very first night that this new Legislative Assembly was seated, May 1, 2021, it acted to remove all of the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber, the country's highest judicial authority. It removed the magistrates all at once, without giving them notice or the opportunity to be heard. Within minutes of purging the Chamber, the Assembly elected a new hand-picked slate of judges completely ignoring the process in the constitution for appointing new judges.

On the same night that the Assembly deposed the Constitutional Chamber, it also removed the country's attorney general from office without any due process. Then Attorney General Raul Melara had been investigating officials in the Bukele administration for corruption in connection with pandemic contracting, among other reasons. Without prior notice or hearings, the Assembly elected Rodolfo Delgado as attorney general of El Salvador. Delgado promptly disbanded the unit in the prosecutors' office which had been investigating corruption in the Bukele regime.

The Legislative Assembly continued the work of creating a compliant judiciary a few months later when it passed a law with mandatory retirement for all judges and prosecutors over 60, removing one third of all judges and many prosecutors. This gave the NI-friendly Supreme Judicial Court the ability to remake much of the court system.

Declare War on Public Enemy #1, and in the process eliminate due process.  

An autocrat has even more ability to wield power if his prosecutors and his courts do not have to comply with the niceties of due process of law or human rights. On March 27, 2022, the Legislative Assembly suspended due process protections in the Salvadoran constitution and allowed arrest on mere suspicion and anonymous tips to place people indefinitely in overcrowded prisons awaiting trial. This "exceptional" provision became the current state of affairs in El Salvador when the Assembly rubber-stamped extensions of the State of Exception every 30 days after that.

This suspension of constitutional due process protections as part of a war on gangs was adopted by the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly in the midst of a bloody weekend in March 2022 in which gangs murdered at least 87 people around the country. (Journalistic investigations revealed later that the murders were in response to a breakdown in secret deals between Bukele and the gangs to suppress murders). Under the State of Exception, security forces of the police and military can arrest anyone without a warrant or observing them commit a crime, can hold them for 15 days before appearing before a judge and without telling them the charges, and can freely intercept communications without a judicial order. Those detained receive initial hearings, before judges with their identities masked, in groups that often number in the hundreds where the charges are simply gang affiliation. Judges routinely order defendants into El Salvador's hellishly overcrowded prisons without bail, to await for their next hearing which could come in six months.

The State of Exception has largely succeeded in dismantling the gangs. But it has also become a powerful tool of intimidation of Bukele's security forces. The University Observatory of Human Rights issued a report on criminal justice titled Informe sobre acceso a la justicia y régimen de excepción en El Salvador. As the OUDH points out:
Likewise, this repressive governance goes beyond criminal matters. The warning: “We are going to apply the regime to you,” is frequently used by authorities in administrative, municipal, even traffic violations, rejection of labor claims, in evictions of vendors from public places, etc., or as an “alternative” facing someone who complains about an unjustified dismissal or other actions by the authority.
The Bukele regime now continually extends the State of Exception, although the "emergency" which originally justified it has long since disappeared in a country Bukele proclaims to be the safest in the Americas.  The country's rulers do not want to go back to being required to justify why they arrest someone on the streets.

Change the electoral process to favor your political party.  

Prior law in El Salvador prohibited changes to the election process less than a year before the next election. The NI-controlled Legislative Assembly repealed that law. Then eight months before the 2024 national elections, the Legislative Assembly changed the rules for election of deputies, by reducing the number of deputies from 84 to 60 and changing the method to allocate seats to political parties. It was a transparent ploy to benefit Nuevas Ideas, and it worked. The result was Nuevas Ideas won 90% of the seats in the new Legislative Assembly which took office on May 1, with only 71% of the vote.

 Eliminate centers of political power at other levels of government.  

In Salvadoran government before Bukele, political power was exercised at the national level but also at the municipal level. Bukele, for example, had ascended in politics after first being elected as mayor of the small municipality of Nuevo Cuscatlán, and then becoming mayor of the capital city, San Salvador. During the past five years as president, Bukele worked to cut off other power centers in the country by greatly restricting the number and role of local governments.

First, he drastically cut back revenue sharing dollars flowing from the national government to the local level. These funds, which represented a significant part of most municipal budgets, were slashed by 85% and replaced with the national government delivering "in kind" support in the form of capital development projects. These projects would not be controlled by the local mayor, but would be controlled by the national government through its new Directorate of Municipal Works (the "DOM"). And it would be the national government, not the local one, which would take credit for paving those streets in town or erecting a new park. By running all municipal infrastructure projects through the DOM, Bukele and Nuevas Ideas is able to get credit even in municipalities where the mayor's office is controlled by an opposition political party. No longer does an opposition party mayor have the money in their budget to develop municipal projects shortly before the next election.

More importantly, the Legislative Assembly reduced the number of municipalities from 268 to 44. It also gerrymandered the combination of territories to create the new mega-municipalities to favor Nuevas Ideas. As a result, in the March 2024 elections, Nuevas Ideas and its allies ended up in power in all but one of the 44 municipalities.

Finally, Eliminate the Constitution as a Barrier to Your Goals

At the end of April 2024, in its final session, the outgoing NI-controlled Legislative Assembly passed a measure towards amending the Salvadoran constitution to allow a vote of 3/4 of deputies in a single assembly to adopt a constitutional amendment, doing away with the requirement that there be votes adopting the amendment by two successive assemblies. (Nuevas Ideas has 90% of deputies in the incoming Assembly which starts May 1). The impact of this change to the Constitution is that NI will be able to unilaterally make any amendment it desires to the Constitution during the next three years.

Election night 2024

As Nayib Bukele begins a second term as president on June 1, 2024, a term which is unconstitutional under any neutral interpretation of the country's Constitution, he governs as a ruler with no checks or limits on his power. His populist approach, aided by slick and powerful public relations focused on social media, launched him into office on a wave of popularity. His dismantling of any checks or limits on his power in office may keep him there for the indefinite future.