When El Salvadore’s president, Nayib Bukele, announced that he planned to run for a second term in 2024 (despite that being banned in the country’s constitution) he created significant controversy. But that doesn’t seem to have deterred his supporters around the country. Bukele came to office on a promise of rooting out and eliminating the nation’s massive network of criminal gangs who have terrorized El Salvadore for decades. He has thus far had more than 50,000 alleged gang members either arrested or killed in shootouts with the police and military units. This week he continued the campaign by sending the army and police forces to effectively barricade the entire town of Comasagua, preventing any of the municipality’s 14,000 residents from entering or leaving without first being searched and identified. Bukele declared that the MS-13 gang was in control of large parts of the town and he was going to put an end to it. (Associated Press)

More than 2,000 soldiers and police surrounded and closed off a town in El Salvador Sunday in order to search for street gang members accused in a killing.

The large-scale encirclement of the town of Comasagua is the latest example of heavy-handed tactics by the government to root out street gangs. Everyone entering or leaving the town was questioned or searched.

President Nayib Bukele wrote in his Twitter account that members of the MS-13 gang were believed to still be inside Comasagua, about 20 miles (30 kms) southwest of the capital, San Salvador.

To describe Bukele’s actions as president as “authoritarian” would be an understatement. Since taking office in 2019, he has used his strong support in the legislature and his own appointees on the nation’s courts to suspend many facets of the country’s constitution. One of these is the right of suspects to be told what crimes they are being accused of and to have legal representation when being detained. Under Bukele, the army and the police are teaming up and basically throwing gang members into dungeons.

How are people reacting to this style of governance? Nayib Bukele is currently the most popular leader in Latin America. That’s likely because he still seems to only be using his military and law enforcement forces against the gangs, not rank-and-file citizens or his political opponents. (Well, with the exception of the time he sent soldiers into the Legislative Assembly when opponents refused to vote on part of his security plan.) The people love him and the gangs fear him.

He’s given MS-13 and the other gangs plenty of reasons to be fearful. Bukele isn’t just gunning them down and locking them up. He has sent soldiers into cemeteries to destroy the tombstones and graves of dead gang members. He has openly declared war on the gangs and adopted the old adage about all being fair in love and war. He’s basically tossed out the rule book and moved to exterminate the bad guys.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll confess to feeling a momentary bit of envy when reading about how Bukele is dealing with the gangs. There have been plenty of days when it probably would have sounded tempting to send 20,000 soldiers in to team up with the police in parts of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to lock up the gangs and the bands of organized retail theft rings. Of course, any such plan would run afoul of the whole posse comitatus situation and be immediately shut down by the courts, and for good reason.

The reality is that once you allow one piece of the constitution to be tabled as a matter of convenience, the entire document is probably on the way to the ash heap. And that’s unfortunately what will probably happen in El Salvador sooner or later. Bukele may be incredibly popular now, but he has seized a vast amount of power for himself and his allies. That sort of power is addicting, as we saw (to a thankfully lesser degree) with our own President, along with too many governors and members of Congress in the early days of the pandemic.

Nayib Bukele has already suspended or simply ignored multiple facets of his country’s constitution. For the time being, he is focusing all of that power on the gangs, leading to his popularity. But he has also transformed his nation into a police state or, more correctly, a military-police state. Sooner or later he will almost undoubtedly turn that power on his political opponents. Bukele has set himself up in the role of a benevolent dictator. But as history has shown us repeatedly, benevolent dictators rarely remain benevolent for long and you never get two of them in a row.

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