The fight against gangs, the construction of mega prisons and the application of a strong-arm policy against crime are among the main campaign promises of the candidates for the presidency of Guatemala, who seek to follow the example of neighboring Salvadoran leader Nayib Bukele .
Bukele’s formula has become well known in Latin America and has earned him an approval rating that is the envy of any world leader, even a year after suspending key rights to wage his war against the gangs.
“It would be good if they applied their plans” in Guatemala, said state worker Lucrecia Salazar, 48, who lives in an area of the country where gang members live. “We have the resources, what is missing is the will,” she added.
homicides, murders and extortions
In early May, when she announced her government plan to cheering supporters, former Guatemalan first lady Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope party said she would implement Bukele’s strategy to put an end to “the scourge of homicides, murders and extortions in our country”.
After an outbreak of violence in March 2022, Bukele implemented, with the permission of Congress, a state of emergency that suspends various constitutional rights, including that of a person to be duly informed of their rights and the reasons for their detention, as well as to have the assistance of a lawyer. Since then more than 68,000 people have been jailed, many of whom ended up in what Bukele called the largest prison in Latin America.
Homicides, already on the decline, plummeted. Life returned to the streets and public squares of many communities that had long been under the control of gangs and where families used to hide in their homes after dark.
In Guatemala, gang members terrorize and extort the population, but the country has nearly three times as many people and its territory is five times the size of its neighbor, so there is no guarantee that El’s strategies Salvador can be replicated with the same result.
Homicide rates throughout the region plummeted in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions, but while the number continues to decline in El Salvador -from 19 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020 to 8 last year-, in Guatemala and several Central American countries have rebounded. Last year Guatemala had 17 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and Honduras 36.
Renzo Rosal, a political scientist and professor at the Landívar University in Guatemala, explained that the imitation of Bukele made by Guatemalan politicians has to do with his attraction to authoritarianism and the lack of content in his proposals.
One long shot candidate, Amilcar Rivera of the Victoria party, has even adopted a dark, trimmed beard like Bukele’s and a baseball cap. “The level of emptiness is such that they even copy his physical appearance,” Rosal said.
Bukele fans and imitators have also sprung up in other parts of Latin America.
In Argentina, campaign banners for Santiago Cúneo, a fringe candidate for the October presidential election, display photos of him and the Salvadoran president.
The right-leaning Colombian magazine Semana recently put Bukele on its cover with the headline “Bukele’s Miracle” and a story praising his administration’s security achievements. Colombia will hold local and regional elections in October.
One Guatemalan candidate who is delighted with Bukele is Zury Ríos Sosa, daughter of the late former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and champion of the far-right Valor-Unionista coalition. Ríos Sosa has repeatedly shown her admiration for both Bukele and former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who led a merciless offensive against the guerrillas during his presidency (2002-2010).
Ríos Sosa offers to build at least three new prisons under what he calls the “El Salvador-Colombia Strengthening Plan.”
“We have to admit that President Bukele has had the character, firmness, and determination to apply the law,” he said in an interview for a local channel.
criticism of human rights
Human rights defenders have criticized what they see as an erosion of due process in El Salvador. Carolina Jiménez, president of WOLA, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization focused on human rights in the Americas, argued that the measures promised by Bukele’s Guatemalan admirers create an illusion of security.
“The Bukele effect is contagious due to the security needs that people have, a valid need that has not been met,” he said. The easiest thing to say is “I can apply that security model here, but it’s just a mirage.”
“What comes next?” Jimenez wondered. “The roots (of the violence) have to do with social exclusion, poverty and other structural problems,” he explained.
Human rights defenders see the Salvadoran president as a danger to regional democracy: his heavy-handed policy and his intention to run for a second term despite being prohibited in the constitution are, they say, a sign of authoritarianism.
Danilo Cardona, a 49-year-old security agent at a restaurant in the Guatemalan capital, said Bukele’s tactic cannot be copied in Guatemala “because we are different, with different problems.”
“Security is a priority, but also education, the economy, malnutrition,” added Cardona.
Bukele’s biggest admirer among the Guatemalan candidates was left out of the race after the Guatemalan Supreme Electoral Tribunal and courts recently declared him ineligible for alleged violations of electoral law.
“when money is not stolen”
But last month, when conservative populist businessman Carlos Pineda was still leading in the polls, he posted a video of himself getting off a helicopter in El Salvador to see how a country can be prosperous “when money isn’t stolen.” Pineda had also sent a complimentary video to Bukele in which he stated: “I have the goal of doing in Guatemala exactly what you are doing in El Salvador.”
Oscar Romero, a 64-year-old graphic designer, said he agrees with applying Bukele’s policies in Guatemala but warned of their possible consequences.
“We will have to see how things go, because it is security in exchange for freedom that is restricted,” he said about the state of emergency established by Bukele.