The Dilemmas And Contradictions of Liberal Democracy: The Case Of El Salvador – OpEd


Many countries in Latin America are now facing a decline and sometimes an absence of liberal democracy as they fight against criminality while trying, at the same time, to maintain order. This is the case in both Central America and in Mexico. In those countries, liberal democracy is confronted with an issue of order in the face of high levels of criminality.

El Salvador is one example where we are witnessing a government turning illiberal in the name of order and security. 

Nowadays, the presence of drug cartels, violent gangs, and other forms of organized and non-organized crime have challenged state sovereignty. Criminal groups are often better organized and more resourceful than the state. They co-opt law enforcement, government officials, legislators, and other components of the state structure, leaving the state incapable of exercising authority and governance. 

Under such circumstances, democracy is nothing but a facade. Crime intimidates and extorts citizens, public officials, and civil servants.  It bribes, threatens, and murders judges, politicians, and law enforcement. 

In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele won elections by capitalizing on the people’s frustration with the corruption of the traditional parties, and, by promising to fight crime. 

Once in power, Bukele proceeded to combat gangs. These gangs have conducted extortions and imposed “taxes” on people under threat, affecting mainly but not only small businesses. Gangs also committed murders terrorizing an increasingly terrified population. 

Bukele’s war on crime has indeed incarcerated criminals but also many innocent citizens. The Salvadorian government suppressed with a big brush by allowing random profiling. Bukele also weakened the judiciary, which included the dismissal of  judges and attorney generals who successfully prosecuted corrupt politicians, including several ex-presidents.  Likewise, Bukele subjugated the legislative branch of government establishing absolute control of the state. 

Since declaring a state of emergency in March 2022, the government has arrested more than 80,000 people, the highest incarceration rate in the world. Bukele also suspended civil rights and detained people for violating curfews or having tattoos. The rule of law is effectively dead now, and security forces can act as they see fit. 

All these measures might have severe consequences in a post-Bukele order. 

Indeed, transnational crime has become a significant problem in Latin America. As Latin American scholar Eduardo Gamarra has pointed out in the foreword of a of a recently published book, “the main threat to democracy is the expansion of transnational organized crime (TOC) that not only corrupts government officials but also penetrates states. (Therefore)… it is difficult to discern where organized crime ends and where the state begins”.  

Likewise, the violence generated by TOC produces high rates of homicide in Central America and Mexico and, consequently, mass migration northwards. 

Most Salvadorians think that Bukele’s polices made them safer, and some accept the inevitability of civil rights violations and the weakening of the rule of law. 

Indeed, liberal democracy cannot survive where violence and anarchy exist, and TOC has colonized the state. Thus, restoring order is undoubtedly a priority. In that sense, Bukele’s approach is the right one.  

The expectation is that such a policy will eliminate transnational crime on Salvadorian soil. Various leaders in different Latin American countries view Bukele’s blueprint as a model. The recent assassination of Ecuador’s presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio at the hands of the cartels seems to confirm the reason for the attractiveness of Bukele’s approach. If the Salvadorian experience succeeds and other countries replicate it, it could definitely help the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to fight crime and perhaps the war on drugs might finally succeed. 

This is why it is also possible that the Biden Administration also recognizes the advantages of Bukele’s approach. As we have seen following the visit of Salvadorian Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill in Washington, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stressed the importance of respecting the rule of law and human rights. However, the statement issued by the State Department was clear: The United States and El Salvador will continue to work to address important security challenges and economic prosperity, including managing migration, promoting good governance, protecting due process, and respecting human rights”. The message is far from condemning Bukele’s record. 

However, it is crucial to remember that previously existing corruption in the different states made possible the easy penetration of TOC in the region.  

If Bukele continues to concentrate power in his and his close circles’ hands, corruption and lack of government accountability is likely to return bringing back the conditions that enabled the growth of TOC in the first place. When the state legal system loses autonomy, no system can sustain orderly life even if liberal democracy is formally restored. Judges and attorney generals, by then, will have lost a sense of constitutional direction. In the future, security forces and law enforcement will act with impunity, not subject to the rule of law.  

Once the system of checks and balances is weakened, it is not easy to reverse it. 

So, how do we solve this Catch-22?

What occurs to me is that Bukele should continue to go after the crime but do it lawfully.

The victimization of innocent people could not only cost him his popularity but can also reverse his anti-crime accomplishments. Bukele’s current war on crime is taking place at the expense of the state legal structure, and the law is much needed to attain good governance. The only state structure that exists now is an increasingly repressive security apparatus. This security apparatus runs the risk of transforming its members into criminals themselves, as happened so often in post-authoritarian countries.

In principle, the international community should support the need to fight crime with resolve and assertiveness. However, it should also insist that the government conduct such enterprise within the frame of the law. The judiciary must maintain its autonomy. Police should not detain people based on superficial profiling and generalizations. Lawyers should be allowed to represent detainees. Police and Security forces should have clear rules of engagement while protecting their right to self-defense. The president should try to establish a consensus with Congress instead of imposing himself on it.

The United States and the Organization of American States (OAS, particularly, should encourage Bukele in that direction. 

Luis Fleischman, PhD, is co-founder of the Palm Beach Center for Democracy & Policy Research, professor of Social Sciences at Palm Beach State College and the author of the book Latin American in the Post-Chavez Era: A Threat to U.S. Security. 

Luis Fleischman

Luis Fleischman, Ph.D., is a professor of Sociology at Palm Beach State College, co-presdient of the Palm Beach Center for Democracy and Policy Research and the author of the book "The Middle East Riddle: The Peace Process and Israeli-Arab Relations in a Changing Times."

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