• Associated Press

Amid Criticism over his War on Gangs, El Salvador’s President Bukele Turns to Sports

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File
The Jorge “El Magico” Gonzalez stadium is illuminated during the opening ceremony of the Central American and Caribbean Games, in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 23, 2023.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador President Nayib Bukele stood before tens of thousands of roaring sports fans with a message: I am not a dictator.

“They say we live in a dictatorship,” Bukele said, but “ask bus passengers, people eating in restaurants, waiters. Ask whomever you want. Here in El Salvador, you can go anywhere and it’s totally safe. … Ask them what they think of El Salvador, what they think of our government, what they think of our supposed dictatorship.”

In the opening ceremonies of the 2023 Central American and Caribbean Games, the remark was met with a burst of applause and, in some swathes of the remodeled stadium, chants of “Reelection!”

The games have offered Bukele – the bitcoin-pushing 41-year-old leader who has sparked a sort of populist fervor in his Central American nation and beyond – an opportunity to showcase a safer El Salvador in the largest international event here since his government entered an all-out war against gangs. But the competition also comes as Bukele is accused of systematic human rights violations for that same crackdown and as his government takes steps that eat away at the country’s democracy.

Observers worry events including the games – drawing athletes from 35 countries across the region – will allow Bukele to save face internationally and show voters he has global support as he seeks reelection despite a constitutional ban on terms of more than five years.

Often referred to as “sportswashing” – the use of sports to divert attention from controversy and improve reputations amid wrongdoing – the tactic has been wielded by autocratic governments across the world for decades. The accusation was most recently slung at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his investment in golf, the World Cup and other international sporting events.

“These are events that give oxygen to the government to distract attention from the huge problems we have and show a face of modernity to the world,” said Eduardo Escobar, executive director of Acción Ciudadana, an independent political watchdog group in El Salvador.

A little more than a year ago, Bukele announced the nation would enter a state of emergency, a measure suspending constitutional rights in an effort to confront surging gang violence.

Since, the government has detained 70,000 people – about one in every hundred Salvadorans – imprisoning them with little access to due process. The government has labeled them gang members, though as few as 30% have clear gang ties, according to human rights group Cristosal’s estimates.

The moves have been met with an avalanche of international criticisms, including by the Biden administration.

Simultaneously, crime in El Salvador has dipped to historic lows, and Bukele’s approval has soared, holding strong at 90% in June, according to a CID Gallup poll. Bukeleism has gained traction from Colombia to Guatemala and the Dominican Republic as politicians seek to mimic him and cash in on his popularity.

The dip in violence opened the door for his government to host events including the games and the upcoming Miss Universe pageant. The opening ceremonies of the games flaunted the country’s newfound status, with dances lead by an AI-robot voice and a performance by American DJ Marshmello.

For Sel Ramirez, a Salvadoran who has spent decades jumping between his country and the United States after fleeing civil war in the ′90s, it was like seeing an entirely new country. He’s among many here embracing Bukele fervor — he occasionally even dresses up as the president and walks around the city center.

After Bukele’s opening speech, Ramirez stood outside the stadium with a crowd awaiting for the leader’s exit – a scene similar to those at Taylor Swift concerts. Yet steps away sit heavily armed soldiers and black armored cars with machine guns on tops.

“I wonder if he’ll give me his autograph,” mused Ramirez, his eyes glued to the door from which the president would later depart.

As the crowd waited, Defense Minister René Merino walked out to cheers. “El Salvador is a country in peace,” he told The Associated Press. “We are open to the world.” When asked by the AP about those imprisoned, he responded “no” and walked away.

Ahead of the games, Bukele’s government slashed 70% of publicly elected positions, whittling down the number of congressional and local government seats. Bukele said the cuts would improve efficiency and crack down on corruption, the same reasons given for gutting El Salvador’s courts in 2021.

Legal experts and other Salvadoran politicians say these are just the latest steps in a conquest to solidify power ahead of February’s election.

“This is typical for autocratic governments,” said René Hernández Valiente, former head of the country’s constitutional court. “They are erasing the philosophies of our constitution.”

The move will boost Bukele’s control of congress by 22%, according to estimates by watchdog group Acción Ciudadana. Other candidates told AP it left them scrambling by reshuffling the rules months before the vote.

Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, made the announcement that he’d seek reelection days into the games, on Twitter. It was an anticipated yet controversial move. In the tweet, at 1 a.m. local time, the party declared itself “invincible.”

In the following days, Bukele’s Twitter account – his preferred means of communication, and a place where he once described himself as the world’s “coolest dictator” – posted videos of soccer matches, photos of tanned surfers, and clips of his opening speech. He posted little about his reelection campaign.

The rise of social media has made it harder for leaders to present large sporting events as apolitical, but sportswashing usually works because athletic events are both highly visible and seen as a distraction from daily problems and politics, said Alan McDougall, a sports historian at the University of Guelph in Canada.

“Successfully hosting an international event can give a regime confidence to kind of to act with impunity. Sport is a bit of a shortcut way to win yourself, not even popularity, just an acceptance,” said McDougall, who dates the use of athletics as a political tool to the 1930s, when a Mussolini-run Italy hosted the World Cup and the Olympics were held in Nazi Germany.

And while many in El Salvador celebrate a new reality marked by roaring stadiums and fireworks, those suffering amid Bukele’s crackdown feel forgotten by the rest of their country.

Among them is activist and union leader Ingrid Escobar, 40. When she left home one day in late June with her two kids to run errands, she saw men waiting outside in a gray truck criminologists later identified as one used by government security forces. The sight has become familiar over the past three months. So, too, has the fear.

Unions, human rights groups, opposition politicians, researchers and journalists have said that as the election cycle heats up, Bukele’s government has intensified intimidation tactics. One union of government workers says at least 15 organizers have been detained, accused of public disorder and gang ties. About half are still imprisoned, according to the union.

“The fear we have is that we’ll be the next ones he arrests despite never having broken the law,” Escobar said. “And for no reason other than we are denouncing the government, of being the voice of people who are too scared to speak out.”

Bukele has said he’ll open a new prison “for the corrupt,” a label he often uses for opponents. Escobar worries that may mean her. She said she’s received death threats on social media. She now uses different vehicles, takes different routes to work. She fears for her kids and tries to shield them.

That morning, she took a photo of the truck’s license plate and sent it to a colleague. Her children asked why, and she fibbed: “Oh, because I like the car.”

Miles away, gymnasts flipped before judges, swimmers dove from starting blocks, and runners leaped hurdles in the same stadium where Bukele made his speech.

Few knew about the radical changes the leader was making around them around them or the fears of everyday people like Escobar.

“I’ve heard a little bit,” said Francisco Acuña, a 23-year-old gymnast from Costa Rica. “But I don’t really think about politics.”