On the afternoon of Sunday 9 February, armed soldiers and police officers aided President Nayib Bukele in a storming of the El Salvador parliament building. According to CNN, he took this action as a means of demanding that “opposition lawmakers vote to approve his plan to secure a $109 million loan that he says would be used to better equip military personnel and law enforcement officers in their job of tackling out-of-control gang violence in the country.” The plan has grown tensions between the country’s president and lawmakers of the opposite party due to the size of the loan. According to CNN, upon storming parliament “Bukele said a prayer from a seat normally occupied by the president of the parliament, Mario Ponce. Before leaving the building, Bukele gave lawmakers one week to approve his loan proposal.”
According to BBC, members of the opposition party “called the appearance of armed men in parliament an unprecedented act of intimidation” and “accused him of threatening them and turning increasingly authoritarian.” Since there was no quorum in parliament after most of the members of parliament refused to sit for a debate of the bill, Bukele called upon his supporters in the country to storm the legislative building with him. To the 50,000 or so of the pro-government demonstrators who answered Bukele’s call, he “told them to be back in the streets within a week if MPs did not debate the bill,” according to BBC.
Put simply, President Nayib Bukele’s heart is in the right place, but he is going about making change in the absolute wrong way. Bukele recognizes the influence of gangs and the immense violence present in El Salvador, and he is trying to combat that through legislation. Estimates from the country’s National Civil Police show marked progress in decreasing the average daily killings since he took office in June 2019. As such, it is undoubtedly frustrating that El Salvador’s parliament is not working with the president to continue making this progress. Regardless, storming the parliament building with armed members of the military is an inappropriate reaction distinctly reminiscent of authoritarianism and only stands to exacerbate pre-existing tensions. Furthermore, encouraging tens of thousands of supporters to storm the legislature also stands to lead to increased violence and rioting. In that way, it is of the utmost importance that Bukele pursues more nonviolent means of getting his legislation passed. Protests are fine, but it should be peaceful. The presence of armed guards is the primary issue with Bukele’s approach, so looking at a less aggressive approach would benefit him and likely make the parliament more receptive to trying to work with him in obtaining this loan and continuing the progress already made in making El Salvador a safer place out of the shadow of gang warfare.
El Salvador’s murder rate is one of the highest in the world, explaining the urgency in Bukele’s plan. El Salvador’s National Civil Police stated that the average daily killings in May 2019, one month before the 38-year-old Bukele took office, at 9.2. In January 2020, that number fell to 3.8, which the government claims results directly from the actions taken under the Territorial Control Plan. When El Salvadorans elected Bukele in 2019, many viewed him as a populist candidate and outsider, whose campaign rhetoric rested mainly on accusing the current government of corruption and promising to “return what was stolen.” According to CNN, the latter statement refers “to the alleged disappearance of funds during the administrations of former presidents Francisco Flores and Antonio Saca.” When he took office in June 2019, Bukele pledged he would end the legacy of gang violence and corruption in El Salvador.
On top of the already precarious situation in El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele’s aggressive actions in storming with armed guards and issuing ultimatums to the parliament did nothing to ease the tensions. While Bukele’s ambitions of removing the hold of gang violence on El Salvador is noble and has thus far been very successful, it is imperative he does not resort to aggression or violence lest he lose all progress he has made. If he continues down this path, Bukele risks plunging El Salvador into more violence. The remedy might end up being worse than the problem if Bukele proceeds in this way.
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