(CN) — With heavily armed soldiers in place, El Salvador’s popular president strode into the nation’s National Assembly and, after a moment of prayer, told the lawmakers that within a week they needed to pass his bill calling for $109 million to take the cities back from street gangs.
Bukele is extraordinarily popular in the Americas’ smallest, most densely popular country, ravaged by decades of war and corruption. But lawmakers from the right-wing ARENA party and the putatively left-wing FMLN denounced Bukele’s attempt to convene an extraordinary session an attempted coup.
Bukele defended his actions, in part, by mentioning that there was no violence at the enormous demonstration around the National Assembly, though gangs killed four people elsewhere that day.
Funding for Bukele’s security plan has stalled in a recalcitrant congress. Bukele called the extraordinary Sunday session to seek funding for anti-gang technology and supplies for the police and army in their battle with the armed gangs that have a hand in nearly every aspect of Salvadoran society today.
Bukele invoked the right to insurrection enshrined in the Salvadoran constitution and the armed forces entered the congress while he spoke of the need to eliminate gang violence and reduce the country’s staggering homicide rate: 51 per 100,000 more than twice the rate of violence-ravaged Mexico.
After a moment of pause and prayer, Bukele gave the National Assembly one week to authorize a loan to equip the police and army in the battle against the gangs, according to La Prensa Gráfica newspaper.
The heavy-handedness of the young, first-term president surprised many and brought widespread criticism, including from the Organization of American States and Amnesty International.
Responding to Bukele’s call for a demonstration, tens of thousands of people appeared from across the country in busloads. There was no disorder, according to Salvadoran news reports, and police sources said not a window was broken.
The underlying battle is between the old right (ARENA) along with the old left (FMLN) and Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas Party, which stunned ARENA and the FMLN by rolling over them in the election last year.
Should Bukele get the money to break up the gangs, it will strengthen his party and further weaken the traditional, and notoriously corrupt political parties in El Salvador.
Sunday’s events were described in alarming terms by the investigative website El Faro:
“The events that took place yesterday in El Salvador were shocking. President Nayib Bukele entered the halls of the National Assembly, already full of heavily armed soldiers and policemen, and took the seat of the president of the legislative power. He threatened to stage a coup against lawmakers in a week if they don’t approve a loan to fund his security plan. Those events were a stark reminder of a violent past we had hoped the country had left behind.”
Bukele’s popularity on the streets is overwhelming: nearly 90% approval rating according to reputable polls. There have been zero demonstrations against his government since he took office in June 2019.
In a long interview Monday with the Spanish newspaper El País, Bukele denied that he violated the constitution by sending the armed forces into the National Assembly.
“If I were a dictator or someone who did not respect democracy, I would have taken control of everything,” he said. “According to the polls 90% of the people are with us. The armed forces and the police are with us. The public was upset when I asked for calm but if I had wanted I could have taken control of the entire government tonight. … The public knows that the deputies removed their support for the soldiers and the police who are in the streets and who are killing them.”
Bukele lacks supporters in the Salvadoran Senate, and critics have said he should wait for the February 2021 elections to push through his security plan.
Bukele said he could not do that, “because 2,000 people are going to die this year if we wait and we shouldn’t let that happen.”
“We have the tools to cut that number in half. The question implies that I should wait a year until we have 70% of the congress and the backing of the international community and no photos of the military in the congress. Meanwhile, what about those who are going to die?
“The world is hypocritical and says we should dialogue. Look, I could organize meetings with churches and unions and business leaders and congress and I swear we will have accomplished nothing and people would still be dying in the streets. …
“I am not going to hold office after my presidency. I am not able to be re-elected. I want my legacy to be the reduction to a minimum the criminality in El Salvador.”
There are indications that the proposed funding for the security forces will be voted on this week. If not, next Sunday could bring about another emergency session of congress and the discussion again of insurrection by Bukele supporters.
(Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.)