Not even an armed attack against FMLN sympathizers, which this Sunday took the life of two people, was enough to make Nayib Bukele rise to the standards of the presidency.
Minutes after news of the crime broke, Bukele converted the double-homicide into another campaign opportunity. Without providing any proof, he insinuated on Twitter that the FMLN had committed a false flag attack: “It seems like the moribund parties have implemented their final plan. Such desperation not to lose their privileges and corruption. I thought they couldn’t fall any further…” Not a single word of condolence; not a condemnation of the attack; not a call to get to the bottom of the crime.
Even while the identity of the attackers and their motive were unknown, the president politicized the events. He didn’t call for calm; it’s not his style. He showed no empathy for the victims; he’s incapable of it. He sowed confusion, poisoned the well, and politically speculated about a crime he had no knowledge of. It’s his brand.
Arrests have been made and the alleged perpetrators — two of them bodyguards assigned to Francisco Alabí, the minister of health — have been charged. And while the details of the crime have yet to completely emerge, we can already confirm that Bukele used a deadly attack to go after his political opponents. He did so without proof, and he did it purposefully. This was not an aberration from his style, it was its essence. This is the man who governs El Salvador.
Parece que los partidos moribundos han puesto en marcha su último plan.— 🇸🇻 (@nayibbukele) February 1, 2021
Qué desesperación por no perder sus privilegios y su corrupción.
Pensé que no podían caer más bajo, pero cayeron.
(“It seems like the moribund parties have implemented their final plan. Such desperation not to lose their privileges and corruption. I thought they couldn’t fall any further, but they've fallen.”)
Bukele has corrupted the army and the police to the point where their leaders publicly declare themselves loyal to him over the nation or its laws. The very police force which has refused to uphold judicial orders against government officials is now charged with investigating the attack against FMLN under the political pressure that their leader has generated with his speculation of a false flag operation.
Despite the gravity of the president’s reaction, it comes as no surprise. It is the continuation of the rhetoric this president has wielded since he took office: insulting, disqualifying, lying about, and attacking his political opponents. Dissident voices have no room in the country he rules.
He conceives politics as a battle to eliminate the adversary by any means necessary. His discourse of hate has been the central pillar not only of his campaign, but his governing strategy. It is constant warfare.
Earlier on the day of the attack, Vice President Félix Ulloa told civil war veterans that Salvadorans are now confronting a new conflict, and that “this new war, with new actors, has already begun. And we started it by winning on February 3, 2019.” This discourse of intolerance invites violence.
Bukele looks askance at dialogue, negotiation, and power-sharing with critics, or opposition parties. He does so publicly, calling on his followers to show the same contempt. And he spreads that contempt. His ministers and propagandists see any opposing views as illegitimate, as coming from “the corrupt,” or “rats” that need to be exterminated. This is their stance even when people are killed and their blood is still fresh, as we saw this Sunday.
For Bukele what is important is not the country, but his concentration of power. In his conception of politics this means removing his rivals at all costs. This was evident long before Sunday’s murders. Now, his will to crush has reached new depths. He respects nothing: not the other branches of government, not democracy, not the victims of the war, and not the victims of today.
His words after the attack are yet more evidence that Bukele is willing to set the country on fire if he believes doing so is necessary to remove his opponents and silence his critics. This is what he has done since he came into office. If on last February 9, when he stormed into the National Assembly surrounded by soldiers primed for combat, it seemed he had passed all limits, now it is clear that that day was the first step in crossing the red lines of democracy. Since then, he has not stopped.
Where are the limits of political jockeying? For Bukele, his family clan and the corrupt circle that surrounds him and depends on his loyalty to avoid legal consequences, it is clear that there are no limits. His objective is to eradicate all power-sharing.
It’s late, but it’s not too late: it is still possible for some of his officials to understand they are part of the dismantling of democracy, for them to stand up to him, speak out, and refuse to be accomplices. For them to honor their responsibility to the nation, and put it above the loyalty demanded by the Bukele clan.
Bukele will not stop. He seeks to rule without democratic hindrances. If to achieve that he needs to set El Salvador on fire, he will light as many matches as needed. He is doing it now and will continue. Controlling the flames no longer depends on whether he will reconsider his approach, but whether civil society will stop him.