El Salvador's leader, criticized internationally for gang crackdown, tells UN it was the right thing

Nayib Bukele, President of El Salvador, addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — El Salvador President Nayib Bukele trumpeted the success of his gang crackdown during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, crediting his administration’s will against international criticism over human rights violations.

Bukele said that if El Salvador had listened to external critics — including some at the United Nations — the tiny Central American country would again be the murder capital of the world.

“Today, I come to tell you that that debate is over,” Bukele said. “The decisions we took were correct. We are no longer the world death capital and we achieved it in record time. Today we are a model of security and no one can doubt it. There are the results. They are irrefutable.”

More than 72,000 people have been arrested under a state of emergency Bukele requested in March 2022 after a surge in gang violence. The special powers that Congress granted Bukele suspended some fundamental rights such as access to a lawyer and being told the reason for one’s arrest.

Critics say that there is no due process, and thousands of innocent people have been swept up in the security blitz. More than 7,000 have been released for lack of evidence of gang ties.

In March, the U.N. human rights office expressed concern over the year-long crackdown, noting widespread human rights violations, thousands of unsubstantiated arrests and dozens of in-custody deaths.

But at home, Bukele’s security policies are very popular. They will likely be the centerpiece of his campaign for re-election next year, something prohibited by El Salvador’s constitution but allowed by court justices selected by his supporters in the Legislative Assembly.

As Bukele noted Tuesday, Salvadorans can walk without fear in their neighborhoods and allow their children to play outside without the oppressive fear of gang recruitment and violence.

In 2015, El Salvador was considered one of the world’s most violent as it recorded 6,656 homicides, or about 106 per 100,000 people. So far this year, the National Civil Police have registered 146 homicides through Sept. 18, more than 72% below the same period last year.

El Salvador’s newfound security has drawn more international visitors and is beginning to attract Salvadorans who moved away long ago to escape the violence, he said.

Bukele mentioned the Central American and Caribbean Games that El Salvador hosted in June and the upcoming Miss Universe competition that will come to El Salvador in November, as well as international surfing competitions that Bukele has promoted.

“We know that much still needs to be done to achieve it," he said, "but we are on the path to reaching our goal of reversing the massive exodus of Salvadorans, a result of all of the mistaken policies of the past and the civil war, and arriving at our dream of having inverse migration, that more Salvadorans return than those who leave.”