From Murder Capital to Vacation Destination: Exploring the New El Salvador

in Culture

“You know who lives there?” Charlie, the man driving our boat, asks me as I jump into the deep blue water of Lake Coatepeque in northwestern El Salvador. He points to a minimalist-style villa on the freshly-mowed slopes of an island at the center of the lake. “That’s President Bukele’s. Ocho million dollares!”

In any other Latin American country, people would talk about their leader’s private wealth with scorn. But Charlie’s tone is one of praise, excitement, even pride. It’s a sentiment I encountered again and again while traveling through El Salvador, and for a good reason. Until recently, the country was known and feared as the “murder capital” of planet Earth, with 1 in every 10,000 residents falling victim to homicide. Today, four years after Nayib Bukele assumed office, the number of annual killings has dropped from 5,000 to just 495: a statistic that has earned him the lifelong gratitude of his constituents. “I can finally go outside without worrying,” a student from Universidad Don Bosco in Soyapango, previously the most dangerous suburb in the capital city of San Salvador, told me. “It still doesn’t feel real.” 

Born to a Muslim family that emigrated from Palestine, Bukele served as the mayor of San Salvador before setting his eyes on the presidency. A dark horse candidate, his anti-establishment, anti-corruption agenda allowed him to score a surprise victory against El Salvador’s entrenched elite. Many presidential candidates in Latin America promise to “drain the swamp” and put an end to the corruption that keeps their countries impoverished and oppressed, only to become a part of the establishment they vowed to tear down. Bukele is the rare example of a politician that not just kept his word, but managed to hold onto power while doing so. 

Bukele’s vacation home …

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Author: Tim Brinkhof / High Times

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