Nayib Bukele is nearly four months shy of his first anniversary in office, but Latin America’s youngest president continues to make waves. With a January approval rating of 91 percent, Bukele enjoys the country’s most popular presidency in 15 years.
But his Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) coalition only holds 10 of the 84 seats in the National Assembly, and it’s precisely in the opposition-controlled legislature where the 38-year-old head of state has encountered the most roadblocks. On Sunday, February 9, Bukele marched into the legislative chamber with members of the armed forces and planted himself in the chair reserved for the National Assembly president. Surrounded by members of El Salvador’s military strapped with automatic weapons and bulletproof vests, Bukele bowed his head and prayed for patience. “I think it is very clear now who is in control of the situation,” said Bukele from his seat at the head of the National Assembly. Lawmakers condemned his actions, and El Salvador’s highest court ordered the president to abstain from using the armed forces as a way to pressure the legislature.
The incident came after legislators withdrew support for funding of his Territorial Control Plan, a multi-phase national security strategy. The standoff pushed El Salvador to the brink of a constitutional crisis.
AS/COA Online breaks down what led to the dramatic events.
Phase 1: Preparation
Days after his June 1 inauguration, Bukele launched the Territorial Control Plan, a multi-step initiative to combat gang violence and improve security in El Salvador. The plan has seven phases, with the seventh reserved as an emergency option in case the initial six phases don’t succeed. Bukele has only announced the first three phases his strategy, which are estimated to cost a total of $575 million by 2021.
On June 20 of last year, members of the National Civil Police (PNC) and El Salvador’s Armed Forces (FAES) gathered at midnight in the historic Plaza Gerardo Barrios in San Salvador as Bukele kicked off the first phase of his plan, dubbed “Preparation.” The first stage consists of heightening military and police presence in 17 municipalities determined to have the largest gang and crime presence. In attempting to retake gang-occupied territories, authorities seek to disrupt the financial strongholds of these groups through armed occupation and surveillance. The phase yielded 5,000 arrests nationally in the first two months of its implementation.
As part of the initial phase, Bukele’s administration also decreed a temporary state of emergency in the country’s penitentiary system, placing El Salvador’s 28 prisons under complete lockdown. Visitors were barred, inmates were confined to their cells, and a near-blackout of cell phone signals attempted to sever all communications within the prisons and with the outside world. Thousands of prisoners were relocated to more secure facilities.
Phase 2: Opportunity
The second part of the plan went into effect in July in the original 17 municipalities, though Bukele hopes to expand it to cover all of El Salvador. The focus of this phase is to build community-centered preventive strategies that create alternative opportunities for young people predisposed to criminal activity. To achieve that, Bukele created the Social Fabric Revitalization Unit under the umbrella of the executive branch. The unit is tasked with leading phase two, including educational and entrepreneurial opportunities; improved health and scholarship benefits; and infrastructure projects such as schools, skate parks, and sports centers.
Out of the $158 million needed to finance the second phase, Bukele’s administration negotiated and received a $91 million loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) in September.
Phase 3: Modernization
Three months later, the National Assembly approved the CABEI loan in a 57-to-27 vote. In August, Bukele launched the “Modernization” stage, which is meant to fortify El Salvador’s national security forces. The idea is to better equip the PNC and FAES with new resources and technology, including helicopters, surveillance equipment, night vision tools, drones, and modern guns.
The third phase also added five municipalities to the pilot group, bringing the number under heightened armed presence to 22 urban zones out of the country’s 262 municipalities. To finance this phase, Bukele’s administration turned to CABEI for a loan of $109 million. CABEI approved the second loan in October, bringing the CABEI loan total for the Territorial Control Plan to $200 million. South Korea donated an additional $5.3 million to finance the third phase.
Initially, the Treasury Commission of the National Assembly ruled in favor of moving the $109 million loan forward on January 27 for a full legislature vote, with only the opposition Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) representatives in the commission voting against the package. Three days later, however, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA)—with its 37 seats—voted against the resolution, questioning the effectiveness of the Territorial Control Plan and sending the loan back to the Treasury Commission for further consideration. Because legislation needs a minimum of 43 votes to pass through the Salvadoran legislature, ARENA’s move left the $109 million loan stalled, paving the way for a constitutional battle between Bukele and the National Assembly.
The constitutional showdown
On Thursday, February 6, Bukele called for an emergency weekend session, drawing on Article 167 of the Salvadoran Constitution, which states that the president’s Council of Ministers may convene an extraordinary session of the National Assembly “when the interests of the Republic demand it.” The president of the legislature, Mario Ponce, questioned the constitutionality of convening an extraordinary session to force the legislature to approve the loan and described Bukele’s actions as an “attempted coup.”
The next day, Bukele called on Salvadorans to join him in attending the Sunday legislative session, referencing Article 87 of the country’s Constitution, which recognizes the people’s right to “insurrection” to reestablish constitutional order.
Once Sunday, February 9 came around, thousands of Bukele supporters surrounded the National Assembly during the special session. Over the course of his 10 minutes inside the legislative chamber, Bukele emphasized the importance of security in El Salvador and thanked the 20 lawmakers present for attending the session, saying that those who did not attend the session disobeyed the constitutional mandate. He then led a prayer, during which he asked God for “patience” with the lawmakers. On his way out, the president spoke to his supporters gathered outside and gave the National Assembly an ultimatum: approve the loan in a week or his supporters will be back the following Sunday. His remarks were met with chants of “Insurrection!"
By Monday, February 10, lawmakers had denounced the president’s militarization of the Assembly as an attempted coup against the legislative branch and canceled that day’s session. Despite Bukele’s ultimatum, the National Assembly's Treasury Commission recessed until Monday, February 17, leaving the loan unapproved.
The country’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ordered Bukele to refrain from using the armed forces “in activities contrary to established constitutional ends” that threaten “the order of the republican, democratic, and representative government, the pluralist political system, and the separation of powers in particular.” The court also ordered Bukele’s Council of Ministers to cease their efforts to convene another special legislative session and called on the defense minister and the director of the National Civil Police to not carry out any activities outside their legal and constitutional purview.
Despite the battle over funding, the president’s Territorial Control Plan remains popular among Salvadorans. An August 2019 Prensa Gráfica poll found that in just the first couple months of the plan’s rollout, the percent of Salvadorans who felt unsafe in the places they frequent the most dropped from 78 percent to 57 percent, while approval for the national police force increased 11 points year-on-year. El Salvador experienced a 33 percent drop in homicides from 2018 to 2019, according to Insight Crime data. This unprecedented drop—the highest since the 2016 spike in homicides—is part of a continued trend of declining homicides dating back to 2017, with a 75-percent decrease in homicides over three years.