Saturday, March 4, 2023

Bukele's Sins

Criticize El Salvador's authoritarian president for the right reasons.

Let me be clear: the mistreatment of prisoners is absolutely incompatible with the rule of law.  However, this weekend I ran across an unfortunate editorial in El País which equates the parading of uniformly attired prisoners during their transfer to and processing at a new detention center with mistreatment and torture.  This editorial shows how out-of-touch certain sectors of the global elite are vis-a-vis crime and yes, punishment.  

President Bukele may very well be a tyrant in the making.  His strong-arming of Congress and the Supreme Court have all the hallmarks, at the very least, of the traditional Latin American right-wing strongman.  We must criticize him for this; but let us not fall into the trap of criticizing everything the Salvadoran state does under his watch as dictatorial and authoritarian.  Especially its treatment of the most brutal elements of society who have been allowed to terrorize the population for decades, often exporting their violence and decadence north of the border.

A quick search reveals the brutality of the MS-13 gang, often in America, and often perpetrated by minors.  We must, of course, be concerned by the casting of the wide net in El Salvador, and its potential to ensnare innocent victims.  And we must ensure that all prisoners, but especially those who are below a certain age are treated in accordance to basic principles of human rights.  But let us not kid ourselves; when Human Rights Watch complains about minors being incarcerated by the Salvadoran state, it could very well be talking about stone-cold 16 and 17 year-old murderers who hack people to death.

Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.  As I watched the images of the prisoner transfer in El Salvador, they reminded me of several documentaries I've seen on the Japanese prison system.  It is regimented. It is strict.  It is extremely disciplined.  It may negatively impact prisoner psychology.  And there may be isolated cases of prisoner abuse.  The abuse I condemn without reservations. But about all of the former I say: don't commit crimes.  More prison systems should follow the Japanese model as a way to 1. impart justice; 2. prevent future crime; and 3. protect weaker prisoners from the law of the jungle and abuse by other inmates. If El Salvador is implementing something similar we should be celebrating it, not condemning it.

As mentioned in the NBC piece linked to above, President Bukele has the highest approval rating of any leader in Latin America.  [As an aside, I find it hilarious and extremely hypocritical that El País ends their editorial by quoting from Gustavo Petro, a president whose approval rating continues to dip, and a former member of the Communist terrorist drug dealers of the M-19 guerilla movement in Colombia.] I would not vote for Bukele.  However, I personally know many people across Latin America who admire his governing style.  This fact is unfortunate, but with naive and misguided pieces like the one in El País it is no wonder that common people across Latin America who are afflicted by crime and corruption on a daily basis distrust the media and vote for authoritarian leaders such as Bukele.