US dampens criticism of El Salvador's president as migration overtakes democracy concerns

The Biden administration has sent a high-level delegation to El Salvador to attend President Nayib Bukele's inauguration to a second term

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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — In 2021, the Biden administration turned down a meeting request with El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, on a trip to Washington, snubbing the self-proclaimed "world's coolest dictator" for fear a photo op would embolden his attempts to expand his power base.

A little more than three years later, it's the United States that's courting Bukele. A high-level delegation led by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and senior White House and State Department officials, attended Bukele's inauguration in San Salvador on Saturday to a second term.

The visit — unthinkable until recently — caps a quiet, 180-degree shift in Washington's policy toward the small Central American nation of 6 million that reflects how the Biden administration's criticisms of Bukele's strong-armed governing style have been overtaken by more urgent concerns tied to immigration — a key issue in this year's U.S. presidential election.

“They’ve realized what he’s been doing works,” Damian Merlo, an American adviser to Bukele who is registered to lobby on the Salvadoran government's behalf, said in an interview from El Salvador. “If the U.S. is serious about wanting to address the root causes of migration, then Bukele is someone who has actually done it.”

The 42-year-old Bukele, who was reelected with 85% of the vote, has been wildly popular at home for his frontal attack on powerful gangs, which has converted what was once the world's murder capital into one of Latin America's safest countries. The improvement in public security is credited with a more than 60% drop in migration from the Central American country to the U.S. since Bukele took office in 2019 — a stark contrast with a growing exodus of migrants from other parts of Latin America.

“We conquered fear, and today are truly a free nation,” Bukele said in a speech Saturday to hundreds of supporters from the balcony of the National Palace after being sworn in for a second, five-year term.

Cured of what he called the “cancer” of gang violence, he said that his next term would be devoted to strengthening El Salvador's economy, vowing to apply the same independent, unconventional approach that has characterized his rule and won him admirers from conservatives throughout Latin America.

“I’m not here to do what others think I should do. I’m here to do what’s best for our country,” he said.

Until recently, Bukele's crackdown on the gangs — as well as political opponents — had drawn fire from Washington. A state of emergency originally declared in 2022 and still in effect has been used to round up 78,175 suspected gang members in sweeps that rights groups say are often arbitrary, based on a person's appearance or where they live. The government has had to release about 7,000 people because of a lack of evidence.

After Biden took office, the U.S. sanctioned several of Bukele's top aides on allegations of corruption and shifted foreign assistance from government agencies to civil society groups highly critical of Bukele.

In 2021, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said that Washington had " deep concerns about El Salvador's democracy " after lawmakers loyal to Bukele removed several Supreme Court justices that were among the last check on the president's power. A few months later, the new justices lifted a constitutional ban on consecutive reelection, something the U.S. State Department denounced as the outcome of "a clear strategy to undermine judicial independence."

The about-face, observers say, started a little more than a year ago when Biden sent William Duncan, a career diplomat, to San Salvador as U.S. ambassador. Then, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Salvadoran Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill in Washington. Bukele, a gifted communicator who in the past praised former U.S. President Donald Trump and cozied up to China, has also avoided direct confrontation, although he still managed to ruffle feathers when he attended a conservative political gathering outside Washington earlier this year.

"Migration trumps everything else," said Michael Shifter, a former president of Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “The ideal Latin American partner would be effective in its security policy while respecting human rights norms and practices and cooperating with the U.S. on migration. But rarely do all these desirable things go together, which poses tough choices for U.S. policymakers.”

Shifter said that such a high-level delegation like the one in El Salvador is rarely sent to presidential inaugurations, even of the United States' closest allies in the region. Besides Mayorkas, it includes Brian Nichols, the assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and Daniel Erikson, Biden’s top national security adviser on Latin America. Six members of congress, including three Democrats, and Donald Trump Jr. are also attending.

“Pretty solid way to travel,” Trump Jr. said in a video posted on TikTok as he was escorted by El Salvador's police to the inauguration ceremony. “Just promoting those who support freedom around the world.”

Mayorkas met with Bukele on the eve of his inauguration to discuss migration, public security and ways to strengthen the fight against narcotics trafficking.

“I want to express the United States’ dedication to supporting the growth and prosperity of El Salvador through continued bilateral cooperation,” Mayorkas said in a message on social media.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But Ricardo Zúniga, a retired U.S. diplomat who handled migration talks with Central America in the early days of the Biden administration, said that Washington may come to regret its recent embrace of Bukele.

“Bukele will be in power for many years to come, so you need to have a working relationship,” said Zúniga, who was the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs until his retirement last fall. “But you also have to be clear eyed. This is an authoritarian government ruled by a single party that is not sympathetic to U.S. strategic interests.”

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Joshua Goodman reported from Miami.

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