Can a Catholic Support “Absolute Savagery”?

El Salvador's president has used "absolute savagery" to successfully crush that country's gangs. Is it worth the cost?

As 2024 dawns, Rome and Washington promise an abundance of material at the intersection of faith and politics. Feeling overwhelmed at this prospect, the interested Catholic observer might look instead to Central America, where El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele is seeking reelection early next month.

It will be less a gauge of the Salvadoran electorate than a statement to the world. Bukele will win. His favorability figures, which consistently clear the 80-percent threshold and reach 90 percent by some measurements, defy conventional wisdom. These aren’t the inflated numbers of a tin-pot dictator. Even Bukele’s critics acknowledge the man is unprecedentedly popular. He owes this to one enormous, unlikely achievement: he crushed the country’s gangs.

A child born in El Salvador in the previous three decades, following the country’s civil war, has generally confronted two life courses: acclimate oneself to the local gangs, violence, and poverty, or undertake the perilous journey to a life of low-wage servitude in the United States; the latter often entails a reunion with that same gangland violence and poverty in cities like Los Angeles. A safe, prosperous El Salvador was the stuff of political campaign promises and NGO funding proposals. No one truly believed in the possibility—until Bukele arrived.

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After taking office in 2019, Bukele found his footing in relation to the gang ecosystem, which includes the notorious MS-13 and Barrio 18. Journalists widely reported that he initially negotiated with gang leaders to minimize violence. Then, after a spate of gang murders that left 87 dead in one weekend in 2022, Bukele erupted.  

The president’s state of emergency, first declared early that year, allowed rapid mass arrests of gang members and suspension of certain legal rights. Nearly 75,000 have been arrested since then, and only 7,000 have been released.

An estimated two percent of the country’s adult population, and seven percent of the age 14-29 male population, is incarcerated. Prisoners are often expected to supplement their meager rations with family donations (a financial hardship for many) or grow food in prison gardens. Access to family members and legal representatives can be unpredictable. There is little doubt innocent people are imprisoned, which is arguably the most objectionable aspect of Bukele’s tactics.

In 2019, the year Bukele took office, over 2,000 people were murdered in this country of 6.5 million; last year, the figure was 154. Government security services reported a 70-percent year-over-year decrease in murders in 2023, resulting in the second-lowest (behind Canada) number per 100,000 citizens in the Americas. The reported figure from 2022 had put El Salvador on par with the United States, just a few short years after the former was the most murderous country in the world.  

Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle declared, “I am finding it increasingly difficult to generate explanations for El Salvador’s crime decline other than ‘absolute savagery works.’” 

Working should be understood beyond just the realm of criminal justice. If Salvadorans are to attract developed-world features like capital investment and tourism—perhaps emulating the success of Costa Rica—safety is an obvious prerequisite. The country’s tropical climate and relative proximity to the United States are inherent strengths. Travel publisher Lonely Planet listed El Salvador among its top destinations of 2023.

Furthermore, Bukele’s government has produced infrastructural improvements like after-school activity centers and modern roads. The government’s delivery of food and medicine to impoverished areas during the pandemic further boosted Bukele’s popularity. Simple measures like these would be difficult or impossible under gang-law. 

A figure like Bukele is bound to create a cult of personality. He orchestrates this law-and-order regime with his flair for the dramatic. A speech to a crowd of Salvadoran military and security forces creates a striking theatrical effect. A highlight reel of prison scenes—handcuffed, shirtless prisoners forced to hurry from place to place and huddle together like sardines, all under maximum-security supervision—likewise suggests an intended audience beyond the country’s borders. The public shaming of an alleged child-murderer recalls Vercingetorix in Rome. The latter two clips can be difficult to watch. A figure like Bukele is bound to create a cult of personality. He orchestrates this law-and-order regime with his flair for the dramatic. Tweet This

According to a defiant Bukele, the publicly-shamed prisoner was previously released twice, “at a time when Human Rights were ‘respected,’ when the judicial system ‘worked.’” He added, “Various international organizations and NGOs ‘defending’ Human Rights want us to return to that system.” Bukele increasingly directs his ire toward these supranational organizations and NGO activists. Last year’s endearing Bukele family Christmas video virtually exclaims, Look what that class of people has wrought! This sentiment feeds his growing international popularity, as Westerners—many Catholics among them—grow frustrated with unelected, unaccountable arbiters of “rule of law” and “human rights.” 

Salvadoran public figures understand these concepts in a way that escapes many international journalists. “What is democracy if there’s no food?” asked local journalist and Bukele critic Nelson Rauda. “What is the rule of law if you live in a neighborhood filled with gangs?” In these matters, Bukele is clearly delivering.

But can a Catholic support Bukelismo in good conscience? 

In a nation in which infanticide, mutilation, and public mass-killings have been common occurrences, an application of the Church’s Just War Doctrine is logical. The damage of gang rule has been lasting, grave, and certain. Decades of experience suggest all other means of combating this evil have been impractical or ineffective. The short-term results overwhelmingly indicate serious prospects of success. The most obvious sticking point lies in the question of proportionality. Is Bukele’s social-media prisoner-shaming a necessary ingredient to win the war?  

On the surface, it seems a difficult case to make. A charitable interpretation might note no other policies have come close to curing El Salvador’s maladies. Technically, we don’t know where lies the line between effective policy and machismo. Consider also that here the calculus of a Salvadoran gang kingpin is bound to differ from that of a Western professional-managerial observer.

A different argument for Bukelismo might shun these analyses as unnecessarily legalistic: most Salvadorans can now realistically seek a life befitting their human dignity. 

Ultimately, the Catholic observer might conclude “savagery” is a nonstarter, and some other (untried) set of policies offers an escape from gangland poverty more compatible with Christianity. Perhaps the Bukele government will evolve in a way that makes it manifestly unacceptable to Christian sensibilities: How many of the last century’s regimes garnered, even within Catholic circles, initial enthusiasm that aged poorly? And perhaps reflections on this subject are partly a reaction to a papacy willing to sacrifice doctrine to achieve temporal political aims.  

One or more of these reservations might be disqualifying. Certainly, no ecclesiastical validation of the Salvadoran model seems forthcoming. Yet, something compelling is happening in a corner of the world that has entertained so little hope for so long. Count this author among those rooting for Bukele and the Salvadoran people. 

[Photo: El Salvador President Nayib Bukele]


  • Michael O’Shea

    Michael O’Shea is an American-Polish writer and a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute. He is a board member of the Pittsburgh-area pro-life organization People Concerned for the Unborn Child.

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