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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 104. El Salvador: The Price of Security

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Once the murder capital of the world, El Salvador finds itself grappling with both gang violence and geopolitical shifts. Between 2013 and 2016, murder rates soared due to gang wars and systemic extortion. President Nayib Bukele, emerging from this tumult, removes the safety catches from the government and actually tackles the issue. However, all of this is coming at a long-term cost. How does Bukele's regional vision mesh with the complexities of Central American geopolitics, and does this new path set Bukele on a collision course with the US? Join us as we dissect El Salvador's evolving position on the world stage.


Episode Overview:

Part 1: Seeking Safety (2:04)

  • Robert Guest begins this episode with an overview of the history of El Salvador and its descent into civil war and violence over several decades, leading to the rise of violent gangs and turf wars across the country.

  • We discuss some of the unique characteristics of El Salvador, including its atypical geography within Central America, and how that affects organised crime operating within its borders.

  • We explore the rise of El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele and how he has approached crime within the country, including the use of the military, and how the electoral system created obstacles to his agenda.

  • We unpack the extra-legal methods utilised by Bukele in pursuit of criminals and how this has evolved beyond gang members towards targeting journalists and white collar criminals, with the potential towards establishing a dictatorship.

Part 2: Trading Traditions (24:29)

  • Nik McNally begins the second part of our discussion by giving a current analysis of Bukele's chances of re-election and his status within the country, with two per cent of the population currently in prison, many of whom are being charged and held without evidence.

  • McNally points out that the big issue of this election cycle is the economy, which attests to the remarkable security turnaround under Bukele but also highlights the precarious situation facing the nation moving forward.

  • We discuss El Salvador's economic development following dollarisation and some of the factors behind the adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender in the nation. This process included the government buying a significant amount of the cryptocurrency, which has subsequently heavily depreciated.

  • We explore if the tactics used in El Salvador in curbing gang violence and increasing security and examine if these could be emulated in other Central and South American nations.

  • McNally hypothesises about the potential for a further concentration of authoritarian power in El Salvador and the potential response to any resistance to Bukele's methods.

Part 3: The Guidance of Gravity (42:59)

  • Margaret Myers begins our final segment by examining the relationship between the United States and El Salvador, which deteriorated significantly in 2018 when El Salvador ceased to recognise Taiwan and embraced relations with China.

  • We discuss that Bukele's Presidency has attempted to develop the China-El Salvador economic relationship, including a free trade agreement, and how Chinese economic headwinds may be creating caution in furthering this relationship.

  • A key Bukele's ambition is the strengthening of inter-country cooperation and economic and political multilateralism across the Central American region. We discuss some of the factors that are inhibiting that process.

  • We discuss the potential for future developments between the United States and El Salvador, including potential sanctions due to human rights abuses, as well as the importance of remittances from the US back to El Salvador.


Episode Guests:

Robert Guest

  • Senior Correspondent and Deputy Editor of The Economist

  • Previously he served as The Economist's lead expert on Central America

  • Before joining The Economist, he was Tokyo correspondent for the Daily Telegraph

Nik McNally

  • Americas Desk Editor for The Red Line

  • Previously he was the Newsletter Editor for Embrace Dialogue, a transnational organisation monitoring the Colombian peace process and advocating for the implementation of pro-peace policies in Colombia

  • McNally's research focuses include conflict, corruption, and security in the Americas

Margaret Myers

  • Director of the Asia & Latin America Program at the Inter-American Dialogue

  • Previously Myers worked as a Latin America analyst for the US Department of Defence, during which time she was deployed with the US Navy in support of Partnership of the Americas

  • Myers also developed the China-Latin America Finance Database, the only publicly available source of empirical data on Chinese state lending in Latin America


The Red Line's El Salvador Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of El Salvador and Central America.


State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence

William Wheeler

Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador

Central America's Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration

Aviva Chompsky


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to our Patreon member Mateo Muenzer, Jenny Schwartz, Al Hassan Sall, and Dave Baggett.


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