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El Salvador's president has taken over the government and installed martial law


Imagine if a sitting president controlled a majority vote in Congress. Imagine that he used that power to replace the Supreme Court with hand-picked justices. And imagine if he insisted on exceeding term limits. Well, a version of all that is actually playing out right now in El Salvador. President Nayib Bukele has taken over all branches of government. He's instituted martial law, meaning the government can imprison anyone for any reason. And most recently, he announced reelection plans, even though doing so is against El Salvador's constitution. All of this is raising concerns among human rights activists in El Salvador, including Tatiana Marroquin. She's also a former legal analyst for the country's national assembly. Welcome.

TATIANA MARROQUIN: Well, hello. Greetings from El Salvador.

CHANG: And greetings to you, too. So despite everything that we just laid out, even though Bukele is facing criticism both at home and from other world leaders, he is, I understand, enormously popular in the country, right? Like, his approval rating is more than 85%. Why is that, you think?

MARROQUIN: From the beginning of his mandate, he decided to solve the problem of the gangs and the high level of homicides. And today, it's not publicly known what strategies or state resources he used exactly to achieve that goal, but he did. Without a doubt the resolve of the governments handling the gang issue are related to his popularity, among other elements.

CHANG: Well, as we mentioned, President Bukele has instituted martial law. What does that even look like in El Salvador? Can you explain?

MARROQUIN: It's a law that has eliminated due process in El Salvador. So people are being taken to jail on suspicions of gang involvement but without a formal investigation. So the mass arrest in El Salvador are defined by class and by race more than a serious investigation of the possibility of having committed a crime.

CHANG: Well, we should note that Bukele's vice president has said that a reelection would not be unconstitutional. He told the publication Prensa Latina that Bukele could leave office and still run again. But you and other legal experts say the Constitution in your country is very clear. It allows a single presidential term of five years. That is it. Tell me. What is your biggest fear about what Bukele might do to make a second term a reality?

MARROQUIN: Well, he's already foreseen the institutions like the constitutional chamber to say that the Constitution is not saying that it's prohibited, which is totally delusional. It's clearly putting in the Constitution that it's not possible to be reelected in El Salvador. And it's not just any person. It's a person who clearly have showed authoritarian biases in the years that he has been president of El Salvador.

CHANG: Well, Bukele's administration has faced some international pressure, including U.S. sanctions, for things like corruption, for conspiracy with gangs. But I know that you think that those sanctions haven't done much to strengthen El Salvador's democratic norms, right? So what specific actions do you think need to be taken?

MARROQUIN: Well, we need at least to put attention on what's happening in El Salvador. Like, we have developed a whole range of new fears. So my generation grew up in the light of the peace accords, listening to stories about military abuse, attack of free expression, the impossibility of true democratic elections. And certainly in these years, those stories seems to be alive again. So we need the international community to put attention in what is happening right now. My biggest fear today is that we get used to living without rights and that we consider it unnecessary sacrifice to control certain problems in society.

CHANG: That is human rights activist Tatiana Marroquin. Thank you very much for joining us today.

MARROQUIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Enrique Rivera
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.