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MAGA's dictator fetish obscures an MS-13 public relations campaign
MAGA went big on a media campaign for the budding El Salvadorian dictatorship, but their fascism for hire is obscuring the government's reported secret deals with violent gangs such as MS-13.
Last week an op-ed co-authored by Gavin Wax, president of the New York Young Republican Club (NYYRC), appeared in the opinion section of Newsweek with the title ‘We Need an American Bukele’. It was well received by MAGA. Many of their extremely online contingent subsequently heaped praise on the subject of the piece, Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, who has recently rounded up tens of thousands of suspected gang members in his country and placed them in a 40,000 capacity ‘megaprison’. Who is Bukele and why do Americans need someone like him? Bear with me as I share a good amount of the text. It’s relevant to the story I intend to tell.
In the Newsweek op-ed, Wax and his co-author write:
When Salvadorans elected President Nayib Bukele in 2019, they gave him a clear enough mandate: Fix things. Since the conclusion of the Salvadoran Civil War, which raged from 1979 to 1992, El Salvador has experienced modest economic growth. However, persistent corruption and inflation hampered quality of life, and emigration to the United States drained the nation of productive members of its labor force.
Bukele directly addressed the problems facing El Salvador when he took power. As he told VICE News in an interview, "The gangs have been running this parallel state. They charge taxes, they control territory, they provide security. But I'm not [going to] convert their de facto power into formal power."
Bukele was referring primarily to two gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, which de facto controlled vast swaths of El Salvador and brought drug and sex trafficking, violent crime, and extortion to every community. Traveling between Salvadoran towns put lives at stake, as gangs controlled public transportation. MS-13, in particular, has also exported its destructive violence abroad, including to the United States.
But rather than take the approach typical of far too many American politicians—talking about the problem, creating committees to study it, and ultimately doing nothing to solve it—Bukele took decisive action. He promptly launched the popular Territorial Control Plan to rein in gang violence.
It was not enough. After a sudden spike in homicides in March 2022, which resulted in 87 deaths over a weekend, Bukele did not just offer thoughts and prayers to his nation; he cracked down hard. With the strong backing of Salvadorans (over 90% of them approve), Bukele expanded the rights of Salvadoran law enforcement and empowered them to detain gang members for immediate processing.
Within a month, Bukele's language became more firm: "There are rumors that [gang members] want to start taking revenge on random, honest people. If they do that, there won't even be one meal in prisons. I swear to God, they won't eat a grain of rice, and let's see how long they last."
Salvadorans applauded. Safety returned to the streets. The nation dropped from the most dangerous in the world to the safest in the Americas.
Unmentioned in the article is what Bukele had to do in order to carry out this mass crackdown. He suspended the constitution. As The Guardian wrote:
Bukele asked his allies in El Salvador’s congress to pass a state of exception last year, which has since been extended several times, that suspends some constitutional rights after a dramatic increase in murders attributed to violent gangs.
Since then, more than 64,000 suspects have been arrested in the anti-crime dragnet. Arrests can be made without a warrant, private communications are accessible by the government, and detainees no longer have the right to a lawyer.
So far, nothing about this story was particularly surprising. Trump won in 2016 by promising to be the sort of populist anti-crime, pro-wall Patriot that Bukele appears to be following through on. Of course we need an American Bukele, they think, and perhaps Trump will be that man for them if only he gets a second chance to follow through! Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone expressed this sentiment even before the Newsweek article was published.
The Newsweek op-ed by Wax and his co-author praised Bukele for his authoritarian crackdown and lambasted the human rights groups who complained about Bukele’s actions. They wrote that groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch simply, “could not accept that the Salvadoran people have a sovereign right to govern their nation in accordance with their own laws,” which of course fails to mention the fact that Bukele has suspended the nation’s laws so that he himself is the law. Of course, this is part of a pattern of behavior, as in September of last year, Bukele announced his intention to run for re-election in El Salvador despite a constitutional ban on his doing so. So, what an article titled ‘We Need an American Bukele’ really means is America needs a dictator who can suspend the constitution at his will. Of course, Wax believes that man should be Donald Trump.
After Wax’s article was out, it was shared by a variety of familiar names including Dinesh D’Souza, Steve Cortes, the official NYYRC account, and Bukele’s advisers and supporters in El Salvador. It even managed to catch the attention of a Republican (lobbyist) named Damian Merlo who is actively registered under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) with Nayib Bukele’s government in El Salvador. The contract was first filed in December 2020 but dated to March 2019, one month after Bukele won the presidential race. In fact, from September to December 2022, Damian Merlo’s work in El Salvador on behalf of the Latin America Advisory Group, LLC received payments totaling $325,000 from the Office of the President of El Salvador for “Public relations, media relations, and government relations.” Merlo shared the Newsweek article on his Twitter account and soon, the official account for El Salvador’s president, @nayibbukele, shared the article as well.
It was the culmination of a week’s worth of material on Bukele’s and his supporter’s accounts showing the images of gang members sitting helplessly on the floor of the massive prison his government built to contain them. Clearly, we, as a nation, have gone soft, and what we need to Make America Great Again is a hard man who is not constrained by frivolous things like laws.
The appearance in Newsweek was no coincidence
As the SPLC’s Hatewatch has written, the opinion section at Newsweek has been captured by anti-Democratic forces, spearheaded by right-wing personality Josh Hammer.
Of this anti-Democratic shift in the Newsweek opinion section, Hatewatch authors write:
Hammer started working for Newsweek in May 2020. In August 2020, The New Republic labeled Newsweek a “zombie magazine” known for laundering “right-wing ideas and conspiracy theories.” The New Republic’s criticism followed Hammer’s opinion section publishing a now-infamous op-ed by lawyer John Eastman. Eastman floated in his Newsweek piece a legal argument for nullifying non-white, California-born Kamala Harris’s then-current vice presidential candidacy. Readers repeatedly called Eastman’s op-ed racist on social media and in comment sections. Employees of the publication complained internally, and Hammer, along with Cooper, applied multiple editors’ notes to Eastman’s post.
Shortly after Hammer and Newsweek published Eastman’s op-ed, the lawyer pushed the Stop the Steal disinformation campaign and helped lay out a blueprint for Trump staging a coup following his defeat in the election. Hammer has portrayed Eastman on his podcast as a victim of a corrupt FBI, which he claims targets Trump supporters unfairly. (The FBI seized the embattled lawyer’s phone this June.) Eastman has also involved himself in other anti-democracy activism, including lobbying the Supreme Court to adopt “independent state legislator theory,” which would further advance gerrymandering and weaken U.S. elections.
Hammer’s appointment at Newsweek has coincided with the outlet’s decision to platform conspiracy peddlers, 2020 election deniers and helped normalize extremists like Jack Posobiec and Dinesh D’Souza. No wonder then, the ‘American Bukele’ article was shared by D’Souza and Bukele was repeatedly praised by Posobiec on Twitter and was featured on his daily show. Hammer shared the article himself.
Hammer also did an interview in which he praised Bukele’s crackdown. Hammer’s post of that interview was retweeted by @nayibbukele’s official account.
A number of tweets from right-wing Trump supporting Americans were retweeted by Bukele’s official Twitter account after they heaped praise on El Salvador’s president. This includes a post by Charlie Kirk, three by Jack Posobiec, Sara Carter, Mike Flynn quoting an Infowars video, Steve Cortes, Jackson Hinkle, Roger Stone and Bukele himself retweeted the Newsweek piece written by Wax.
On March 4, in what may be the high point of this current media blitz, Bukele appeared in an hour-long interview on Tucker Carlson today, which he also shared on Twitter.
‘We Need an American Bukele’ appearing in Newsweek comes on the heels of the fascist-friendly gathering they hosted this past December at the New York Young Republican Club. Posobiec and Marjorie Taylor Green were the featured speakers, but it was a showing full of domestic and international far-right figures who are waging war against the established democratic orders in the western world. Also present at the NYYRC event was, of course, Josh Hammer.
As Michael Edison Hayden and Hannah Gais wrote of the event:
At the NYYRC gathering, Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer fraternized at a table with the extremist Jack Posobiec throughout the night. Raheem Kassam, a former Breitbart News London editor who pushed lies about the outcome of the 2020 election, also sat with the two men. Posobiec and Kassam, despite their history of trafficking in politically charged disinformation, have contributed Newsweek content on multiple occasions since Hammer’s hiring. Event organizers placed this table of Newsweek contributors near the front of the stage, where the men listened to speakers fantasize about armed insurrection and call for “total war” against other American citizens.
It’s no surprise then to see NYYRC president Wax publishing this article and many of those who attended their gala last December agreeing with his op-ed. Wax and many of those who attended the NYYRC gala last December pushed Trump’s stolen election lies in 2020, and they carried the same message in support of Bolsonaro in Brazil after he lost his election in 2022 to Lula da Silva. These are anti-democratic actors who have successfully dragged the MAGA base from its Tea Party origins to gleefully cheering on state-sponsored round-ups of real and imagined enemies who have been thrown in jail without trial. Even Bukele himself has admitted that some innocent people have been sent to jail, but he suggests that—while this is unfortunate—it’s simply the price of ensuring safety on the streets. Ever thus, unless your father, brother or son is one of the hapless victims eaten alive by a prison sentence he’s done nothing to deserve.
I thought this was the end of the story I’d be telling here. The American right’s descent into authoritarian fantasies deepens ever further. We should all be concerned how easily the base cheers as one man becomes the law. We should. It is an awful sign of things to come, but that’s not the whole story.
An indictment in the Eastern District of New York
Less than a week before the 'We Need an American Bukele' article appeared in the Newsweek opinion section, a four-count indictment was unsealed in the Eastern District of New York (EDNY) charging thirteen MS-13 leaders from El Salvador and Mexico. The actions of these individuals involved directing transnational criminal activities in El Salvador, Mexico and the United States over the past two decades. The EDNY press release states, "Specifically, the defendants are charged with racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to provide or conceal material support to terrorists, and narco-terrorism conspiracy. Four of the defendants are also charged with alien smuggling conspiracy which resulted in death."
Though the press release didn’t mention the potential complication for Nayib Bukele’s government, the indictment itself did. For all of his tough talk of dismantling the gangs and using brute force to return law and order to El Salvador’s streets, there have been persistent rumors that Bukele’s government has held secret meetings with MS-13 leaders in order to reach agreements by which they would be protected from prosecution. As the indictment states on page 19, "In exchange, the MS-13 leaders agreed to reduce the number of public murders in El Salvador, which politically benefited the government of El Salvador, by creating the perception that the government was reducing the murder rate. When in fact, MS-13 leaders continued to authorize murders where victims' bodies were buried or otherwise hidden." The MS-13 leaders also encouraged their members, friends, relatives and the residents of the neighborhoods under MS-13 control to vote for candidates in the 2021 El Salvadorian election who were members of Bukele's party. Meanwhile, four of those charged in the indictment remain at large.
As journalists José Luis Sanz and Carlos Martínez from the El Salvadorian outlet El Faro wrote of the indictment:
The Justice, State, and Treasury Departments consider it a fact that Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s administration secretly negotiated with the Mara Salvatrucha-13, and that his government offered the gang’s primary leaders financial benefits and facilitated communication so that they could maintain control within the gang and in their turf in El Salvador. Federal prosecutors allege that, in return for the easing of prison restrictions and even reduction of sentences, MS-13 supported Bukele’s ruling party, Nuevas Ideas, in the 2021 municipal and legislative elections and maintained low levels of homicides at least through March 2022.
A grand jury in the Eastern District of New York included these and other assertions about the negotiations in its decision to indict on charges of racketeering, conspiracy to materially support terrorism on U.S. soil, and narco-terrorism of 13 of the gang’s senior leaders — all of them members of the "ranflas", or leadership in the prisons of El Salvador and in the streets. They issued the charges, which remained sealed for five months until last Thursday, on September 22.
According to U.S. authorities, after the DOJ made formal requests in 2021 and 2022 for the extradition of a dozen top gang members, the leaders again "demanded that the government refuse to extradite the Ranfla Nacional defendants and other MS-13 leaders." The prosecutors also noted that the government freed leader Élmer Canales Rivera, also known as "Crook," despite decades of outstanding prison time and a formal U.S. extradition request. The indictment asserts that Crook and two other leaders of the gang conducted the negotiations with the Bukele administration.
On Tuesday, El Faro asked a Justice Department official if, in light of these assertions, the U.S. government considers the Bukele administration to be a collaborator with the gangs. "The language of the indictment speaks for itself," the official said. "What I can say is that in a number of situations the government of El Salvador has cooperated with the gangs."
In a follow-up piece written by the Editorial Board at El Faro, they noted that neither Bukele nor anyone in his administration has addressed the accusations made against them in the EDNY indictment. The images of ruthless prison guards cracking down on the backs of unconstitutional arrests are little more than smoke and mirrors for the seedy corruption that's facilitating the consolidation of political power in El Salvador. A consolidation that is allegedly not only endorsed but encouraged by the gang leaders themselves. The smoke and mirrors campaign began less than twenty-four hours after the EDNY indictment was released to the public with a video published by Bukele’s personal account. As of this writing, the video has over 18 million views.
The American right took these images and made it the story, and it was the easiest of sells for their audience. Their base yearns for QAnon-inspired roundup of their political enemies. El Salvador’s megaprison is Q’s GITMO come to life. Sure, it’s all a sham. It’s a public relations campaign, but this sham sells because the base in America has been primed for an authoritarian takeover. Even if Bukele’s images aren’t the real story, there are plenty of Americans right now who want it to be real. They too watch Infowars and Tucker Carlson.
Why is MAGA running cover for MS-13?
Shortly after he was elected president, in May 2019, Nayib Bukele visited the United States and gave a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He spoke with then-NSA John Bolton about the situation in Venezuela on this trip. He was photographed outside the White House with the man who accompanied him on this trip—the political consultant and PR guy Damian Merlo. Later in 2019, Bukele and Merlo met with Donald Trump in New York. At the meeting, Trump remarked that Bukele had, “done an incredible job with MS-13. He realizes what a threat they are. And they have been very, very tough, and we all appreciate that.” El Salvador’s president called the U.S. a partner, ally and friend. Of Trump specifically, he said, "President Trump is very nice and cool, and I’m nice and cool, too. So — we both use Twitter a lot, so, you know, we’ll get along. And we’re very honored. We’re very honored, Mr. President." The visit served its purpose, and Bukele’s government has paid millions of dollars to Republican consultants in the ensuing years, including the aforementioned Merlo. This may help explain why the relationship between El Salvador’s government and the Biden administration is virtually nonexistent. In 2021, Bukele refused to meet with a special envoy from the Biden administration who was visiting the country. In 2022, the State Department was forced to admit that Bukele attempted to interfere in a U.S. House race—with Bukele and his allies telling voters to support the opponent of Democratic Rep. Norma Torres in California’s 35th district, after Torres drew the El Salvadorian president’s ire on social media.
It’s worth noting the description for Damian Merlo’s FARA registration, which was last updated in January 30, 2023, appears active as of this writing in March 2023. Merlo’s paperwork describes his work as, the “Registrant will continue to communicate with the U.S. public, government officials and the media about the importance of fostering strong dialogue between the U.S. and El Salvador.” Could that strong dialogue between the two countries include statements such as telling U.S. citizens, “We Need An American Bukele”? We can only speculate as to any direct correlation at present, but it’s fitting to see MAGA’s hollow populism exposed for the fraud it is. In the recent social media posts, the American right gets their fix of dictator porn, the PR agents can keep cashing their checks and the leaders of MS-13 who Bukele refuses to extradite continue to breathe free air. We are once again witnessing a dealmaker president with a dictatorial itch Americans are shamelessly helping him scratch.
There’s one way to look at these events and say that maybe Bukele and Trump aren’t real authoritarians. They’re dealmakers whose corruption transcends ideology. In this analysis, the unconstitutional shows of force are really just posturing for their audiences who want to believe they’re the strong men their advisers and public relations teams have carefully cultivated into existence. In a world where narratives dominate, image consultants simply own the conversation, and the best ones achieve this without anyone really noticing.
I see this all another way. Though the performative authoritarianism may not yet be true dictatorial sole rule yet, their audiences don’t know that, and they love what they see. They want more. They want to see their enemies submit. They’re going to keep demanding the stakes be raised. Eventually, someone’s going to come along with the real thing, and their primed supporters won’t take much convincing. Fake or not, the desire for supremacy is palpable.
Nothing is inevitable, but the threat to democracy is real and rising even if many of the anti-democratic influencers are information terrorists for hire.