El Salvador’s autocratic president gets rock-star welcome at pro-Trump CPAC event

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele speaks.
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference at the National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., on Thursday.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele received a rock-star welcome at a conservative gathering outside Washington as he urged attendees to “unapologetically fight” against what he called “dark forces.”

At Thursday’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Bukele — whose policies have been criticized by human rights groups — said El Salvador should be seen as a warning.

He said gangs had taken control of the country decades ago and that a fight was necessary to arrest criminals and remove corrupt judges.


“The next president of the United States must not only win an election; he must have the vision, the will and the courage to do whatever it takes, and above all, he must be able to identify the underlying forces that will conspire against him,” Bukele said in English at the gathering in National Harbor, Md., south of Washington. “These dark forces are already taking over your country.”

The four-day conference will also host the new president of Argentina, right-wing populist Javier Milei. He is scheduled to speak Saturday, the same day former President Trump is to give the headlining address.

Politicians in Latin America are adopting Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s style — aviator sunglasses, leather jackets, baseball caps — and his politics.

July 25, 2023

Nearly two years ago, Bukele declared a war on gangs. He has since detained more than 76,000 Salvadorans, a move he says is necessary to break the chain of violence that has ravaged the country for decades. His policies have broad support, and earlier this month, he won reelection to a second five-year term.

But many of the arrests have been conducted with little evidence or access to due process, and human rights groups have documented widespread abuses of power not seen since the country’s 1980-92 civil war.

Bukele said Thursday that it had taken 50 years; two wars; 250,000 deaths; the displacement of a third of the population; “and a near miracle” to bring his country back. Someone in the crowd shouted, “And you!”

As he left the ballroom, people cheered, blew horns and paraded a calendar with his photograph. Some chased him down the hall to take photos and get a few words with the leader.


“To have a smart man as president really makes a difference,” said Nallely Gutiérrez Gijón, who managed to get a picture with the Salvadoran leader. “He is determined as an authoritarian to end corruption but governs with an iron fist.”