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El Salvador President Nayib Bukele receives a warm welcome at CPAC

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The president of El Salvador has been heavily criticized by human rights groups and pro-democracy advocates, but Nayib Bukele has become an inspiration for many Latin American politicians who admire his tough approach to crime. Last night in Maryland, Bukele got a primetime spot at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of U.S. conservatives. And he made a few new fans, as NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Bukele, Bukele, Bukele.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: As Nayib Bukele entered a conference hall in Maryland, supporters made what has become a recurring comparison. Chants of Bukele morphed into chants of Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.

PERALTA: But Bukele is no Trump. He's much younger at 42. He's trim, impeccably dressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the president of El Salvador.

PERALTA: And he jumped on stage not as a 77-year-old man facing multiple criminal charges and a hotly contested election but as a man who just won the presidency with more than 80% of the vote, a man who is in complete control of his country. Bukele presented himself as a prophet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NAYIB BUKELE: The people of El Salvador have woken up, and so can you.

(APPLAUSE)

PERALTA: Bukele came to power in 2019. Shortly thereafter, the country suspended many basic constitutional guarantees. Bukele then launched a massive assault on gangs, jailing some 70,000 people. Human rights groups accused him of gross violations, but the murder rate plummeted. His popularity skyrocketed. He joked that he had become the world's coolest dictator, and in his speech, he detailed a playbook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUKELE: We didn't tolerate being told what to do. In doing so, we did the unthinkable. We transformed El Salvador from the most dangerous country in the world to the safest in the Western hemisphere.

PERALTA: Jorge Cuellar, who studies El Salvador at Dartmouth, says on the surface, Bukele may not seem like the kind of leader who would make a good ally for American conservatives. In his early political career, he called himself a socialist. But Cuellar says Bukele, a lot like Trump, never really let ideology define him.

JORGE CUELLAR: Bukele is not a socialist. He's an opportunist.

PERALTA: Like Trump, Cueller says, Bukele ran on a drain-the-swamp platform, on a promise to change a political system that Salvadorans thought was broken. So his message resonated.

CUELLAR: Because it latched on to that dissatisfaction, the sentiment of hopelessness, of political inefficacy.

PERALTA: When he became president, Bukele bulldozed. He stacked the courts with loyalist judges. He defied the constitution and ran for a second term. And he made the opposition - the press, independent agencies and human rights groups - enemies of change.

CUELLAR: You know, Bukele is doing what, in some ways, the MAGA Republicans wanted Trump to do.

PERALTA: Indeed, says Cuellar, in that speech at CPAC, Bukele presented himself as the, quote, "evolution of the Trumpian formula," a president who got past the democratic guardrails to bring a quick change to his country.

CUELLAR: He makes Trump look old. He makes Trump look confused and tired.

PERALTA: And after the speech, the attendees we spoke to were impressed. Steve Merczynski, who makes MAGA hammocks and scarves, likes that Bukele put El Salvador first.

STEVE MERCZYNSKI: I just like that he's a guy who did what needed to be done to stop the biggest problem in his country, which was crime.

PERALTA: And if the U.S. keeps going the way it's going, he says, it may just need a Nayib Bukele of its own. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF JHENE AIKO SONG, "B.S. FEAT. H.E.R.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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