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El Salvador's popular but authoritarian president declares election victory

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now to El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele declared victory yesterday ahead of official election results. He's hugely popular in Latin America because of his crackdown on gangs. Emily Green has more.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: "Long live Nayib Bukele," a voter chants at San Salvador's biggest voting center. Here, Bukele has godlike status.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREEN: Bukele has transformed El Salvador. Using a repressive state of emergency, Bukele has eviscerated the country's powerful street gangs. El Salvador now ranks among the safest in the Western Hemisphere, a remarkable feat for a country that only recently was one of the world's most violent.

JOSE LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: Jose Lopez (ph) says the elections are historic. Lopez lives in Virginia and flew to El Salvador just to cast his vote. Most people agree the elections are historic, but Bukele critics fear it's the start of a dictatorship. El Salvador's Constitution clearly prohibits presidents from serving consecutive terms, a problem Bukele got around by replacing the country's Supreme Court judges. Lopez doesn't care.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: "My country is better off," Lopez says, adding that five years ago, people couldn't walk around whenever they wanted to.

On Sunday night, Bukele gave a rousing speech from the National Palace to a massive crowd of supporters. His rule is the true democracy, he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NAYIB BUKELE: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: "Democracy is what we Salvadorans decide," he said.

Since imposing a state of emergency nearly two years ago, authorities have arrested more than 76,000 people. Rights groups say thousands of innocent people have been swept up. And numerous journalists critical of Bukele have fled the country for fear of persecution. On Sunday, Bukele made clear who his enemies are - the press, human rights groups and foreign governments who have raised concerns about his human rights record.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUKELE: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: "Why aren't you happy that blood doesn't run in the streets like it did before?" - he said. Bukele ended the speech with an R.E.M. song, "It's The End Of The World As We Know It," and indeed it is a new era for El Salvador. It may be a new era for all of Latin America as Bukele's policies become a blueprint across the region.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF VITAMIN STRING QUARTET'S "IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT - AND I FEEL FINE") 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.

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