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Violence, Graft to Test El Salvador's Maverick New President

Salvadoran soldiers take part in a rehearsal during preparations for the presidential inauguration ceremony in downtown San Salvador, May 29, 2019.

El Salvador's maverick new president takes office Saturday pledging to battle violence, poverty, corruption and mass migration to the United States — but will have to do all that without a congressional majority.

Nayib Bukele, a 37-year-old former mayor of San Salvador, ended 30 years of bipartisan rule by the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) with his election victory in February.

But the electoral coalition the former FMLN politician forged with right-wing allies for the five-year term won just 11 of 84 seats in Congress, forcing Bukele to promise to work with "all the political forces."

"His strength is that he has awakened a lot of popular enthusiasm and that's what he's counting on," said Jose Maria Tojeira, a political analyst and director of the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University in San Salvador.

"The traditional parties risk being swept away in the next elections if they fight the president or hinder government."

Crime, gangs

Rampant crime is the main headache for most of El Salvador's 6.6 million population. Bukele will inherit one of the most violent countries in the world, although under the outgoing FMLN government murders fell 15 percent in 2018.

FILE - El Salvador President-elect Nayib Bukele takes questions during a keynote interview at the U.S. State Department in Washington, May 7, 2019.
FILE - El Salvador President-elect Nayib Bukele takes questions during a keynote interview at the U.S. State Department in Washington, May 7, 2019.

At around 51 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, the murder rate is still about 10 times higher than the United States.

Much of the blame is pinned on El Salvador's "maras" — international criminal gangs involved in drug trafficking and extortion that have some 70,000 members. Previous governments have tried, but failed, to broker lasting truces between them.

Recently the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), the largest gang, floated the possibility of stopping violence through dialogue.

"We trust in God and in the new president Nayib," a MS-13 spokesman told the Central American magazine Factum.

Gang violence has helped fuel mass migration from Central America and created tensions with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Bukele said he will push ambitious public works to help contain migration, including plans for a Pacific railway, though he has given little indication of how he hopes to fund them.

Poverty, corruption

El Salvador's dollarized economy has not grown by more than 3% annually in the past decade and the government faces a steep challenge to shoulder external debts of over $9.5 billion without paring back welfare spending, analysts say.

The incoming president has used social media to burnish his profile, scoring a hit on Twitter earlier this year by ironically describing El Salvador as a "Mexican country" after Fox News in the United States had earlier made reference in an on-screen caption to "3 Mexican countries."

Of Palestinian descent, the bearded Bukele capitalized on discontent toward the two established parties with his motto: "There's enough money when no one steals."

Promising to end widespread graft, he wants to create an international commission against corruption, similar to schemes once adopted by neighboring Guatemala and Honduras.