SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Meet Nayib Bukele, the 37-year-old president of El Salvador. He takes office facing a humanitarian and economic crisis and that's pushed thousands of Salvadorans to flee north to the United States.
As the first millennial head of state in Latin America, and a self-fashioned post-partisan reformer, he thinks he's got a plan to fix his country that's seen epic levels of political corruption and one of the world’s highest murder rates, because of gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street.
"The gangs have been running this parallel state," Bukele told VICE News, "They charge taxes, they control territory, they provide security. But I'm not gonna convert their de facto power into formal power.”
The son of a motorcycle magnate, Bukele entered politics at 31, and should be an ideal partner for President Trump’s efforts to stem migration from Central America. Even though the White House confirmed this week it would halt payments on $500 million in aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, Bukele’s plan has always hinged on enticing U.S. companies to invest. If private capital can be lured south, perhaps labor won’t travel north.
Hopes might be high this early in the afterglow of his inauguration in June, but the security challenges remain daunting. Murder, extortion and sexual assault continue to drive people out of the country, and the leadership of the country's biggest gang, MS-13, want political legitimacy, a concession Bukele refuses.
Rather, he says, he wants to compete with gangs to provide better opportunities. “We need job programs especially directed to those communities,” he said.
This segment originally aired June 18, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.