Bukele to Petro: “What’s your obsession with El Salvador?”

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador. Photo: Moisen Saman/Sony World Photography Award.
A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador. Photo: Moisen Saman/Sony World Photography Award.

The small Central American nation of El Salvador is the focus of a political feud between the President of the country, Nayib Bukele, and Colombia’s Gustavo Petro. The feud, playing out on social media, began with Colombia’s left-wing leader criticizing the construction of a mega-prison officially named the Center for Confining Terrorism.

The majority of convicts have been charged with serious crimes, such as murder and kidnapping. President Bukele’s new mega-prison was shown to the world in stark photographs of handcuffed, bare-chested men, the majority tattooed with the symbols of the country’s most notorious gangs, including the largest Mara Salvatrucha – MS/13 – and Barrio 18.

Petro, who compared the Center for Confining Terrorism at Teoluca to a “concentration camp” as he addressed students from the Universidad Distrital, slammed Bukele’s internal security policy as a “war” against youngsters. “Undoubtedly there are people who take pleasure in seeing young people incarcerated,” highlighted Petro.

The remarks at a public university in Bogotá, as well as a Twitter post in which Petro questions Bukele’s high approval ratings for a Latin American leader, sparked an immediate response. “Mr @petrogustavo. The results outweigh the rhetoric. I hope that Colombia succeeds in lowering the homicide rates, as we Salvadorans have achieved. God bless you.”

The response came on the same day a Colombian anti-riot policeman was killed by the Indigenous Guard and 79 others taken hostage in San Vicente del Caguán.

Just days after the mega-prison dispute, and claims by Petro that homicide rates in Colombia are down because the country “builds educational facilities…not prisons,” the Colombian President, once again, mined the social media battlefield with an affirmation that Bukele has been making “under the table pacts” with gang leaders. Pacts allegedly revealed in a CNN report that cites complaints from New York City prosecutors.

Petro’s interference in El Salvador’s internal affairs was exacerbated when he wrote: “Better than making government agreements under the table is that justice can make them above the table without deceit, and in search of peace.” Bukele did not hold back and raised the recent scandal in which Petro’s brother, Juan Fernando, and eldest son, Nicolás Petro, allegedly received payments from a well-known contrabandist and drug traffickers awaiting extradition for government leniency and benefits under the “total peace” policy.

“Make up your minds. First, you accuse of inhumane treatment, and now you talk of “better conditions.” What’s your obsession with El Salvador? Isn’t your son the one who makes pacts ‘under the table’ and also for money? Is everything good at home?” responded a clearly angered Bukele.

The social media narrative then became too personal, breaking with a week of niceties and diplomatic restraint.  “Dear President Nayib, everything is fine at home. Here (In Colombia) exists the presumption of innocence – a universal principle. Here, the president does not dismiss judges or magistrates; he fights for a more autonomous and stronger justice. Here, in Colombia, we deepen democracy, not destroy it.” To which Bukele responded: “Presumption of innocence? (…) Colombians will know if this is true – or another lie – as you seem addicted to lies.”

Bukele then sealed the social media tirade by warning Colombia’s Petro that: “it was you who attacked me (again), and our internal affairs. I didn’t even remember your existence.”