"Our whole economy is in shatters": El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele on the problems facing his country

Fleeing gang violence and poverty, 90,000 Salvadorans were apprehended at the U.S. border in the last year. El Salvadorian President Nayib Bukele tells 60 Minutes how he's trying to fix his country.

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The country of El Salvador is small, about the size of New Jersey, but it plays a big role in the flow of migrants from Central America to the United States. In the last 40 years, one in five Salvadorans has moved here. Half of them are undocumented. In the last year, 90,000 Salvadorans have been apprehended at the U.S. border.

Now, a populist president who's infatuated with Twitter is trying to stop that. No, it's not President Trump. It's El Salvador's new president, Nayib Bukele. He's 38 years old.

The millennial president's greatest challenge is to get rid of the violent gangs that control much of the country, so businesses will come to El Salvador and create jobs so his people don't leave. It's all connected and none of it's easy to fix. We were surprised just how blunt President Bukele was about the problems facing El Salvador.

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El Salvador President Nayib Bukele

President Nayib Bukele: The reality is that our whole economy is in-- is in shatters. Nothing works. I mean--

Sharyn Alfonsi: That's a heck of a thing for a president of a country to say. That "our whole economy is in shatters" and nothing's working--

President Nayib Bukele: Yes, yes. it's like a huge clock, the old ones with, you know, with the-- with the wheels--

Sharyn Alfonsi: Interconnected.

President Nayib Bukele: Yes, so-- you can fix this one, but this one doesn't work. So the problem is you have to fix all the pieces of the clock so the clock might work.

Among the few things working with any precision in El Salvador are the deportation flights from the United States, chartered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and called "ICE Air."

This plane arrived from Texas carrying 104 Salvadorans who entered the United States illegally.

It costs American taxpayers $64,000 a flight to send them back. There are as many as five flights to El Salvador a week. 

Salvadorian farmer: "It's been devastating"

Sharyn Alfonsi: We saw the planes coming in with the deportees. And we spoke to some of the young men coming off those planes, and they said, "I'm gonna take a hot shower and I'm gonna try again."

President Nayib Bukele: Yes, they tr-- some-- some people, they try four or five times because they feel they have nothing to lose but if you ask people that are not coming back on the planes, just people in the street - most of the people would say, "I wanna stay in my country."

It's not easy. A third live on less than $5.50 a day. Well paying factory jobs have gone to Asia and any work that can be found by young people is in low wage jobs in shops and restaurants.  

President Nayib Bukele: We have an economy that creates 20,000 jobs in a country that 100,000 kids get into-- into working age every year. So 80,000 stay out of a job. I mean, this is a country with-- a lot, a lot of problems.

President Nayib Bukele, whose grandfather immigrated to El Salvador from Jerusalem, took office in June. The ad executive and former mayor of San Salvador campaigned in a leather jacket and blue jeans as an outsider who could pull the country out of crisis. But first he has to get gang violence under control.

Salvadorans are caught in the middle of a turf war between the two largest gangs: MS-13 and Barrio 18. According to the U.N., El Salvador's murder rate is higher than any nation not at war.

President Nayib Bukele: This is not the same reality that you may face in the United States.

Sharyn Alfonsi: But it's the reality here.

President Nayib Bukele: But it's the reality here. And we have to work with this reality. I mean, we have to be very creative, because every-- every day that passes, people die.

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The gangs also affect the economy, by shaking down businesses of all sizes.

It's so widespread, we were told shop owners limit their own profits to avoid becoming targets for extortion.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Everybody we spoke to, when we said, "Who's in control, the government or the gangs?" They said, "Both." Both.

President Nayib Bukele: They h-- they have a de facto power, a real one. They charge taxes. They actually say, "Okay, if you pay this, we'll provide security for your business." They have a quasi-security force. They say, "This-- this is-- MS-13 territory, and this is 18 Revolutionaries territory." So they actually have borders between them.

To cross one of those borders, we had to wait until our Salvadoran colleague got word that the gangs had given us permission to enter.

We were instructed to drive slowly, with hazard lights on and windows down, so the gangs could see there weren't any rival gang members in our car.

We took this leap of faith to go to this church. Its pastor is Nelson Moz and he offers sanctuary to men looking to leave the gangs.

According to the code of the streets the only way out of a gang is to die or become a born again Christian.

Sharyn Alfonsi: I think a lot of people in the United States think the gangs started in El Salvador and moved to the United States. But that's not what happened?

Pastor Nelson Moz (Translation): The gangs were born in the United States. Here they found gun powder to set this entire country on fire. It was just incredible how quickly it took off.

The birth of the gangs that Pastor Moz is describing started in the 1980s, when the first wave of Salvadoran migrants fled the country during its civil war. 

Some formed gangs in Los Angeles. By the '90s, thousands of them who had broken the law in the U.S., were deported to El Salvador and brought gang culture with them. The government here was too weak after the civil war to keep them in check.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How strong are the conflicts between the two gangs?

Pastor Nelson Moz (Translation): We've had some difficult moments because right down there at the street is where another gang's territory begins.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Down here?

Pastor Nelson Moz (Translation): We're very close…from this street to the next one.

Pastor Moz was afraid to take us more than 25 yards from his front door.

This is 'the limit' he said because even he's not allowed to pass into another gang's territory.

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Pastor Nelson Moz speaks with correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi

President Nayib Bukele: it's like a parallel state in some-- in some communities.

Sharyn Alfonsi: A parallel state.

President Nayib Bukele: Yes, a parallel state.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Would you ever negotiate with them?

President Nayib Bukele: No.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Oh, why not?

President Nayib Bukele: Well, because you are giving them-- you're giving them legitimacy.

Instead, Bukele has declared war on the gangs. He's deployed 8,500 troops in a crackdown he calls "the territorial control plan."

We got a taste of it on a sweep in San Salvador. It felt more like a counter-insurgency than a police patrol. Residents seemed unfazed as cops looked for weapons or drugs. And any young man that came across their path was examined for gang tattoos.

When they do arrest somebody, they are brought to the nearest square. Police told us it's for public shaming. 

It's dragnets like this Bukele credits for a steep drop in murders. His government says since he took office, homicides fell from 231 in the month of June to 131 in November. The president gets an alert on his phone every time there is a murder.

President Nayib Bukele: So I get homicide number one, in the day, 'boop.' Then later in the day, 'boop,' homicide number two.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Why do you get those to your phone every day? Why do wanna see that?

President Nayib Bukele: I-- I don't wanna see it. I have to see it. Because then you can-- you can-- you can take measures immediately.

One measure he's taken is to limit the reach of gang leaders inside El Salvador's prisons. In most prisons, leaders had free reign and would routinely use cell phones to direct their empires and order hits.

The director of the prison system showed us how they have restored order inside the country's largest prison.

First, they confiscated 6,000 cell phones from the 4,000 inmates here. That did not go over well.

(Warden speaking Spanish)

(Producer Translation) They burned this area here that you are looking at two times.

(Producer Translation) They took hostages among the wardens.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Because of the phones?

(Producer Translation) Because of the phones, because of power, because of money.

Gray patches on the floor are where guards dug up hidden phones, guns and explosives. Gang leaders were also separated from everyone else. They are locked up for 23 hours a day behind heavy green doors.

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Sharyn Alfonsi: Is crime, in your mind, the biggest barrier to--

President Nayib Bukele: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: --to the-- to restoring--

President Nayib Bukele: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: --the econ-- ec--

President Nayib Bukele: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: --economics.

President Nayib Bukele: Because anything that you do in attracting-- trying to attract-- investment, private investment, international investment, tourism, et cetera, everything will be stopped by if-- if the perception is that El Salvador is a place that you will go and you will get killed.

Bukele is not without skeptics who have seen other Salvadoran presidents get tough on crime only to become inmates themselves for stealing government money and foreign aid. Two of the last four presidents were arrested, another has fled the country. Since 2016, the U.S. Congress has approved more than $400 million in aid to El Salvador.

The factors causing Salvadorians to flee

Sharyn Alfonsi: How do you assure Americans that the money that is coming into your country gets to where it needs to be?

President Nayib Bukele: I'm 38 right now. I started being president when I was 37. I don't wanna be out-- I'm gonna be out of the presidency at 42. I really don't wanna be in jail at 43, right? So I mean I'm not here to steal money.

But bukele relishes in stealing the spotlight. Whether it's taking a selfie before a speech at the United Nations, firing government ministers on Twitter, or carefully staging staff meetings for the television cameras. He's also gone out of his way to please President Trump.

Bukele with Trump at NY meeting in September: President Trump is very nice and cool…and I'm nice and cool too…

In September, Bukele agreed to a controversial deal that would allow the U.S. to send asylum seekers from any country to El Salvador. Critics told us it amounts to outsourcing America's asylum system to one of the most violent places in the world.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How can you keep asylum seekers safe here if you can't keep the people who live here safe?

President Nayib Bukele: Yes actually, this is an agreement-- that has a lot of ifs because…

Sharyn Alfonsi: What do you mean ifs?

President Nayib Bukele: Well, these countries have to be a lot safer, a lot safer.

Sharyn Alfonsi: A member of the President's inner circle said that-- asylum seekers could end up staying in El Salvador, that that could happen. Is El Salvador prepared for that?

President Nayib Bukele: Well, not right now. We don't have asylum capacities, but we can build them.

Sharyn Alfonsi: But you don't have it now.

President Nayib Bukele: We don't have it now. When we have it--

Sharyn Alfonsi: And if he said, "I can throw up a tent."

President Nayib Bukele: A tent. That's not-- that's not asylum capacity. No.

So why did he agree to the deal? Bukele can't achieve his goals unless he stays on the good side of the U.S. It's already paid off. The White House released $51 million of aid it was holding back. And despite all the violence, the state department lowered the threat level for Americans traveling to El Salvador. It was in the same category as the Congo and Sudan.

Sharyn Alfonsi: El Salvador is now-- has the same safety rating as Denmark and France. Does that sound right to you?

President Nayib Bukele: It also has the same-- same safety rating than Guatemala and Honduras.

Sharyn Alfonsi: But you can't walk around freely here.

President Nayib Bukele: Well--

Sharyn Alfonsi: As a tourist. I mean, we-- we were told there were certain streets we couldn't walk down--

President Nayib Bukele: That's true.

Sharyn Alfonsi: --unless we got approval from gang members first.

President Nayib Bukele: Yes. Mostly-- mostly in gang-- dominated communities.

Sharyn Alfonsi: I don't think that happens in Denmark.

President Nayib Bukele: No, of course not, of course not. No, no, I'm not-- I'm not comparing El Salvador to Denmark, no.

But the exodus from El Salvador has slowed. The Trump administration credits Bukele's efforts and tougher U.S. immigration policies for the drop in the number of Salvadorans trying to enter the U.S., from more than 12,000 in June to 2,500 in October.

President Nayib Bukele: It's our responsibility to create the conditions where people don't want to flee our country. We don't have to be Switzerland. We just have to be more similar to Costa Rica or Panama and have our-- the people-- our people wanting to stay there.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Because they want to be home.

President Nayib Bukele: Of course. Everybody wants to be home. People will rather stay at their home with little than risk everything to try to find more.

Produced by Guy Campanile and Tony Cavin. Associate producer, Lucy Hatcher. Broadcast associates, Claire Fahy and Cristina Gallotto. Edited by Robert Zimet.