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Bitcoin sign in El Zonte, El Salvador. 

Bitcoin sign in El Zonte, El Salvador. 

Photographer: Jose Cabezas for Bloomberg Businessweek
+ Crypto

El Salvador’s $300 Million Bitcoin ‘Revolution’ Is Failing Miserably

President Nayib Bukele tied his country’s fortunes to the digital token, but there isn’t much sign of it. Easier to find: Mass arrests and soldiers with machine guns.


On an estuary along the coast of El Salvador, a few miles west of the Conchagua volcano, about 70 families live in a settlement called Flor de Mangle. It’s named for a mangrove forest where residents pluck oysters and crabs by hand from the brackish water. The first group of inhabitants came about 20 years ago, some of them former soldiers and guerrillas displaced by a brutal civil war. Harvesting shellfish, herding cattle and growing mangoes and corn, they earned enough to raise families and build houses, first of tin and wood, then of concrete.

Earlier this year, government workers visited the forest and marked some of the trees with letters and numbers in orange paint. Elmer Martínez, a mango farmer who leads the local cooperative, says they told him the markings indicated where farms would be razed for a development project backed by Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s president. “We can’t leave, because we don’t have anywhere to go,” Martínez told me, flashing a decorative gold front tooth. He sat in the shade of a giant mango tree he’d planted 15 years before. Next to him were buckets holding grafts from nine of his trees, to bring with him if he was forced off his land. “We’re poor people who survive from nature, from the field,” he said.