Elections a Dangerous Form of Security Discussion in El Salvador

Sunday’s calls for celebration in “esta gran fiesta democratica”[1] transformed, by evening, into tense stand-offs and a statement that “La Fuerza Armada esta lista para hacer democracia”. What had been projected to be a docile, comfortable second-round presidential election with the governing FMLN party easily obtaining the presidency by a 10-18% margin melted into a tense political dispute with opposing candidates separated by less than a percentage point. As of Tuesday, 11 March 2014, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) continued to aske the candidates to refrain from declaring victory and stated that results would be delayed until Thursday so that an analysis of the results from each polling station could be conducted.* Likely factors for this upset abound. What is certain is that the deep political polarisation of El Salvador has, since the end of its civil war in 1992, rarely been more evident or potentially more explosive.

According to the latest counts, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén achieved 50.12% of the vote in contrast to Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) presidential candidate Norman Quijano with 49.88%. Eager to position themselves in what is at best a murky contest, both candidates have declared victory during celebrations held in San Salvador during the evening of 9 March 2014. Quijano went further by declaring that his party would not allow fraud “al estilo chavista o maduro, como en Venezuela”,[2] challenged the reliability of the TSE, and put the armed forces on notice of a fight for democracy. There exists a rising risk of civil unrest in result as FMLN and ARENA supporters challenge election results and attempt to influence the TSE outcome.

Further complicating the situation is the level to which security plays a role in El Salvador’s political process. Quijano may have been the first to call on the military to defend the election victory of his party but both sides are guilty of politicising security operations during the last months of the election campaign; out-going FMLN president Mauricio Funes deployed soldiers to the streets as recently as this last week in an attempt to bolster security or win security votes as alleged by political opponents.[3] The temptation to turn to military solutions during political problems is an ever-present issue in El Salvador. For decades the country has seen the military at the centre of its political system – either as direct or indirect government actors. A key component of the 1992 peace accords was the de-politicisation of the military and the removal of its overt influence from government institutions and public security structures like the police. To place the military alongside police in establishing greater security in El Salvador has caused consternation over the last decade; to make a call such as Quijano did on Sunday, for the military to stand by for intervention, should ring alarm bells.

The implication of a call to arms is immediate and significant but also worrisome over the medium- and long-term is the lasting impact of security allegations which have been flung by both parties throughout the campaign. First, the subject of a national gang truce has been contentious, as well as misrepresented, throughout the course of the campaign. Although the initiative has been responsible for reducing reported homicide rates by almost 50% since March 2012,[4] opponents claimed with reason that the FMLN was responsible for negotiating with terrorists/criminals.[5] The public has remained distrustful of the gang truce and opinion polls reveal that few see the truce as reliably improving security.[6] The FMLN was further accused of using this initiative to their advantage by employing these same gang members to pressure the electorate into voting for them[7] although there has been little evidence of gang members exerting pressure for votes.[8] The truce continued to influence election discussions both inside and internationally despite both leading parties attempting to avoid the elephant as it related to their own policies as much as possible. Cerén promoted moderate positions generally but avoided direct endorsement or other confirmation of government support for the initiative. Quijano condemned the truce, promising a return to mano dura-style enforcement, but appeared to soften on the issue as the election progressed, discussing re-integration options for youth at risk.

Also of worry has been the role that the gangs themselves may play in the political process. Since the implementation of the truce, epidemic violence responsibilities have been illuminated. Many analysts were surprised by just how heavily gangs dominated homicide rates. It was also unanticipated that concessions granted to such a small number of gang leaders (approximately 30) could extract such drastic results, illustrating a much greater hierarchical structure than previously estimated.[9] The truce has thus also altered the political influence that gangs appear to wield. On several occasions in 2013, homicide rates rose drastically over short periods, most notably in June and July 2013 after the Security Minister and Chief of the National Civil Police (PNC) were changed and new Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo began to publically criticise the truce.[10] As such, contentions that gangs have become political actors or grown to exert political power in the country are not without some truth. Nevertheless, Douglas Farah’s concerns that government concessions to gangs strengthened their political power and increased their extortive influence on the political decision-making process are, at least for the moment, overblown.[11] What should be of concern is that the negative political spectacle to which the truce has been treated over the course of the campaign can only have contributed to what PNC director Pleites declared as the truce’s “technical end”.[12]

Second, the American media and outspoken members of the US political community also challenged the legitimacy of the past five years of FMLN government operations throughout the electoral campaign through highly publicised articles on their alleged links to transnational organised crime. Constant reporting of Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s guerrilla-commanding days during El Salvador’s 1979-1992 civil war coloured publicity in the United States and, as in the 2009 presidential elections, problematized the ability of the US to work with an FMLN-government. A former George W. Bush administration deputy security advisor, Elliott Abrams, was among the primary commentators who highlighted Cerén’s ideological origins as key to today’s international crime and trafficking problems in the country.[13] The US political community on the right has been using allegations of corruption and connections to organised crime in an attempt to influence Salvadorans living in the United States – almost 2 million of them – who sent home about $3 billion in remittances in 2013 and were granted the right to vote in national elections for the first time during this presidential election. As in the 2009 Presidential elections, there were questions raised by this group as to whether US-El Salvador relations would be able to continue if an FMLN government was elected.[14] The interest of the political right in the United States is guided primarily by historic links to the civil war but also see an FMLN government as a means through which organised crime will gain a greater foothold not only in that country but also increase associated gang violence in the United States.[15]

Setting aside the partisan nature with which transnational criminal organisations, including trafficking activities, have been treated in the United States, these organisations pose a serious threat to the country’s national security, its citizens and its government institutions. Abrams is certainly correct in identifying that illegal trafficking money is corrupting officials and institutions in the country and that this is a threat to both El Salvador and the region. El Salvador’s institutions have long been weakened by encroaching corruption via transnational criminal organisations as well as national groups who purchase power within the PNC and other security structures. Jose Luis Merino’s connections to the FMLN, Venezuela, and FARC, tarnish the shine of the “new approach to democracy” image that the party has attempted to construct.[16] However, these assertions are also hardly original in content, having been in circulation since the mid-2000s, and the US has yet to present support to back up these reports.

Third, whilst Merino has been a flashpoint character for the political right in El Salvador and in the United States, serious but less publicised allegations from Insight Crime and online newspaper El Faro revealed individuals close to out-going president Funes maintain ties to the Texis Cartel. Herbert Saca is known to have garnered links to organised crime for over a decade and been close to both ARENA and FMLN presidents, funnelling crime money to at least three different administrations.[17] Not to be outdone for current scandals, however, ARENA has also been struggled to emerge from corruption allegations which dogged it throughout the campaign. ARENA members, 7 former government officials including former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores Perez, were recommended to the Attorney General by the Legislative Assembly for prosecution on charges of grave corruption and the illegal appropriation of $70 million. Although some cited these activities as “trumped-up legal threats against ARENA officials” and evidence of untoward manipulation of government institutions[18] despite ample evidence to the contrary – many asked why it had taken so long for the legal processes to be initiated! What is in evidence is that corruption, like purported criminal links amongst government employees, only serves to heighten fears and broaden gaps in an already polarised electorate.

Security being an explosive subject at the best of times, El Salvador is likely to be visited by further allegations, threats and promises as each party seeks to gain the upper hand in this elections dispute. Prior to the voting period, and despite the politicalisation of security issues and the importance given the issue by campaigning parties, voters reported that they did not use crime as a deciding issue when casting their vote, believing that no party had “good ideas for how to address crime”.[19] What each party needs to keep in mind is that their use of the security issue during the election only likely to exacerbate the issues they are likely to have to address themselves in the months to come. As El Faro opines, unlike the all or nothing calls of the conflicting parties, “en el momento en el que más necesita El Salvador una visión de futuro, de estrategia a largo plazo” and that includes treating security issues with less politicisation and greater contemplation of all the citizens for which they hope to govern.

* In an earlier version of this article, the author mistakenly stated that a recount was being conducted. This has been corrected.

[1] Oscar Ortiz, Facebook Post (9 March 2014), https://www.facebook.com/oscarortizoficial?fref=ts

[2] Gloria Flores, Quijano: “La Fuerza Armada esta lista para hacer democracia” (9 March 2014), http://www.laprensagrafica.com/2014/03/10/quijano-la-fuerza-armada-esta-lista-para-hacer-democracia

[3] AP, Mas soldados en combate a la delincuencia en El Salvador (4 March 2014), http://www.elnuevoherald.com/2014/03/04/1694640/mas-soldados-en-combate-a-la-delincuencia.html

[4] Kari Mariska Pries, El Salvador: One Year Gang Truce (21 March 2012), http://lab.org.uk/el-salvador-one-year-gang-truce

[5] ARENA ran television commercials during the early months of the campaign in 2013 which directly accused the FMLN of entering into pacts with criminals. For an American take: Roger F. Noriega, Is El Salvador the next Venezuela? (27 February 2014), http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/02/27/v-print/3963684/is-el-salvador-the-next-venezuela.html

[6] IUDOP, Los salvadorenos y salvadorenas evaluan la situación del país al finales de 2013 y opinan sobre las elecciones presidenciales de 2014 (December 2013).

[7] Jose R. Cardenas, No Ordinary Election in El Salvador (5 March 2014), http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/03/05/no_ordinary_election_in_el_salvador

[8] IUDOP, Las salvadorenas y los salvadorenos frente a la segunda ronda de la elección presidencial de 2014 (February 2014), http://www.uca.edu.sv/publica/iudop/archivos/presentacion2_2014.pdf

[9] Geoffrey Ramsey, Are El Salvador’s ‘Maras’ Becoming Political Actors? (29 June 2012), http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/are-el-salvadors-maras-becoming-political-actors

[10] After a spate of violence in July 2013 in which 103 individuals were killed during a single week, Perdomo changed his position with a press release offering the government’s renewed support for a sustainable and transparent process. J. Santos and C. Melendez, Seguridad anuncia incorporacion de tregua a estrategias de Gobierno (11 July 2013), http://www.laprensagrafica.com/seguridad-anuncia-incorporacion-de-tregua-a-estrategias-de-gobierno; also Marguerite Cawley, El Salvador Gangs Using Truce to Strengthen Drug Ties: Official (19 July 2014), http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/el-salvador-gangs-using-truce-to-strengthen-drug-ties-security-minister

[11] Douglas Farah, The Transformation of El Salvador’s Gangs into Political Actors (21 June 2012), http://csis.org/files/publication/120621_Farah_Gangs_HemFocus.pdf

[12] Michael Lohmuller, El Salvador Gang Truce ‘Technically’ Finished: Police (4 March 2014), http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/el-salvador-gang-truce-technically-finished-police

[14] The right in the United States had everything to gain by running this campaign to influence a group that had already come out in favour of an FMLN government shortly after being granted suffrage in January 2013. The National Salvadoran Network in the Exterior (RENASE) published their declaration in the Salvadoran newspaper La Presna Grafica in March 2013.

[15] Cardenas (2014); Guevara (2014); Alan Gomez, Stopping drug cartels key issue in El Salvador election (8 March 2014), http://www.wisconsinrapidstribune.com/usatoday/article/6162315

[16] Tomas Guevara, U.S. Analyst: Salvadoran Gangs Seek Political Role (5 February 2014), http://laddo.org/bin/content.cgi?article=2893&lang=en

[17] Hector Silva, The Fixer and El Salvador’s Missed Opportunity (7 March 2014), http://www.insightcrime.org/policy-salvador-corruptions/the-arranger-and-the-lost-opportunity-of-el-salvador-police

[18] Cardenas (2014).

[19] Tim, The second round at the polls (3 March 2014), http://luterano.blogspot.ca/2014/03/the-second-round-at-polls.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s