Is El Salvador the next Venezuela?


El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes casts his vote for the presidential elections, at a polling station in San Salvador February 2, 2014.

Recent revelations about secret dealings by El Salvador’s ruling party with street gangsters and international narcotraffickers have many in that country worried that they may be drifting toward the lawlessness that has spawned chaos in Venezuela.

Indeed, as Venezuela’s oil aid dries up, the FMLN ( Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) party might rely even more on the proceeds from criminal activities — putting El Salvador on the wrong side of U.S. anti-drug efforts. So, the stakes are high in the presidential run-off election on March 9.

Mauricio Funes was elected president in 2009 as a self-styled moderate who welcomed a positive relationship with the United States — distancing himself from hard-liners within the FMLN who cling to their radical-left ideology and guerrilla history.

Unfortunately, Funes adopted statist policies that have run up government spending and pushed debt to over 60 percent of gross domestic product. An economy that grew at an average annual rate of nearly 6 percent 15 years ago has been stuck around 1.5 percent during Funes’ four-year term.

Even worse than the ruling party’s economic record, documents have been leaked in recent weeks showing that Funes has had a longstanding secret pact with leaders of the bloodthirsty Mara Salvatrucha street gangs that have been responsible for a spiraling murder rate in recent years. Correspondence between Funes’ office and a gang leader allude to payments, prison privileges and even jobs in the national police academy in exchange for votes for the FMLN candidate in 2009.

Other documents, videos and recordings reveal that Funes secretly used government funds and influence to induce gang members to negotiate a “truce” in 2012 that was supposed to end the bloody turf wars. In addition to providing cash incentives, the truce required police not to pursue the gangs in certain areas of the country.

Respected analyst Doug Farah says the gangs have used this political space to consolidate control over territory and expand their illicit activities. Worse yet, the recent discovery of clandestine graves of hundreds of gang victims proved that the controversial truce was a dismal failure in reducing violence.

Although this pact with the maras has undermined the security of Salvadorans, it benefited the FMLN, as the gangsters have used their muscle to mobilize voters on behalf of its presidential candidate, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, in the first-round balloting on Feb. 2. Indeed, Farah cites reports by observers that gang members menaced opposition supporters, in some instances confiscating voting cards to prevent them from voting.

The FMLN’s criminal ties are deep and longstanding, most notably with the Colombian FARC ( Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), which is today the largest producer of cocaine in the world. The coordinator of this clandestine relationship is José Luis Merino, an FMLN party boss and confidante of Sánchez Cerén.

Merino’s operational relationship with the FARC was discovered when the Colombian military captured the computer files of slain FARC commander Raúl Reyes in 2008. In addition to brokering the purchase of arms and ammunition for the FARC’s war against the Colombia’s democratic government, Merino facilitates the FARC’s cocaine trade, as was revealed in a December report in the Spanish newspaper, ABC.

In light of these criminal associations, it is startling that Merino also manages the flow of an estimated $600 million-$800 million in Venezuelan petroleum aid to FMLN-governed communities.

The fact that these funds are channeled through a network of companies run by the party, rather than through the state, means there is little accountability regarding the origin or use of these vast sums.

FMLN presidential candidate Cerén hailed the revolution in Venezuela, in a speech in January 2013, as “a light that will illuminate … the world.” The violence and lawlessness in Venezuela today is a direct consequence of that revolution, because the late leader Hugo Chávez smashed the country’s democratic institutions and rule of law so that he could govern arbitrarily and conceal his regime’s corruption.

The Salvadoran people have fresh evidence to consider as they decide on March 9 if that is the future they want for their country.

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Roger F.
  • Roger F. Noriega is a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs (Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean) and a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. He coordinates AEI's program on Latin America and writes for the Institute's Latin American Outlook series.

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