Latin America Report
6:42 pm
Tue March 18, 2014

First Civil, Now Gang Wars. Who Would Want To Be President of El Salvador?

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Salvadorans are poised to pass Cubans as the third-largest Latino group in the United States, behind Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.

There are 2 million Salvadorans in the U.S. That’s almost a third of the entire population of El Salvador itself, Central America’s smallest country. Many were born in the U.S., but most are migrants – and that inordinate exodus suggests some serious things are wrong with El Salvador.

A civil war tore El Salvador apart in the 1980s – and today violent drug-gang crime is tearing it down. About 40 percent of the population live in poverty while a tiny elite lives in luxury. The economy’s long been in the cellar, and the country still seems as politically polarized as it did when right-wing death squads terrorized the place a generation ago.

If you needed a reminder of that split, consider the results of the March 10 presidential election: Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the leftist FMLN party defeated Norman Quijano of the right-wing ARENA party by a miniscule 50.11 percent to 49.89 percent. Sánchez, 69, who was a guerrilla during the civil war, was declared the winner this week, but Quijano and ARENA reject that official ruling and are crying fraud.

Quijano even summoned cold-war demons last week by urging the military to intervene.

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Fortunately, the brass declined his invitation. “The Salvadoran military has shown really professional standing,” says José Miguel Cruz, a Salvadoran-born professor of political science at Florida International University and director of research at the Latin America and Caribbean Center there. “I don’t see them playing the old game.”

And that suggests one of the important things that’s right with El Salvador these days – and why Washington still considers the country a key ally in Central America’s northern triangle, which U.S. officials call the most dangerous corner of the world outside Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fact, compared to really dysfunctional neighbors like Honduras – which has the world’s highest murder rate today – El Salvador looks relatively stable. After returning from El Salvador to gauge post-election tensions, Cruz told me this week that for all its problems, “El Salvador is one of the few countries in Central America where democratic institutions are seen to be working.”

El Salvador is one of the few countries in Central America where democratic institutions are seen to be working. -- Jose Miguel Cruz

As a result, he says, “I think the United States is investing a lot in El Salvador in terms of saying, 'OK, we need to keep this small country from falling into the hands of complete ungovernability, complete instability, as in the [case] of Guatemala or Honduras.'”

The question is whether Sánchez’s election signals more difficult relations between Washington – which backed a brutal Salvadoran military during the civil war – and San Salvador.

This marks the second consecutive presidential victory for the FMLN, the party of the rebels that fought the military until the 1992 peace pact. But Sánchez is considered more left-wing than current President Mauricio Funes, who is not a former guerrilla; and conservatives fear he wants to align his country more closely with anti-U.S. regimes like oil-rich Venezuela’s.

HARD HAND

Cruz told me he understands the concerns to an extent. “In the past,” he says, “Sánchez Cerén has talked about Venezuela as a model – to the point that he even suggested Venezuela was a beacon of democracy in the Americas.”

But he notes a key factor that will most likely keep Sánchez from leaping into the arms of Caracas. “El Salvador is not Venezuela,” he says. “It’s a small, poor country that’s very dependent [economically] on the United States.

“Remittances from the huge Salvadoran population in the U.S. keep the Salvadoran economy afloat. It would be almost suicidal for any Salvadoran government to be in conflict with the United States.”

Either way, Sánchez’s more pressing problem, aside from El Salvador’s deep-seated poverty, is solving the plague of the Maras – the murderous criminal gangs that have overrun the country and much of Central America.

While in power in the 2000s, ARENA tried the mano dura, or hard hand, to vanquish them. Cruz, an expert on El Salvador’s violent crime crisis and the author of "Street Gangs of Central America," says the mano dura “worsened the situation.” But the FMLN’s policy of negotiating truces with the Maras “did not provide a road map as to [what] to do once these gangs stop killing each other. So they go back to business as usual.”

Cruz fears the Maras may step up their violence now to pressure Sánchez for new negotiations.

Quijano and ARENA have even accused the FMLN of letting some of those gangbangers out of prison to vote for Sánchez. But international election observers say no credible evidence has surfaced.

Which means both ARENA and the U.S. will most likely have to deal with Sánchez. Just as Sánchez better learn to deal with the Maras – if he wants El Salvador to remain even relatively stable.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.

The Latin America Report is made possible by Espirito Santo Bank and by Morrison, Brown, Argiz and Farra, Certified Public Accountants and Advisors
The Latin America Report is made possible by Espirito Santo Bank and by Morrison, Brown, Argiz and Farra, Certified Public Accountants and Advisors