Update: After Sunday’s vote, El Salvador remains without a new leader. The runoff between former Marxist guerrilla Sánchez Cerén and hawkish right-wing candidate Quijano reached an impasse this Sunday, as the predicted favorite, Sánchez Cerén, leads by a hairline margin of 0.2%, or 6,634 votes. Both candidates have claimed victory. Sánchez Cerén, told his opponent to “respect the will of the Salvadoran people.” According to the New York Times, Quijano boasted that his rightist party was on “a war footing” and that “the armed forces are watching the fraud that is being concocted.” The country’s electoral commission declared that the close vote would require a more exacting count before a winner is declared. This process might include with roughly 10,000 ballots from Salvadorans living abroad, mostly in the United States. It was only last year that the Salvadoran legislature approved a law allowing Salvadorans outside the country to vote in presidential elections.El Salvador’s presidential election this Sunday pits Norman Quijano of the ARENA party against the incumbent FMLN and its candidate and former guerrilla commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén. A dentist and two-time mayor of San Salvador, Quijano has promised to crack down on widespread crime and violence if elected to office. Sánchez Cerén is more of an enigma, a man who seems to favor the continuation of social programs for the poor while keeping on hand some potentially troubling advisors.Both ARENA and the FMLN were born out of the searing civil war in the 1980s that killed 75,000 Salvadorans—ARENA as a staunch rightist and anti-communist political movement and the FMLN as the rural-based Marxist insurgency. In the ensuing decades since the country’s bloody civil war ended in 1992, the two ideologically extreme parties have competed in a surprisingly stable democratic system. Yet at the same time as the country’s fledgling democratic roots have taken hold, public insecurity has continued to be a defining problem, largely due to a savage street gang epidemic that appeared to be near-impossible to stop. Yet the people of El Salvador got a brief and unexpected respite two years ago when two leading gangs signed a government-supported non-aggression truce. The unusual and seemingly contradictory way that Salvadorans have responded to this truce helps illuminate what we’re likely to see in Sunday’s vote.Back in 2008, twenty year old Edgar Benitez Hernández, known in his mara (posse) as Shadow, and two other Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)1 gang members were driving down North Argonne Avenue in the Sterling area of Loudon County in Northern Virginia. One of the passengers glimpsed someone who appeared to be a member of their mortal rivals, the 18th Street gang. The group parked their car nearby, and Hernández and his accomplice left to ambush the suspected enemy. Once in close range, Hernández yelled “Mara Salvatrucha, cabrones!” and opened fire, hitting the male gang rival and his pregnant teenage companion, both of whom were critically wounded. (Everyone miraculously survived the attack, including the as yet unborn child.)This past February, Hernández pleaded guilty to the federal charges in this double shooting. It was the first time in a long while that a Salvadoran citizen had been extradited to the United States for mara-related crimes. A Salvadoran judicial unit known as the Transnational Anti-Gang Task Force had taken Hernandéz into custody in his native country last May and had extradited him to the United States late last year. It was not clear how Hernández had found his way back to El Salvador after committing his crime, or how the Salvadoran authorities had tracked him down. But if Americans had somehow forgotten about MS-13, it was once again back in the national spotlight.Bloodthirsty and well funded, MS-13 is an extraordinary criminal organization. The gang’s beginnings can be tracked back to the 1980s when hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans were fleeing their country’s civil war between the U.S.-backed government and Marxist FMLN. Many of the young people born into the war experienced severe trauma and violence firsthand, and it stuck with them as their desperate parents or relatives brought them to the United States.2 Often vulnerable and at the mercy of other predatory (often Mexican) gangs, these Salvadoran kids organized the first incarnation of the now-notorious criminal organization in Los Angeles and gradually branched out across the nation.MS-13’s rise sparked an aggressive crackdown by law enforcement authorities, which paradoxically provided the organization with the opportunity to better organize across the entire United States. Incarcerated kingpins used prison as both a recruiting ground and a base of operations. Once the U.S. government decided to step up its rate of deportation of these young felons to El Salvador, they merely ended up exporting the problem—giving the organization yet another base of operations, this time out of reach of the FBI. Today MS-13 operates in an estimated eight countries and 44 U.S. states. One of their largest strongholds is just minutes away from the U.S. Capitol, in Northern Virginia.While in the United States MS-13 comprises a few thousand members and is one element in the multi-faceted and regionally distinctive criminal gang phenomenon, in El Salvador the much-feared gang and its rival, the Barrio 18 (linked to the 18th Street gang in America), play a central role in society. The Massachusetts-sized Central American country of 6.3 million just a few years ago had one of the world’s highest homicide rates—14 per day, just behind its neighbor Honduras. In 2011, there were more murders in tiny El Salvador than all of Western Europe combined. At one point, 14 municipalities out of 262 were considered under effective mara control. And a confounding factor in confronting these problems is that there are upwards of 300,000 people—almost six percent of the population—who are dependent on the estimated 60,000 gang members in El Salvador.The Salvadoran government’s initial approach to fighting the maras was with the mano dura—the firm hand. When that initiative failed, the government rolled out a program called the súper mano dura, but faced similar results. As a result of this hard-nosed approach, roughly 26,000 people were imprisoned in El Salvador in 2011—roughly four times as many as a decade earlier.But by March of 2012, El Salvador took an unexpected turn for the better. The popular FMLN president Mauricio Funes’ government managed to quietly broker a truce between the gangs along with the help of the Catholic Church. Overnight the daily murder rate dropped to five—the average for Central America. Less reported, however, was that the gangs had not only stopped killing each other but also stopped recruiting youth. Experimental “peace zones” were set up on former killing grounds, where social programs helped reinforce and maintain the ceasefire. The Funes government moved gang leaders to lower-security prisons, and in addition to setting up the peace zones, it also supported new initiatives that provided jobs in bakeries and farms for recently rehabilitated convicts. Estimates vary, but anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 Salvadorans are alive today due to the agreement being put in place.But while the murders have dropped precipitously, the truce has not proven to be a political winner for Funes, who on his way out of office has taken pains to distance himself from the accords. Part of this is no doubt due to the truce’s deep unpopularity among regular Salvadorans. A recent poll showed dissatisfaction running as high as 80%.The reasons for this eye-popping number a varied and often appear confusing to outsiders. But in fact, they make a certain amount of sense. The truce effectively enhanced the gangs’ standing in society. Imprisoned gangsters regularly appear on television for media interviews as if they were upstanding community organizers. Furthermore, recent discoveries of mass graves suggest that both MS-13 and Barrio 18 have replaced broad daylight murders with kidnapping and execution—a grisly return to the dark days of the civil war years in the late 1970s and 1980s. And finally, the public is frustrated that while the gang-on-gang murders might have dropped, general public security has not greatly improved, nor have the gangs ceased their extortion and larceny rackets.Given all of this, one might suspect that the hardline ARENA candidate would be riding his new mano dura campaign pledges straight to the presidential palace. But that appears not to be the case. Quijano has certainly tried to do this by calling the 2012 gang truce Funes’ “biggest failure.” He also said that he would use the army to fight the gangs as well as create military schools for the notorious “ni-ni”—youth that neither work nor study. But for the moment, he is running far behind his FMLN adversary, Sánchez Cerén.Sánchez Cerén has also been almost entirely silent on the pact, preferring to promote his plans for better opportunities for youth and the creation of a special security agency. Known for his modesty and honesty despite his background as a feared guerrilla commander, Sánchez Cerén has latched on to the Funes’ administration’s widely popular social programs—which helps explain why he is polling especially stronger than Quijano in the poor rural areas. Despite the unpopularity of the truce, most Salvadorans are still inclined to stick with the “soft” approach rather than returning to the status quo ante.A Sánchez Cerén administration, if it comes to pass, will have to face the criticism that its negotiations with the gangs are evidence of its narcotics ties. The Heritage Foundation’s Jim DeMint wrote in the Miami Herald that “there’s little doubt that under Sánchez Cerén this impoverished neighbor of ours would become little more than a narco-principality.”Others allege that Sánchez Cerén will be a lackey for former Moscow-trained guerrilla and now FMLN’s stridently Marxist advisor José Luis Merino. Head of an elite urban FMLN commando unit called U-24, Merino was the alleged mastermind of a dozen high profile assassinations and at least five kidnappings. According to investigative journalist José de Cordoba, email messages found in the computers of a Colombian guerrilla leader killed by the Colombian army in a March 2008 cross border raid on his clandestine camp in Ecuador revealed that Merino was a central contact between the Colombian FARC, furtive arms dealers, and high officials in the government of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.Merino is no doubt a troubling character, but it’s not a sure thing that he will dominate the next FMLN government. That appears to be the Obama administration’s reasoning, and it will thus likely take a wait-and-see approach to Sánchez Cerén. President Obama hosted the FMLN’s Funes at the White House in 2010 and visited El Salvador the following year, thereby going out of his way to demonstrate that the United States was eager to cooperate with responsible leftist governments in Latin America. Washington does not want to give the Marxist wing any undue excuse to cause trouble by being able to point to the U.S. not respecting the democratic will of the Salvadoran people.The question hanging over the election and what follows immediately after, therefore, is whether Sánchez Cerén will indeed turn out to be a responsible leftist following in the moderate path of Mauricio Funes, or whether he will veer towards something more ideological and revolutionary. Given El Salvador’s difficult past of civil war and more recent trauma of gangland violence, it would a tragedy if its heretofore resilient democracy were to unravel. Hopefully there remains ample political space for both the Left and the Right to govern the country democratically and peacefully.
1. Salvatrucha is a conjunction meaning “street-wise Salvadoran,” hence the official gang name that is usually referred to as MS-13, with the 13 being a gang reference to Southern California.2. Today, one out of every four Salvadorans lives in the United States; they annually send back $4 billion dollars to their native country, an astounding 16 percent of GDP.