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No Ordinary Election in El Salvador

Tumult in Ukraine and Venezuela in recent weeks has overshadowed a consequential regional election taking place this Sunday, March 9. Voters in El Salvador will go to the polls in a second round to choose from between two starkly different candidates. The result could shape Central American politics for the next several years — and ...

JOSE CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
JOSE CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
JOSE CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

Tumult in Ukraine and Venezuela in recent weeks has overshadowed a consequential regional election taking place this Sunday, March 9. Voters in El Salvador will go to the polls in a second round to choose from between two starkly different candidates. The result could shape Central American politics for the next several years -- and not necessarily for the better.

The election pits veteran hard-liner and current Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the former guerrilla FMLN against San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano of the opposition ARENA party.

The polls favor an FMLN victory on Sunday (Sánchez Cerén defeated Quijano 49 percent to 39 percent in the first round on Feb. 2), which can be attributed to the party's masterful political ads that managed to convert a battle-hardened ideologue into a kindly, old grandfather who wants to spend his twilight years building a better future for the country.

Tumult in Ukraine and Venezuela in recent weeks has overshadowed a consequential regional election taking place this Sunday, March 9. Voters in El Salvador will go to the polls in a second round to choose from between two starkly different candidates. The result could shape Central American politics for the next several years — and not necessarily for the better.

The election pits veteran hard-liner and current Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the former guerrilla FMLN against San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano of the opposition ARENA party.

The polls favor an FMLN victory on Sunday (Sánchez Cerén defeated Quijano 49 percent to 39 percent in the first round on Feb. 2), which can be attributed to the party’s masterful political ads that managed to convert a battle-hardened ideologue into a kindly, old grandfather who wants to spend his twilight years building a better future for the country.

The FMLN’s control of government institutions also helped, as the party was able to repeatedly use trumped-up legal threats against ARENA officials to keep the latter off balance. (Former President Antonio Saca, formerly of ARENA, also played an unhelpful role, running as a third candidate and splitting the opposition vote.)

What an FMLN victory means for El Salvador and the region under a Sánchez Cerén presidency is particularly worrisome. Unlike current President Mauricio Funes of the FMLN, with Sánchez Cerén there is no pretense to moderation. Beneath the democratic mask, he still adheres to the hard-line agenda of the FMLN, honed during the dirty war against the Salvadoran state in the 1980s.

That Sánchez Cerén has not drifted very far from his ideological origins was first flagged in a Washington Post op-ed by former Reagan and George W. Bush official Elliott Abrams, who exposed Sánchez Cerén’s close association with longtime FMLN operative José Luis Merino, aka Comandante Ramiro. Today, the secretive Merino manages the millions of dollars in Venezuelan aid to the FMLN, but his activities go beyond that. Merino is also known as the Colombian narcoterrorist FARC’s "man in El Salvador" for his history of brokering arms and drug deals for the guerrilla-cum-criminal organization.

Abrams writes: "The likely impact of a Sánchez Cerén victory on U.S.-Salvadoran security and counter-narcotics cooperation is dangerous." Indeed, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) has written a recent letter to the State and Treasury departments on Merino’s questionable activities.

Then, in a subsequent disturbing development, official documents leaked to the Salvadoran press just prior to the election’s first round revealed that the FMLN has had a secret agreement with the violent Mara Salvatrucha street gangs to trade lenient police behavior and other perks in exchange for their supporting the FMLN in the polls.

According to former Washington Post investigative reporter Douglas Farah, the FMLN certainly kept up its end of the bargain during the first-round vote, telling an interviewer, "There is an abundance of reliable information showing that the Salvadoran gangs intimidated people to vote a certain way or that they stopped them from voting altogether by confiscating their identification cards before the elections. Therefore, I would say the gangs have acquired a political role and that they aspire to hold an important place in the country’s political life by offering to sell the votes they control to the highest bidder."

With street gangs — and Merino — involved in the drug trade up to their eyeballs, obviously, the ramifications of such irresponsible policies and associations are alarming, not only for the Salvadoran people but for U.S. security interests in the region. According to the State Department’s 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, El Salvador is "a major transit country for illegal drugs headed to the United States." That a new FMLN government under Sánchez Cerén would be committed to reversing that situation certainly raises doubts. All we can hope for at this point is that come Sunday, the Salvadoran people have their doubts as well.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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