March 4, 2013 |

El Salvador Update: February 2013 / Informe mensual febrero 2013

A PDF version of the El Salvador Update is available here.

A PDF version of the February 2013 Peacemaking Chronology is available here.

Versión en formato PDF aquí.

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It has been nearly a year since El Salvador’s nascent and still-controversial gang truce started. During the night of March 8-9, 2012, under the cover of darkness, gang leaders were transferred from maximum to minimum security prisons, and so began the peace process that continues to this day. Within days, the homicide rate dropped dramatically. As a result, El Salvador is no longer on the list of the world’s most violent counties and security no longer leads the list of Salvadorans’ concerns.

A strategy which began as a truce between the MS and Barrio 18 gangs has evolved into what may one day be seen as a revolution in social policy. The process has seen both advances and setbacks. Five municipalities have signed on to the violence-free municipality initiative, and the mayors of dozens more are clamoring to participate. From the beginning, President Funes has handed all responsibility – and consequent political cost – to Minister of Security David Munguía Payés. The president has yet to publicly embrace the process.

Meanwhile, elections are the priority of the political class. The race for the 2014 presidency has expanded from a clear right (ARENA) or left (FMLN) two-way contest to a field of four, with a center-right candidate (Antonio Saca) and a center-left coalition backed by President Funes and his supporters. What was once a race whose outcome seemed tilted toward ARENA has become unmoored from Salvador’s political past and hard to predict going forward.

Security:   Where is President Funes?

“El Salvador cannot place its entire historic tradition of violence on the shoulders of two groups of marginalized people…and hope that they alone will solve it.”
Steve Vigil, Transnational Advisory Group

“Patience is necessary because it is not easy.”
Raúl Mijango

Ilopango and Santa Tecla were joined by three more communities, Quezaltepeque, Sonsonate and Puerto La Libertad-  all with long histories of gang violence – as “violence-free municipalities.” In Quezaltepeque and Sonsonate, agreements were signed among the gangs, the mayors, and the Minister of Security, David Munguía Payés. By the end of the month, Minister of Security Munguía Payés said he had received an “avalanche” of requests from mayors to participate in the “violence-free municipalities” program. He said that all the mayors cited the “urgent” need to reach agreements with the gangs in their communities.  The Minister explained the difficulty of integrating all at once, due to a lack of resources for implementing reinsertion programs, but he predicted that 60 municipalities will soon formally participate. The map below shows current “violence-free municipalities,” and can be found and shared online here. CDA will be updating the map as the peace process continues to develop.

February saw progress as well as setbacks. President Funes signed temporary legislation which authorized the voluntary handover of weapons and allowed immunity from prosecution for illegal possession. The Minister of Defense announced that troops would no longer be deployed in the communities participating in the peace process unless needed. But within days, three allegedly gang-related homicides occurred in Ilopango, the first sanctuary city, and elite anti-gang police and investigative units were immediately sent in. A U.S. military veteran was murdered in Izalco in what is believed to have been a crime of passion, carried out by gang members.  “This is a process,” Security Minister Munguía Payés commented, “and we know things like this are going to happen.”

According to a CID-Gallup poll, 67% of Salvadorans believe gangs are responsible for the majority of violence in the country. But, in what must be seen as an acknowledgment of the nearly year-long truce those polled also say the cost of living has surpassed violence as the principal concern. Previously, 39% of Salvadorans stated that violence was their main concern- this number has now dropped to 22%.

The international community has continued its cautious embrace of the process. Steve Vigil of the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Salvadoran Peace Process (TAGSSPP) warned, however, that the truce could break unless there is more support. The gangs deserve a lot of credit for hanging on this long, he said, calling on the government to “abandon its timidity and publicly assume the leadership of the dialogue with the gangs.” Representatives of the United Nations and OAS firmly suggested much greater participation by the government, not just to sustain the truce, but to engage the country in a national dialogue. As reported by El Faro, some diplomats are still worried that any support could “explode in their faces.” Others say it is politically impossible to support negotiations with gangs. All agree, however that assistance will be easier once the government fully “owns” the process.

“The largest alliance in the history of USAID in Latin America”
Mark Feierstein, USAID

The U.S. Embassy has remained aloof from any endorsement of the truce. But, according to one government official, it has not been an obstacle, despite the recent State Department-issued warning about the dangers of travel to El Salvador.. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte reiterated on February 7th that the United States “is not collaborating in economic terms with the so-called security zones.” She added that the State Department Travel Warning issued in January does not affect the strong bilateral relationship between the United States and El Salvador.

Just days later, USAID announced a donation of $20 million toward a $42 million program called “SolucionEs.” Described as a public-private partnership between USAID and four non-governmental organizations, the program will focus on youth with no criminal history. The program has no links to the truce. Michelle Parker, project manager for USAID, said the 5-year project will include violence-prevention training, after-school programs, leadership and job training, and psychological counseling for 10-15 year-old youth in five municipalities. Four non-governmental partnership organizations – FUSADES, FUNDE, FEDAPE and Glasswing are expected to raise an additional $22 million. No mention was made of potential sources for that funding.

Ambassador Aponte again emphasized that SolucionEs will not be in support of “sanctuary cities,” adding that the program is connected to the Partnership for Growth initiative. For his part, Alex Segovia, the president’s chief of staff, described SolucionEs as complementary to the truce: “They have a common objective, violence prevention,” he said, the project is “part of the good relationship with the U.S.”  Another sign of the “good relationship” was the February 14th approval by the Millennium Challenge Corporation of a first disbursement of funds for further studies and analysis of the proposed second development compact known as Fomilenio II.


The lay of the land

At the end of February the political situation looks like this:

On February 16th, ARENA deposed its historic leader Alfredo Cristiani and instituted a bifurcated leadership structure. Some party members believe this might only heighten the internal tensions that have hounded the party since 2009. Norman Quijano, ARENA’s presidential candidate and current mayor of San Salvador, selected René Portillo Cuadra, a lawyer and non-party member, as his running mate.

The FMLN is united around its candidates Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Óscar Ortiz. At the end of February, the party launched a massive “national dialogue”, deploying 1,400 party members around the country and abroad to conduct forums and interviews that will determine the party platform.

Former President Tony Saca finally announced his long-anticipated candidacy on February 25th, under the banner of the Unity Movement, UNIDAD. The coalition of the GANA, PCN, and PDC parties, as well as various social organizations, provides a center-right option. The Salvadoran constitution prohibits consecutive presidential terms, but not alternating presidencies.

President Funes and his allies are planning the center-left alternative with the Movement to Consolidate the Changes. The Movement to Consolidate the Changes will include the Democratic Change (CD) party and the recently formed Social Democratic Party (PSD).Potential candidates for that coalition are said to be the president’s chief of staff, Alex Segovia, the Minister of Security David Munguía Payés, and FUNDE Executive Director, economist Roberto Rubio.

There is one compelling point of agreement among the FMLN, UNIDAD and the Movement to Consolidate the Changes: Defeat the once-indomitable ARENA at any cost. With that clear objective, there may be surprising political arrangements ahead in the run-up to February, 2014.

Finally, as reported by El Faro, supporters of presidents Saca and Funes anticipate a series of “relay race” presidencies with Tony Saca (2014-2019) and Mauricio Funes again (2019-2024).

The three candidates: Sánchez Cerén, Quijano, and Saca. Source: El Mundo

ARENA: Who is in charge?

“Unidos por la patria…Paz, Progreso y Libertad”


ARENA has been a hotbed of intrigue since losing its four-term hold on the presidency in 2009. The once- formidable party that represented the political interests of the country’s economic elite has been fracturing ever since. The drama that unfolded in recent weeks raises questions as to whether ARENA can even be a serious contender in 2014.

ARENA’s party leaders hold Tony Saca, their fourth chief executive, responsible for their 2009 electoral defeat and ensuing troubles. Following the defeat, the party suffered defections by 12 deputies who went on to form the GANA party. Tony Saca was widely believed to be the force behind the defections and behind GANA- an allegation he deftly denied. The new, well-funded party, billed as more “humanist” than ARENA, organized and successfully fielded candidates in 2012, and encouraged further defections.

Alfredo Cristiani, ARENA’s first president who served at the end of El Salvador’s civil war (1989-1994), returned from retirement in 2009 to serve as president of COENA, the party’s executive body. After assuming the presidency of COENA, he led ARENA to legislative and municipal victories in March 2012. But some in the party have been pushing for a greater role and internal reforms. These young reformers have demanded the modernization of the party’s old, Cold War hierarchical structure, and democratization – including the right to secret votes on internal party issues including selection of candidates.

In addition to facing demands for a more open organization, Cristiani has been embroiled in a tempestuous power struggle with Armando Calderón Sol and Francisco Flores, the second and third presidents to serve after the civil war. He faces additional pressure from the economically powerful Poma Group, which has its own agenda. Norman Quijano’s presidential candidacy was opposed by Cristiani, but supported by the man said to be his “godfather,” Armando Calderón Sol.

On February 8th , the public split occurred. Two ARENA deputies confirmed the “imminent departure” and “dignified retirement” of 65 year-old Alfredo Cristiani from COENA. They also announced the creation of the Political Commission (CP), a new entity comprised of the three ex- presidents, representatives of the party founders and of “nationalist sectors,” and other leaders. The CP will be the “visionary” think tank of the party, with COENA maintaining operational control. That, at least, is the plan. But some ARENA members predict a “dictatorship of the three ex- presidents,” with the Political Commission potentially acting as a superstructure over COENA. Meanwhile, Jorge Velado, the new president of COENA, is the manager of an automobile dealership owned by the Poma Group, and previously served as ARENA’s vice-president of ideology.

The reforms were approved unanimously during a party assembly on February 16th, but questions remain: Who will really be in charge? Which entity will be the final decision-maker and, as widely-rumored, will there be further defections? Presidential candidate Norman Quijano described ARENA as “a party of humble people” and promised “the nightmare of the FMLN will end on February 2, 2014.” But, can party leaders rally and unite in time to mount a successful campaign?

“There is no longer any space for ‘Patria si, comunismo no,’ or for ‘El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido’.”
Antonio Saca

UNIDAD: Who is Tony Saca?

During a pre-campaign event in early February, former president Tony Saca assured hundreds of young people of his selfless intentions, declaring, “I am not moved by ambition.” Then, on February 25th, to no one’s surprise, the former president who has been setting up a run for re-election since the end of his 2004-2009 term, jumped into the race.

Elías Antonio Saca was born in the eastern department of Usulután to a family of Palestinian immigrants. He began his career as a sports reporter and went on to be a businessman, a radio station owner, (his Grupo Samix owns 12 radio stations in El Salvador and Nicaragua), president of ANEP (National Private Enterprise Association), and president of his country, all by age 37. An evangelical with a cult-like following, he is a master of the media and an adroit strategist who ended his presidential term in 2009. He left behind a party in political and economic crisis. There were allegations of massive corruption during his administration, empty government coffers upon his departure, and – yet – a 65% approval rating.

Tony Saca’s popularity derives from his charismatic personality and populist politics. His folksy, “I’m just an ordinary guy” approach appeals to many Salvadorans, who also remember and appreciate his support for social programs including “Red Solidaria” that provided $15-$20 monthly to poor families. Gang violence spiraled during his administration despite – or, as analysts believe, because of – his “super iron fist” public security policy. He was a free-market, pro-U.S. president who responded enthusiastically to a request by President George W. Bush to send Salvadoran troops to Iraq.

Despite his pro-U.S. stance, the U.S. embassy was eventually disenchanted with Tony Saca, according to cables released through WikiLeaks : “While the Salvadoran public may be inured to self-serving behavior by politicians, many in ARENA believe the brazen manner (of corruption)…went beyond the pale.”  The embassy reported accusations that Saca abused his power, squandered government funds, allowed kickbacks and corruption. His “multi-million dollar mansion” and property “do not square with the investments and income he had prior to assuming the presidency.” ARENA expelled Saca from the party in December of 2009, charging electoral fraud and the misuse of $219 million of presidential discretionary funds. Though ostensibly audited by the government accounting office, many in ARENA believe the funds were used to finance GANA. The country was near bankruptcy when the Funes/FMLN administration took office.

Tony Saca’s role in the ARENA defections and financing of the new party was rumored from the beginning, but never publicly acknowledged. When he was formally expelled from ARENA as a traitor in December of 2009, his presidential photo was obliterated from the party website. ARENA’s fourth consecutive presidential term had ended in disaster for the party, but Saca recovered nicely and has maintained his popularity with regular radio programs (“Let’s Speak Well about El Salvador”) and an upbeat message of unity “toward a better future.”

After years of speculation, the big announcement was made on February 25th via Twitter: “I will seek the presidency under the banner of unity.” The announcement was then made to a crowd of some 2,000 supporters, including leaders of the Unity coalition: GANA, PDC, PCN and “750 social organizations.” The candidate admitted past errors, called for public debates with the other candidates, and announced a platform of unity, jobs, and support for education and sports. “The peoples’ president” promised not to privatize state institutions, to support social programs, including reinsertion efforts for gang members, and to govern “with the Bible and the Constitution as guides.” Saca insisted that he is the most qualified candidate: “El Salvador does not have the luxury (of electing someone) who has to learn how to be president.”

Since the founding of the GANA party in 2009, it has been assumed that Tony Saca would run for president on the party ticket. However, his strategy is to run as the candidate of the Unity Movement, forsaking any individual party designation or banner during the campaign. Tony Saca is positioned to run squarely in the middle between ARENA and the FMLN as the moderate option. He has positioned himself as the non-ideological, free enterprise candidate who supports the current administration’s social policies.

There are commonalities between the platforms of the two coalition movements, (support for free enterprise and for social programs) and both are chasing the same middle-of-the road voters disenchanted with ARENA and the FMLN. There has been much speculation and dismay on both left and right about the relationship that has developed between presidents Funes and Saca. President Funes has praised the “third option” presented by the Saca coalition.  Saca has said he wants to see an “open, rational, moderate left that believes in the free market economy,” but also argues the necessity of governing “with ideas and not with ideology.”

FMLN: Acknowledgement of errors and it’s on to the campaign

“A punishment vote”
Salvador Sánchez Cerén

Meanwhile, Vice-President and FMLN presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén recently discussed the “errors” made by party leadership that led to the March 2012 “punishment vote” and the disastrous election results which included the loss of six of the major municipalities surrounding the capital. He acknowledged many of the criticisms heard after the election, and said the leadership had isolated itself from the people and failed to do the hard work of political education. Public disputes emerged over the selection of party candidates and some of the selections, he admitted, were motivated by jobs rather than ideological commitment. The leadership’s decision to create levels of membership (“affiliates and militants”) also created problems, and was used in some cases as a tool to purge members.  A segment of the population has lost confidence in the FMLN, Sánchez Cerén said, and the party is working to recover the public’s trust. The national consultation, now underway, is in recognition of the need to listen to the people, rather than issuing orders.

The consultation (“national dialogue”) will include the Salvadoran diaspora, who are being allowed to vote for the first time in 2014. Some 170,000 emigrants have up-to-date identity documents and will be eligible to cast ballots by mail. The diaspora vote is also expected to open up a new market for candidates fishing for votes and funding. And, as journalist Héctor Silva Ávalos wrote recently, the battle for support in Washington is already underway.

Sánchez Cerén’s first foray into campaigning with compatriots living in the U.S. provoked a response that could be a taste of what is to come. In August of 2012, Vice President Sánchez Cerén was invited to participate in the “Salvadoran-American Day” celebrations in Freeport, Long Island. He was received by the mayor of Freeport and other officials as the Vice President of El Salvador. A crowd of demonstrators organized by a local Tea Party group accused him of burning an American flag after 9/11, and of being a supporter of terrorism. Days later, the mayor was forced to issue an apology to his community, asking forgiveness for anyone he might have offended by the invitation.

As campaigning begins in earnest, the FMLN will send its vice-presidential candidate to the U.S. Óscar Ortiz, the very popular and successful mayor of Santa Tecla, is a far less controversial figure and has a strong support network in the States.

Meanwhile, the “battle for Washington” is underway: ARENA Deputy Roberto D’Aubuisson, Jr. paid a brief visit at the end of February to see supporters and attend a scheduled meeting with “a group of Senators and members of Congress.” That meeting was cancelled.

Human Rights

  • The deportation hearing of former Minister of Defense (1979-83) General José Guillermo García continued in a Miami court at the end of February with expert witness testimony from Dr. Terry Karl of Stanford University. Karl presented evidence to support the U.S. government’s claim that he “ordered, incited, assisted, or in some manner participated in tortures and extrajudicial killings.” Defense attorney Alina Cruz argued that García had no control over events: “So many things were happening that no one knew exactly who killed who.” During his testimony Garcia admitted responsibility but said, “it is very different from guilt.”
  • Inocente Orlando Montano is scheduled to appear in a Boston courtroom again in March for his sentencing hearing. The retired colonel, who has been accused of participation in the 1989 Jesuit murders, will now be convicted of immigration fraud and perjury in the U.S. Montano could be sentenced to prison, extradited to Spain to face criminal charges in the Jesuit case, or be deported back to El Salvador. As El Faro noted, Montano’s best hope is for deportation to El Salvador, where he would join his former colleagues, none of whom will likely ever answer for their crimes.
  • El Salvador is the second Latin American nation, following Argentina, to document cases of children stolen by members of the military during Cold War-era conflicts. The non-governmental organization Asociación ProBúsqueda and the National Commission to Search for Disappeared Boys and Girls have documented at least 12 cases of military responsibility. Some of the children were sold, some adopted, and at least one abused and raped from the age of 4-14. Of the 921 cases of disappeared children reported to Asociación ProBúsqueda over the past 20 years, 382 have been identified through DNA tests, 235 reunited with their families, 95 are awaiting reunification, and 52 have died. The organizations call on President Funes to open the military’s archives to investigators. “Without those files we cannot say that this or that officer is responsible,” Human Rights Ombudsman Óscar Luna declared.
  • Deportations from the U.S. to El Salvador increased by 16.5% in 2012, compared with 2011. Further, deportations increased by 28.3% in January 2013 over December, 2012, according to Salvadoran authorities. Four or five flights carrying 120 passengers arrive each week. Nearly 20,000 people were deported in 2012, just 35.3% of those with criminal records.
  • The three existing “Ciudad Mujer” multi-service facilities have received over 100,000 women during the past two years. “A woman who enters Ciudad Mujer does not leave the same,” Secretary of Social Inclusion Vanda Pignato said. Pignato hosted a regional UN Women’s forum this month, dealing with the prevention of violence against women. She also signed an inter-institutional agreement with security, judicial, and forensic officials to facilitate and coordinate response for victims of violence.

Recommended Reading:

Informe EUA responsabiliza a Montano de 63 ejecuciones, 51 desapracidos y mas de 500 casos de tortura.”  The testimony of Dr. Terry Karl in the trial of Inocente Orlando Montano. El Faro.

U.S. military expands its drug war in Latin America.” Associated Press.

Soldiers stole children during El Salvador’s war.”  Associated Press.

Looking Ahead:

March 4                      First anniversary of the gang truce
March 15                    20th Anniversary of the Truth Commission report
March 20                    20th Anniversary of the amnesty law
March 24                    33rd anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Romero
March 25-April 1       Holy Week vacation

Upcoming events:

Forum on Reducing Violence in Central America: Citizen Security/El Salvador’s Experiment, Wednesday, March 20th, Auditorium Abraham Lincoln Hall, Room 1300, 260 5th Ave., Building 64 Washington, DC 20319

Presenters: Ambassador Francisco Altschul, El Salvador’s Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Diana V. Negroponte, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, Ms. Clare R. Seelke, Specialist in Latin American Affairs, Library of Congress, Mr. Eric Olson, Associate Director, Latin American Program, Wilson Center, Mr. Steven Dudley, Co-Director, InSight, Moderator: Prof. Celina Realuyo, Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs, CHDS.

Security and Human Rights in Honduras: A Conversation with Julieta Castellanos Thursday, March 7th at the Inter-American Dialogue, 8:30-10:00 a.m.

Castellanos is a pioneer in fighting corruption and pushing for public security reform in Honduras. She currently serves as rector of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH). In 2012, Castellanos was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for her work in pursuing social and democratic rights for the Honduran people. She will share her thoughts on the increasing criminal dangers faced by human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and ordinary citizens in Honduras as well as current efforts to reform the national police.

Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, will join Castellanos and discuss US cooperation to improve citizen security in Honduras.

Opening remarks will be followed by comments from Adriana Beltrán, senior associate for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and wide-ranging exchange with participants. The session will be moderated by Dialogue senior associate Manuel Orozco.