December 3, 2012 |

El Salvador Update: November 2012 / Informe mensual noviembre 2012

An online version of the El Salvador Update. 

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

A PDF version of the November Peacemaking Chronology is available here.

Versión en español en formato PDF aquí.


Salvadorans were relieved by President Barack Obama’s re-election, thus ensuring the continuation of the strategic partnership between the Obama and Funes administrations. “I am pleased,” President Funes commented, because “this gives continuity to the programs we are developing.” Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez expressed the hope of the government that President Obama “focuses on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform” in January.

Tens of thousands of party members attended the FMLN national convention on November 11th to endorse the 2014 presidential ticket. The governing FMLN party appears unified around candidates Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Óscar Ortiz. For its part, ARENA is suffering serious fallout from disagreements over its presidential choice Norman Quijano, including the critical defections of four of its 33 National Assembly deputies.

The crisis in ARENA has complicated the work of the already dysfunctional legislature. An agreement has yet to be reached on the post of attorney general, which was vacated in mid-September. The position was temporarily filled by the assistant attorney general, who resigned after one month apparently due to illness, and is now covered by the fiscal prosecutor. U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte has repeatedly pressed for an agreement, but no decision is anticipated until the end of the year. In the meantime, Gabriela Knaul, a U.N. representative, who had strongly criticized the Legislative Assembly’s conduct during this summers’ constitutional crisis, called for guarantees of independence and judicial transparency in the selection process.

When David Munguía Payés was appointed Minister of Justice and Security in November 2011, he promised to reduce the homicide rate 30% by the end of his first year. Now, almost nine months into the truce between the gangs Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, the homicide rate has plunged from about 14 per day to 5.3, surpassing the Minister’s commitment. Despite the progress, inter-gang violence persists as do the voices of critics who continue to raise questions about the origins and legitimacy of the truce and peace process.

The unfinished, deserted stretch of highway known as “Boulevard Diego de Holguín” has served as a metaphor for corruption under previous governments. Construction of the six-lane artery was abandoned for seven years by successive ARENA administrations as funds were pilfered by corrupt public works officials. Finally completed after a year of intense labor led by Minister of Public Works Gerson Martínez, “Boulevard Monseñor Romero” was inaugurated by President Funes on November 25th. The President denounced the “shame, the neglect, and corruption” of the past and said the name, in honor of slain Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero symbolizes a new way of doing business: “No more privileges for some, for just a few…no more favoritisms, no more private deals.”



Judas!  Traitors!  Sell-Outs! Trash!

Rumors of internal disputes in ARENA have circulated for months, including whispers and accusations of payoffs, corruption, and of loyalty oaths being administered to prevent a “flight” of legislators from the party. Some deputies were even asked to sign promissory notes for $500,000.00 in addition to loyalty oaths to prevent them from deserting the party. The sudden exit of 12 deputies in October 2009 had been a harsh blow to party unity and morale; two more deputies followed and the dissidents soon formed the center-right GANA party. ARENA recovered sufficiently to overcome the FMLN in the March 2012 legislative elections, (33-31) but the victory was short-lived.

On November 8th ARENA leadership was stunned for the second time in three years by the “betrayal” of another group of deputies, this time during a crucial vote on the 2013 national budget, which ARENA opposed.  The budget passed with four of ARENA’s 33 deputies voting with the FMLN block of parties. As results were flashed on the electronic scoreboard, the chamber erupted with boos, whistles, threats and shouts of “Judas,” “sell-outs,” and “traitors.” ARENA Deputy Donato Vaquerano accused the four men of being bought; paid off by “the man with the black briefcase…This is betrayal of the country…of the Salvadoran people…of the voters!” he exclaimed. The 29 remaining ARENA deputies stood and sang the party anthem – which includes the words “El Salvador will be the tomb of the reds”- as the dissidents were escorted safely from the chamber, surrounded by GANA deputies.

Final vote: Yes, 54, No, 29, Abstain 1 Source: La Página

The four dissidents were immediately expelled. Their legislative offices were reportedly ransacked, contents strewn in the street, nameplates ripped off doors, and parking permits revoked. Former President Alfredo Cristiani later denied ARENA was in crisis, saying the decisions to abandon the party were “simply that some people in an individual way made the decisions for x or y reasons.”

Three of the four are now self-proclaimed independents, but are expected to affiliate with GANA.

The fourth, a retired colonel and perennial rebel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez (renowned for his disobedience as a military officer, as a diplomat and now as a deputy) immediately announced his affiliation with the newly formed “Salvadoran Progressive Party,” said to be comprised of active-duty and retired military officers and soldiers and claiming to represent 350,000 veterans.

I am going to go when I want.”

Former President Alfredo Cristiani

“The political class has totally lost its compass.”

Former President Armando Calderón Sol

Alfredo Cristiani initially retired from a public political role at the end of his presidential term (1989-94), but returned to lead ARENA as head of its executive committee (COENA) after the party lost its 20-year hold on the government in 2009. He shortly thereafter confronted the “betrayal” of the 12 dissident deputies. Under his leadership, ARENA recovered and won important legislative and municipal victories in March 2012, but the battle over the selection of the next presidential candidate has divided the party.

Relations between President Cristiani and Armando Calderón Sol, his successor as the nation’s chief executive, have long been strained and each has his own group of allies in the leadership. The two strongly disagreed about the suitability of Norman Quijano as ARENA’s presidential candidate, with Calderón Sol supporting Quijano and now insisting the candidate should also replace Cristiani as head of COENA. According to the three dissident deputies, Cristiani is under attack. One said, “They are demanding his head.” and suggested that a war of “revenge” has broken out in the party affecting members and elected officials around the country.

Former Vice-President, Deputy Ana Vilma de Escobar insisted the party must be reformed but said Cristiani “doesn’t have the capacity to carry out the internal changes” needed to meet the enormous challenges ahead. “He is not indispensable, no one is,” opined Deputy Roberto D’Aubuisson, Jr.

For his part, Calderón Sol charged that the dissident deputies were “bought”            by the FMLN and the government. The former president accused COENA leadership of mismanagement of the problem and predicted more “corruptible” deputies could leave the party, bought off with drug money: “We all know that drug trafficking has entered into politics.”

President Cristiani said he will leave when he is ready, but is determined to reform the party statutes before departing. Everyone agrees that mistakes were made in the selection and “imposition” of the dissidents as legislative candidates by COENA; but, in the meantime, the great fear is that another deputy might resign. This is significant because just one more vote is needed for the FMLN block to have a supermajority. “They are mistaken if they think they will have deputy 56,” one party leader declared, insisting there will be no more desertions. “Now, we are more cohesive than ever.”

Despite the chaos in the party, ARENA still leads the FMLN in the most recent Mitofsky poll, 38% to the FMLN’s 30%. And 45% still prefer Norman Quijano, with just 20% for Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Óscar Ortiz continues to be the most popular political figure with a 67% approval rating.


“The 2012 elections left us with very big lessons.”

Miguel Sáenz Varela

The results of the March legislative and municipal elections surprised and shocked the FMLN leadership, but not many of the former militants who have abandoned the party over the past decade, disillusioned by the party’s rigidity, lack of democracy, and a lack of communication between the leadership and the grassroots. Members and supporters have been appalled by political maneuvering, blunders in the National Assembly, and poor administration of the hugely important municipalities around the capital, historic bastions of the party now under ARENA control. The devastating losses were a rude awakening to a leadership that has ignored calls for reform, but those losses may have opened the door for internal changes.

Miguel Sáenz Varela, the National Secretary of Municipalities and a member of the FMLN Political Commission recently admitted that the party failed “by not being closely linked to the people” and added, “There were people who really did not respond to the responsibilities they had been entrusted with.” The party can’t have successful relationships with the communities “only with leaflets and pamphlets,” Sáenz explained, but has to work to find solutions to problems. After “profound analysis,” the party has reorganized in every municipality, he said, with the goal of recovering from the losses of March.


The FMLN adopted the slogan of the Obama campaign, “forward,” to strengthen the “change” initiated by the Funes administration.  President Mauricio Funes declined an invitation to attend the national convention. Despite the often fraught relationship between the president and the party, he said he recognized and appreciated the efforts and hard work of the FMLN to bring him to power. At the convention, presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén congratulated President Funes for having the “courage, capacity, and determination” to begin the process of change.

In his address to the convention, Sánchez Cerén described the FMLN as representing the “new left…a left capable of winning and of creating a pluralistic, tolerant, inclusive society, a lover of peace and at the service of the people.”  He called for a national dialogue with all groups including private enterprise to build a platform for governance, a “productive but just society” with “distribution of wealth to end the intolerable inequality.” The former guerrilla commander emphasized “we cannot permit a return to the past” with another ARENA administration. Concerning foreign policy, he stated that, if elected, the country will join ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas), maintain its close relationship with Cuba, and open diplomatic and trade relations with China without breaking with Taiwan.

FMLN candidates and their families at the National Convention Source: La Página

Salvador Sánchez Céren has always been one of the most esteemed leaders of the party. Vice-presidential candidate Óscar Ortiz observed that he is someone who has been a fighter his entire life, has great credibility, and is widely appreciated for his modesty: “He is a person of his word, direct and sincere.”

Days after the convention, Sánchez Cerén released his book, “The Country I Want,” presenting his proposals for governance –“to live well” – described as ideas to be debated, “not truths.” Economist Carlos Federico Paredes described the book as “crossing ideological borders… without relinquishing the utopias and protection of the unprotected.”

“We don’t all think alike.”

Óscar Ortiz

The FMLN’s selection of Óscar Ortiz as its vice-presidential candidate is both bold and pragmatic.  It is a recognition of his reformist vision of the party, and a reflection of the leadership’s analysis of electoral losses – especially of independent voters – and polling results. For the past decade, the popular mayor of Santa Tecla has been ostracized by the party elite. According to El Faro, both Ortiz and now Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez were ordered by party leader José Luis Merino in 2007 to get back in line… “get your thinking in order boys, take back your identity both of you, especially Óscar.” The decision to bring Ortiz back into the fold “was an example of the flexibility of the party,” according to an FMLN deputy. He accepted the nomination at the convention “with humility,” and thanked the party for its vote of confidence in him, “in yours truly…in this revolutionary the same as many of you.”

Asked about his years on the sidelines of the party, Ortiz responded by saying the FMLN is a blend of different dynamics, currents, styles, focuses, and strategies; a party that has made mistakes but has had the ability to correct errors and has made “audacious, intelligent and appropriate” decisions, including the choice of Mauricio Funes as candidate in the 2009 election. “We don’t all think alike,” he said, and added that he is aware of the enormous responsibility he has been given.

The party will work to build a broad democratic left, Ortiz has said. He will be an active campaigner and, if elected, will play a much more central role in governance than past vice-presidents. He expects to work as a team both “to win and to govern,” and wants to build a party that is “strong, open, dynamic, a party that connects with youth.” As Santa Tecla mayor for five terms, Ortiz has reached out across party lines successfully to organize community support, including with young people. The FMLN has a responsibility, he insists, to build “a great bridge” for youth to participate in politics.

In response to a question about the FMLN relationship with Venezuela and ALBA, Ortiz said Venezuela has invested $150 million in the country in recent years. This investment is greater than anyone else’s, but El Salvador also has economic relations with the U.S. through the Partnership for Growth and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, so “why are we going to make an ideological battle over this?” These are strategic investments and economic opportunities, he argued: “I don’t see why we should be frightened.” El Salvador has its “own characteristics…and does not have the capacity to go around copying models that have nothing to do with our reality.”


“Who in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere has been able to reduce

homicides 65%? No one! We are the only ones who have done it.”

Minister of Security David Munguía Payés

When David Munguía Payés was appointed Minister of Security on November 22, 2011, he promised to reduce the ever-mounting homicide rate by 30% within the first year with the use of “more muscle,” hinting at an all-out war on gangs. Now, he says, “muscle …did not mean more police but rather more intelligence, involving more actors.” The truce – “an unorthodox response” – is one part of a larger strategy. The Ministry is part of the truce process, Munguía Payés maintained, but does not participate directly in negotiations “with criminal groups because this is not the policy of our government.” The homicide rate is down 39% since the first of the year, 60% since the truce began in March. Responding to persistent critics, the Minister asked once again that the process be given the benefit of the doubt: “The work is a reality, it is not ethereal, it is not a promise, it is not virtual, it is real.”

Meanwhile, critics continue to doubt the integrity of the truce. While some evangelical churches support the peace process, the leader of the Evangelical Alliance questioned the role of the executive branch, payoffs to gang leaders, and the veracity of police data on numbers of disappearances. Antonio Rodriguez, a priest who has worked with gangs for the past decade and has been a very vocal critic of the truce described it as “a political trick…based on a strategy of blackmail.” And the highly respected director of the UCA Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP) said the truce is not trustworthy or sustainable, suggesting government statistics are manipulated “minimizing the presence and the impact of organized crime.” Among many questions, Jeanette Aguilar asked if the truce is just a distraction to facilitate a logistical corridor for drug trafficking and suggested there may be other hidden truces. The UCA would support a transparent, legal and responsible dialogue, Aguilar insists, but only with the participation of civil society, churches and the international community, and with rigorous methods of verification and follow-up.

Sanctuary Cities

On November 22nd, truce facilitators Raúl Mijango and Bishop Fabio Colindres issued a bold, innovative proposal as the “second stage” of the peace process. The concept is to localize the process of reducing crime and violence community by community with “peace zones” or “sanctuary cities,” based on the sanctuary movement in the United States that sheltered and protected Salvadoran refugees during the 1980-1992 civil war.

Under this proposal, an agreement “for life and peace” in participating communities would include:

  • Gang members would agree to a non-aggression pact between gangs, would reduce and eradicate all criminal activities, surrender all weapons, and participate in community development efforts.
  • All citizens including gang members would have freedom of movement.
  • Security would be provided primarily by community police who pursue criminals and refrain from massive or night-time police operations.
  • The municipality will provide development projects in the areas inhabited by gangs.
  • Local authorities, private enterprises, and international donors will promote job training and employment opportunities for youth including gang members who have given up criminal activities.
  • The Ministries of health and education will provide counseling and educational services to the community of gang members.

The proposal comes from the facilitators, not the gang leadership, but presumably with their approval. Raúl Mijango did not name any communities that will participate, but said there will be ten in the near future. One possible site may be Sonsonate; in recent months, local authorities and community leaders in the violence-ridden city agreed to work with the facilitators to promote peace.

The audacious proposal may in the end be a fanciful notion. The facilitators understand that it will only be possible with the participation of everyone- from governmental institutions, churches, the OAS and international donors, to non-governmental organizations and the gangs themselves, including dissident cliques or gang members yet to incorporate into the process. Some critics denounced the proposal as “criminal sanctuaries” but the Minister of Security said he approved of the idea. The government will support it, he announced “within the framework of the law.”

Finally, in the context of doubts, questions, criticisms, pessimism and skepticism, Father José Maria Tojeira of the UCA sounded a hopeful note. The truce, he observed, “is historic: The poor and marginalized are no longer waiting for the powerful to take a step forward….They are facilitating progress for our society.”

Recommended Reading:

“The U.S. Election and Central America.”  Héctor Silva Avalos.

“Holding Salvadoran War Criminals Accountable: The Massacre at University of Central America, San Salvador 1989.  Kate Hayden, Council on Hemispheric Affairs.