El Salvador Update: April 2014 / Informe mensual El Salvador, abril 2014

A PDF version of the El Salvador Update is available here.
A PDF version of the April 2014 Peacemaking Chronology is available here.
Versión en formato PDF aquí.

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El Salvador’s President-elect Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Vice President-elect Óscar Ortiz of the FMLN reached out to the opposition even before the electoral dust had settled.  Following a tough campaign, a close finish, and contested results, the FMLN organized amicable meetings with ARENA and with leaders of ANEP, the private enterprise group, and all agreed to maintain a “permanent dialogue” after the Easter holidays. “We are extending our hand for a sincere and honest dialogue,” ANEP President Jorge Daboub said, “on the great problems of the country.”

This month, the President-elect conducted a whirlwind diplomatic tour of Central American capitals, and then traveled to Cuba and the Vatican. Vice President-elect Ortiz led the transition process during Sánchez Cerén’s absence, meeting with political parties and business and labor organizations.

On April 25th, the President-elect met with Pope Francis. He requested the Pope’s continued support for dialogue and mediation “to overcome the conflict of violence” in the country. The two also discussed the canonization of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero. The Pope promised to “facilitate” the process that has been delayed for years in the Vatican bureaucracy; due, at least partially, to disinterest or opposition from conservative Salvadoran bishops to sainthood for “the voice of those without a voice” who spoke of a “preferential option for the poor.”

President-elect Sánchez Cerén meets with Pope Francis. Source: La Página

According to officials, the June 1st inauguration will be austere and transparent. An official ceremony will take place at the Convention Center, and a massive public celebration will be held that afternoon in the Civic Plaza of the capital.

Gang-related violence has been on the rise for months, but it exploded in April with confrontations between police and gang members, and between two factions of one gang. According to officials, there are also indications that the “Sombra Negra” death squad may be responsible for at least some of the murders of gang members. “La Sombra Negra,” typically comprised of former police and soldiers, first appeared in the early 1990s and targeted gang members. Meanwhile, two parallel dialogue efforts are underway: one initiated by the outgoing Minister of Security Ricardo Perdomo, who has been a staunch opponent of the truce; the other by the mediators of the truce and peace process. On April 25th, the U.S. Department of State issued another travel warning for visitors to the country, the second in less than a year.

See page 8 for our human rights briefs this month, which includes an update on the deportation case of General José Guillermo García, the beatification of Archbishop Romero, and more.


“In just a few days, Salvador Sánchez Cerén has shown virtues that have
been absent from the political scene: maturity, prudence, humility,
willingness to dialogue and a conciliatory spirit.”
El Faro Editorial

The online journal El Faro, known for its sharp, non-partisan criticism of the right and left, praised the newly-elected president for “austere, tolerant and respectful” virtues “that seemed to be absent from the political scene.” Despite the long, hard-fought and often ugly presidential campaign, and the suspenseful final vote count, after ARENA accepted the election results, the political class seemed to de-polarize, at least briefly. During this, the President and Vice-President-elect set a new tone, accepting victory gracefully and immediately reaching out to the long-time political and economic opposition: ARENA and ANEP (National Private Enterprise Association).

The President-elect paid courtesy visits to the Presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Belize and the Dominican Republic before departing April 6th on a 20-day journey; first to Cuba to meet with President Raúl Castro and undergo a “routine” medical examination. On April 23rd, he departed Cuba for the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis and attend the canonization ceremony for Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.


President- and Vice President-elect with incoming Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez
Source: Contrapunto

A Good Start

The government “will do the impossible” to ensure stability, FMLN strategist Marcos Rodríguez declared, adding, “The change in government is an opportunity to clear the table.” Relations between the business sector and outgoing President Mauricio Funes deteriorated steadily during his Administration. The economic elite contributed to El Salvador’s stagnant economy by boycotting the government, investing instead in Nicaragua, Panama, and Miami. For his part, President Funes expended much of his political capital exposing corruption scandals under ARENA governments. The stand-off between the Funes Administration and El Salvador’s economic elite continued for five years. Now, following its second consecutive presidential election defeat, ARENA and ANEP are open to a dialogue and the FMLN is convinced that economic development, jobs, and funding for social programs demand a working relationship – and compromises – with private enterprise.

Immediately following the first round of presidential balloting on February 2nd – which produced a wide victory for the FMLN but less than the 50.1% of the vote required by law – the FMLN began to lobby ARENA leaders privately. According to an El Faro investigation, Óscar Ortiz organized a small, “informal” meeting with several ARENA personalities to draw up a preliminary agenda for discussion, including public security, education, public finances and the contentious matter of leadership for several institutions, including the government accounting office, the Corte de Cuentas.

The business community was said to be pleased by the announcement of the new Minister of Economy, a businessman and former vice-president of the Salvadoran Industrialists Association (ASI), Tharsis Solomón López. A first “historic” meeting between business leaders of the Council for Growth and the President-elect was held on March 26th.

On April 1st, ARENA and ANEP agreed to open a dialogue with the FMLN. A week later – with the President-elect out of the country – Óscar Ortiz met with Daboub and ANEP leadership in the ANEP office. The two-hour gathering focused on conditions required by the business sector for investment in the country.

Ortiz promised there would be no constitutional reforms and that the FMLN would not impose a “Venezuela model” of governance. “It is important to strengthen the alliance between the public and private sectors,” the Vice President-elect explained later. He also invited Jorge Daboub to the inauguration, opening the door for a “permanent dialogue” between the historic antagonists. The dialogue with ARENA is taking place “out of conviction but also out of necessity,” FMLN Secretary General Medardo González later said, “to allow the political forces to approach each other.”

Óscar Ortiz also led another “historic” meeting with ARENA’s executive committee (COENA) on April 11th, the day before ARENA’s national congress. In a joint press conference, Ortiz described the session as “highly positive.” Both parties agreed to name representatives to a commission that will define the issues and methodology for a dialogue to continue after the Easter holidays.

The goodwill continued but could be fleeting. The National Assembly – without opposition – approved legislation  to institutionalize the popular social programs initiated by the Funes Administration, which provide school uniforms, shoes, school supplies, and so on.President Funes, however, warned the FMLN not to allow ARENA or ANEP to define the “margins of the agenda.” A similar commission was formed after his election in 2009, he said, but “nothing moved” and the business leaders pulled out. Even conservative analystKirio Waldo Salgado warned, perhaps in jest, the FMLN not to “sacrifice revolutionary principles” in order to get along with the private enterprise sector.

A catharsis

One month after the party’s narrow defeat, ARENA held its first national congress in 14 years. The April 12th event was an opportunity for party activists to vent anger and frustration, to close ranks, and prepare for 2015 legislative and municipal elections. Some 600 activists met in 30 working groups. The mood, according to observers, was one of renovation, not rebellion. The issues and proposals under debate:

  • ¡No más dedazos!” An end to anointment of candidates by a select few funders. Norman Quijano’s candidacy for president, for example, was decided behind closed doors;
  • An end to party control by the powerful group of funders, often called the G-20;
  • A requirement that all party members who hold elected positions contribute 10% of their salary to fund party activities;
  • An internal evaluation of 2015 candidates. The party suffered nearly 20 defections of legislators to other parties – including 11 to the GANA party – between 2009 and 2013. The political defections – known in Spanish as transfuguismo – of “traitors” was a major point of discussion and was attributed to inadequate political and ideological training.
  • Move to secret voting for leaders and in primary elections for deputies and mayors (to begin after 2015).
  • Members of the executive committee (COENA) will stay on and the committee will be expanded from 15-24.

“We will give more power to the grassroots,” Ernesto Muyshondt, Vice President of Ideology,  explained. He predicted the party will win a majority in the 2015 legislative election: “The candidates will be loyal and will not sell out.”

COENA President Jorge Velado closed the event. Velado, an employee of party funder Ricardo Poma, denied that ARENA is controlled by the economic elite, insisting that “the person who gives a dollar is worth the same as the one who gives thousands.” In an obvious slap at Tony Saca and the GANA party, he also declared that ARENA “is the only right” party: “The traitors of the ‘new right’ cannot come to me with their nonsense because the only right in El Salvador is ARENA.”

Another event will be held on May 3rd to ratify or further discuss agreements made by participants at the congress.

ARENA National Congress Source: El Faro

Sorting out responsibilities

The FMLN has been evaluating assignments to determine who will remain in the legislature, who will be the candidates for 2015, and who will receive government appointments. “Not everyone is going to be in the government,” Secretary General Medardo González stated. Crucial cabinet positions have not yet been announced, including members of the security team, and there are dozens of slots to fill in the ministries and in autonomous institutions.

There are, however, indications of what the reorganization of the government may look like. Roberto Lorenzana (a deputy and the party spokesperson) will coordinate the economic cabinet as the Secretary of Strategic Planning. Vice-President-elect Óscar Ortiz will not serve in the cabinet but will “assist” the President-elect in developing economic and security policy. One institution will be established to coordinate all social programs, and three new ministries (women, sports, and culture) will be organized later in the year.

The cabinet as announced to date includes:

  • Minister of Treasury: Carlos Cáceres *
  • Minister of Economy: Tharsis Solomón López
  • Minister of Foreign Affairs: Hugo Martínez
  • Minister of Public Works: Gerson Martínez *
  • Minister of the Environment: Lina Pohl (the only woman)
  • Minister of Tourism: José Napoleon Duarte *
  • Secretary of Strategic Planning: Roberto Lorenzana
  • Secretary of Governance and Dialogue: Hato Hasbún
  • Private Secretary to the President: Manuel Melgar

*Holdover in this position from current Administration

No time to waste — 2015 is just around the corner

“[The FMLN] must stay two or three steps ahead. Our adversary is already running.”
FMLN Secretary General Medardo González

As so often occurs in western democracies, there is not a moment to lose between elections. The March 2015 races will be critical for both the FMLN and ARENA, as they will be for the numerous small parties that will be fighting for swing-vote power. The hottest contest will be for the office of mayor of San Salvador. Norman Quijano, the current mayor of the capital announced his intention to run again. But ARENA’s losing presidential candidate was publicly notified “not so fast” by the COENA president. Quijano may be out of the running; he attended the party congress, but only briefly.

For the FMLN, control of the San Salvador city hall is a strategic objective. The party is said to be considering its star, Vanda Pignato (First Lady and Secretary of Social Inclusion) or Nayib Bukele, the young, popular, mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán.

According to new election regulations, for the first time the composition of city councils will reflect the partisan choices of the electorate. The party with the greatest number of votes will hold the mayor and deputy mayor positions. The city council will be divvied up proportionally, based on the percentage of votes. The electoral code now requires that 30% of all candidates be women; internally, the FMLN requires 35%.

The FMLN is the only party that has set term limits for its legislators. Nine of the party’s 31 deputies, including Assembly President Sigfrido Reyes, are ineligible to run again due to the three-term limit. ARENA and PCN do not have term limits and both parties have deputies who have served for decades, some since the 1980s.


“The state cannot allow itself to be blackmailed but it is important to use [the truce] and not discard the term “truce” as such.”
Medardo González, Secretary-General of the FMLN

“No one wants to die.”
Gang leader

The two-year-long gang truce has been teetering on the edge since Ricardo Perdomo, the current Minister of Security, was appointed in May 2013. Firmly opposed to the truce and to the facilitators of the process, Perdomo’s tenure has seen the homicide rate climb gradually and then spike during March and April. Now, after months of delay and just weeks before the new government is installed – with a new security team – the Minister has announced the formation of a dialogue commission.

According to the terms of the original truce agreement between the government and gang leaders, police, soldiers, bus drivers and prison personnel would not be targeted by gangs. That agreement held until this year. The violence exploded into a new dimension on April 5th when a police patrol was ambushed and one agent killed, allegedly by members of Barrio 18. Other police have been injured in dozens of confrontations with gang members this year and, facilitator Raúl Mijango reported, 29 gang members have been killed by police since November of 2013.

What is behind the surge of violence? There have been accusations that gangs are receivingmilitary training, weapons are coming from the Zetas cartel, and that they are “mutating” into “narco-gangs.”  Raúl Mijango was accused by one journalist of ordering attacks against the police, an allegation denied by the Director of the PNC. Meanwhile, Minister Perdomo declared that gang members participating in attacks on the authorities will be prosecuted as “terrorists.”

In an interview with El Faro, a member of Barrio 18 insisted that the attacks on police were not ordered or sanctioned by gang leadership, but were the result of heightened repression against members and their families. “We are still trying to stabilize the people,” he said, “but if the police shoot the only thing to do is shoot back.” He warned, “No one wants to die,” but the situation could get out of control and “become an open war.”

Some of the violence is said to be the result of a split in Barrio 18 between the Sureños” andRevolucionarios.” There are also reports of paramilitary or “extermination” groups on the prowl, with the reactivation of “Sombra Negra,” a “social cleansing” group that appeared a few years back. In Rome, President-elect Sánchez Cerén mentioned “groups causing instability” in the country; even  the Minister of Security , an opponent of the truce, said someone is “pulling the strings” of the violence and a conservative deputy from the GANA party referred to “La Sombra Negra,” opining that the extermination group “is not legal but might be moral.”

Can everyone work together?

As the violence continues, two separate, parallel initiatives are underway, representing – as Steven Dudley of InSight Crime wrote – “two divergent views” about the peace process: one view sees the truce as a sincere effort of gangs to incorporate into the productive life of the country; the other believes the truce is nothing more than a ploy to increase the political and military power of the gangs.

Bishop Fabio Colindres and the facilitators, accompanied by the Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace, the UN and OAS, announced a “re-launching” of the original truce and peace process, stressing the urgency of establishing formal mechanisms of dialogue. They propose a three-tier effort with one dialogue between the churches and civil society, a second between the gangs, and a third between the government and civil society. This proposal does not include direct talks between gangs and the government, but calls on the government to assume responsibility for a comprehensive policy, and also asks that the facilitators be allowed to continue their work as it was carried out before May of 2013.

On April 17th, Security Minister Perdomo announced his “security dialogue” with the support of the Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas, Auxiliary Bishop Rosa Chávez, the Bishops’ Conference, several Protestant leaders, 15 unnamed non-governmental organizations, the UNDP and FUNDE, the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic Development. The truce facilitators were not invited to participate. According to Security Minister Perdomo, the commission will be provided with office space, information on “criminal structures,” and on existing prevention programs.

Two pastors who supported the original truce initiative are participating in both efforts. Carlos Rivas of the Tabernaculo de Avivamiento Internacional (TAI) was recently named as an adviser to the President-elect on security issues, so his opinions may affect the incoming administration’s position. Rivas argued that the gangs must participate in the process. “We have to go to them,” Pastor Rivas said, “not to negotiate but to generate a climate of confidence, of empathy.” He proposes a public, open dialogue. As a sign of good will, he suggested that legislators revise the country’s harsh anti-terrorism law which makes it illegal even to begin a dialogue with the gangs. Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gómez agreed that gangs must not be excluded from the process, saying, “peace is everyone’s responsibility.”

Meanwhile, with the President-elect out of the country, the FMLN has been reluctant to clarify the incoming administration’s security policy. Óscar Ortiz said the incoming government will “defeat crime and extortion” and develop security policies which include penal system reforms, but will not include a dialogue with the gangs. The new security agenda will be announced on June 1st, he said, and will include “drastic measures” to reduce prison overcrowding and a review of security-related legislation. Asked in Rome about his security policy, Sánchez Cerén described it as a combination of repression and prevention but added that the solution is more culture and better education, saying, “Repression only causes more violence.”

Finally, at the end of April, President Funes discussed the violence on his weekly broadcast. He said the truce had been broken by divisions in Barrio 18 between the Sureños andRevolucionarios: “They are the ones doing the killing.” He called for the renewal of the truce agreement, not simply as an agreement between gangs, but as a pact which would include all sectors of Salvadoran society. President Funes also called for an immediate contingency plan to reduce homicides and extortion. The President announced that the outgoing and incoming security teams would meet to plan a short-term strategy to control the violence.

U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte reiterated that the U.S. is not involved in the truce or dialogue, but is supporting prevention efforts. And on April 25th, the State Department issued another travel warning for El Salvador citing the “elevated levels of violence.” Homicides are up to ten per day, the highest rate since 2011.


The $277 million dollar Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) development grant, funded by the U.S. Congress and known in El Salvador as FOMILENIO II, was approved by MCC last year but is still pending on the resolution of several issues, Ambassador Apontesaid. These include additional reforms to the public-private investment and money-laundering laws. On April 3rd, the Ambassador mentioned another problem which surprised Salvadoran officials – an apparent violation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The Salvadoran government purchased seeds for farmers at preferential prices from local producers. According to CAFTA all such purchases must be up for bid, giving an advantage to U.S. producers.

FMLN spokesperson Roberto Lorenzana said the new administration will be “flexible” with the MCC and “there is good will to resolve” all the issues. This year, seeds have already been purchased; the hope is to find a compromise that will be effective in 2015. On April 25th, thelegislature approved the reforms to the public private investment law with 56 votes. ARENA abstained, citing an unrelated political dispute.

Development strategy and strategic planning for the country cannot just be limited to FOMILENIO, according to Minister of Public Works Gerson Martínez.  Infrastructure – roads, bridges, ports – must be a priority for economic development, “not just to build to be building.”

Human Rights

  • On February 26th in Miami, Immigration Judge Michael C. Horn ordered the deportation ofGeneral José Guillermo García, El Salvador’s Minister of Defense from October 1979-April 1993. The 66-page ruling was not released until the New York Times filed a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request. Judge Horn ruled that “clear and convincing evidence” proved that García had “assisted or otherwise participated in” eleven of the most egregious human rights cases during his tenure, including the murders of Archbishop Romero and the four North American nuns, the El Mozote and Rio Sumpul massacres, the Sheraton Hotel murders of U.S. labor advisers, and the torture of Juan Romagoza, one of the plaintiffs in the 2002 civil suit against García, and General Vides Casanova. General García’s appeal could take months or even years; defense attorney Alina Cruz declared, “We are certain he will be exonerated.”
  • A delegation which includes Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas and three conservative bishops will travel to Rome on May 9th to support the beatification of the slain Archbishop, Óscar Romero. Auxiliary Bishop Rosa Chávez commented that Pope Francis is more “motivated” to see the process through than the Salvadoran bishops have been in the past. The Pope “has no doubts about who Romero is…He is giving orders in the Vatican for everyone to collaborate.” Rosa Chávez expects the beatification to take place in 2017, the 100th birthday of Romero.  The bishops’ visit follows the April 25th meeting between President-elect Sánchez Cerén and the Pope.
  • Lawyer and Program Director for Transitional Justice with the Center for Justice and Accountability, Almudena Bernabeu, says it is time for the Supreme Court and Attorney General to act in the Jesuit case. Bernabeu said, “I don’t know what they are afraid of…Fear to be the first…Fear of reprisals…of death?”
  • UCA Rector Andreu Oliva suggests that the FMLN “has had a lot of fear” in tackling theamnesty law and prefers the “forgive and forget” solution to impunity for war crimes. Oliva says civil society must speak up and demand that the amnesty be repealed.
  • El Faro published a detailed investigation on the history of the amnesty and how it was hatched in 1993. See “Así se fraguó la amnistia.”
  • Last September, Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas peremptorily shut down Tutela Legal, the historic human rights office of the Archdiocese. A group of lawyers has opened a new office – “Tutela Legal Doctor María Julia Hernández” in honor of the office’s indomitable founder who died in 2007. Victims from some of the most emblematic cases including El Mozote are cooperating with the staff to reconstruct testimonies and rebuilt files.
  • On April 11th, the Supreme Court issued a ruling supporting the deployment of soldiers for public security, citing “exceptional” circumstances and “strict necessity” due to organized crime, drug trafficking, and money laundering. The deployment is also justified due to its status as “temporary” and to the “subsidiary” position of the army to the National Civil Police in the area of public security.
  • El Salvador had the highest rate of femicides in the world in 2012, according to a report by the Small Arms Survey. The report finds that in El Salvador 4,360 women were murdered from 2003-2013, a rate of 12/100,000, most between the ages of 18-35. Numbers have decreased since 2011, but prosecutions are rare due to fear and the “machista vision” of government institutions, according to CEMUJER (Institute of Women’s Studies.)

Graph from Contrapunto: Data from National Civil Police and Institute of Legal Medicine

  • Seventeen women convicted of abortion (“aggravated homicide”) are currently held in the Women’s Prison, serving sentences up to 40 years. On April 1st, the Citizens’ Coalition for the Decriminalization of Abortion demanded they be pardoned. According to the group, following a 1998 revision to the penal code criminalizing all abortions, 129 women were prosecuted (2000-2011), and 49 of those were convicted (23 for abortion, 26 for homicide). The situation is so critical, a report from the Coalition says, “that any woman who comes to an emergency room hemorrhaging is presumed to be a criminal.”
  • Eight thousand Salvadorans were deported back to their home country during the first quarter of 2014 – 5,200 by air, 3,290 by land. Immigration officials in the U.S. are currently negotiating with their Salvadoran counterparts to increase the number of deportation flights to two per day; 200 deportees arrive on each flight. According to Cesár Rios, Director of the Salvadoran Institute of the Migrant (INSAMI), 30% of the deportees are women. Emigration continues to be “a national disaster,” he says, with 300-500 people taking “the journey of suffering” every day, more and more of them women and children. Rios decried the situation for deported children, saying they are treated as adults with no concern for their trauma.