El Salvador Update: FMLN grapples with post-election turmoil and human rights censure

By Linda Garrett, member of CDA’s Advisory Board

April 2018

Six weeks after a consequential political defeat the governing FMLN leadership is still in shock, unable to agree on or articulate a strategy moving forward. The clock is ticking with just ten months to go until the presidential election. Analysts agree, however, that more is at stake for the left than just the next electoral contest.

The March 4th legislative and municipal elections were a defining moment for the future of the FMLN not only as a political party but as a movement that inspired a revolution and waged a twelve-year war against repressive governments. Following the historic peace agreement in 1992 the FMLN successfully transitioned into a legal political party, waging guerra politica with the conservative ARENA party for two decades until attaining the presidency in 2009.

After nine years in power the FMLN suffered significant losses, handing political control back to the right.  Of equal concern to party leaders, however, was the abstention of tens of thousands of militantes, party members, who just stayed home. The reasons are multiple, ranging from internal party dynamics to policy decisions and principles. The magnitude of the defeat opened the door to a storm of analysis and debate on the left – much of it held at bay for years – between ortodoxos and the reformers, many of whom over time were expelled, resigned, or were quiescent.

Among the questions asked…

Why were party leaders stunned by the results? Extensive surveys over the past year by the highly respected Public Opinion Institute of the University of Central America (IUDOP) revealed in detail the profound discontent among all sectors of the population. Was the leadership living in a bubble, oblivious to warnings of the upcoming disaster?

Is this precarious moment for the FMLN a result of internal party rigidity?  Hubris? Lack of imagination or inability to implement structural reforms? Are conservative politicians, businessmen, magistrates, and the U.S. responsible for the relentless poverty, violence and impunity, for the fiscal crisis and all other ills, as the FMLN often asserts? Did the party “sacrifice principles for power,” as one analyst suggested? Is it a reflection of the crisis facing the broader Latin American left? What are the lessons to be learned, and what is the future of the “old left” in El Salvador and elsewhere as post-Berlin Wall generations jostle with their elders for an open, transparent, more inclusive and democratic left?

Meanwhile, with the left in turmoil, ARENA is quietly basking in its electoral victories, now in control of the capital, the legislature, upcoming Supreme Court selections and the national agenda leading up to next February’s presidential election. Three businessmen are vying for the ARENA presidential nomination in the country’s first-ever primaries to be held late-April. The first of three scheduled friendly debates held late last week, focused on “depolarization and reconciliation,” all giving at least the appearance of an orderly, democratic and transparent process.

Despite the modern face of ARENA the candidates still pay homage to party founder and death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson.

What happened to the FMLN?

As the political dimension of the loss became apparent there were calls for the resignation of the nine-member Comisión Política (CP), the war-time military commanders who have directed the FMLN since its inception as a political party. But the leadership did not seem to comprehend the damage. “We are not going to resign,” declared CP member and deputy Norma Guevara, “We are going to make corrections.” Medardo González, the leader of the CP attributed the results to “part of a campaign of the Salvadoran right against the historic leadership” of the FMLN. He admitted that many party members didn’t vote, and he assumed responsibility but emphasized, “This is not the time to cry or to reflect too much…We must act rapidly!”

Party spokesperson Roberto Lorenzana also conceded responsibility, but shifted blame from President Trump’s decision to revoke the TPS protective status for Salvadoran immigrants, to Venezuela, opposition politicians and gangs. The FMLN will recover, he declared: “It is not just an electoral party. It is an historic political party, a cultural phenomenon that has strong roots in the Salvadoran family.”

During a brief press conference ten days after the election the generally passive chief executive Salvador Sánchez Cerén acknowledged public discontent created by increases in utility fees and reduction in subsidies. Days later, the president revealed a few cabinet changes and announced that Vice-President Óscar Ortiz would be in charge of the cabinet and of economic and security policy, a powerful position similar to prime minister. Ortiz, who has been accused of old links to organized crime, had lobbied to be the party’s presidential candidate, but then tweeted he would in fact not be a candidate but will instead be attempting to pick up the pieces of governance during the pre-election period. Considered a reformer in the party, Ortiz said the party must renovate and “embrace the change.”

Scathing criticism of the leadership came from the left and from former party members. Analyst Salvador Samayoa, a founder of the FMLN and signer of the 1992 Peace Accords said the party had lost much of its base, citing the lack of internal debate and fear of “dissenting opinions.” That fear appeared to be justified on March 16th when the Director of Migration, Héctor Rodríguez was abruptly fired after calling for new leadership.

In another interview Samayoa said the party “is not dead but this was more than an electoral defeat.” He listed bad governance, tolerance of corruption, the war with gangs and “cobwebs with the past” as serious issues. The party is at a crossroads, he posited: It could recover “with lucidity and courage” and become a broad, democratic left, or could “lose its soul” and end up as a small, marginalized minority.

Over the years dissenters have been sent to “FMLN Siberia,” in the words of Salvador Meléndez. Writing for the online journal Revista Factum, Meléndez argued that the party lost because it is “no longer an inspiration for those who believe in the struggle against injustice, in transparency, in cleaning up the political game.” The party’s “original sin,” he said, was to become merely an “electoral machine.” The FMLN “had its opportunity,” he continued, and now the country “has fallen again into the arms of ARENA, …collapsing in the misery of poverty, impunity, exclusion, violence and corruption.”

March 4th was “checkmate” for the FMLN, in the opinion of former commander and political analyst Dagoberto Gutiérrez who left the party in 1997. Gutiérrez agreed that the enormity of the defeat was political, not just electoral, a “rejection of the leadership” and of the party as an “electoral machine.”

At the end of March the party’s youth organization Bloque Popular Juvenile – referred to as ‘ultraleft opportunists’ by the CP – officially left the FMLN, declaring that the leadership is taking the party “forged with the sweat, tears, blood and lives of thousands…to annihilation.”

In the opinion of one well-connected international analyst, the dilemma for the left in El Salvador and Latin America is that it takes power – principles intact –  and then is lost as it tries to accommodate the interests of the elite, “becoming what it fought against.”

Presidential Campaign

The presumed presidential candidate of the FMLN, Gerson Martínez called for changes “in the party model and leadership,” better public service, and “transparent and democratic” selection of the candidates. After Óscar Ortiz opted out of the running Martínez said he hoped other candidates would come forward to participate in a primary process. He insisted that he doesn’t have “presidentitis,” saying his only vocation is “to serve.”

As Minister of Public Works for eight years, Martínez was praised for his honest and efficient administration of the historically corrupt institution.  He now proposes that government officials eliminate all privileges and benefits not necessary for their work. (Perks elected officials receive include vehicle, driver, cell phone and private health insurance in addition to $4800/month.) One party official agreed: “We have to get out of the 4 x 4’s, the suits and ties.”

Meanwhile, Nayib Bukele, the outgoing FMLN mayor of San Salvador expelled from the party last year was recently profiled by the Economist as the country’s “rising star.” Bukele jumped immediately into campaign mode with his party-in-formation, “Nuevas Ideas” and slogan, “Nayib in 19.” He described the post-election pronouncements of FMLN party leaders as “analyzing the scoreboard of a game the population is no longer playing.”

But Bukele “is still a hologram” in the opinion of Salvador Samayoa. He has no platform or vision, agreed El Faro, but is popular as an “outsider” who reflects “the new times” and appeals to the non-ideological post-war generation. He wasn’t responsible for the defeat of the party “but is the visible consequence of the end of a period.”

Hologram or not, Nayib Bukele is currently the most popular politician in the country. Some members of the CP now regret his expulsion and hint of a possible alliance. “He’s not an enemy of the party,” José Luis Merino argued, but Lorena Peña disagreed, saying the party “will decide at the proper time,” and Norma Guevara accused the mayor of “using the party for political ascendance,” and “destroying the house that gave him shelter.”

For his part, Bukele said it made no sense to return to the party: “The historic project is now a shell, controlled by the current leadership…It lost its political ideals.” He described himself as “left but not Venezuelan or FMLN left,” as part of what he called the “decent left” that wants less inequality, less poverty, quality health care and education, jobs, infrastructure and security.

Gerson Martínez was selected months ago by the CP as the “winning horse.” On April 10, apparently bowing to pressure for an open primary, party leader Medardo González named four other potential candidates, and said that the leadership would not express a preference.

The Law and Order Party

Law and order has historically been the purview of ARENA but the FMLN has commandeered and expanded the hardline public security policies of the past, earning the condemnation of human rights activists and international institutions.

The first FMLN administration under President Mauricio Funes attempted to take control of gang violence by supporting a truce among warring gangs. The strategy, though controversial, opaque and clumsy, resulted in a dramatic drop in the homicide rate before it was sabotaged by the media, politicians, and U.S. government opposition. Homicides soared again as the second FMLN administration was inaugurated.

In January 2015, President Sánchez Cerén promised the country his administration would never negotiate with gangs. The new president declared all-out war and ordered additional troops into the streets to accompany the National Civil Police (PNC). As violent confrontations, repression and detentions increased, police were given authority to use lethal force “in compliance with their duties,” with impunity. Rampant corruption, abuse and low morale have afflicted the PNC since its inception. In recent years extermination groups comprised of police, military officers and civilians in the style of war-time death squads have executed alleged gang members. The prison population soared from about 26,000 to over 40,000; according to the latest report 39,000 prisoners are in penal facilities, with 4000 held in jails.

Following the murders of eleven workers in 2016, allegedly by gang members, the government announced a series of “temporary extraordinary measures” (Decree 321) as a strategy to prevent communication between prisoners and gang members on the outside. Vice-President Ortiz championed the measures and cheered newly created elite anti-gang battalions that appear to be modeled on the notorious war-time immediate reaction battalions (BIRIS).

The measures, renewed in 2017 and once again on April 6th at the behest of the FMLN, have been largely unquestioned in El Salvador but condemned repeatedly by international human rights institutions including the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Since the implementation of Decree 321, two years ago prisoners have been under total lockup, denied all visitation rights with family members and lawyers. Over 40% are held in preventive detention, often transferred from one facility to another. Crammed in overcrowded, windowless cells, inmates are permitted one hour three times a week in the outdoor area. According to a report by Marien Rivera of the Due Process Law Foundation, the health situation is dire. Cases of AIDS, diabetes, and hypertension are rampant. On April 8th  the prison director reported 1400 cases of tuberculosis.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was in El Salvador throughout the war, until the early 1990s. ICRC returned in 2012 and had permission to visit all prisons, speak freely with prisoners and aid with medical and infrastructure needs until 2016. Since the implementation of Decree 321, access has been prohibited.

ICRC operates around the world at the pleasure of the host government and rarely, if ever, expresses concerns publicly. In a highly unusual interview with El Faro on March 19, the head of the institution for Mexico, Cuba and Central America condemned the measures as violations of the fundamental human rights of prisoners “that cannot be justified.” Juan Pedro Schaerer stated that renewal of Decree 321 “will be a clear sign that state policy is not compatible with minimal norms of respect for human rights.” Schaerer expressed deep concern about the suspension of family visits, that, he decried, not only violates the rights of the mothers, wives and children, “but has an impact far beyond a decline in homicides; it has consequences for the future of the society.”

As the April deadline for renewal approached, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) called on the government to “take concrete and immediate actions to guarantee the rights of life and integrity (of prisoners) and to guarantee dignified detention conditions.” UN Rapporteur Agnes Callamard followed up on her February visit and stinging report, issuing repeated calls to the government to “comply with its human rights obligations.”

Debate unfolded with the former law and order party ARENA opposing a one-year extension. The measures are good but “not enough,” in the opinion of retired general now ARENA deputy Mauricio Vargas. The government must take care to respect human rights, he said, and implement a strategy to seize territorial control from gangs.  Minister of Justice and Security Mauricio Landaverde responded that only “criminal groups who want to continue committing crimes from prison” oppose the measures.

In the words of government spokesperson Roberto Lorenzana, “the rights of the population take precedence over the rights of criminals.”  And U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes suggested that rehabilitation and reinsertion programs are also necessary but expressed her support for extension of Decree 321: “If the gang leaders don’t like it, I do.” (“Si a los lideres de las maras no les gusta, a mí me gusta.”)

On April 6th a six-month extension passed the legislature with just one nay vote. Legislators say they will review the measures and institutionalize some as part of the Penal Code.

Just days before the vote on the extension, a priest was murdered in the eastern department of Usulután. Father Walter Osmin Vásquez Jiménez, the first priest to be assassinated since the early days of the war, was said to be “committed to the poor.” There have been no arrests, but Police Chief Howard Cotto indicated that the execution was planned: “It was not just a simple robbery.” During the funeral Protestant Pastor Mario Vega criticized the government’s public security strategy and the lack of prevention programs: “They are trying to please popular demands,” he said, “demands that aren’t always the best.”


In his election analysis Carlos Dada, the founder of El Faro and recipient of multiple international journalism awards, described the FMLN as “a party without cause,” that “perpetuated a corrupt system,” did not understand the profound crisis of the country and looked for answers “everywhere except in the mirror.” The party governed for nine years through clientalismo, he wrote, exchanging votes in the legislature “for privileges and impunity…becoming those they fought (the war) against.” The leadership, Dada continued, “lives in the past while acting like our worst politicians, permitting corruption, making pacts with rogues, caring more about power than the hunger and insecurity of the people.” In the end what is at stake, Dada concluded, “is much more than the 2019 presidential election, it’s the party’s raison d’etre.”

A month after the election, party leader Medardo González announced that a period of “reflection” with membership had been completed and affirmed once again that there will be no changes in the CP. According to González, only one leader – the mayor of San Marcos, Fidel Fuentes – had called for resignations. Fuentes “overstepped the line,” he said, “but will not be sanctioned.”

The future viability of the FMLN as the representative of the poor and marginalized, the war-time combatants and victims is uncertain. It will require vision, wisdom, humility and clarity about what was, and what could be.