El Salvador Update: May 2014 / Informe mensual El Salvador, mayo 2014

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

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Salvador Sánchez Cerén, El Salvador’s President-elect, devoted the month before his June 1st inauguration to diplomatic visits, cabinet appointments, and political negotiations. He continued his good will mission, reassuring the international community that the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional) is prepared for an “honest and transparent” administration.

During a lightning trip to Washington, the President-elect met with State Department officials including Secretary of State John Kerry, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menéndez (D-NJ), and with Sheila Herrling, the acting CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

The incoming government’s priority is economic development, which requires cooperation with international financial institutions, the United States, and the Salvadoran business community. The new Administration aims to govern austerely, starting with the June 1stinauguration.  According to incoming Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez, it will be “one of the least expensive in Salvadoran history.”

Control of the increasingly volatile public security environment – and of apparently resurgent clandestine “extermination groups” along with a rising homicide rate – is pressing and essential. Benito Lara, the incoming Minister of Justice, faces the challenge of implementing a comprehensive security policy that both pursues criminals and promotes social peace. A list of all cabinet appointments to date can be found further down.

The political peace that seemed to exist in the initial weeks following the contentious presidential election has dissipated, but meetings and negotiations continue between the FMLN and ARENA and the FMLN and the National Enterprise Association (ANEP), which represents the traditional elite and private enterprise sector.

At least 12 presidents and over 100 delegations are scheduled to attend Sánchez Cerén’s inaugural, including the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia and all Central American heads of state.  The U.S. delegation is comprised of: María Contreras-Swat, Director of the Small Business Administration; Ricardo Zuniga, The National Security Council’s Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs; Thomas Shannon, a State Department Counselor and former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, John Feeley, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere, and the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte.  In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the inauguration of Mauricio Funes, and later called it “one of the most joyful” inaugurations she had ever attended.

At the end of May, urgent challenges facing the new administration were highlighted in the following ways.

Hector Silva Ávalos, a former Deputy Chief of Mission at the El Salvador embassy in Washington, in his book, “Infiltrados,” a just-published investigation of the National Civil Police, paints a picture of corruption that extends beyond “isolated cases of police performance…to a full-blown culture, where the criminals – and those who were supposed to be punishing them – were partners.”  He is calling on the Sánchez Cerén government to reform the institution and purge corrupt officers.

Separately, Florentin Meléndez, interim President of the Supreme Court, added his voice for judiciary reform, lambasting “sleepy and apathetic judges” and corruption that “permeates the judicial system and other state institutions in charge of imparting justice.”

Meanwhile, the effort to address the case of fugitive former President Francisco Flores (1999-2004), and the alleged embezzlement of millions of dollars in Taiwanese donations, continues to move forward. An arrest warrant was finally issued on April 30th for the former president, and an INTERPOL “red notice” went out to 190 countries. Flores is believed to be in Panama.


With the new administration facing economic stress, increased violence, and potentially greater political polarization, the operative phrase is “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue” with all sectors, including historical opponents: ARENA and ANEP. The key to dialogue is “respect for the ideological identities of each party,” explained Manuel Melgar, Private Secretary to the President-elect.

Legislative and municipal elections will take place in March 2015, and there is concern that the next rapidly-approaching electoral season could disrupt the process of reaching agreement on issues of national concern such as public security policy. The incomingSecretary of Governance and Political Dialogue Hato Hasbún acknowledged the potential obstacles, but called on political parties to put agreements “before partisan interests and aspirations.”


“We have had a transformation…a political, organizational, economic metamorphosis.”
Roberto Lorenzana, Secretary of Strategic Planning

After decades of military and political struggle, the moment has arrived for the FMLN to put theory into practice, taking into account the economic, social, and political realities and challenges facing a the country and the new government in 2014. According to results of the most recent survey by IUDOP, the Public Opinion Institute of the University of Central America, 50.5% believe the situation of the country will improve under Sánchez Cerén, and 53.1% have “some or a lot” of confidence in the president-elect and his Administration.

As the FMLN maneuvers through minefields right and left, the party will be careful “not to renounce our history and our identity,” FMLN spokesperson Roberto Lorenzana explained recently. Lorenzana, a three-term deputy named as Secretary of Strategic Planning for the new administration, described the party’s post-war transformation as a long process of “adjusting our thinking to concrete reality” and responding with “flexible – not rigid conceptions.

“Change is not determined by one person or even one leadership,” he said, “but by reality,” by lessons learned through two decades of “institutional apprenticeship.”  For example, he added, the concept of a centralized government – centralization of the economy, politics and society – “is a thing of the past.” At the same time, he said, the market “cannot be sacred” in governance and social inequality can be ameliorated through fiscal reform. El Salvador has the lowest level of revenue collection in all of Latin America; but the immediate priority, Lorenzana insisted, is economic growth. And that requires compromises with the business community and others.

Democracy demands compromises, but, as El Faro argued in a recent editorial, El Salvador is still an “unequal, unjust, poor, violent, impugn and corrupt” country: The path of political pragmatism cannot mean forgetting “the dreams of those who struggled for a more just society.”


No, but yes

“We don’t want to be a co-government…or to participate in the failures…
We don’t want this…We are not interested.”
Jorge Daboub, President of ANEP

As ARENA grapples with its future, Jorge Daboub, president of the powerful National Private Enterprise Association (ANEP), appears to be the de facto leader of the right. Following a one-on-one meeting with President-elect Sánchez Cerén, Daboub declared that ANEP would not support new taxes that will impact jobs and economic growth, but the two leaders agreed to establish a series of “working groups (mesas de entendimiento)”.

During an earlier meeting that included other ANEP and FMLN representatives, the issue of joining Petrocaribe – the Venezuelan oil alliance – was on the agenda. The issue was apparently discussed without rancor and was not viewed badly, as long as it doesn’t “compromise national security,” Luis Cardenal, President of the Chamber of Commerce later said.

President Funes may be playing the “bad cop” to the FMLN’s “good cop” role. The President has had a confrontational relationship with Jorge Daboub — when he presented a package of fiscal reforms to the legislature just weeks before the end of his term, Daboub tweetedthat taxes “promote corruption, patronage and waste.” The President responded by calling Daboub “ignorant,” and ANEP Director Arnoldo Jiménez added to the polemic, accusing the President of “promoting class hatred.”

Jorge Daboub appears to have a better relationship with the incoming government, the “good cops” who are also promoting fiscal reforms but perhaps now can negotiate down from the President’s proposals. “We are willing to negotiate with the new government,” Daboub said, “The talks have been about looking ahead…Our attitude is to start with a clean slate.”

Meanwhile, some 500 ARENA activists participated in a second post-election congress and the old guard held firm, with no one being held responsible, or “paying for the broken plates” of the party’s electoral defeat. An agreement was reached to establish a commission to interview potential candidates, theoretically ensuring ideological commitment that would prevent further desertions by elected officials; nearly 20 ARENA deputies defected during the past five years.  ARENA Deputy Donato Vaquerano later expressed his concern about the “tremendous threat that deputies can be bought” by other parties.

Despite the upheaval and embarrassment surrounding allegations of corruption against Francisco Flores, the former ARENA president was not expelled from the party; perhaps an indication, as some say, that the accusations against him are just the tip of the iceberg of the corruption under four consecutive ARENA administrations.

President Mauricio Funes:

“Whether they like it or not, I continue being president until May 31st.”
President Mauricio Funes

Governance takes a toll. In 2009, when he held his 17-month old son in one arm, a fist in the air, President Mauricio Funes was younger, thinner, and feistier at his inauguration than he is today. In his last public events as chief executive, the President hobbled to the podium with the help of a medical walker due to hip and back problems.

He has been one of the most popular presidents in Latin America, but the latest IUDOP poll shows a decline in approval to a 6.5 out of a possible 10 rating, which is still the highest rating of an outgoing chief executive in El Salvador. The former journalist leaves a legacy of achievements such as his implementation of popular social programs.  But, he also leaves disappointments that include his government’s failure to prosecute human rights cases, erratic public security decisions, confrontations with private enterprise and ARENA, and complicated relationships with Washington and with the FMLN. Never a member of the FMLN, Funes was a president without a party who depended on a small circle of trusted advisers.

During his inaugural address in 2009, the President called for peace and national unity. He lashed out against infiltration by organized crime into public institutions, but during his term focused attention on the gang issue and little was heard from him about organized crime. Attempts were made early in his term by National Civil Police Inspector General Zaira Navas to rid the PNC of corrupt officers, but the President retreated, replaced Navas, and soon allegedly corrupt officials were back on the job.

President Funes raised a trial balloon, suggesting the creation of an international investigation commission similar to CICIG (International Commission Against Impunity) in Guatemala but the idea was soon dropped. Funes tip-toed in and out of support for the gang truce and peace process, but finally retreated altogether. He also undermined efforts by a Spanish court to prosecute the military officers indicted for the 1989 Jesuit massacre.

On the other hand, there have been important symbolic gestures acknowledging emblematic human rights cases (the El Mozote and Jesuit massacres, the assassination of Archbishop Romero). The popular and effective social programs Funes began have been institutionalized and will continue. The First Lady/Secretary of Social Inclusion Vanda Pignato focused the Administration and the public’s attention on the defense and promotion of women’s rights. The President tackled corruption cases from the past, pursuing Francisco Flores and others.

On May 20th, President Funes told reporters he will take a seat as a deputy in the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), a moribund institution he once described as “a cemetery for ex- presidents.” All former presidents are automatically seated if they choose and as deputies are entitled to immunity from prosecution. ARENA’s decades-old protest group, the “Cruzada pro paz y trabajo” (Pro-Peace and Work Crusade) was resurrected and immediately went to the streets demanding the Supreme Court prohibit the President from eligibility for immunity.  Just days later the online journal El Faro published a report documenting allegations of favoritism by President Funes:  “El Presidente Funes, una cadena de favores y un spa” (“President Funes, a chain of favors, and a spa.”) At the end of May, El Salvador’s Supreme Court agreed to hear the case against Funes joining PARLACEN, in effect blocking his entry into the body until the case is resolved.

President Funes will not be a candidate for any office in the next election, contrary to rumors that he would run for deputy or for mayor of San Salvador. He will likely have a role and a political voice as a journalist.

Mauricio Funes will be remembered for his aggressive, confrontational style of governance. He pursued corruption cases in past administrations and in his words, “buried the oligarchy of the right.” But more consequentially, his center-left Administration eased the way for the incoming left government of the FMLN, and history may view his term as a successful transition from war and conservative rule to a modern social democratic state. Detractors, happy to see him go, mounted an anti-Funes campaign using slogans, “May 31st El Salvador Happy”… “I am happy you are going,” but others responded: “I am happier that ARENA lost.”


I am happy that you are going” “I am happier…that ARENA lost”
Source: Diario 1

And the President wore a t-shirt reading: “Like it or not, Funes stuck his neck out”

Source: La Página

For his part, Alex Segovia, the President’s top economic adviser, announced the formation of a new think tank “to combat the ideas of conservative FUSADES (Salvadoran Foundation for Economic Development).” Segovia said he will head INCIDE (Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciónes), adding that he has had many opportunities to work for international institutions, but prefers to stay in the country. He is also organizing a non-partisan “social/political citizen movement,” possibly as a political platform for future electoral runs.


“The government was wrong to interrupt the truce.”
Benito Lara, new Minister of Justice and Security

In his first interviews as the incoming Minister of Security, Benito Lara said the truce was “correct” and “had good results,” but was mismanaged by the government and misrepresented by the media. A truce is appropriate, he said, but not negotiations: “We have to find a way to guarantee sustainability [for the truce] but without negotiating…Anything we can do to prevent deaths is correct.” The truce will be one element but not the primary focus of the new security policy, according to Lara.


Minister of Justice and Security Benito Lara. Source: Diario 1

Benito Lara, a four-term deputy and chairman of the legislature’s public security commission, acknowledged that he now has the “most complicated” job in the new government. As Minister of Security, he will oversee the PNC, the National Police Academy, the prison system, and investigations into organized crime, money laundering, gangs, and more. His appointment was expected and widely supported, but he faces enormous challenges amid expectations of an immediate improvement in the rapidly deteriorating public security situation.

Violence ratcheted up in the weeks before the inauguration, but it is not clear who is doing what. As usual, the media claims “gang members” are responsible for every reported homicide, but there is rarely any investigation of crimes. Clandestine extermination groups such as “La Sombra Negra” are believed to be responsible for the killing of gang members in at least ten cases, according to David Morales, the Ombudsman for Human Rights, and to outgoing Minister of Security Perdomo, who said groups of “hooded” men are killing gang members. Meanwhile, some police units are now said to be equipped with AK 47s, morale is low, and one police officer has been on a very public hunger strike protesting working conditions.

El Faro reporters Carlos Martínez and José Luís Sanz believe the outgoing Minister of Security is largely responsible for the upsurge in violence which began with his appointment in May 2013. The prohibition on communication between imprisoned gang leaders and the truce mediators has resulted in a gradual spike in gang-related violence. The arrest in the last two weeks of the designated interlocutors to the mediators has been a final blow for communication between the mediators and the gangs, according to El Faro. The homicide rate has spiked from 5.7 per day one year ago, to 12 per day in May.

The public never approved of the truce. In the latest IUDOP opinion poll, nearly 80% of respondents view crime and violence as the country’s paramount problem. The new minister has his work cut out for him.

Lara emphasized that he will be in charge of all public security including two competing peace process efforts which the new government will unify: the mediators of the original truce will not be excluded, he said, and will be allowed to continue their mediation work. Meanwhile the dialogue commission recently formed by the outgoing Minister of Security will presumably continue to develop as well. Public security is an “obligation of the state with shared responsibility of everyone.” And the institutions must switch from “iron fist” policies and repression but, he acknowledged, a “change of mentality” is not easy.

The incoming minister critiqued some of the prevention programs implemented by international institutions and organizations, saying “good practices” are not always sustainable, adding “continuity is necessary.” Over $600 million has been invested in recent years, he said, without results. Reducing risk factors for violence is a long, slow process and requires the sustained presence of state institutions and social services in high-risk communities, especially those communities that are “stigmatized” as gang-controlled. Efforts must be made, Lara insisted, “so that new generations have other options.”

One of the components of the new public security strategy is repression of crime, but that signifies, as Lara noted, reforming and professionalizing the police, re-educating officers so they “understand the policy,” improving investigations, intelligence capacity, and working conditions, and – perhaps most important – implementing “internal controls.” The new Minister also discussed the urgent need to reduce prison overcrowding and reform the philosophy behind incarceration so that prisons are productive centers of “rehabilitation for reinsertion” into society. Attention must be given to crime victims, as well, he said. The overall objective “is to look for the conditions for social peace.”

On May 23rd, just ten days before the inauguration, thirty homicides were reported. The police warned of threats to destabilize the change in government, ordered off duty officers to report immediately, and cancelled all leaves “indefinitely.”


On an island? On a yacht? Under a rock?

President Funes was surely elated last September when he received a copy of a U.S. Treasury Department “report of suspicious operations” (ROS) naming former President Francisco Flores (1999-2004) as a subject of interest. In 2001, it was then-president Flores who had then-journalist Funes fired from his television program after Funes denounced the disappearance of funds donated for victims of that year’s earthquake.

Last fall, President Funes used his weekly radio broadcast to expose the ROS and, week after week, divulged additional details about the origins and destination of the secret Taiwan money Flores allegedly took. He pounded away at the case until finally, in January 2014, the legislature appointed an investigative commission headed by Deputy Benito Lara. Flores appeared before the commission and managed to further incriminate himself before apparently fleeing the country.

Last seen in public on January 28th, the former president was finally indicted by the Attorney General on April 30th, on two charges – embezzlement and illicit enrichment of $5.3 million. Attorney General Luis Martínez – who served as assistant to Flores during his presidency and has had some business relations with the family – had been seen as reluctant to prosecute the case.

Flores, now 53, was known as an authoritarian president who pursued the privatization of state institutions. A close ally of the Bush Administration, he sent Salvadoran troops to Iraq, promoted the dollarization of the economy, and supported what became the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).

The now-fugitive former head of state left the country by private plane or by sea, but not through immigration, according to authorities. He is rumored to be protected by former Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso (also 1999-2004) on an island or a yacht. Moscosodenied she was hiding him but said, “He is my personal friend and I would help him if I could.” Mireya Moscoso is another of the 13 former heads of state in six Central American countries during the past 20 years who have been under suspicion for “irregular acts” – white collar crimes – during their administrations, according to a report in Spain’s El País.

On May 6, Judge Marta Rosales submitted a request to INTERPOL for a “red notice” warrant and the Supreme Court later approved extradition proceedings. What are the options for the fugitive former president?  He could remain a permanent fugitive from justice, or turn himself in and face justice; he could wait to be arrested and forced to appear in court; he could make a deal with the Attorney General perhaps naming others, or he could be extradited to the U.S. on money laundering charges. The May 23rd conviction of former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo in New York on charges of laundering money from Taiwan may have Francisco Flores concerned, wherever he is.

INTERPOL warrant for Francisco Flores. Source: INTERPOL


A commitment to austerity

President-elect Salvador Sanchez Cerén has come to power with a commitment to social and economic justice, but state coffers are nearly empty. The FMLN has been in last-minute negotiations with ARENA to approve the issuance of $800 million in bonds to sustain the government.

Following a meeting with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and Inter-American  Development Bank, the President-elect emphasized “austerity” as the modus operandi of the new Administration. In a blog post just days before the inauguration, President-elect Sánchez Cerén promised a government framed by austerity; not just rhetorical austerity but “in the style and form of governance.” The “practical actions” he announced include the reduction and standardization of travel expenses, and reduced use of government vehicles and personal security. The governing principles, he wrote, will be “ethics, transparency, efficiency and austerity.” Corruption will not be tolerated: “Public service demands honesty and loyalty.”

On May 21st, the President-elect announced he will not live in the Presidential Palace, but instead remain in his home in a middle-class neighborhood where he has always resided. This possibility was raised months ago, but concerns were raised about security which apparently have been resolved. When Sánchez Cerén visited President José Mujica of Uruguay earlier this year, he said he was impressed by Mujica’s lifestyle and personal commitment to austerity.

Following the President-elect’s announcement, Roberto Lorenzana remarked that the Salvadoran people “can understand the depth of what this means.” Sánchez Cerén will be the first president to forego the luxury of the Presidential Palace: “He is a person who doesn’t want to boast about these things but without a doubt he is an example, [and this is] a concrete signal to all government officials.”

In other economic developments, U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte has repeatedly and publicly noted that the $277 million Millennium Challenge Compact development grant is still on hold, awaiting further reforms to the money-laundering legislation and the resolution of El Salvador’s alleged violation of CAFTA-DR. The trade dispute involves the Salvadoran government’s purchase of seeds for farmers from Salvadoran producers, rather than submitting the purchase to international bidding — a violation of the agreement. Thedispute will be resolved, according to Roberto Lorenzana, who said the FMLN government will comply with international bidding, but added, “We won’t stop supporting Salvadoran farmers.”

Foreign Policy:

“It has been a very quick, very concrete but very substantive visit.”
President-elect Sánchez Cerén

A very cordial and very good visit”
U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte

The President-elect concluded his diplomatic whirlwind in Washington in mid-May, accompanied by his appointed Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez and chief of staff Roberto Lorenzana. Together with Salvadoran Ambassador Rubén Zamora and Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte, the delegation bustled around the city for a series of brief but consequential meetings with State Department officials, the acting-president of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Senator Robert Menendez and, finally with Secretary of State John Kerry.

The meetings were perhaps more form than content, but bilateral issues including immigration reform, an extension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadoran immigrants, cooperation on security issues and economic development were all on the agenda. Secretary of State Kerry noted “joint efforts to promote economic growth and strengthen citizen security,” and promised continued support for El Salvador in its new challenges.

As Ambassador Aponte noted, the positive visit “is a result of the good relationships that go beyond governments, [relationships] that exist between the peoples of El Salvador and the United States.”

Salvador Sánchez Cerén meets with Secretary of State John Kerry. Source: Contrapunto

Human Rights Briefs:

  • UNICEF reports that 6,300 minors have been murdered in the country during the past eight years; 82% are male, ages 15-19. Gordon Jonathan Lewis, UNICEF’s representative in El Salvador, expressed “profound indignation and concern” and called on the new government to give “all financial, political, and programmatic weight” to the protection of children and adolescents.
  • Exhumations of the El Mozote massacre site could begin later this year, but no schedule has been announced and the lines of authority between Attorney General Luis Martínez and the Supreme Court’s Legal Medicine Institute (IML) are not clear, according to a report by El Faro. Some 1,000 men, women and children were massacred in December 1981 by the Atlacatl Battalion. The Attorney General visited the site on May 7th, Armed Forces Day. He promised justice to family members and tweeted “Greetings to the valiant Salvadoran soldier.”
  • Some units of the National Civil Police are now armed with AK-47 automatic rifles as a response to the increase in violent confrontations with gangs, according to the police. The high-power, long-range weapons have apparently been warehoused since the war. Director of the National Police Academy Jaime Martinez objected to the use of “weapons of war” in an “urban environment” and said the police are not trained for this weapon. He warned this will raise the level of violence and endanger the public.

    National Civil Police with AK-47s. Source: La Página

Recommended Reading:

Recommended Viewing:

  • Las Aradas: Masacre en seis actos.” El Faro. Documentary by Marcela Zamora on the May 14, 1980 Rio Sumpul massacre of some 600 civilians in Chalatenango perpetrated by the army (Military Detachment #1), the Air Force, National Guard and paramilitary troops of ORDEN with the complicity of the Honduran army.

 FMLN:  Government and Cabinet Appointments:

*Marks those who have retained their appointments from the previous cabinet.