Seven months of Bukele with the FMLN and ARENA in crisis
With both the FMLN and ARENA mired in quicksand,
the traditional Left and Right are sinking further with every step,
while the optimism for Nayib Bukele’s new government still holds.
The public’s perceptions of the country’s security seem to have changed,
even as hard-to-resolve problems such as gangs and water persist.
Luis Antonio Monterrosa
The New Year rang in with both of El Salvador’s two major parties, the leftwing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and rightwing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) taking direct hits that shook the political scene. Leaders of both stand accused of illicit enrichment and an ARENA leader is also accused of illicit negotiations with the country’s gangs, particularly the powerful and especially violent ones known as maras. Meanwhile President Bukele’s popularity, even among members of both those parties, is holding.
Where’s the Left coming from?
FMLN leader Sigfrido Reyes, director of the Office of Export Promotion during the administration of Salvador Sánchez Cerén, with a juicy monthly salary of US$7,000, was accused in January of embezzlement, money laundering, aggravated fraud and illicit enrichment. He is also charged with authorizing expenses for himself while Legislative Assembly president between 2011 and 2015 and of shady financial real estate deals.
A police operation managed to capture his wife and four of his collaborators but Reyes is presumed to have previously fled the country. He is thought to be in either France or Russia, although social networks humorously speculate that he is in the Managua residence of former President Mauricio Funes, who was given refuge by Daniel Ortega after he too was accused of corruption.
Reactions within the FMLN varied. Leaders such as Medardo González and Lorena Peña came out in defense of Reyes, arguing political persecution. Óscar Ortiz left the case in the hands of justice, trying to distance the party from the fugitive. The question this case poses is no longer where the Left is going, but where it has been...
And where’s the Right coming from?
At the other political extreme is Norman Quijano, ARENA’s presidential candidate in 2014, who lost to Sánchez Cerén then followed Reyes as the legislative president until October 2019. He is now on trial for what is called the Jaque (Check) Operation, which has already sentenced a sizable group of gang members and is dragging political figures down with them.
During the preliminary hearing against Quijano evidence was presented that both the FMLN and ARENA had repeatedly met with gang members, the most notorious meeting revealed in a video in which Quijano appears. Quijano insists he never negotiated with gangs, but only with Evangelical pastors working to rehabilitate gang members.
Although neither Quijano nor Reyes are the only ones fingered from their respective parties, the accusations against Quijano have caused a commotion because he was assumed to have parliamentary immunity protecting him from indictment by the attorney general. This case poses the same question as the previous one: it isn’t where the Right is going, but where it has been.
All this is taking place in a context in which recent surveys show public optimism about the country’s future due to a perceived climate of greater security. It’s a strong endorsement of Nayib Bukele’s new administration.
The gang truce
The case that brought Norman Quijano to trial dates back to 2012, during Mauricio Funes’ administration. It was the year the greatest drop in the country’s postwar homicide rate was reported, an achievement attributed to what was called the “Gang Truce.”
A team sponsored by the Funes government created conditions that enabled the leaders of El Salvador’s two main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Pandilla Callejera 18 (18th Street Gang), to agree to a truce between them. The truce reduced the risk of “civilian” homicides, which the public understood as those of “non-combatant members” of the two gangs. The truce also decreased cases of extortion.
The truce promotion team was led by the former FMLN deputy coordinator Raúl Mijango, who had virtually separated from the party by then, and the military bishop, Fabio Colindres, who didn’t always enjoy the support of Archbishop Escobar Alas, now-Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez or the Episcopal Conference as a whole. Mijano and Coloindres created arenas in the prisons to advance the truce idea among the inmates, aided by interlocutors from both gangs who had influence over other members inside prison and out due to their aura of heroism for fighting a rival to the death
or until ending up incarcerated.
The team made progress with the truce and also improved the hellish conditions common in prisons resulting from the prevailing idea in the penitentiary system that prison is for retribution not rehabilitation. By that logic, the worse the conditions, the “better” the punishment.
The truce’s successes
The truce project went so well that President Funes proffered the experience at the 2012 UN General Assembly, stressing the reduction in the homicide rate. The Organization of American States, at that time with José Miguel Insulza as secretary general, even acted as guarantor to the process.
The entire machinery of government was involved in the truce and, once the two gangs had an agreement, it was decided to provide welfare to the prioritized territories, among them Cuscatancingo, Ilopango and Apopa, which began to be called Violence-Free Municipalities. The idea was that the State would be actively present in those areas, improving schools and health services and hiring local laborers to do small but high-impact public works.
The territories earmarked for benefits began to publicize the central and municipal governments’ rapprochement with various gang leaders who showed a willingness to abandon violence. The truce would allow access to public services for the gangs, redefined as aberrant expressions of social organization to protest exclusion.
The truce in El Salvador represented an alternative mechanism to address the gang problem in other Latin American countries, even in the US, reaffirming dialogue as an appropriate instrument to address both social and political conflicts. Within El Salvador this achievement legitimized the dialogue that had led to the 1992 Accords ending the civil war.
The truce breaks down
Everything seemed to be going well, until it all broke down… “Dark shadows” began to question both the transparency and the purposes to which the truce was being used. While it was never proven, the State began to be suspected of giving legal concessions to the gangs in and outside of the prisons. The rumor spread that everything had electoral objectives.
The mass media broadcasted the idea of a possible state pact with “the emissaries of evil.” But the real problem, argued the mayors in the territories themselves, was that state investment to improve services never materialized. The decisive proof of the lack of transparency came from the US Embassy, which questioned the use being made of its funding for new gang-related assistance programs via projects such as the Local Development Investment Fund’s Temporary Income Support Program.
While retractions followed the questioning, dialogue was again disparaged as a means for addressing gang-caused conflicts. Politicians, church people and leaders both male and female viewed dialoging with gangs as an overly risky concession and advocated going back to the better known and safer method: repression. Seeing that the truce’s social success seemed to be heading for political failure, the Funes government began to distance itself from it.
The final result was threats to prosecute anyone who had promoted dialogue with gangs. Neither Defense Minister Munguía Payés nor Monsignor Colindres were prosecuted even though both sponsored the truce efforts. But Raúl Mijango was sentenced to 13 years in prison, ostensibly not for directing the effort but for a series of clearly unfounded accusations. It should be recalled that Mijango, who came from the ranks of the People’s Revolutionary Army, one of the five organizations that formed the FMLN, had begun to talk of a new leftwing party, which he proposed calling the People’s Revolutionary Movement.
From the failed truce
to a hypocritical truce
After this fabricated crisis, all the
political parties disowned dialogue as an instrument for addressing social problems, instead hoisting the flag of repression. In the 2014 election campaign, all presidential candidates prioritized the issues of security and the gangs to win votes, condemning the failed truce while promising to resolve the gang problem.
The first to climb on that new bandwagon were the mayors from Apopa and Ilopango, but they had already been accused of having used the gangs’ strength for their own political purposes. Apopa’s mayor was sentenced to prison, while Ilopango’s mayor died before the trial. Testimony from prosecuted gang members—some providing videos taken with their own telephones as evidence—showed political leaders in meetings with them making various offers in exchange for votes and in more than one case handing over thick rolls of bills.
While they shouldn’t have defined the problem, these private meetings did call attention to a double moral standard by the implicated politicians: they were among the same ones condemning anyone who met with gang members.
In the 2014 electoral context all this only meant that these activities had no other objective than to favor some candidates and slander their adversaries.
The FMLN politicians identified as participating in these meetings or knowing about both them and the negotiations with gang members are former the interior minister Arístides Valencia, former FMLN secretary general Medardo González, former justice minister Benito Lara, and José Luis Merino, strongman of the now deceased Alba Petróleos. In addition to Norman Quijano, the ARENA politicians identified in these meetings are current mayor of San Salvador Ernesto Muyshondt, and former ARENA president Jorge Velado.
Also mentioned are current interior minister Mario Durán and current director of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit Carlos Marroquín, both of them President Bukele’s own appointments. Although Bukele publicly requested prosecution for the actions of these political leaders, there are rumors of a level of understanding Bukele himself maintained with the gangs when he had Ernesto Muyshondt’s job as the capital’s mayor so he could advance the San Salvador Historical Center restoration project.
The “Mafia truce”
Passionist priest Antonio Rodríguez,
who favoredthe genuine dialogue with the gangs, has called this scandal the “mafia truce.” It was a sublime expression of the hypocrisy of politicians who, condemning reconciliation with gang members in search of a way out of violence, reconciled with them only for votes or—as in the case of Apopa’s mayor—to promote their own political and economic power through the gangs’ terror. Will all this contribute to the final decline of ARENA and the FMLN, and with their collapse put an end to a way of doing politics based on shady and fraudulent negotiation?
Nayib Bukele and the gangs
When Nayib Bukele took over the presidency last June he prioritized the problem of citizen security and violence, based on speeches claiming that the governments preceding him hadn’t effectively taken care of it and, in fact, had allowed the gangs to grow. “We must win over the young people before the gangs do,” said Bukele.
The “territory recovery” plan he proposed and implemented to try to respond to the public’s deeply felt need for security has features of previous mano dura (hard hand) plans. Army-backed police units have conducted operations in certain territories considered a priority because of gang activities and in significant places such as San Salvador’s historic center. A toughening of the gang members’ prison conditions followed the massive detentions in those raids, which seems to have contributed to the drop in the homicide rate. Bukele also ordered the telecommunications companies to block the prisons’ telephone and internet signal, claiming that 80% of the orders for homicides and extortions come from inside them. It was a move the ARENA and FMLN had governments never tried or never succeeded in doing. Bukele has also said he intends to go after those who finance the gangs “from above,” noting that in some cases they are political party leaders.
Government plans aren’t just repressive, however. They include giving at-risk young people,“opportunities,” creating educational programs and local development and occupational training in the “recovered” territories through the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit. To this end, the government has asked the Legislative Assembly to redirect credit and has requested financial assistance from the international community with loans or financial cooperation. With all these measures Bukele is trying to put an end to gang-related crimes.
ARENA and the FMLN
trapped in quicksand
The predicted decline in the new government’s popularity—warnings that “you’ll see when the disappointment sets in”—has yet to materialize.
What is rather being borne out is the widespread political theme that ARENA and the FMLN remain bogged down in quicksand and the more they move the deeper they sink. Meanwhile other parties have played with greater cunning and are still afloat. One example is the conservative center-right Grand Alliance for National Unity, whose acronym GANA, means “win” in Spanish, which served as the vehicle for Bukele’s presidential candidacy. Another is the National Coalition Party (PCN), the military’s traditional party, which has shown signs of reaching an understanding with the President, especially since the PCN’s Mario Ponce became Legislative Assembly president. Center-left options such as Democratic Change (CD) are also reviving, although some of its old leaders, such as Héctor Dada and Rubén Zamora, who have been critical of Bukele, have now retired from the party. New rightwing options have also appeared, such as the New Times party, founded by young ARENA dissidents, not to be confused with Bukele’s New Ideas movement.
If things don’t change there’s a good likelihood of the victory of New Ideas in the next legislative and mayoral elections (February 2021); at least the former, as municipal election results can vary significantly. This is triggering fears
of the government’s turn towards authoritarianism, especially given the absence of a decent, honest opposition, whether of the Right or the Left. But that absence is the opposition’s fault, not the current government’s, however much they criticize it.
Bukele is credible and popular
The Bukele government continues to enjoy credibility. A survey by the University Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP) in late 2019, just a few months after Bukele’s arrival, showed favorable numbers for its management and an optimistic perception of the future, especially in the area of citizen security. In 2014 only 14% said the country was doing “better” and an even lower percentage (7.6%) said so in 2017. In the new poll, 65% said 2019 was “better than 2018.” Whether or not it is true, it’s the majority’s perception, since it is well known that only thing polls reveal is perceptions.
Perhaps it’s precisely this optimism that should be worrying. While not excessive, it could be manipulated by political and economic forces. Even more importantly it could lead to passivity in civil society when the time comes to demand rights. During the 10 years of FMLN government, many of the combative Salvadoran social organizations shelved their demands and actions so as not to undermine the leftist party’s governmental administration, and the result wasn’t positive. A first sign of concern is the fact that neither leadership nor agendas are perceptible in the social movements.
With more sense of security,
the optimism continues
The optimism is based on improvement in citizen security. In that recent IUDOP survey, released in January 2020, almost 70% of the population said they feel safer and attribute it to the Bukele government’s security plans. The President’s confidence rate is almost 50%, outstripping the Catholic Church, the Evangelical churches and the Armed Forces. There are those, however, who remind us that Mauricio Funes, now a fugitive from Salvadoran justice sheltered by Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, also began his mandate in an atmosphere of optimism and people’s confidence.
This perception of greater security contrasts with a decline in the image of the National Civil Police and Police-Army Joint Patrol Forces following accusations of police involvement in what are being called “extermination groups.” According to InSight Crime, last October Salvadoran authorities dismantled one such death squad made up of police agents, including some from elite units, which had reportedly shot dozens of people. Police Director Howard Cotto rejected reports that the institution he heads has motivated the killing of gang members. At least on the surface it would appear that Bukele is operating within the limits of the popularity of hard-hand methods, while those behind the revival of death squads have exceeded it.
A new polarization?
Another important fact from the IUDOP survey is that over three-quarters of the Salvadoran population says it has no political sympathy for or is affiliated with any political party. This response is very striking in a setting dominated for 30 years by ARENA and the FMLN, 20 of them with an ARENA government and 10 with an FMLN one. It begs the question: Where are these two parties’ supporters and activists? Evidently, many of them from both sides ended up voting for Bukele. So political leaders and traditional analysts who criticize Bukele’s government need to rethink their position given the sympathy of plain folk.
Furthermore, 70% of the remaining quarter of the population that does claim political sympathy identifies with Bukele’s New Ideas, while ARENA and the FMLN enjoy only 11% each. These two powerful parties, undisputed representatives of the Right and the Left, have been reduced to minimum expressions, and not because of the political imposition of New Ideas; rather because of the “business” both turned politics into during these 30 years.
If Bukele broke the traditional polarization between ARENA and the FMLN, between Right and the Left, it raises the question: Where do New Ideas and Bukele fit on the spectrum? Taking into account their supporters and voters, as well as some public figures, Bukele and his party took from both sides. Beyond this evidence, the question remains whether this is a new honest way—or at least a more honest way—of doing politics or we are just witnessing the typical start of a new administration that raises hopes then becomes a tragedy cloaked in corruption? Yet another question is whether Bukele will become the magnet for a new polarization, with the traditional parties on one side and New Ideas on the other.
What was the water
crisis really about?
January 2020 will also be remembered for the drinking water crisis in San Salvador’s metropolitan area, one that didn’t result in the usual dismissal of officials for irresponsibility in mishandling water resources.
The water piped into houses in the capital began to be cloudy and bad-smelling. The health ministry said it was still considered drinkable; simply advising that it be boiled first. Apparently, there had been a proliferation of algae in the main water treatment plant, situated about 31 miles north of San Salvador, even though the plant had recently undergone maintenance work that cut off the water supply to the metropolitan area for almost a week.
The government acted quickly to supply houses with bottled water and missed no chance for the standard photo ops of officials distributing it, but a 100% credible report was never presented. Fortunately, an analysis done by the National University, which confirmed the existence of algae, also confirmed the levels weren’t harmful to those drinking it.
Underlying this new water crisis is the struggle over privatizing water, a measure historically linked with big capital avid to see it happen. Bukele’s government has repeatedly said it favors creating a State regulatory body and opposes privatization, but it isn’t out of line to suspect that the January crisis is about demonstrating governmental ineffectiveness and inefficiency to later argue for privatization. Given that this is an age-old fight, especially in the metropolitan area, the central government found an unexpected Achilles heel in the issue, for which it hasn’t finished deducing responsibilities. What side will it come down on?
Luis Antonio Monterrosa is a professor in the Sociology and Political Sciences Department of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University, El Salvador.