A former Marxist guerilla leader whose party reportedly has ties to Venezuela’s socialist government and drug traffickers is poised to be El Salvador’s next president.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a top leader of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, nearly garnered 50 percent of the votes in El Salvador’s presidential elections on Sunday. He appears set to win a runoff next month against Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) party leader Norman Quijano, who won almost 39 percent of Sunday’s vote.
Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration and assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs under Ronald Reagan, said in an interview that Sanchez Ceren is from the "hardest-line elements of the FMLN." He said Jose Luis Merino, Sanchez Ceren’s "right-hand man," has ties to narcotics traffickers in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
While there is still a chance that Quijano could collect votes from the supporters of other candidates in the initial elections, Abrams said it would not be easy.
"It’s going to be very difficult," he said. "The drug traffickers are in a position to spend a lot of money on the runoff."
Sanchez Ceren was a rural teacher before he rose through the ranks of FMLN’s rebel leadership during its 12-year civil war with U.S.-backed conservative governments in the 1980s and '90s. More than 75,000 died in the conflict.
The Arena party held control of the presidency for two decades after the civil war until FMLN won the 2009 elections with Sanchez Ceren as vice president. FMLN has boosted its popularity by advocating welfare policies such as pensions and free school supplies.
However, critics say FMLN’s rule has been marked by a rise in poverty and rampant corruption. They also say a Sanchez Ceren administration would likely grow the influence of Venezuela’s socialist government and drug traffickers in the country.
FMLN leader Merino, reportedly a close adviser to Sanchez Ceren, sits on the advisory board of ALBA Petroleum’s branch in El Salvador. The Venezuelan state-owned company has provided subsidized gasoline to local FMLN officials to bolster public support.
Additionally, Spanish newspaper ABC.es reported in December that Merino participated in drug trafficking negotiations mediated by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The newspaper cited an email obtained by anonymous intelligence sources, which revealed an operation somewhere along the Venezuelan-Colombian border involving FARC and the Italian mafia.
The State Department called El Salvador "a major transit country for illegal drugs destined for the United States" in a 2013 report.
Although a truce between El Salvador’s MS-13 and 18th Street gangs reduced the country’s murder rate by more than 40 percent in 2012, concerns persist about violent crime and drug trafficking.
About 40 percent of El Salvadorans live in poverty, and a significant portion of the country’s economy relies on money sent home by migrant workers in America.
Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview that the near first-round win by Sanchez Ceren was "a remarkably dangerous development."
Noriega said Sanchez Ceren is an "anti-U.S. radical who committed barbaric acts against his own people during a bloody civil war."
He also led a FMLN march four days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks where participants blamed U.S. policies for the al Qaeda operation and burned an American flag.
Noriega said U.S. officials should use all the tools at their disposal to discourage the development of a permissive environment for drug trafficking in the country, such as visa and asset bans.
"It just boggles my mind that Merino—with every thing we know about him—has never come under any of these sanctions that would make it very clear that the U.S. supports the rule of law," he said.
The Obama administration should also be more attentive to negative trends toward authoritarianism in the region after democratic gains in the 1990s, Abrams said.
"In Nicaragua and El Salvador [the administration] seems to be doing nothing," he said. "In South America it seems to be doing nothing to try and protect people who support democracy."
The State Department has yet to comment on the first round of El Salvador’s elections.