El Salvador’s purportedly moderate new president met this week with two Cuban spies convicted in the United States, raising questions about his willingness to work with U.S. officials on anti-gang and anti-drug efforts.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren met with the spies as well as Cuban President Raul Castro on the communist island, according to a Salvadoran news outlet. The two men, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez (no relation), were members of the "Cuban Five" that were convicted on charges of conspiracy and espionage in the United States and later released to Cuba.
The visit received scant media coverage but could be a sign that the new president will govern as more of a hardline leftist. Ceren, a former Marxist guerilla leader in El Salvador, promised to govern as a moderate before narrowly winning the presidential election in March.
The other three members of the Cuban spy ring are still serving prison terms in the United States. One of them, Gerardo Hernandez, was linked to the deaths of four Cuban exiles in 1996. The exiles were pilots in the Brothers to the Rescue group that aided thousands of Cuban rafters fleeing the island.
Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview that Sanchez Ceren’s pledge to work together with the United States as a moderate leader now appears to be "pretty hollow."
"He’s also sort of aligning himself with a failed [Cuban] model obviously in terms of economic policy and totalitarianism, and unrelenting hostility to the United States," Noriega said. "It bodes very ill for where he wants to take El Salvador."
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on Sanchez Ceren’s visit to Cuba and referred the Washington Free Beacon to the Salvadoran government. "We continue to work with the government of El Salvador on our many shared interests, including regional security," the spokesperson said.
The direction of El Salvador’s government has important implications for U.S. security.
El Salvador is "a major transit country for illegal drugs headed to the United States from source countries in South America," according to the State Department’s 2014 report on international narcotics control. Illicit drug shipments cost American taxpayers about $193 billion in 2007 for the health care and criminal justice systems, the latest data available.
El Salvador’s violent gangs control some of the narcotics trafficking. One of them, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), has become a transnational criminal group with about 10,000 members located in 42 U.S. states. Federal agents last year arrested 158 members of the gang wanted for murder, sexual assault, robbery, kidnapping, and drug trafficking in the United States, among other offenses.
Sanchez Ceren’s political party, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), has close ties to the country’s gangs, according to government documents and recordings leaked to the media earlier this year. Former FMLN President Mauricio Funes reportedly promised cash payments and special privileges for imprisoned gang members in exchange for political support.
The FMLN rebel group became a political party after fighting in El Salvador’s bloody civil war in the 1980s, while Salvadoran immigrants fleeing the war formed MS-13 in Los Angeles.
Noriega said El Salvador runs the risk of becoming a "second narco-state" after Venezuela if Sanchez Ceren creates a permissive environment for the gangs and drug traffickers.
Several Venezuelan government and military officials have known links to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a rebel group and one of the world’s largest cocaine traffickers. Sanchez Ceren has previously been pictured with senior FARC leaders.
"When you see the alliance between the Sanchez Ceren government, the narco-traffickers form Colombia and Mexico, and the gangs, it’s really I think going to accelerate in a dramatic way the gang threat here in major American cities," Noriega said.
Additionally, the FMLN has adopted "rotten economic policies" in the past few years that could further fuel corruption and gang violence, he said. Increased social spending under Funes only added to the country’s public debt and failed to reduce poverty.
The country receives about $4 billion annually in remittances from Salvadorans in the United States.
Sanchez Ceren visited with Pope Francis on Friday at the Vatican. He will formally take office in June.