A former Marxist guerrilla leader is poised to be El Salvador’s next president after the country’s electoral tribunal validated election results on Thursday.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) held a slim lead of fewer than 7,000 votes over conservative Norman Quijano of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) after the presidential runoff on Sunday. El Salvador’s electoral tribunal unanimously validated those results on Thursday.
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Quijano has lodged a legal challenge to the election and claims there was rampant fraud. The tribunal said it would hold off announcing a victor until it sorted through his challenge.
Jose Cardenas, former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration and an expert on Latin America, said in an interview that "the FMLN was stunned that they almost lost the election, whereas ARENA is stunned that they almost won." Polls before the election showed a double-digit lead for the FMLN.
Sanchez Ceren has said he will reach out to ARENA, but Cardenas said that was "very doubtful" given his history as a member of the FMLN’s hardline faction. Both parties emerged out of El Salvador’s bloody civil war in the 1980s when the rebel guerrillas fought a series of U.S.-backed governments.
Cardenas added that he was concerned about the country’s "polarized political situation."
"I see the next year being one rife with political discord, anemic economic growth, and a violence problem from the gangs," he said. "It presages a very difficult year for the country."
The election will have significant consequences for U.S. interests, including joint cooperation on counterterror, counternarcotics, and anti-gang efforts, Cardenas said.
Government documents and recordings leaked earlier this year implicated the administration of current President Mauricio Funes in a quid pro quo with the gangs. Funes, a member of the FMLN, reportedly promised cash payments and special privileges to imprisoned gang members in return for political support.
One of the gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), has about 10,000 members across the United States and is known for its brutal murders of victims.
El Salvador is also "a major transit country for illegal drugs headed to the United States from source countries in South America," according to a State Department report published this month. Gangs help to facilitate the drug shipments, as well as weapons deals and human trafficking.
One of the most troubling Salvadoran officials is Jose Luis Merino, a close confidant of Sanchez Ceren, Cardenas said.
Merino reportedly manages at least $600 million in payments from ALBA Petroleos, the Venezuela-backed oil company that allegedly helps the FLMN finance its political operations. Reports have also linked him to arms and drug trafficking deals involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Venezuelan government, and the Italian mafia.
Merino, a former Soviet- and Cuban-trained guerrilla commander in El Salvador’s civil war, called the Soviet Union "one of the most just" political systems on earth in a rare 2005 interview. He added that the FMLN was not a "pluralistic" political movement.
Merino has not been sanctioned despite the United States’ designation of the FARC rebels as a terrorist group.
Cardenas said U.S. officials must hold the new Salvadoran government accountable to prevent any "backsliding."
"The U.S. has to remain extremely cognizant of the chances that there will be backsliding—that people like Merino will think they just hit the jackpot and that they are going to bring their nefarious associates closer to the levers of power in El Salvador," he said.
The State Department has remained neutral on the election. A spokesperson told the Washington Free Beacon that "we look forward to working in close partnership with the candidate chosen by the people of El Salvador to be their next president."
Quijano claimed before the runoff that a win by Sanchez Ceren would move El Salvador closer to Venezuela, where a government crack down on protesters led by President Nicolas Maduro has resulted in at least 24 deaths.