U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday urged officials in El Salvador to uphold the integrity of votes in the country’s closely contested presidential election.
The runoff election remained too close to call with Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) leading conservative Norman Quijano of the ARENA party by fewer than 7,000 votes.
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Both parties emerged out of El Salvador’s bloody civil war in the 1980s. Sanchez Ceren was a former leader of the Marxist guerrillas that fought the U.S.-backed government in the war.
ARENA, also known as the Nationalist Republican Alliance, has raised several concerns about the electoral process, including campaigning by current President Mauricio Funes of the FMLN and the lack of representation for ARENA on the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal. ARENA officials claim Quijano actually has a slight lead and point to "hundreds" of fraudulent voting records.
El Salvador’s electoral tribunal announced on Tuesday that representatives from the attorney general’s office and both parties would help supervise the final counting of votes. The recount could last until Thursday or Friday.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) called for a transparent recount process in a statement.
"The electoral process must be respected and upheld in order to avoid manipulation of votes influenced by outside actors involved in corruption, gang activities, and drug trafficking," she said. "With the reported election results being close, each vote must be counted in a transparent manner so that El Salvador is governed in a democratic manner by respecting human rights and promoting individual liberties."
Observers say the outcome of the election will have important ramifications for U.S. interests.
El Salvador has become a "major transit country for illegal drugs headed to the United States from source countries in South America," and violent gangs in the country facilitate the smuggling of drugs and weapons, as well as human trafficking, according to a report published this month by the State Department.
Funes and the FMLN have come under fire after documents and recordings implicated his administration in a controversial gang truce. Imprisoned gang members reportedly received privileges and payments in exchange for political support.
One of those gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), has thousands of members across the United States and is known for its brutal murders of victims.
The United States provides Salvadoran police with training, equipment, vehicles, and communications to assist anti-gang and counternarcotics efforts.
The FMLN’s ties to Venezuela have also become a key issue in the runoff election.
Critics of the FMLN say a victory by leftist Sanchez Ceren would move El Salvador closer to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Maduro’s socialist government has been widely condemned for a crack down against protesters in the last month resulting in at least 20 deaths.
Jose Luis Merino, a close confidant of Sanchez Ceren, advises ALBA Petroleos, the Venezuelan-backed oil company that provides at least $600 million in subsidized gasoline to FMLN mayors and funds for the party’s political operations.
Merino, also a former Soviet- and Cuban-trained guerrilla commander in El Salvador’s civil war, has reportedly helped negotiate arms and drug trafficking deals for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Merino has not been sanctioned under U.S. counternarcotics laws despite the designation of FARC as a cocaine trafficker and terrorist group by the United States.
Jose Cardenas, former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration and expert on Latin America, previously told the Washington Free Beacon that U.S. officials should be paying more attention to Merino’s shadowy operations.
"We’re trying to go forward on counternarcotics cooperation, counterterror cooperation, anti-gang cooperation, and then at the same time you have a fellow like Jose Luis Merino gallivanting around El Salvador with historic ties to people working the other side of the street," he said. "That’s something we shouldn’t have to put up with."
Sanchez Ceren has pledged to expand the FMLN’s popular social programs, including free milk for children and school supplies. However, critics say the FMLN’s policies have only increased public debt and failed to boost economic growth or reduce poverty.
The country heavily relies on more than $4 billion in remittances sent home by Salvadorans living in the United States.