A new report by Salvadoran news site El Faro reveals that conservative presidential candidate Norman Quijano made overtures to the country’s most powerful street gangs during his campaign, even as he lashed out at the ruling FMLN for facilitating a truce between them.
As El Faro reports, Quijano instructed members of his campaign to reach out to leaders of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs responsible for the ongoing but shaky ceasefire. The message, according to an intermediary approached by Quijano and to various figures in his ARENA party, was that the candidate’s promises to eradicate gangs and public condemnations of the truce were not accurate reflections of his position. If victorious, he would support a greater emphasis on violence prevention and reintegration programs, like the ones currently complementing the gang talks.
The revelation makes Quijano look hypocritical and, for FMLN supporters, has delicious irony. It not only clashes with his “tough on crime” image, but also with the rhetoric used by ARENA supporters in the U.S., who took to op-ed columns in the lead-up to last month’s runoff election to warn that the FMLN’s “criminal ties” could turn the country into a “gang haven.”
But the El Faro report is significant for other reasons. The news site claims that Quijano was motivated to approach the gangs because their support for his rival was intimidating potential ARENA voters. Ahead of the election, gang members were allegedly bullying individuals into voting for the FMLN, reportedly even stealing the identification cards of some Salvadorans who might vote for the conservative candidate. If this was halted, in exchange the gangs would receive an open line of communication with Quijano’s government on security policies if he won the election.
Ultimately, these advances may have contributed to Quijano’s improved performance in the polls in the second round, which he lost to President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren by just 0.22 percentage points.
If true, the news adds weight to the arguments of individuals like security analyst Doug Farah, who have consistently warned that the truce provides gangs with an opportunity to deepen their political influence. If voter intimidation and the risk of an increased homicide rate are all that is needed to gain concessions from authorities in in El Salvador, the country’s democracy is in dire straits.
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