Tuesday, April 22, 2014

El Salvador’s Gangs Are a Political Force

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.

News Briefs
  • Over the weekend, the New York Times published an article on the State Department’s interest in “mesh networks,” small-scale separate internet networks designed to provide web access to users seeking to avoid government surveillance. The paper mentioned that the USAID has allocated money to start such a network in Cuba, although the Miami Herald reported yesterday that a USAID spokesperson said that the program “is not operational” and that the grant is under review.
  • In today’s NYT, columnist Richard Cohen argues that the U.S.-Brazil relationship is perplexing given the two countries’ shared democratic values and cultural similarities, which he characterizes as a “can-do appetite for the future.” Cohen even goes so far as to describe Brazil as “a kind of tropical United States,” and is puzzled by its discrepancies with U.S. foreign policy, a problem he believes is compounded by a lack of political will on both sides.
  • Venezuela’s El Nacional reports on the status of dialogue between the government and opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition (MUD). The two sides have not met since agreeing to a general outline for talks last week, and the weekend saw renewed protests in the capital city of Caracas. According to the paper, the MUD is insisting that the joint truth commission to be tasked with investigating abuses in recent weeks not be chaired by lawmakers, as the government has suggested.
  • In accordance with the controversial communications law passed in Ecuador last year, El Universo and La Hora reported last week that 31 civil society organizations in the country will now be subject to the regulations of of the Communications Ministry.  The list includes the Ecuadorean Association of Newspaper Editors (AEDEP), among other media groups, and their reclassification has come under fire from critics who say it amounts to a clear violation of the rights to freedom of association and expression.
  • On Saturday, the deadline for illegal miners in Peru to participate in government efforts to bring them into the formal economy expired with only limited accomplishments. The Wall Street Journal notes that at least 40,000 of an estimated 110,000 illegal miners ignored the deadline, a fact which El Comercio reports has forced authorities to extend the timeline of the process even as the government insists that it has so far been a success.
  • In a Monday interview with the WSJ, Colomban President Juan Manuel Santos again stressed the need for an alternative to the war on drugs, asking: "How do I explain to a peasant in Colombia that I have to put him in prison for growing marijuana when in Colorado or in Washington state, it's legal to buy the same marijuana?" The president also expressed confidence in his chances at re-election ahead of the May vote, even though polls show he may lose if the contest goes to a second round runoff.
  • The New York Times features a report on the United Nation’s failures to tackle the cholera epidemic in Haiti that was started by UN peacekeeping troops. Even as the UN denies that it is legally liable for the damages caused by the introduction of the disease, the international organization has fallen short of its promises to deliver millions of dollars in vaccinations and infrastructure development necessary to contain the outbreak.
  • The AP reports on a controversy brewing in Mexico over new food labeling rules designed to target obesity and diabetes, but which some health experts say could have the opposite effect.
  • In keeping with a transparency reform law passed earlier this year, El Universal reports that a panel of experts has presented the Mexican Senate with the names of 25 individuals deemed capable of serving on the board of Mexico's transparency agency, the Institute of Access to Information and Protection of Data (IFAI). Animal Politico has the full list, of which seven will be selected as commissioners.