By Nicholas Hanlon

The Communist guerillas of El Salvador have not changed their ideology since the birth of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in 1980.  What they have changed is their image and their electoral strategy.  Mauricio Funes is their new “made-for-television” 2009 presidential candidate who has created an image of moderation under the moniker of “change”.  On March 15 he will run against Rodrigo Avila of the conservative pro-US National Republican Alliance (ARENA).  The man behind Funes is Salvador Sanchez Ceren, former terrorist guerilla, hardcore communist, and the vice presidential candidate of Funes.  José Luis Merino is another dominant figure in the FMLN who is surely more powerful within the party than Funes and will likely be implicated in illegal arms deals with FARC terrorists by the ghost of Raul Reyes.  The idea that Ceren and the FMLN will change their stripes for Mauricio Funes has been sold to the Salvadoran electorate.  If Funes sustains his lead in the polls, the FMLN will be in power for the first time since the end of the civil war in 1992.  It is more likely that the men behind Funes, the traditional communists in the FMLN, will wield true power.  What is more, they will bring with them the networks of Hugo Chavez’s growing anti-US axis.

Mauricio Funes is overt about his image strategy having said; “The main challenge we face is convincing the public, especially the undecided, that my presence isn’t just a formality, that I haven’t merely arrived to apply varnish on the image of the FMLN.” “We must convince the public that the party has moderated.”[i] Funes believes that, as a moderate outsider with little resemblance to the FMLN, he can act as president of El Salvador while simultaneously reforming his new found party with its old-guard hardcore leader as his vice president.  If that is Funes’ plan, it might be preferable to show that he can reform the party before giving it the keys to the castle.  As a former television journalist and CNN reporter, Funes has a keen sense of symbolism. He has won considerable credibility with no military or Communist background.  Almost every story about him details the contrast of his well cut suit and white guyabano shirt against a sea of traditional FMLN red flags and army fatigues.  Yet, how can such credibility sustain itself when people ask how Funes can have anything in common with the cadre of the FMLN?  A closer look at Salvador Sanchez Ceren reveals an individual with strong character who has traditionally resisted change.


Salvador Sanchez Ceren

Ceren is not known for accepting “Cambio” in his party.  The 1999 FMLN Presidential candidate and reformer Facundo Guardado criticized the historic leaders of the FMLN for being too communist.  One of these leaders was Salvador Sanchez Ceren, whom, in turn, criticized Guardado for promoting social democratic politics and for not standing firmly against neo-liberalism.  Ceren’s camp won and Guardado’s followers were expelled from the party.  Yet, polls in El Salvador now suggest that the electorate is willing to accept the proposition that the FMLN will moderate their views for Funes.  What is the difference between Guardado and Funes?  Guardado genuinely tried to change his party from within before securing the nomination.  Funes on the other hand offers the FMLN a real shot at power having not changed anything.

In November 2008, John R. Thomson, in an article appearing in the Washington Times, wrote a story about Geovani Galeas, “former dedicated militant, radical, socialist guerrilla in the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army)” and former communist guerilla Ernesto Ayala who are currently documenting the 1,200-1,500 assassinations carried out by the FMLN between 1986 and 1990.  They have spent the last year interviewing assassins, family survivors, and have even exhumed graves with up to 30 skeletal remains.  These two former guerillas hope to bring to light the atrocities the FMLN committed against competing resistance movements.

According to Thomson, “The commanding general whose alias was “Leonel Gonzalez”, and who approved every assassination, was none other than Salvador Sanchez Ceren. This is the same Mr. Ceren who is now the vice presidential candidate of the FMLN in El Salvador’s March presidential elections. Sanchez Ceren has long been a top FMLN leader and is considered one of the most orthodox hard leftists in the organization, together with party secretary-general Melando Gonzalez, whose terrorist moniker was “Milton.””[ii] Galeas and Ayala describe in horrid detail the brutality and sadism of the interrogations, assassinations, and murders of their victims.  Their findings are published in the new online newspaper  Funes has been successful at keeping the campaign focused on himself and not on Salvador Ceren. Yet, Galeas and Ayala believe that Ceren will become problematic once scrutiny of his past is brought to light.


José Luis Merino

José Luis Merino is a leading figure in the FMLN.  During the war Merino went by the name “Ramiro Vasquez” when he led the Communist Party’s guerilla contingent.  In El Salvador, he is still often referred to as “Ramiro”.  Ramiro is known for several things.  He was able to negotiate cheap oil for FMLN mayors with Hugo Chavez to win political favor in rural areas.  Merino told El Faro, a Salvadoran online newspaper, that he thought El Salvador should model itself after Chávez’s Venezuela.  He told them that the former Soviet Union had “one of the most just” political systems on earth.  But soon Jose Luis Merino will be best known for the appearance of his code name in one of the emails found on Raul Reyes’ laptop.  Iván Márquez, the FARC guerrillas’ primary contact with the Venezuelan government, said in an email to Reyes that he met two Australian arms dealers “thanks to Ramiro (Salvador).”

“The friends of Ramiro,” writes Márquez, “have everything we need at very favorable prices: rifles, PKM machine guns, Russian Drugunovs with sights for snipers…and missiles. Everything Russian and Chinese made….They have a thermobaric grenade that destroys everything in closed spaces, (like the bombs the gringos use against al Qaeda hiding places) for $800.” Also available, according to the email: the latest Chinese ground-to-air missiles, at $93,000 each.”[iii]

As recently as 2003, Merino had former Santa Ana mayor, Orlando Mena ousted from the party after refusing to renew a $1 million garbage-removal contract with an FMLN front company which was siphoning 15% of the profits to the party.  Merino’s power within the party is as clear as his allegiances and his willingness to do business with enemies of democracy and the United States.  The significance of the nefarious associations and activities of FMLN leaders is not that they were worse than their right wing counterparts during the war.  It is that they continue to subvert democracy in their own country and to nurture anti-U.S. alliances.


United States-Salvadoran Relations

U.S. relations with El Salvador have been good under the ARENA government.  El Salvador benefits significantly from that relationship.  For example, El Salvador is currently a benefactor of President George Bush’s Millennium Challenge Corporation.  Under the compact, El Salvador is receiving $461 million dollars of investment in projects including education, public services, agricultural production, rural business development, and transportation infrastructure. “The largest of the compact’s components, the transportation project, intends to physically unify El Salvador’s Northern Zone with the rest of the country, enabling new economic opportunities for rural households, lower transportation costs, and decreased travel times to markets.”[iv] El Salvador also receives an estimated $4 billion a year in remittances from approximately three million Salvadorans living in the United States.

The ARENA government has been a faithful ally in the war in Iraq and committed troops to Iraq longer than any other South American country.  Even more important for U.S. national security interests is that El Salvador is host to the U.S. Navy’s primary Forward Operating Location (FOL) in Central America which is used to monitor and intercept drug traffic.  Hemispheric security experts tend to agree that as networks between organized crime, terrorists groups, and state sponsorship increase, drug trafficking is a primary financing commodity for all involved.  There follows an expectation that as Latin governments become more Chavez friendly, illegal trafficking roots for all sorts of illicit trade increase.  The importance of FOL’s and their vulnerability is best described by Benjamin Miller.

“These tactical anchors play a vital role in U.S. counter-terrorism and narco-trafficking operations in the region, and are on the verge of collapse. It is definite that the U.S. base at Manta, Ecuador will not be renewed by the Correa government when our lease there expires in 2009. Of the other two U.S. FOLs in the region, it is likely that the one in Honduras will be removed because of their recent turn towards more Chavista like policies.”[v]

It is doubtful that an FMLN government will tolerate the Navy’s FOL which is one of our strongest tools against drug trafficking and terrorism in the region. This is in spite of the fact that current President Tony Saca just renewed the U.S. FOL there for another ten years.

It would not be expedient to overtly threaten relations between the U.S. and El Salvador.  So, Funes has promised to maintain good relations with the U.S. while also courting Hugo Chavez.  Telling everyone what they want to hear and getting away with it is a great way to win an election but the inherent contradiction in such a policy will emerge soon after.  Many in the FMLN elite (like Jose Luis Merino) openly support Chavez.  There is no reason not to show solidarity with a brother of the revolution. Salvadoran voters should know that such loyalties of the FMLN will bear a distinct decline in U.S. relations despite the promises of Mauricio Funes. They should also understand that Daniel Ortega during his run for the presidency made similar promises in neighboring Nicaragua, only to have turned his country into little more than a Venezuelan-Iranian proxy.



ARENA’S Failure

The elections for mayorships and the Legislative Assembly were held on January 18th.  ARENA had previously held 34 out of 84 seats of the Legislative Assembly while the FMLN held 32.  If the current results are upheld then the FMLN can claim a plurality in the National Assembly with 37 seats while ARENA is left with 32.  Having taken the legislature, an FMLN presidency will be consequentially more powerful.  ARENA did, however, win the mayorship of El Salvador’s capital San Salvador for the first time in 12 years.  Yet the overall balance of power in El Salvador is shifting left.  This will certainly be advantageous for Hugo Chavez who often exerts influence in Latin America through National Assembly members.

Much like the Republican Party in the U.S., some experts attribute the leftward impetus to both real failures in the ruling party and the failure to market their own success. According to Jaime Daremblum, “Since 1992, El Salvador’s economy has been growing at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent–twice the Latin American average. The country enjoys one of the best credit ratings in the region, trailing only Chile and Mexico. Between 1991 and 2006, the percentage of Salvadoran households living in poverty dropped from 60 percent to less than 31 percent. Over that same period, extreme poverty fell by two-thirds, from 28.2 percent to under 10 percent.”[vi] Daremblum attributes Funes high poll numbers to the unpopularity of current President Tony Saca, who has simply not impressed the public with either great success or failure.  This is somewhat compounded by the ARENA candidate Rodrigo Avila’s evident inferior charisma (which is no insult to anyone put up against Mauricio Funes).   Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal places ARENA’s eminent loss squarely on the shoulders of President Saca.  O’Grady cites Saca’s failure to provide permits to Pacific Rim Mining Corporation who invested $77 million in one gold mine two years ago.  Not only did Saca fail to capitalize on El Salvador’s mineral wealth but the country will now suffer the cost in litigation and growth opportunity.[vii]


From the Horses’ Mouth

Salvador Samayoa is a member of the National Development Commission and a former FMLN commander.  He believes that Funes has greatly overestimated his ability to tame the FMLN.  ”I don’t think he knows the Frente very well,”[viii] Samayoa said.  FMLN leaders in rural areas where support is assured have found no need to change the party message but some will change their clothes.

“Aristides Valencia, the FMLN’s regional leader in Usulután, sums up the party’s potential division well. A former guerrilla leader, he has reluctantly decided to swap military fatigues for chinos and T-shirts for the duration of the campaign. But his rhetoric harks back to the old era. He explains that his priorities, should he be elected to office next month, will be to make sure that a constitutional amendment saying that no Salvadoran may own more than 245 hectares of land is rigidly enforced.”[ix]

This is perhaps the clearest predictor of the leadership ability of Mauricio Funes.  So far he has persuaded at least one die-hard Communist to change his outfit for the campaign season.  Unfortunately, the consequences of his political savvy have dire long term political implications for El Salvador and the United States.  El Salvador faces serious issues of poverty and gang violence.  It is also one of the most heavily armed citizenries (per capita) in the world.  Yet, the most powerful elements in the FMLN remain purely ideologically driven.  To them, their ideology transcends issues like poverty and violence.  It even transcends the value of human life.  The strength of such ideology has sustained the faithful and powerful of the FMLN for more than 30 years.  The men behind Mauricio Funes are not likely to trade it all in for a moderate Socialist in an expensive suit.


Nicholas Hanlon is a foreign affairs writer and former intern at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Georgia State University and has a BA in Political Science with a concentration in International Affairs and a Minor in French.




[i] El Salvadoran presidential candidate walks line between right and left,, Thursday 8 May 2008

i] John R. Thomson, A November surprise in El Salvador?, The Washington Times, November 9, 2008

ii] Jose Cordoba, Chávez Ally May Have Aided Colombian Guerrillas Emails Seem to Tie El Salvador Figure To a Weapons Deal, Wall Street Journal, pg. A9, August 28, 2008

[iv] El Salvador, Millennium Challenge Corporation,

[v] Benjamin Miller and Nancy Menges, The Russian – Venezuelan Strategic Alliance, The Americas Report,, November 6, 2008

[vi] Jaime Daremblum, Losing El Salvador? Chavez’s friends are poised for victory,  The Weekly Standard, June 18, 2008

[vii] Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Will El Salvador Veer Left?, The Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2008

[viii] Liza Gross, Salvadoran leftist leads presidential race, The Miami Herald,  January 4, 2009

[ix] Guy Adams, Power beckons for El Salvador guerrillas who bit the bullet on violence, The Independent, December 30, 2008


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