On Sunday, March 15 the Communist FMLN (Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front) party defeated the U.S.’s traditional ally, the ARENA party, and took power for the first time in twenty years of democracy.  Stories about the FMLN’s historic candidate, Mauricio Funes, flooded the international press the following Monday morning.  While Funes continues to talk of change, the real story is that the entrenched elites in the FMLN pose real and great national security threats to the United States.  No amount of rhetoric will assuage concerns in the intelligence community that the vice president- elect, Salvador Sanchez Ceren and FMLN party leader, Jose Luis Merino, will strengthen ties with Hugo Chavez, Cuba, FARC terrorists, and Iran.

Merino, who secured Chavez’s petrodollars to increase an FMLN victory, also facilitates arms deals for FARC terrorists. Together with Sanchez Ceren, who marched in the streets of San Salvador on September 15th, 2001 celebrating the news of Al Qaeda’s attack on the U.S., they will surely act as operatives on behalf of Chavez.

These are the men who will have top access to Salvadoran security policy.  Make no mistake; the cadre of the FMLN is overtly anti-democracy and anti-United States.


Mauricio Funes the Moderate

In shaping United States policy toward the newly elected FMLN government in El Salvador, a sharp distinction must be made between President-elect Mauricio Funes and the political party he leads. Initial concerns that Mauricio Funes will take El Salvador immediately leftward are well founded but debatable.  Funes is not an openly pro-Al Qaeda Communist like his vice president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren.  In a country that makes sharp distinctions between Socialism and Communism, he truly has little in common with his newfound party save the desire to rule.  Many of his campaign promises are to maintain ARENA policies.  He has promised not to nationalize industries or oppose dollarization.  He has also promised not to oppose CAFTA.  Funes prefers to be seen as a pragmatist in the category of President Luis Inacio Lula Da Silva of Brazil.  The U.S. should be satisfied if he is able carry out his promises despite his party’s agenda.

To be a “pragmatist” leader in Latin America means that traditional alliances will not interfere with business.  This is a defensible position in some cases.  For example, Funes has said that he will seek stronger commercial ties with China.  However, he also may seek closer relations with Cuba, a long time policy initiative of the FMLN.  When the moderate tendencies of Funes come into conflict with the traditional FMLN agenda, it will be a measure of the power of the office of the President and the popularity of Funes against the traditional power of the FMLN machine.  This is because Funes has no power within the party. He is not on the governing council of his own party, does not control a single party delegate, and does not control party selection.

Whether policy experts believe that Mauricio Funes and the FMLN will do their best to follow the Chavez model or they accept Funes as a moderate, the political climate in El Salvador does not lend itself to a strong leftward shift.  Only about 60% of eligible voters showed up at the poles and among them the FMLN took 51.29% while ARENA won 48.70%.  This means that about 60% of El Salvador’s eligible voters either opposed the FMLN or expressed no opinion.  This is consistent with pre-election analysis, which predicted an FMLN victory that would be based on ARENA’s failure and Mauricio Funes’ centrist image.  It is a perfect alliance for taking power.  Funes could count on the FMLN base and also cover the middle ground.  How this alliance will govern is a different question.  This is because the most unpredictable element is the direction of the power struggle within the party, which will happen behind closed doors.

The election for mayors and the Legislative Assembly was held on January 18th, 2009.  Despite an overall leftward nudge, ARENA won the San Salvador mayoral race for the first time.  ARENA had previously held 34 out of 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly while the FMLN held 32.  The FMLN took a narrow plurality in the National Assembly with 35 seats while ARENA was left with 32.  There are still 11 seats held by a third party that traditionally votes with ARENA and a remaining 6 third party seats.  Having gained ground in the legislature, the FMLN government will be more powerful but significant policy shifts will be difficult and any gains will be hard fought.  The legislative climate lends itself toward compromise rather than a leftist mandate.  Hence, immediate concerns of a power grab in the form of constitutional revisions should be set aside and focus should be placed on strategic losses and intelligence weaknesses that Chavez, Cuba, and Iran may hope to exploit with their operatives in the FMLN.


The FMLN Posture

This most recent election is not only historical because the FMLN took power.  It is also historical because it is the first time the FMLN seems to sacrifice their ideological purity to gain power.  Before the “Funes strategy”, the FMLN uniquely and systematically purged party members who deviated from pure communist ideology.  So, the first important distinction is that the compromise to run Mauricio Funes, as their candidate was a compromise made in order to take power but NOT a compromise of their cherished ideological purity.  They will accept the appearance of an ideological compromise as far as it gains power.  Hence, the FMLN should be expected to act toward the United States as it consistently has and the U.S. should wait and see if Funes is a check on their behavior or a vehicle for it.  With this in mind, U.S. policy makers should begin to consider the implications of FMLN power in El Salvador’s institutions and bureaucracies.  The FMLN bloc in the legislature has strong ties to Cuba, Chavez, and the FARC.  They are hardliners who deserve continued scrutiny.  The face of Mauricio Funes on their party label should not alleviate concerns.

The elephant in the room that U.S. policy makers should not miss (but often do) is that the ideology motivating a state actor is more telling than their actual words.  It is the “grain of salt” that must filter the coming tide of good feelings and diplomatic sweet talk.  Hence, a strong history of the FMLN’s posture toward the United States must be held up as a backdrop behind the dialogue of their new front man.  In February, The Americas Report chronicled the posture and nefarious activities of FMLN leaders Jose Luis Merino and Vice President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren.  Beyond their established patterns of behavior the U.S. must remember that the FMLN is beholden to Chavez for cheap oil and campaign finance.  This is another sign that despite distance created by Funes, the influence of Hugo Chavez is fomenting in El Salvador.


Strategic Concerns

Under the ARENA government, El Salvador has become an important ally in combating drug trafficking and organized crime.  According to the State Department, “El Salvador hosts the International Law Enforcement Academy, which provides training to police, prosecutors and other officials from across the Latin American region.”  In addition, “The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and El Salvador’s National Civilian Police jointly operate the Transnational Anti-Gang unit, which addresses the growing problem of street gangs in both countries. In January 2009, the U.S. and El Salvador signed letters of agreement committing both countries to work jointly under the Merida Initiative to fight crime and drug trafficking.” 1 Furthermore, El Salvador is home to one of the key U.S. strategic Forward Operating Locations used to fight the drug trade.

“This FOL significantly extends the reach of Detection and Monitoring aircraft into the Eastern Pacific, through which over 50 percent of the drugs destined for the United States transits-much of which is comprised of multi-ton cocaine shipments. The U.S. Navy routinely flies P-3 MPA and E-2C AEW out of this airfield. The El Salvador FOL supports the operations of four P-3 MPA-sized aircraft, which focus primarily on monitoring eastern Pacific maritime drug smuggling corridors.” 2

One of Mauricio Funes’ key appointments will be for the Salvadoran Minister of Defense.  The Minister of Defense submits proposals to the President and General Commander of the Armed Forces for promotions, appointments, removals, acceptance of resignations and licensing of members of the Armed Forces.  With a plurality of seats in the legislature and subsequent control of the Defense Committee, the FMLN is now able to place their people in key positions in the Salvadoran Armed Forces that have access to intelligence concerning joint operations with the U.S.  If the FMLN ideologues control this area, there is a danger that anti-drug operations might be vulnerable to an intelligence breach. If that is the case, organized crime and terrorist groups will be able to operate more freely.

In Mid March, Admiral Jim Stavridis stated in a testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is involved in drug trafficking in Colombia and stated that a direct connection exists “between Hezbollah activity and the narco-trafficking activity in Colombia”. At the same time he warned of increased Iranian-backed activity in the continent.  If the U.S. loses control over this important drug-traffic control operation in a country like El Salvador- that Michael Waller, a Center for Security expert called “our staunchest anti-drug ally in the region, outside Colombia”- the situation could be very alarming. Thus, it is crucial for the U.S. to monitor this operation very carefully.

Considering these strategic relationships with the U.S., it is important to remember that the FMLN and its traditional allies are on the wrong side of the drug trade.  If the FARC, for example, needs to send a shipment of cocaine through the Eastern Pacific to pay for the thermo baric grenades purchased in a deal facilitated by an FMLN leader using former FMLN commandos turned MS-13 gang members who are being monitored by the Transnational Anti-Gang Unit that the FMLN government is cooperating with, a conflict of interest seems to emerge.  These intelligence concerns must translate into strong positions of the U.S. State Department.


Chavez and the Iranian Presence

The FMLN victory must also be viewed in the broader matrix of hemispheric security risks created by the geo-political maneuvering of Hugo Chavez.  Chavez has a long track record of using his oil wealth to influence Latin America through leftist FMLN counterparts in other countries.  In recent years, Hugo Chavez has built a sophisticated alliance with Iran whose terror proxy, Hezbollah, already has vast fund raising networks in South America and a history of staging terrorist attacks in the region.  A clear pattern can be seen in Central America where Chavez has funneled money to leftist political parties.  In Panama, an Iranian company owns a shipyard on the Panama Canal.  The Iranian embassy compound in Nicaragua and the number of “diplomats” hosted there include members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.  Iran and Nicaragua have plans for joint infrastructure and energy projects. In addition, Chavista President Zelaya of Honduras has also received campaign contributions from Chavez and has sent his defense minister to meet with Iranian officials. This growing number of Iranian assets in Central America could be considered as potential staging grounds for future terrorist attacks in light of the two terrorist attacks staged from the Iranian embassy in Argentina in the 1990’s.  There are otherwise no strong commercial or cultural relationships that would account for the growing Iranian presence that clearly follows the trail of Chavez’s influence.

The Obama Administration must not be naïve in its policy towards Latin America.  The continent, and particularly Central America, may well turn into another Afghanistan where drugs, terrorism, and political instability could become a nightmare right in our own backyard.


Nicholas Hanlon is a foreign affairs writer and researcher 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.

Dr. Luis Fleischman is a senior advisor to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC.




[1] “Background Note: El Salvador” Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, U.S. State Department, March 2009, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2033.htm

[2] “Forward Operating Locations” Office of National Drug Control Policy: Fact Sheet, http://www.ondcp.gov/publications/international/factsht/forw_oper_locat.html




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