El Salvador’s Former Guerrilla – and New Commander in Chief

By Héctor Silva Ávalos


Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren with Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Washington, D.C. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Twenty-two years after participating in the signing ceremony of the UN-brokered peace accord that ended El Salvador’s civil war, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, one of the FMLN’s top guerrilla commanders, was sworn-in as president last Sunday.  The political reforms mandated by the Chapultapec agreement launched the country onto a sometimes tumultuous path toward a new democratic landscape that, at least on paper, included the alternation of power: for 20 years the ARENA party, representing the hard-right, ruled the country; in 2009, moderate Mauricio Funes, a popular TV journalist, and the FMLN established an alliance that took them to the Presidential Palace.  Through the prism of Sánchez Cerén’s recent victory, Funes’s was a transitional government.  El Salvador now begins its first period under the rule of the former guerrilla party that fought an insurrectional war against the allies of Ronald Reagan´s Washington during the last years of the Cold War.

Sánchez Cerén and the FMLN’s challenges are many – a stagnant economy; a private sector not used to a political system that doesn’t respond resolutely to its economic interests; a dysfunctional fiscal system; and one of the worst security situations in the world – with 14 homicides a day, growing gangs, and a reign of impunity inherited from the war years and perpetuated by organized crime’s success infiltrating state and political institutions.

The new leadership will also have to deal with the interests of El Salvador’s most powerful neighbor and ally, the United States.  The Obama administration sent a third-level delegation to Sánchez Cerén’s inauguration, and Secretary of State John Kerry did receive him in Washington before that.  Among the first items on the bilateral agenda is El Salvador’s access to funds in a second compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a $400 million program aimed at bringing fresh money to the underdeveloped and poor coastal areas.  The program is on hold because MCC is not satisfied with the country’s Anti-Money Laundering and Asset Law and because San Salvador has not yet caved to pressure from the U.S. Trade Representative to buy agricultural products – mainly seeds – within the CAFTA region, which would favor U.S. producers.  Washington’s reluctance to work with FMLN officers in law enforcement and security issues is another obstacle.

So far, Sánchez Cerén and his cabinet have tried to play the U.S. relationship smart.  But managing ties is not going to be a walk in the park.  Despite public winks and carefully worded statements, neither side really trusts the other.  But the bilateral connection is important to both.  Roughly one third of all Salvadorans live in the United States, and, in the last several decades, Washington has appreciated El Salvador’s importance in a region where it is losing influence.  The new government has sent a number of signals to Washington by visiting the State Department, engaging in most of the Treasury’s and USTR’s conditions on the MCC compact and launching an early dialogue with the international financial institutions.  But Sánchez Cerén has made it clear that he will also heed El Salvador’s natural allies, albeit for practical rather than ideological reasons.  Just this week, El Salvador requested formal acceptance to Petrocaribe, the Venezuelan economic and financial aid program.  Dealing with violence, insecurity and financial problems will require fresh resources that the government will welcome wherever their origin.  But it also seems possible that the new commander in chief´s patience with Washington’s style of diplomacy – such as pressure tactics to buy American agricultural goods – could be much shorter than that of his predecessors.  

Mexico: Policy on “Auto-defensas” Makes Things Worse

By Steven Dudley*

Photo credit: Pedro Fanega / Flickr / CC BY

Photo credit: Pedro Fanega / Flickr / CC BY

In a few short months, Michoacán’s “self-defense” groups have gone from being the Mexican government’s drunk uncle to being its strategic partner – underscoring what is wrong with the current government’s counterdrug strategy.  The vigilante groups are a multi-headed beast, born from sentiments that range from despair and frustration to opportunity.  Desperate small farmers and shopkeepers created some of the units because they’d been victimized by the “Knights Templar,” a splinter group with deep roots in the drug trade that has literally raped and pillaged their villages.  Frustrated agricultural and mining interests have funded their own “self-defense” groups.  And opportunistic rival criminal groups also seek to kill the Knights to take new, or reclaim old, territory.   Mexico’s federal and local governments are to blame for this chaos.  Drug-fueled corruption, ineptitude and lack of political will on the federal level have left the locals to fend for themselves, often leaving local politicians and security forces to align with the criminal interests, including the Knights Templar.

The federal government’s feeble and disjointed attempt to address the vigilantism is leading only to more confusion, chaos and most likely bloodshed.  In late January, it created a framework that legalized the organizations, placed then under one moniker – Rural Defense Units – and asked members to register themselves and their weapons.  But the framework makes no mention of their purview, jurisdiction, proposed length of service, nor does it clarify controls on their automatic and other sophisticated weaponry, which, under current Mexican law, requires military authorization.  Some of the groups accepted the government offer, including those that rode into the Michoacán city of Apatzingán last weekend to “take back” the city from the Knights.  More importantly, other vigilante groups have flat out refused the government.  Further fueling chaos, the federal government is applying a far harsher, more statist approach in the neighboring state of Guerrero, dispatching troops to stop the spread of “self-defense” groups that may have a longer history and more justifiable constitutional mandate than those in Michoacán.

Vigilante violence will undoubtedly continue to grow, as it becomes clearer that the federal government has no idea how to deal with it.  It is failing to address one of the root causes of the problem: illegal drugs have led to spectacular earnings that have made corrupting local and national officials easier; given criminal groups access to better training and weaponry to challenge the state and rivals; and created local, powerful criminal economies where perhaps they did not exist in the past.  In fact, no government official, vigilante group or other party in this conflict has even mentioned illegal drugs.  One vigilante told InSight Crime’s Mexico correspondent flat out: “We’re not against drug trafficking; we’re against organized crime.”  The causes of the violence are complex, but one cannot be addressed without addressing the others, and the Mexican government’s disjointed response is not pushing the country any closer to a solution.

* Steven Dudley directs InSight Crime and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Mexico’s Situation after Peña Nieto’s First Year at the Helm

By Manuel Suárez-Mier

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

After Enrique Peña Nieto’s first full year in office, the situation and prospects for his country are mixed. On the positive side, his structural reforms encompassing labor, education, taxation, finance, telecommunications, anti-monopoly and energy – the crown jewel – are unexpected and sweeping successes. Three previous administrations had failed to get such reforms through Congress in the preceding 18 years. The reforms, the success of which will depend on the implementing legislation, have attracted worldwide attention, generating a “Mexican moment,” and increasing substantially the flows of foreign direct investment.

On the dark side, however, Peña Nieto’s performance has been less than stellar regarding the pacification of the country from the violent onslaught over the last decade at the hands of bands of narcotraffickers. He changed the emphasis of the war on drugs from the stubborn fixation that it had in the Calderón administration (2006-2012), and he altered the terms of cooperation with the United States on this issue.  But he has been unable to stem the violence, which in some cases has worsened.  In the southwestern state of Michoacán, a new actor has emerged besides the narco and government forces: self-appointed groups of armed citizens that are battling the criminals while denouncing the government’s ineffectiveness.  Simply declaring victory in the war on drugs and moving on to other issues has not stemmed the violence.  Many observers believe that Peña Nieto’s security team is not up to par and that tolerating, and more recently collaborating, with the paramilitary groups is not the solution to the problem – and indeed will only worsen it down the road.  Also the terms of cooperation with the United States on the war on drug trafficking organizations are not clear yet.

It is too soon, of course, to declare victory on the reform front since the way these changes are implemented will determine their success or failure. We have had “Mexican moments” in the past, especially after NAFTA was approved in 1994, just to see them wiped out by government mismanagement and crises. But it is also too early to declare the final failure of the campaign to pacify the country since there have been some bright spots – notably in Ciudad Juárez. Coordination among security agencies has improved and the gendarmerie, a special rural federal police force that would replace the army in restoring the peace where violence rages, is being trained and will begin operations with 5,000 men in July.  But the appearance of paramilitary “self-defense” groups and the apparent alliance that they are forging with the federal government are deeply troubling considering what we have seen in other latitudes – especially Colombia – when such groups thrived. These contradictory trends explain why many people are enthusiastic about Mexico’s economic future while Peña Nieto’s approval ratings remain soft after a year of slow growth, tax increases, and unabated violence.

*  Manuel Suárez-Mier is Economist-in-Residence and Director of the Center for North American Studies in American University’s School of International Service.

Might the U.S. Release Simon Trinidad?

By:  Antoine Perret, CLALS Research Fellow

Simon Trinidad mug shot | by US Government | public domain

Simon Trinidad mug shot | by US Government | public domain

In the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, the guerrilla negotiators have requested the release of FARC leader Simon Trinidad – nom de guerre of Ricardo Palmera – who is imprisoned in the United States.  Publicly available information gives no hint that the Colombian government has officially asked Washington to consider the question, but – since the release of FARC members in prison in Colombia is not off the table – Washington should be prepared to consider the possibility.

Simon Trinidad was captured in Quito, Ecuador, in January 2004, extradited to the United States and put on trial for conspiracy to engage in drug trafficking and to hold hostages.  Each of four trials for drug trafficking ended in a hung jury, and eventually those charges were dropped.  In 2007, however, he was convicted for an alleged role in conspiring to kidnap three U.S. contractors taken hostage after their counterdrug surveillance plane crashed in 2003.  Trinidad is serving a 60-year-sentence in Colorado at the United States’ only federal “supermax” prison, with no prospect of parole.

The U.S. State Department has publicly stated that President Obama will not grant Trinidad parole, as the FARC requested, to participate in the negotiations.  But the question of his release if the Colombian government requests it within a peace settlement remains pending.  If such a request arises, the U.S. government’s lawyers will certainly report that the protocol (II) additional to the Geneva Conventions states that “at the end of hostilities, the authorities in power shall endeavor to grant the broadest possible amnesty to persons who have participated in the armed conflict, or those deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the armed conflict, whether they are interned or detained.”  The words “shall endeavor” obviously do not imply obligation, but by establishing that states should release members, they create a political dynamic that could drive a decision giving a useful push to resolving Colombia’s six-decade conflict. 

Colombia: Giving Peace Talks Another Try

Photo by: ideas4solutions | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander “Timochenko” announced this week that they have agreed to hold “direct and uninterrupted” negotiations beginning in Oslo as early as next month to “put an end to the conflict as an essential condition for the building of a stable and durable peace.”  Press reports suggest popular support for the talks, despite criticism from former President Álvaro Uribe and his allies in Bogotá and Washington.  U.S. Representative Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the news “gravely disappointing.”  The role of Cuba and Venezuela in the preliminary talks and Havana’s future hosting of the post-Oslo phase of negotiations have particularly rankled Cuban-American legislators.  State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States “would, of course, welcome any efforts to end the hemisphere’s longest-running conflict and to bring about lasting peace in Colombia.”

Santos has stated that the time is right to start talks, although he has emphasized that the government “will not make any concessions on the military side” and that military operations “will continue with the same intensity.”  Observers note the conditions are indeed different from when previous efforts foundered.  The FARC leadership has been weakened considerably, and the group’s ideological grounding and foreign support have evaporated.  The FARC apparently feels that the security of demobilized combatants – a longtime concern – will not be compromised even though demobilized paramilitaries could very well try to hunt them down.  Timochenko said the FARC “come[s] to the table without grudges or arrogance,” and the group issued a “Video for Peace” with a rap song urging support for talks – signs of confidence in the process not seen previously.

The State Department’s statement welcoming the talks was positive but general.  Santos’s decision puts Washington on the spot – of which the sniping reflected in Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen’s remarks is just one part.  Sitting on a massive U.S. investment in the military option and espousing similar programs against narcotics traffickers in Central America, the Obama Administration may be reluctant to go significantly beyond rhetorical support for the talks.  Cuba and Venezuela, whose influence over the independent-minded FARC has often been tenuous, are a moderating force, but Washington may be loath to acknowledge their value in a peace process.  Santos has little choice but to take the FARC’s sincerity at face value for now, but he surrenders little leverage in the current configuration.  The FARC may be cynically calculating that it can benefit from the sort of demobilization that the rightwing paramilitaries had – reaping benefits for commanders and troops, and then re-mobilizing as a newly configured force.  After all, the bandas criminales – BACRIMs – marauding through parts of rural Colombia today are essentially paramilitaries without the ideological and political overlay of the past.  Whereas the truce between former President Uribe and the paramilitaries had support from the Bush administration, it will be telling to see whether the Obama administration accepts what’s needed for a serious peace effort with the FARC, such as an expensive demobilization plan, launched by a Colombian president with stronger democratic credentials.

NOTE:  This is a corrected version of an article originally posted on September 7, which incorrectly characterized the State Department’s position on the talks.  We regret any confusion the inaccuracy may have caused.

FARC Activity

A French journalist has become the latest victim of Colombia’s internal conflict.  The French Foreign Ministry announced that journalist Romeo Langlois was kidnapped by leftist rebels last Saturday following an armed raid on Colombian troops who were attempting to dismantle cocaine laboratories.  Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón told reporters that Langlois had been wounded in the arm during the attack, which left a police officer and three soldiers dead.  Langlois had been traveling with the army to film a documentary about illegal mining and Colombia’s notorious drug trade.  This attack indicates that the FARC, though severely weakened after decades of armed conflict, are still very much a powerful force to be reckoned with.  Analysts suspect that this latest action, coming after a declaration to end kidnappings in February, is a message to President Juan Manuel Santos, who has refused to negotiate with guerrilla leaders.