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The Political Relevance of Gangs in El Salvador

The approach adopted by former President Mauricio Funes’ administration to combat crime is probably the least popular crime control strategy in Central America’s northern triangle. Salvadorans first learned details of the strategy in March 2012, when news reports suggested that the government of El Salvador had negotiated a drop in homicides with gang leaders who, as a result, were being relocated from the maximum security penitentiary in Zacatecoluca to different, less secure facilities.

Authorities have, since then, offered various explanations for the massive relocation of criminals to less restrictive correctional environments—sometimes accompanied by special concessions, like flat screen TVs and conjugal visits, or benefits to gang members’ families living on the outside.

Funes and his security cabinet deny that the state negotiated with gangs, and say that they merely facilitated a truce between gangs.  However, Luis Martínez, El Salvador’s attorney general, recently revealed that a criminal investigation launched by his office indicates that the government paid gangs to reduce homicides. Moreover, recordings leaked to the press and opposition politicians by a hacker that allegedly feature prosecutors interrogating former public safety officials about government-gang negotiations, expose even more benefits provided to gangs by authorities as part of the negotiation—both inside and outside correctional institutions.

Considering the proximity of Funes’s departure from the presidency and the fact that his political party, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí Liberation Front—FMLN), will remain in office, there is a great speculation about what kind of citizen security approach the new authorities will take, and whether they will continue the previous government’s strategy. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s June 1 inaugural speech did not address Funes’ controversial crime control tactics.

The results of a recent poll released by the Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública (University Institute of Public Opinion—ludop) reveals that 35 percent of Salvadorans think the Funes government’s  anti-crime strategy was a failure and 71.3 percent perceive that crime went up during his tenure.

According to the poll’s findings, 78.9 percent think that the gang problem is worse now than before and 61.4 percent estimate that the gang truce was ineffective in reducing crime. More importantly, 80.1 percent of respondents thought that Sánchez Cerén should adopt a different approach to combat crime, and only 18.7 thought he should continue Funes’ policies.

Looking at these figures, one would believe that Sánchez Cerén or his designated public safety officials would not consider the possibility of continuing to use such an unpopular crime control strategy. However, the situation warrants a more profound analysis into the darker corners of Salvadoran politics.

The interaction between politicians and criminal gangs has intensified during recent years, thanks to the Funes government’s dealings with them. In 2012, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) warned about the transformation of gangs into important actors in Salvadoran politics as a direct consequence of their negotiation with the Salvadoran state. The growing evidence of payoffs to gang members for electoral support suggests that this forecast is now a reality, and that gangs in El Salvador have evolved into more sophisticated criminal organizations that interact with politicians.

During this year’s presidential elections, for example, there were several reports denouncing an alleged link between criminal gangs and the ruling FMLN party, which reportedly leveraged the  gangs’ reputations for violence and territorial control during the elections. In an interview with an online newspaper, a gang member revealed that he and his crew coerced community members to vote for the FMLN and participated as electoral staff the day of the elections to make sure that their threats were taken seriously. There was also a supposed attempt by the opposing political party, the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Republican Nationalist Alliance—ARENA), to reach an understanding with gang leaders and, in doing so, increase its chances of securing a victory for Norman Quijano in the second round of the presidential elections.

Gang members’ territorial influence and disposition towards violence have turned them into coveted assets sought by Salvadoran politicians. The 2015 legislative and municipal elections are of great significance for the FMLN, as they may provide El Salvador’s first real radical leftist government with total territorial and legislative control.

This makes it less probable that the state will discontinue its interaction with gangs. Nevertheless, given the government’s failure to sell such a strategy to the public, government officials may try to take advantage of the presidential transition and drive the state’s link with gangs back to the clandestine place where it was initially conceived.

The political interaction with gangs that characterized the 2014 presidential elections, given the high stakes of the 2015 elections, is most likely to increase—and, as a result, gangs may evolve even further. Their influence and impunity may grow, opening a door to more complex and lucrative criminal ventures.

*Carlos E. Ponce is a contributing blogger for Americas Quarterly. Currently, he is a crime and law enforcement analyst and consultant for CrimCo Consulting & Research, and writes a weekly op-ed column for elsalvador.com. Follow him on Twitter at @cponce_sv.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, El Salvador Gangs

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