El Salvador’s FMLN: Talking Peace While Waging War

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A series of videos showing officials from President Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s administration holding secret negotiations with the country’s principal street gangs prior to taking power have called into question the ruling FMLN’s motives for talking to the gangs in the first place. Were they seeking an end to the gang wars or was it a way to prepare what has become a massive government offensive against them?

In November 1989, leaders from the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) guerrilla umbrella group were negotiating an armistice with the government. Among the insurgent commanders was the man who now serves as president of the Central American nation, Salvador Sánchez Cerén. He and his comrades were seemingly reeling at the time, struggling to come to grips with losing an ideological and financial mainstay, the Soviet Union.

At the same time, the rebels were planning what would turn out to be the largest rebel offensive in a major urban setting during the twelve-year civil war. The incursion surprised the government, which believed that the guerrillas had little fighting power left, especially with the decline of the Soviet Union. A war that had been largely restricted to rural areas burst into El Salvador’s principal city, bringing with it a terrible human cost until the offensive ended three weeks later. 

The story of the 1989 offensive is instructive, especially when considering the videos released in recent months showing members of the FMLN — now in power with President Sánchez Cerén in the presidential palace — negotiating with gangs while they readied their troops for another bloody urban offensive, this time against those very same street gangs. 

Since coming to power in 2009, the FMLN has negotiated a truce between the major gangs under former President Mauricio Funes, and it has launched a war against them under President Sánchez Cerén, who took office in 2014. In between, as the videos show, there were meetings in which deals were discussed, if not fulfilled, and the possibility of a new truce was put on the table. 

In one of the videos, which were published simultaneously in late October by InSight Crime, El Faro and Revista Factum, current Interior Minister Arístides Valencia is seen discussing the potential creation of micro-businesses that would be run by gang members. At one point, Valencia says the start-ups would require an investment of $10 million, which would be provided and overseen by the government. 

“I will manage where we get the funds,” Valencia told the gang leaders. 

The other video, which captured gang members meeting with former Public Security Minister Benito Lara, is more political in nature. The audio quality is poor, rendering much of the video indiscernible. Nonetheless, at one point gang members appear to be discussing the balance of power between the FMLN and its principal political rival, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA). Gang members also complained to Lara that the government was indiscriminately rounding up large numbers of gang members. 

When exactly the negotiations took place remains uncertain, but El Faro said that a separate meeting between Valencia and the gangs was held in February 2014. That meeting, which occurred shortly after the first round of presidential voting, was to discuss how the gangs could help ensure an electoral victory by mobilizing people to vote for the FMLN in the second and final round. 

These videos deal a severe blow to the credibility of Sánchez Cerén, who since taking office has emphatically rejected the possibility of restarting negotiations with the gangs that began under former President Funes in 2012. Those talks resulted in a government-mediated truce between the gangs that lasted from March 2012 until early 2014 and temporarily cut the nation’s homicide rate in half.

That truce was deeply unpopular with the Salvadoran public, however, and Sánchez Cerén has aggressively opposed showing what could be interpreted as leniency towards the gangs. His administration has even arrested numerous individuals involved in the 2012 truce, including Raúl Mijango, a former guerrilla who acted as a principal mediator between the two sides.

But the government’s efforts to distance itself from the former administration’s negotiations with gangs are now seen as hypocritical. Far from refusing to negotiate, at least one FMLN official who would become part of Sánchez Cerén’s cabinet made plain to the gangs that the administration was willing to provide specific benefits in exchange for votes. 

There are even those who suspect that the government’s duplicity ran deeper than that. In recent conversations with InSight Crime, individuals who participated in the gangs’ efforts to mobilize voters have raised the possibility that the government used this process to launch a new wave of crackdowns against the gangs. The interlocutors suggested that the government collected information on the gangs’ infrastructure, its territorial presence and its top leaders in order to facilitate an anti-gang campaign once Sánchez Cerén took office.

It is impossible to verify these statements, as much of what transpired between the two sides during the 2014 election season remains shrouded in uncertainty. The government may have acquired that information via other, more traditional methods, such as intelligence gathering. And for now, there is only the benefit of hindsight. 

But the offensive is having a significant impact, especially on the leadership of the MS13, the more powerful of the gang factions. In 2015, the government initiated an investigation of unprecedented scope into the financial interests of top MS13 leaders. “Operación Jaque” (Operation Check) has targeted motels, bars, taxi companies, and a host of other businesses that authorities say generated “millions of dollars” for the gang’s leadership. While previous operations largely focused on rounding up large numbers of low-level gang members, Jaque represents a much more sophisticated investigation into the MS13’s involvement in legal enterprises.  

This attack on the MS13’s finances has run parallel to renewed efforts to crush the gangs militarily. During the 20-month stretch between January 2015 and August 2016, 694 alleged gang members died during confrontations with security forces. That’s more than one gang member killed per day by police and the military.

The disproportionate number of gang members killed compared to police officers and soldiers has raised concerns that some of these “confrontations” were in fact extrajudicial executions. In order to justify this extraordinary use of force, the authorities are increasingly employing rhetoric used by a country at war, as opposed to one that is confronting a grave public security threat.

“Although some say that we are at war…there is no room for another path,” Sánchez Cerén said in March 2015. 

Although the government continues to operate on a war footing, its past dealings with gangs suggest the current dynamic between the two sides may be more complicated. Indeed, given its history, it wouldn’t be surprising if the FMLN has left open discreet channels of communication with the gangs even as the authorities scale up their all-out offensive against them.  

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