2014 Elections, El Salvador Government, Organized Crime

Crime Continues to Rise in El Salvador

Yesterday, Salvador Sanchez Cerén took office as the new president of El Salvador, becoming the first former FMLN militant from El Salvador’s Civil War to ascend to the presidency.

DSCF0265President Sanchez Cerén’s political victory has not been the glorious triumph many wanted for the former guerrilla leader. The runoff election against the ARENA’s Norman Quijano was surprisingly close, as Sanchez Cerén squeaked out a victory with only 50.2% of the vote. Quijano’s late surge seemed to stem from Salvadorans’ discontent with the lack of security and the failing truce between the country’s two rival gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.

The FMLN and the country’s mood have only soured since the election. In May, the police reported 396 homicides, 170 more than the same month last year, and fingers are being pointing in all directions. Now former President Mauricio Funes recently said recently that political interests “want to give the impression that there is a failed state incapable of facing crime,” meaning that foes of the FMLN want to make the leftist government seem unable to address crime.

Indeed, the State appears helpless in stopping the violence. The gangs have taken steps over the past few years by signing a truce but the government was unable or unwilling to support their efforts. And past administrations and political leaders continually fail to address economic and social equalities, or provide youth with good alternatives. Until they do so, gangs will continue to fill in the gaps left by the stagnant economy and broken families.

President Sanchez Cerén said yesterday during his first speech as President that he would lead a System of Citizen Security. He also said, “improving the security of citizens will require that we work together against organized crime, traffickers, extortion, and all expressions of violence. We will fight delinquency in all its forms, with all legal instruments and tools of the State.”

President’s and politicians have made so many speeches over the years but taken little action. If President Sanchez Cerén is going to promote security and end the country’s violence he will have be willing to take bold and creative measures that set aside politics. Language like fighting delinquency in all its forms and using all legal instruments seems to indicate more of the same Mano-Duro or heavy hand kind of law enforcement, which has never been successful.

Unfortunately, President Sanchez Cerén also seems to be embracing the same neoliberal economic policies that the U.S. government has been promoting since the end of the civil war – creating an export economy and attracting foreign investment. These policies have failed to address the social and economic inequalities that have allowed the gangs to flourish, and in fact made divisions even wider.

Most Salvadorans seem to have pretty low expectations for their new President and his administration, and he has given them little reason to have hope for something new. Salvadoran communities and Diaspora seem willing to support the new administration, but President Sanchez Cerén and his team will have to show a level of creativity and boldness that we haven’t seen yet.

Elections 2012, News Highlights

Election Results and Highlights 2012

Last Sunday, Salvadorans went to the polls to elect mayors and legislative representatives – the first elections since March 2009 when Mauricio Funes became the first opposition candidate to win the country’s Presidency. It was the conservative ARENA party’s turn to celebrate yesterday, winning back control over the Legislative Assembly and a large number of important municipal seats.

According to the Supreme Election Tribunal website, the party totals for the Legislative Assembly are:

  • ARENA: 33 seats
  • FMLN: 31 seats
  • GANA: 11 seats
  • CN: 6
  • PES/CN: 1
  • CD: 1
  • PES: 1
  • Independent Candidates: 0

Despite the clear victory for ARENA, no single party has a simple majority of 43 seats and ARENA will have to depend on GANA or other minority parties to take action. As Tim’s Blog pointed out, it’s always possible that the FMLN, GANA, and CN could form a voting bloc and control the Legislative Assembly. While GANA is a conservative party, there may be political advantage in siding with the FMLN on occasion just to keep ARENA in check.

Sunday night, ARENA officials didn’t seem too worried about uniting with GANA. In 2009 when the FMLN won the Presidency and retained control over the Legislative Assembly, ARENA seemed to have hit rock bottom. In October of that year, however, they expelled ex-President Tony Saca from the party accusing him of rigging the selection process that named Rodrigo Avila as their presidential candidate; as well as conspiring to divide the party through the creation of the well-financed GANA party.  Before the elections, ex-President Saca called on the GANA and ARENA parties to unite for the 2014 elections to ensure victory over the FMLN.

But after making such an incredible comeback on Sunday, ARENA leaders again called Tony Saca and the Areneros who left to form GANA traitors and said they do not need to unite to defeat the FMLN in 2014. And ARENA leaders are already eyeing the 2014 elections. On Monday night, Norman Quijano, who won his second term as the mayor of San Salvador by handily defeating FMLN candidate Jorge Shafik Handal, said on Channel 33 that he is definitely considering running for president. Tony Saca has also indicated that he is interested in running for another term as President. Ana Vilma de Escobar, who was Tony Saca’s Vice President, has also made it clear that she is interested in running for President again – she had aspired to be the 2009 candidate before Avila was anointed. Vilma de Escobar did well on Sunday collecting more votes in San Salvador than any of the other legislative candidates on the ballot.

In addition to losing seats in the Legislative Assembly, the FMLN took a big hit in greater metropolitan are of San Salvador, which is comprised of 14 distinct municipalities. In addition to Mayor Quijano holding on to his office in San Salvador, ARENA candidates won in Mejicanos, Soyapango, Ilopango, Apopa, San Martín, Tonacatepeque y Ayutuxtepeque, as well as Santo Tomas just south of the city. As La Prensa Grafica pointed out yesterday, the population of these former FMLN strong holds is over 984,000. Though the margins of the ARENA victories were tight, they were victories none-the-less.

In Soyapong, the FLMN incumbent Don Carlos “Diablo” Ruíz” lost by a mere 309 votes.  Many have made the joke that ARENA had to perform an exorcism in Soyapongo to get out “El Diablo”.  Others are wondering what will become of the ALBA contracts, whose operations hinge on their partnerships with FMLN municipalities.  The Mayors of Apopa and Soyapongo hold the vice president and secretary positions, respectively.

FMLN spokesperson, Roberto Lorenzana, summarized his party’s losses yesterday during a press conference, saying that ARENA won 2.9% more votes, and took some of their symbolic strongholds – Soyapango, Apopa, and Mejicanos – four legislative seats, and more than 150,000 votes that they got in 2009. He said the party is accepting the results with maturity and responsibility, and will be looking at what lessons they need to take away from the losses.

Maria “Chichilco” Ofelia Navarrete, the former FMLN guerilla featured in the 1990 documentary “Maria’s Story” and current Vice-Minister of Government, said this week that Sunday’s results were a sign that El Salvador’s voters are maturing. She points to several politicians from the FMLN and ARENA who lost offices they’ve held for many years because voters wanted change instead of voting for the same parties and the same people. She sites examples from her home region in Chalatenango. In Pontonico, the FMLN mayor who has held his seat for many years lost by 10 votes to the ARENA challenger. Similarly, in San José Cansaque the ARENA mayor who had been in office for many years lost his seat to the FMLN challenger. She says:

“This means that every day the people are maturing in their democratic development… at times the people get fed up with the same government. The leadership from all parties has to reflect, first on the direction of their internal democracy – this is an urgent call.”

Sunday’s voting was not without complaints. On Sunday, officials closed the polls in two municipalities – San Lorenzo, Ahuachapán and San Miguel Tepezontes, La Paz. In San Lorenzo, the Municipal Electoral Board stopped voting to “protect people’s votes.” One report says that election officials closed the polls because FMLN supporters from other places were trying to vote in San Lorenzo. In San Miguel Tepezontes, opposition parties accused the ARENA incumbent mayor of bringing in voters from other municipalities to vote for him, which is of course of a violation of the election code. Because voting in these communities was stopped, the TSE announced that they will try again this Sunday, March 18th.  Eugenio Chicas, the president of the TSE said that those found responsible for closing the polls could receive up to 10 years of jail time.

In other communities, political parties have not accepted the results of Sunday’s election, claiming fraud. In the municipality of La Libertad, La Libertad, activists from the GANA, ARENA, and PNL parties protested the victory of FMLN-PES incumbent, claiming that he also brought in outsiders to throw the elections in his favor. The margin of victory is almost 700 votes, which would not be an insignificant amount of people to cast fraudulent votes. The ARENA party is also questioning Sunday’s results in other municipalities where they lost seats that they once held. In Nuevo Cuscatlán, La Libertad, ARENA leaders claim that the FMLN challenger won by bringing in outsiders to vote for him, and that they bought off members of the local voting board.

Perhaps the most extreme act on Sunday occurred in San Francisco Menendez, Ahuachapan where vandals broke into the voting center as officials were counting votes and burned the ballot boxes, destroying over 90% of the ballots. The article reporting the incident says that the police and attorney general’s office are investigating and have leads. Others in the community have accused the PDC Mayor Narciso Ramirez of election fraud, saying that he bused in outsiders to vote for him.  Mayor Ramirez has made national news a couple times over the past couple of years. Last October he made news during Tropical Storm 12-E because he was out assisting with the rescue efforts during the extreme flooding when his truck got swept away by the flooding Paz River. The Comandos de Salvamento pulled him and others from the vehicle and got them to safety. In April 2010, the Mayor made national news when he was caught in a shootout over a “business deal” gone bad. Mayor Ramirez was shot three times and three others were killed.

In Pasaquina, La Union, the attorney general has charged three people with electoral fraud. Police caught the men transporting flyers that threatened people going to vote. In Ozatlán, Usulután, officials have charged a man with voting twice.

The municipality of San Fernando, Morazán is going to have to have a run-off. Candidates for the ARENA and GANA parties each received 259 votes, meaning that there is no clear winner. The FMLN and CD parties were not far behind with 236 and 238 votes respectively. The TSE announced that they would hold a runoff after the Semana Santa vacations in April.

Continue to monitor final numbers at the TSE website, or check out the Faro’s all-inclusive time-line for the elections.

El Salvador Government

Some Support (or at least acceptance) for the Supreme Court Ruling on Independent Candidates

Two weeks ago, the Salvadoran Supreme Court handed down a decision that strengthens the right of citizens to directly vote for candidates instead of political parties. Their decision makes it possible for independent candidates to appear on the ballets during legislative elections.  The ruling was initially met with harsh resistance from the Legislative Assembly (see previous blog post), including threats to remove the Chief Justice and a last-minute draft of a constitutional amendment to prohibit independent candidatures.  In the past week, however, respect, if not support, has grown for the Court’s decision as several political leaders have stepped up to acknowledge that the decision must be recognized even if they do not agree with it.

On Monday, leaders from the GANA party said they would not support further action by the legislature to remove Justices from office or reassign them.  Without their votes, other opposition parties in the Legislative Assembly lack the simple majority required to pass a law. “We are not interested in removing or dismissing any government employees,” said party leader Nelson Guardado.  At the same time, Guardado affirmed that the party still sought to amend the Constitution to prevent independent candidatures (elfaro.net).  The change in position shows that while the party still disagrees with the Supreme Court’s ruling and hopes to reverse it, they are seeking less confrontational means to do so.

Eugenio Chicas, president of the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), later issued a call for all concerned parties to respect the Court’s decision even if they disagreed with it.  “The resolution might seem controversial, but it was handed down by the Court and, as such, it is not up for discussion, because it is an [established] sentence and one has to respect the Court’s decisions,” said Chicas in an interview with La prensa gráfica.

On Tuesday Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, stated that he remains opposed to the Court’s decision.  Funes argued that independent candidatures could give organized crime an increasingly powerful role in elections.  “Criminal organizations would be perfectly able to sponsor a candidate and support him all the way to the Legislative Assembly, and that person, once in the Legislative Assembly, would not represent the people who voted for him, but instead the criminal organization that financed his campaign,” said the President.  Funes did not take a stand one way or the other on whether the Legislative Assembly should take action against the justices of the Supreme Court as a retaliation move, or the proposed amendments to the Constitution.  He also acknowledged the need for greater accountability within parties and asserted his support for legislation that would make party fundraising more transparent as a “control mechanism” (elsalvador.com).

Independent candidatures are already allowed in several Latin American countries, including Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, and Peru.  They are often seen as a fresh alternative when entrenched political parties fail to respond to voters’ needs.  Often, however, they face more obstacles than leading party candidates in order to reach the same levels of success, including the signatures needed to appear on the ballot and the funds required to run a successful campaign.  Because of these obstacles, the strength and influence of independent candidates varies widely from country to country.  Despite electoral success or lack thereof, independent candidates can often increase transparency and accountability in the democratic election process.

Without the necessary votes in the Legislative Assembly to remove justices, the opposition is running out of options to reverse the decision.  What initially seemed like a strong front against the Court’s ruling has lost substantial energy and officials and politicians take increasingly conciliatory positions rather than seeking a fight.  This means that the decision will most likely stand, at least for the 2012 municipal and legislative elections.  Although the Legislative Assembly is still trying to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the Court’s decision, any such proposal would not take effect until it received two-thirds approval from the 2012-2015 Assembly.  That Legislative Assembly, however, could potentially have new members elected as independent candidates in 2012, making passage of the amendment increasingly difficult.

El Salvador Government

Salvadoran Legislative Assembly and Supreme Court debate the Election Laws

On July 29, the Legislative Assembly and the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court began openly debating election reforms.  The Supreme Court issued a ruling that struck down clauses of the Election Code that required candidates to be members of a political party in order to run for office in the Legislative Assembly.  In the same ruling, the Court also said that the closed lists that political parties currently use on election ballots are unconstitutional.  Instead, the Court said, voters must be able to vote for individual candidates from each party.

The Court stated that sections of the Electoral Code were unconstitutional because they diminish voter autonomy and effectively eliminate direct elections, which is a right protected by Article 78 of the Salvadoran Constitution. Warned in advance of the Court’s impending decision, the Legislative Assembly passed several constitutional reforms, one of which completely banned independent candidates from participating in municipal and Legislative. The last minute reforms, some of which were passed at 1 am the night before the Court published its decision, were clearly intended to create conflict with the Supreme Court.

The Court found that the current system of electing Legislative Assembly representatives (diputados) unconstitutional because citizens vote for a party and not individual candidates. Following an election, the leaders of the party that received the most votes chooses the representatives. The judges argue that because citizens can only vote for a party and not a candidate (the ballot actually has the logos for each of the parties and not the names of a candidate), the system violates their right to direct elections. The decision will take affect immediately, long before the 2012 legislative elections, during which citizens will vote for specific candidates and not political parties  for the first time. The names of presidential candidates and municipal officials already appear on ballets, so the decision will not affect those elections. The Judges said that they hope their ruling will bring candidates closer and more accountable to voters by decreasing the influence of the political parties. They also requested that the Legislative Assembly rewrite sections of the Electoral Code dealing with independent candidates to save El Salvador from a legal vacuum on the issue.

Immediately after the decision was announced, leaders from the FMLN and ARENA parties met with Judges to persuade them not to sign the decision. According to elfaro.net, the Judges refused and the party leaders threatened to remove the Chief Justice from Court – one of the strongest powers the Constitution grants the Legislative Assembly. Other politicians, including President Mauricio Funes, brushed off the threat as unlikely.

Since the ruling was handed down it has received criticism from across the political spectrum.  The Legislative Assembly has taken action to prevent it from ever taking effect and threatened to take even stronger measures, including removing multiple Justices from the bench.  On August 1, the FMLN party (which currently holds the presidency) questioned the decision, particularly as it relates to the integrity of political parties in elections, and worried that the Court overstepped its bounds in issuing such a ruling.  Officials from other parties have not taken a clear position but seem tentatively critical of the ruling. Instead they are waiting for the Court to sign the decision and officially send it to the Legislative Assembly before staking out their positions. President Funes has asked for prudence and sensitivity as the Judicial and Legislative branches face off. He has also acknowledged that the laws governing elections are in need of improvement and clarification.  He stated, “I am not going to judge whether the decision of the Supreme Court is advisable or not, but it is a ruling that has to be observed by the Legislature or [the Assembly] would be in contempt of court.” (La prensa gráfica).

One concern over the Court’s ruling is that making legislative elections more direct could allow for greater influence and control by organized crime and drug traffickers. Norman Quijano, the mayor of San Salvador, expressed his doubts that individual candidates can be truly independent.  He fears that if diputados are if not chosen by party leaders, they are likely to be influenced by a variety of interests (La prensa gráfica).

The Catholic Church, however, was quick to defend the Court’s action. Last week, Monsignor José Escobar Alas, Archbishop of San Salvador, expressed his support for the Court’s ruling, saying that it supported democracy in the country.  In a public statement, he asked the Legislative Assembly to respect the ruling. He stated, “In the democratic process, it’s completely valid to have independent candidatures, as in many Latin American and European countries, it’s a step forward for democracy, because the more participation there is, the better. The people are the true winners” (Diario CoLatino).

Despite the heated rhetoric, the Legislative Assembly will have a difficult time getting around the Court’s decision. Amending the Constitution is not easy. Once the Legislative Assembly passes amendments, the next Legislative Assembly must ratify them by a two-thirds vote. According to Rómulo Rivas from the Independent Pro-Electoral Reform Movement (MIRE), the Congress is unable to do anything.  “If they try to pass a Constitutional reform, it would be very difficult, because the following legislature would have representatives elected under the new system, which would make it difficult to get the 56 votes necessary for a Constitutional reform” (Diario CoLatino).

No matter the outcome, the next few weeks are shaping up for a show down as the Legislative Assembly and the Supreme Court face off.  So far, both sides have proved themselves unwilling to compromise on the issue, but more than willing to take action to defend their position.  Because the next national election is not until 2012, and the Constitutional reforms require approval during the next session of the Legislative Assembly, there is still much time for the debate to develop as each side refines its position.

Elections 2009

Polls are Closed!

Observers throughout the country are reporting massive participation in the elections. By 4pm, with an hour until the polls close, a source in Soyapango stated that they had observed a participation of 60%.

Early exit polling has shown Funes up by a significant margin. However, these results are preliminary, and carry a large margin of error. A representative of FESPAD stated that by their estimates the winning candidate needs a margin of victory of at least 90,000 votes to be confident that the outcome was not influenced by fraud.


In addition to the power outage in Apopa for most of the day, electricity went out at 3 voting centers in Soyapango at 4pm. Because the results must be transmitted digitally, these outages have worrisome implications for the processing and announcement of the final results. Any delays to the announcement of victory will likely heighten tensions.

FESPAD (the Foundation for the Application of Law) stated that they are receiving a fewer total number of complaints of logistical problems with the electoral process than in January. However, a representative from FESPAD said that the complaints they are receiving are more serious than in January.

The majority of irregularities reported to FESPAD fall into three categories:

1) Influencing voters with t-shirts, inappropriate campaigning, food, or money

2) Obstruction of voting; for example, a business reportedly did not let its workers vote

3) Large concentrations of people (suspicious), ARENA is claiming that they are people working in ‘logistica’

Thankfully, there are very few reports of violence, and only 3-4 cases of people attempting vote twice.

Now that the polls are closed, all attention turns to counting the votes and reporting them to the TSE center.  Voices staff will be at the TSE center for the rest of the evening, monitoring the process. We will continue to monitor the power outages and report any results as they come in. 

Elections 2009

Election Update, Midday

It’s noon on election day in El Salvador and so far reports from voters, election observers, major new stations, and major newspapers indicate that the presidential elections are largely unfolding smoothly, with some reports of irregularities.

Elections observers from the EU and OAS have applauded the improvement made by the TSE in the logistical organization of the today’s elections as compared to the elections in January. The Human Rights Ombudsman identified one of the most important improvements is the opening of voting centers on time; approximately 90% of voting centers opened at 7am this morning.

There have been a number of irregularities reported. These include

  • ARENA supporters handing out t-shirts at a voting center
  • FMLN and ARENA supporters waving banners outside a voting center, violating the 100m zone around voting centers where campaigning is prohibited
  • One woman arrested on suspicion of being a citizen of Nicaragua
  • Several instances of people being unable to vote due to irregularities on their DUIs, or their DUI photo not matching the photo on the electoral registry
  • A few members of Voting Center Councils dismissed: one because of inebriation, others for having unverifiable identification documents
  • There is an unconfirmed report that a FMLN representative on a Voting Center Council in Cojutepeque was arrested on charges of voting fraud, though it is unclear exactly what the circumstances are

Furthermore, at the voting center set up for Salvadorans living abroad, only 50 had voted by 10:30am. At least two were turned away because the addresses on their DUIs didn’t match their address in the electoral registry.