El Salvador’s presidential hopefuls skirt talking about violence

San Salvador, El Salvador – Insecurity and violence are top concerns among Salvadoran voters as they head to the polls on Sunday to choose their next president, but days ahead of the election, candidates have hardly confronted the topic of gang violence head-on.

“It’s an issue that all the candidates have avoided,” Carlos Rodriguez, a deputy public defender with the office of El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombudsman, told Al Jazeera.

In past elections, violent street gangs have served as a compelling collective enemy. Tough-on-crime policies, though ineffective, have been popular. 

But analysts suggest failures of both left- and right-wing governments to make strides in public security have weakened promises to tackle gangs as a winning electoral strategy, even as the task remains an urgent priority.

The three leading candidates scarcely mention gangs explicitly in their platforms and, while they put forward security strategies based loosely on prevention, crime-fighting and social reintegration, the proposals lack details, critics say.

With security on the sidelines, candidates have focused more on corruption in light of scandals embroiling past presidents of the two main political parties, the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) and Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

El Salvador closed 2018 with a rate of 50 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, cutting the statistic in half compared with 2015 when homicides spiked to 103 per 100,000 – a level not seen since the country’s civil war.

The first four weeks of 2019 saw fewer murders than the same period last year, but a string of homicides in mid-January jolted many.

That surge, which included the killings of eight police officers, sparked speculation that gangs were flexing their muscles ahead of the elections to pressure for concessions or exact revenge on security forces. 

Failed strategies

The race’s frontrunner, former San Salvador mayor and businessman Nayib Bukele, has joined forces with the conservative Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) after being ejected from the left-wing FMLN.

Critics say Bukele has failed to grapple with the root causes of gang membership, such as social exclusion and poverty, by focusing on prevention through sports and cultural programming. I RE

For Veronica Reyna of the Passionist Social Service (SSPAS), the suggestion that Bukele, if elected, could tap GANA legislator Guillermo Gallegos as security chief is “very worrying”.

Despite the United Nations highlighting a pattern “amounting to extrajudicial executions and excessive use of force” among security forces, Gallegos has proposed granting amnesty to police officers who kill in self-defence.

Bukele’s rivals, supermarket mogul Carlos Calleja of the conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA) and Hugo Martinez of the governing FMLN, refuse to dialogue with gangs.

Supporters of conservative presidential candidate Carlos Calleja cheer during an electoral event [Jose Cabezas/Reuters] 

With the exception of a secretly government-facilitated gang truce in 2012 under former FMLN President Mauricio Funes, both ARENA and FMLN have championed an “iron fist” security policy, known as mano dura, that has failed for 15 years to control violent crime.

Reyna believes anti-gang rhetoric may have lost currency in election campaigns after so many years of unsuccessful strategies. “Now, it’s better if they don’t even talk about it because the supposed solutions haven’t been achieved,” she told Al Jazeera.

Since entering office in 2014, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren’s left-wing FMLN government has deepened heavy-handed security, including ramping up militarisation and putting incarcerated gang leaders on lockdown to cut communication with their ranks.

Reyna believes effectively tackling the gang problem requires breaking systemic impunity and overly punitive measures that stigmatise marginalised communities, but she doesn’t trust any of the top candidates will “dismantle this logic”. 

The FMLN has made gains in health and education since ending 20 years of ARENA rule when the Funes government came to power in 2009.

But on the security front, under Sanchez Ceren, deadly clashes between police and gang members have spiked, the United Nations has condemned extrajudicial killings and rampant extortion continues to drive displacement.

“Every president has strengthened intervention of the armed forces in public security instead of strengthening the appropriate institutions,” Rodriguez of the Ombudsman Office said, slamming mano dura as an “absolutely” failed policy.

Covert dealings

Both ARENA and FMLN bought votes from gangs in the 2014 election for a combined price tag of $350,000. The pacts came to light in court testimony when government officials – later acquitted – faced trial for facilitating the 2012 gang truce, which temporarily slashed the homicide rate by half.

Meanwhile, frontrunner Bukele negotiated with gangs in central San Salvador to carry out projects when he was mayor of the capital city from 2015 to 2018, Salvadoran newspaper El Faro revealed.

“It’s clear that in the territories there are powers, and those powers determine who can go there, when they go, and what they go to do,” said David Ortiz, lawyer and public security expert with the Foundation for Studies on the Application of Law (FESPAD).

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ortiz noted that an estimated 40,000 gang members in the country of 6.4 million can move significant votes. “This contact (with gangs) still exists, it has just changed.”

A top ARENA official recently admitted the party has to pay or otherwise negotiate with gangs to secure access to campaign in certain territories. If ARENA is doing so, it is likely other parties are too, Ortiz said.

Like the 2012 truce, the 2014 vote pacts and apparent ongoing negotiations to carry out campaign activities point to the political power gangs wield through territorial control, said Amparo Marroquin, professor of communication and culture at the Jose Simeon Cañas Central American University in San Salvador.

“My impression is that as gangs become a political actor, they stop being a scapegoat,” she told Al Jazeera of candidates’ campaign silence on gangs.

Living in fear

While dodging security debates, candidates have also avoided addressing migration. Nearly 3,000 Salvadorans have joined the Central American exodus since October, and nearly half – 46 percent – cited insecurity as a reason, according to the International Organization for Migration.

“People live in deplorable conditions that don’t guarantee safety,” Reyna said. “There is such a generalised fragility that at any time you can find yourself in a situation of (facing) threats against your life.”

That uncertainty partly prompted 35-year-old Javier Garcia to join a caravan of some 200 Salvadorans last month. Though unemployment was his tipping point, he also hopes to eventually move his wife and children out of the San Salvador neighbourhood where they live hemmed in by rival gangs.

“We’re in between the two (most powerful gangs), that’s why it’s complicated,” Garcia told Al Jazeera before departing the capital city.

Worried about risks his three small children might face as teenagers, he plans to save money working in the United States to relocate his family to Europe. “My fear is the gangs.”

El Salvador has a decades-long history of migration to the US, and remittances made up 18 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017.

“The commitment of our country shouldn’t be to reduce migration, but rather to help people migrate with more dignity,” said Marroquin, adding that such efforts should involve creating conditions that allow people to choose not to flee home.

“And both – those who go and those who stay – should be able to do so enjoying the privileges and rights they are entitled to.”

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