Obama's El Salvador host: A leftist moves to center stage

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 21, 2011 

SAN SALVADOR — Some Salvadorans expected turmoil when Mauricio Funes took office as El Salvador's first leftist president in modern history, elected on the ticket of battle-hardened former Marxist guerrillas.

But Funes, a 51-year-old former television reporter, has shown a deft moderate touch. He's distanced himself from radicals in his ruling coalition, tackled tough crime problems, and Tuesday, wins the distinction of hosting an American president overnight when President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visit this pocket-sized country.

It's a visit with more than a touch of irony: During El Salvador's 12-year civil war, the U.S. sided with the right-wing government that the guerrillas who now make up Funes' coalition sought to topple.

"Funes has done well," said Carlos A. Rosales, a former Cabinet member in previous right-wing governments. "Many people like myself were mistaken. We thought he'd be a pushover" for hard-line former guerrillas.

"This is a guy who's in the middle," Rosales added. "I think he's done a good job, and I'm not the only one. Look at the polls."

Some 72 percent of Salvadorans say they support Funes, according to a Consulta Mitofsky poll released on March 1, among the highest popularity of any leader in the hemisphere.

El Salvador has firm ties to the U.S. Some 1.8 million Salvadorans live in the U.S., or nearly 1 out of 4 of its citizens, part of an exodus that intensified during the 1980-1992 civil war. El Salvador adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency a decade ago.

But those ties were at risk when Funes won the presidency in 2009 at the head of a coalition led by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the former rebel army that had battled a succession of U.S.-backed governments.

Funes had never been a guerrilla, only an FMLN sympathizer, but many of the members of his government were former fighters.

Funes' first battle was with his own vice-president, former top guerrilla chief Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who wanted the country to align itself with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, instead of fostering relations with Washington and Brasilia. Funes renewed relations with Cuba, making El Salvador the last Latin American nation to do so, but didn't relent on forging a more moderate foreign policy.

The battles weren't just public ones. According to a 2009 State Department cable published by the WikiLeaks website, Funes allies told U.S. diplomats that the Salvadoran leader worried about "his personal security" at the presidential office and fretted that FMLN hardliners were tapping his telephone.

"Funes faces tremendous problems in keeping that coalition together," said Cynthia Arnson, the head of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

Several analysts praised Funes for setting aside ideology to handle problems such as rising crime. His nation, like neighboring Guatemala and Honduras, faces an invasion from Mexico's heavily armed drug cartels — Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel — that have moved south to secure smuggling routes.

Defense Minister David Munguia Payes said this month that military intelligence had detected Los Zetas operatives trying to infiltrate the army and the national police force.

Two major street gangs linked to the cartels grow each week, fed by deportees from the U.S. who arrive on flights chartered by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Of the 21,000 Salvadorans deported by the U.S. last year, 38 percent had a criminal record, said Aida Santos de Escobar, a former prosecutor who now heads the National Council of Public Security.

Estimates of gang membership range to 40,000. Last September, the street gangs used threats to enforce a transport strike that was called to protest a law that prohibits gang membership. Funes signed the law in spite of severe disruptions to transport for three days.

Still, the civilian police aren't up to the job of reining in criminals.

"They are outgunned and outmaneuvered," Arnson said.

So Funes did something many figured was unthinkable. He deployed the army that was once a mortal enemy of the FMLN to walk the streets and guard the nation's prisons.

Though many doubted that the army, with a well-earned reputation for human rights abuses during the civil war, should be pressed into a civilian law enforcement role, others recognized that it was the only institution capable of battling organized crime groups that literally have access to barrels of cash. In September, police, acting on a tip, seized two barrels of cash totaling $10.4 million buried at a ranch outside the capital. A few days later, another barrel yielded $5 million.

"The armed forces have become the foundation of security policy," said Dagoberto Gutierrez, a university vice rector who once fought the army as a former guerrilla chief.

With the army's help, Funes can boast of a 9 percent reduction in the number of homicides in the country, to 3,987 killings last year from 4,382 deaths in 2009. Even so, El Salvador's per capita murder rate remains one of the highest in the world.

Funes has sided with Washington on two key matters. He signed off on the continued presence of the International Law Enforcement Academy, a U.S.-funded training center police from across Latin America, and he hasn't tinkered with an accord to allow the U.S. Navy to continue using a coastal air base as a forward operating base in the regional drug war.

"This is somebody who has a sense of the problems he's confronting, a sense of the constraints under which he operates and a sense of how pragmatically to get things done," Arnson said.

The result is surprisingly strong relations with the U.S.

El Salvador's ambassador to Washington, Francisco Altschul, said he believed the two countries "are passing through one of the best moments" in their history as allies.

ON THE WEB

U.S. diplomatic cable that says Funes worried about his 'physical security'

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