Buying gang votes in the 2014 election

In criminal complaints filed this week, El Salvador's attorney general charged officials from two of the country’s major parties, the FMLN and ARENA, of trying to steal, not cash, but the 2014 presidential election by making deals with El Salvador's notorious gangs.

Most of the basic facts underlying the criminal complaint have long been public knowledge in El Salvador. Politicians from both ARENA and the FMLN are charged with meeting with leaders of MS-13 and the two branches of Barrio 18 in the lead up to the 2014 presidential election. That election pitted Norman Quijano of ARENA against Salvador Sanchéz Cerén of the FMLN. Both ARENA and the FMLN are charged with paying the gangs hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to procure votes or dissuade votes for the other party. Both ARENA and FMLN politicians are charged with meeting with the gangs to discuss what a future presidential administration might be able to do in favor of the gangs.  The new complaint against Norman Quijano includes a new allegation that the presidential candidate actually offered to repeal the country's anti-gang law in return for gang support.

The criminal charges rely on testimony of two gang members turned state’s witnesses and various video recordings surreptitiously made by gang members during their meetings with the politicians. Those gang members, testifying under the pseudonyms Noé and Nalo, have provided the bulk of the evidence underlying these charges in prior large criminal cases. Noé testified in a mammoth case against MS-13 members, and Nalo testified in the criminal case against mediators of the 2012 gang truce. As those trials unfolded, evidence of the crimes now being charged became public.

Norman Quijano
 The politicians now charged are (a) Norman Quijano, ARENA’s 2014 presidential candidate and immediate past president of the Legislative Assembly; (b) Ernesto Muyshondt, the current mayor of San Salvador from ARENA; and (c) Aristides Valencia and (d) Benito Lara, both ministers in the FMLN governments. Posthumously, Salvador Ruano, the former ARENA mayor of the city of Ilopango is also charged.

Included in today’s charges as well are Paolo Luers, Raul Mijango and Wilson Alvarado, who are charged with facilitating the negotiations between the gangs and the political parties.

Because Norman Quijano is a current member of the Legislative Assembly, the first question is whether that body will strip him of his legislative immunity by majority vote. Vote counting on this issue is difficult, however.  ARENA has 37 deputies and 43 votes is a majority in the 84 member legislature.  If ARENA votes against revoking Quijano’s immunity, it plays right into president Nayib Bukele’s hands and allows him to argue that ARENA continues to be the same old corrupt party. If ARENA chooses to abandon Quijano, it will create a rupture within a party which values loyalty (and Bukele will still call it corrupt).  Other parties say they are studying the issue.

ARENA will have a similar dilemma in deciding on the future of San Salvador mayor Ernesto Muyshondt. The party must decide whether the mayor will be able to run for a second term in 2021. Placing him on the ballot supports allegations of willingness to make corrupt bargains with the gangs, but the party has no clear replacement candidate for Muyshondt in the capital city. Voters will also be reminded that Norman Quijano was the ARENA mayor of San Salvador when running for president in 2014.

For the FMLN, struggling to maintain relevancy after crushing defeats in national elections in 2018 and 2019, the charges against two of its politicians just adds to its woes. Interestingly, there are at least some reports that the FMLN is willing to support Norman Quijano in opposing the petition to remove his immunity.

Clearly the person who gains the most from this week’s criminal charges is Nayib Bukele. He gets more fodder for his attacks on ARENA and the FMLN. As his Nuevas Ideas party looks to grab a sizable portion of the seats in the Legislative Assembly in the February 2021 elections, these charges have already found their way into Bukele's Twitter feed:
And to think that there are still people who support ARENA and the FMLN, even knowing that they exchanged the blood of Salvadorans for votes.... #Who'sGoingToZacatraz[prison]  

Despite the 2021 campaign gift which these election fraud prosecutions provide, it would probably be a mistake to think such a gift was the motivation for Attorney General Raúl Melara. It should be remembered that he comes to office as a result of closed doors bargaining in the Legislative Assembly between ARENA and the FMLN. There is nothing in his background to suggest that he is either a supporter of Bukele’s movement or a real campaigner against corruption by the most powerful figures in the country.

Instead, Melara was forced into bringing these charges by the overwhelming evidence of the crimes. Salvadorans can watch videos of politicians in the same room as leaders of the gangs who have killed thousands of their compatriots. But even the videos were not been enough for previous attorney general Douglas Melendez to bring charges, nor had they been enough for Melara. It was only after judge Godofredo Salazar, overseeing the trial in which Noe testified, actually ordered Melara to bring these charges, that he finally did so. While Melara says the attorney general's office has been working up these cases for a long time, that does not mean he would have done so if the judge had not forced his hand.

The second round of the 2014 presidential election in El Salvador saw Salvador Sanchéz Cerén win by a margin of only 6000 votes. Given the corrupt bargains of both parties, we will never know who might have won in a free and fair election.