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The ultraviolent Mara Salvatrucha street gang, a.k .a. MS-13 — whose 10,000 members sow murder and mayhem in dozens of American cities — has been secretly backing El Salvador’s ruling party for several years, according to evidence that has emerged in recent weeks.
President Mauricio Funes has admitted to personally approving payoffs, prostitutes and other privileges for gang kingpins in exchange for their political support. If Funes’ FMLN party, which originated as a guerrilla movement in the 1980s, wins the March 9 presidential election, El Salvador may become a haven for gangs and narco-traffickers, with dire consequences for the United States.
MS-13’s violent thuggery plagues communities across America. For example, last September, 14 members of its Plainfield, NJ, branch were indicted for waging what US Attorney Paul Fishman called a “reign of terror,” including multiple murders and extortion. On Feb. 21, a 21-year-old convenience-store worker, herself a Salvadoran immigrant, was murdered in a Washington, DC, suburb by three presumed MS-13 gang members.
Born in the Salvadoran expatriate community of Los Angeles in the 1980s, the gang expanded its criminal activities to El Salvador as members were deported back there. In over 40 states, MS-13 engages in drug trafficking, racketeering, extortion, murder, child prostitution and other related crimes. In 2012, the Obama administration declared MS-13 an “international criminal organization” to use expanded law-enforcement tools against it.
Back in El Salvador, the current leftist president has taken a dangerously different approach in response to spiraling gang violence. In early 2012, community leaders launched secretive negotiations to promote a gang “truce,” ostensibly to reduce the number of murders caused by gang turf wars.
For years, Funes denied being involved in this controversial truce. But this year government documents, videos and recordings leaked to the media exposed his deep engagement — using government funds to induce gang members to agree to the truce to improve his party’s standing in opinion polls and ordering law enforcement not to pursue the gangs in certain zones in the country in exchange for the gang’s political support.
The evidence includes correspondence between Funes and an MS-13 kingpin in which the president promised cash payments and special privileges for imprisoned gang members, even slots for their children in the nation’s police academy.
The recent discovery of mass graves hiding the victims of hundreds of unreported murders proves that the ill-advised strategy did little to reduce violence. Instead, it let the gangs consolidate their turf, increase their drug smuggling and become a key part of the ruling party’s political base.
The FMLN’s criminal associations remain troubling. Take the party’s financial manager, José Luis Merino, who handles an estimated $600 million to $800 million a year in payments from Venezuela’s left-wing government to FMLN mayors. He has amassed a private fortune by suspicious means — and has operational ties to FARC, the Colombian guerrilla movement that is the world’s largest source of cocaine: Last December, the Spanish newspaper ABC exposed Merino’s role in arranging a visit by Italian narco-trafficker Roberto Adamo to meet with FARC operatives in Venezuela.
El Salvador is part of the Central American “Northern Triangle” through which transits about 90 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States. These recent disclosures disprove the ruling party claims to cooperate with US anti-drug efforts.
The FMLN’s presidential candidate, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, is a hardline, anti-American ideologue who recently praised the authoritarian regime in Venezuela as “a light that will illuminate Latin America, the Caribbean and the world.” With him at the helm and gangbangers and narco-traffickers on his team, El Salvador would be on a very dangerous course.
President Obama visited El Salvador in 2011 as a signal of his openness to its leftist government, and the United States is neutral in the coming elections despite the recent revelations about the FMLN. Isn’t it time for US authorities to call out the criminals within the FMLN movement, and apply sanctions to undermine their ability to conduct business and harm US interests?
Silence is complicity. And turning a blind eye as a narco-gang government takes power in El Salvador is a case of criminal neglect.
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