WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
18 Feb 2014 | Commentary | News

Jim DeMint’s Fear-Mongering About El Salvador

WOLA responds to the Heritage Foundation’s scare tactics

In an op-ed published on Friday, February 14 in the Miami Herald, Heritage Foundation president and former U.S. Senator Jim DeMint sends a nearly hysterical warning to the American people: El Salvador’s March 9 presidential election may result in that nation becoming “a gang haven … plunging America’s inner cities further into crime and despair.” He goes on say this would “directly harm our domestic tranquility.”

There are important issues at stake in El Salvador’s upcoming election. Foreign policy analysts ought to seriously examine what the likely victory of current Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, candidate of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN), might mean. But warning ominously that there are “high stakes for the United States” in these elections and threatening that Congress will “haul in officials at the State Department and demand an explanation of who lost El Salvador” if Sánchez Cerén wins is far from a reasonable or responsible approach.

Baseless Threats and Accusations

DeMint’s tirade is out of touch with facts in El Salvador and the election’s plausible impacts on the United States. His rhetoric is eerily similar to the language of Senator Joe McCarthy, whose anti-Communist crusade demanded to know “who lost China?” (McCarthy’s crusade eventually ended in his own censure by the U.S. Senate.)

In the op-ed, DeMint might have set a record for mud-slinging: in less than 700 words, he manages to invoke the threats of drugs, gangs, terrorism, and even the mafia while warning about what might happen if the leftist Sánchez Cerén wins. According to DeMint, El Salvador under Sánchez Cerén will become a “narco state,” a “gang haven,” a “transit point for drugs,” a “money laundering machine,” and a “narco-principality.” In addition, he warns that the country might join the “anti-American ALBA bloc,” that Hezbollah could build a presence in El Salvador, and that there could be ties to Colombia’s “narco-trafficking terrorist organization, the feared FARC.” There might even be links to “Italy’s Calabrese family,” a mafia-style crime family.

Having attempted to scare the American public, DeMint goes on to threaten the Salvadoran public and the State Department. If Sánchez Cerén wins, DeMint warns that the U.S. government may stop granting Temporary Protective Status (TPS) to Salvadorans living in the United States and should “scrutinize” the remittances that U.S.-based Salvadorans send to relatives at home. This is a claim intended to scare the residents of a country where many families depend on income sent by relatives living in the United States and where remittances are a key source of foreign exchange.

Finally, DeMint reminds U.S. government officials that they could be at risk as well. In statements that seem intended to worry U.S. officials about their jobs and their promotions, DeMint reminds readers that as a U.S. Senator, he delayed the Senate’s approval of the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, whom he now blames for allowing U.S. policy toward El Salvador to collapse. DeMint appears to be suggesting that U.S. officials might in the future face questions about whether they did enough to prevent El Salvador from becoming “lost.”

Analyzing DeMint’s Claims: The Facts

It doesn’t make sense to run foreign policy by fear, and it’s disappointing to see DeMint and the Heritage Foundation substitute mud-slinging and scare tactics for serious analysis.

The charges about drugs, the FARC, and the Italian mob were made last month by conservative political commentator Elliott Abrams and are simply being restated by DeMint with even more fervor, presumably on the theory that repeating allegations over and over again is likely to make people believe them. WOLA refuted these charges in a response printed in the Washington Post and in a longer piece on our website.  DeMint, like Abrams, has it backwards:  it’s not that El Salvador might develop problems with drug-related corruption and organized crime if the FMLN comes to power. The country already has these problems today; they have grown over the twenty years that the conservative ARENA party has been in power as its leaders ignored the criminal connections of conservative politicians and public security officials. The real and serious question going forward is which party is more likely to go after entrenched drug traffickers and corruption. DeMint’s suggestion that the FMLN will not be serious about going after organized crime and corruption, while presumably the ARENA government will, flies in the face of the record.

The charge about Hezbollah has even less substance. A few conservative commentators have been warning for years that Hezbollah and Iran are seeking to establish a presence in the Western Hemisphere and that Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez was working with them. There’s very little evidence for this claim in Venezuela, and none for the argument that Islamic extremists might settle in El Salvador. WOLA has written about this claim before.

The charge about El Salvador becoming a gang haven does a disservice to a needed discussion about how to manage the problems of gang violence in El Salvador and Central America. DeMint’s charges are (loosely) based on the fact that the government of El Salvador facilitated talks that led to a truce between the country’s two principal gangs; the truce included improved prison conditions for some incarcerated gang leaders to help sweeten the deal. The agreement led to a significant drop in homicides, though other forms of gang violence, especially extortion, continue. The truce is controversial; WOLA has written extensively about it and hosted talks by Salvadoran and international experts debating its pros and cons. Sánchez Cerén has not commented publicly on the issue, though most analysts believe an FMLN government will seek to maintain and re-negotiate the truce. Sánchez Cerén’s opponent, Norman Quijano, the conservative ARENA mayor of San Salvador, has vowed that the truce will end the day he takes office. Analysts expect he would return to the tough-on-crime mano dura tactics that were employed under previous ARENA governments. Throughout Central America, mano dura policies failed to control gang violence and led to serious human rights concerns, as highlighted in a recent report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). What ought to be done to contain the gang problem and what kind of tradeoffs are necessary are real and legitimate issues that need to be debated in El Salvador and internationally. But DeMint’s comments do nothing to advance real debate and are even counterproductive.

Finally, the claims that Temporary Protective Status will be terminated and remittances jeopardized are threats that were made in previous presidential elections in El Salvador in an attempt to scare Salvadoran voters. Directing such threats at people who have been granted legal protection to live and work in the United States because their lives have been endangered in their home country is not only interference in the election of another sovereign country, but is also an inhumane stunt aimed at people who have already suffered too much.

As the March 9 presidential elections approach, it would be useful to have a serious discussion of what it will take to combat organized crime and corruption in El Salvador, what the next government might do, and how the United States could assist. It would also be useful to have a debate about the gang truce and whether it can be restructured or should be replaced with a new policy. These are real questions that El Salvador’s next government and its international friends and allies will have to confront.

A serious analysis of these issues will do more to further U.S. interests in the region than former Senator DeMint’s brand of alarmist threats and Cold War-style fear-mongering.