WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
13 Jan 2014 | Commentary | News

WOLA’s Letter to the Editor About Drug Trafficking in El Salvador

On January 13, 2014, The Washington Post printed WOLA Program Director Geoff Thale’s response to an earlier op-ed by Elliott Abrams on drug trafficking in El Salvador. Abrams seems to still be promoting Reagan-era policies towards Central America. Here is WOLA’s response.

“In his Jan. 5 Sunday Opinion column “Under siege,” Elliott Abrams looked at the problem of drug trafficking in Central America through a distorted Cold War-era lens. He misunderstands the origins and extent of drug trafficking in El Salvador over the past two decades, linking one particular party to a hemispheric drug conspiracy.

Drug trafficking and money laundering have been serious problems in El Salvador since the mid-1990s. In fact, drug trafficking grew under 20 years of conservative rule. The problem is rooted not in one party or another, but in El Salvador’s weak institutions and high levels of corruption, especially in the police.

The solution is not for the United States to prefer one presidential candidate over another or, as Mr. Abrams has done, to engage in fear-mongering. Rather the United States should work with whoever is elected president in February in El Salvador to fight corruption and to strengthen civilian law enforcement.”

 Geoff Thale, Program Director

Here is some background on the issue:

In a Washington Post op-ed piece published on January 3, Elliott Abrams argues that El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) presidential candidate, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, has “drug ties” that make him unlikely to fight drug trafficking, and that the United States should publicly express its concerns in the month leading up to presidential elections on February 2, 2014.

Abrams–who worked on Central America issues for the Reagan administration and once described the Reagan policy toward El Salvador as a “fabulous achievement”–revives a hemispheric conspiracy theory about El Salvador’s upcoming election. He uses innuendo to argue that a senior FMLN party official whom he calls presidential candidate Sánchez Cerén’s “right hand man” is a tainted figure, with links to the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, the government of Venezuela, and drug traffickers. Abrams warns that, because of these links, Sánchez Cerén’s possible election would put at risk El Salvador’s commitment to fighting drug trafficking. There are several fallacies in this argument.

Drug trafficking is a long-standing problem in El Salvador

El Salvador’s problem is not, as Abrams argues, that Sánchez Cerén’s possible election would undercut progress made against drug trafficking by previous administrations. The problem is that too little has been done by a series of previous governments to fight corruption, purge corrupt police and public officials, and strengthen law enforcement institutions. ­­­­­­­­

Drug trafficking in El Salvador is a long-standing problem, not a new issue. Although the country does not face problems as severe as either Honduras or Guatemala, it has had drug trafficking and money laundering problems for many years—problems that are rooted in weak institutions and political corruption. Drug traffickers have had links to politicians, financiers, police, and other law enforcement officials since the 1990s, mainly to people on the political right who have dominated the Salvadoran political system since the 1992 peace accords. There are also credible allegations—going back at least a decade—that senior police officials have had ties to local drug cartels and organized crime figures. It is true that drug trafficking has increased in El Salvador in the last five or six years, as it has in all of Central America. This is because traffickers have shifted their routes, expanding the flow of drugs through Central America rather than shipping them directly to Mexico.

A renewed commitment to fighting drug trafficking in El Salvador

Recent efforts to tackle drug trafficking have fallen short. El Salvador’s current president, former journalist Mauricio Funes, forged a political alliance with the FMLN in the election in 2009. It was Funes who made the first serious effort to root out police corruption, appointing an aggressive inspector general to conduct serious investigations, and naming officials who were untainted by corruption to senior positions in the police. A weak attorney general failed to follow through on many of these investigations, and conservative legislators blocked the work of the inspector general.

As a result, Funes’ effort to root out corruption, though well intentioned, did not endure. In response to public pressures about crime rates, he replaced his public security team in 2011. The replacement team that came in ended the corruption investigations, and appointed several of the officials who had been under investigation by the Inspector General to key positions.

If El Salvador’s next president—whether from the conservative ARENA party, the left of center FMLN, or the right of center GANA—is committed to fighting drug trafficking, he will renew the commitment to fighting corruption in the police, bring in an aggressive inspector general, shake up police leadership, and press the country’s autonomous attorney general to advance criminal investigations of corruption, money laundering, and drug trafficking.

The role of the United States

U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, recently reiterated that the United States will not play a role in the Salvadoran elections, and will look forward to working with whatever government is elected. Rather than pursuing the interventionist path that Elliott Abrams recommends, the United States should maintain this policy of neutrality. The U.S. should work with the next government of El Salvador to deal with the problem of drug trafficking through a shared focus on fighting corruption and strengthening civilian law enforcement, while recognizing its shared responsibility to address the U.S. demand for illegal drugs that drives the drug trade.

Image courtesy of The Washington Post.