Yesterday, Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) succeeded Mauricio Funes as president of El Salvador. While Funes has received overall high marks from the Salvadoran public, in particular in the area of education, he leaves a public security mess for the incoming Sanchez Ceren administration.
Funes assumed the presidency in June 2009 amid growing public insecurity due to MS-13 and 18th Street gang violence, organized crime and drug trafficking. During his first year in office, Funes ordered 2,500 additional troops to the 1,500 already patrolling the country’s most violent neighborhoods and streets. The vast majority of Salvadorans approved of the decision, but human rights activists and public security analysts objected, claiming that Funes was simply following the same ineffective policies of his predecessor. The increase in military patrols did little to reduce the violence in 2010 and 2011.
In November 2011, Funes replaced his minister of justice and public security with a retired general and former minister of defense, David Munguia Payes, who promised a tougher approach to crime, including a further expansion of the armed forces’ role in internal security. However, at some point over the next three months, he also helped to orchestrate a truce between the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs: In return for better prison conditions for their imprisoned members, the gangs promised to stop killing each other and perpetrating attacks against civilians and security personnel. The country’s murder rate immediately dropped from approximately 13 to five per day, a decline that, though stark, still left El Salvador among the most violent countries in the region. Nonetheless, Funes and his team had given the country an opportunity to overcome the high levels of criminal violence that had plagued it since its civil war ended in 1992.