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El Salvador - Politics

El Salvador is home to the most violent gangs in the world. Both the 18th Street gang (Barrio 18) and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) began in Los Angeles, California in the 1960s and 1980s, respectively. As the gangs evolved over time they created security issues for the United States government. The Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 led to the deportation of many gang members back to their home countries in Central America. Not surprisingly, such policies contributed to the expansion of the gangs throughout the region. In 2012, the United States Department of Treasury labeled MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization.

Hard-line conservatives, including some members of the military, created the Nationalist Republican Alliance party (ARENA) in 1981. ARENA almost won the election in 1984 with solid private sector and rural farmer support. By 1989, ARENA had attracted the support of business groups. Multiple factors contributed to ARENA victories in the 1988 legislative and 1989 presidential elections, including allegations of corruption in the ruling Christian Democratic party which had poor relations with the private sector, and historically low prices for the nations main agricultural exports.

During the 12-year civil war, human rights violations by both the government security forces and left-wing guerillas were rampant. The accords established a Truth Commission under UN auspices to investigate the most serious cases. The commission recommended that those identified as human rights violators be removed from all government and military posts. Thereafter, the Legislative Assembly granted amnesty for political crimes committed during the war. Among those freed as a result were the Salvadoran Armed Forces (ESAF) officers convicted in the November 1989 Jesuit murders and the FMLN ex-combatants held for the 1991 murders of two U.S. servicemen. The peace accords also established the Ad Hoc Commission to evaluate the human rights record of the ESAF officer corps.

El Salvador's current political landscape is largely the result of the 1992 Peace Accords that ended the nation's twelve-year civil war. Under the agreement, the communist guerrillas, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), laid down their weapons and became a legitimate political party. The government (GOES) in return agreed to disband elements of the military and security services notorious for human rights violations, to allow the FMLN to participate in the political process, to reform the judiciary, and to form a new National Civilian Police force (PNC) drawn from the ranks of demobilized guerrillas and former members of the armed forces.

The 1992 peace agreement did not take into account the profound social and economic inequalities that fueled the civil war. The main obstacles to achieving a lasting peace were of a political and local nature. By the end of 1993, there was an alarming upswing in the number of assassinations and attempts on leadership figures of both the FMLN and the ARENA party, probably related with the campaign for legislators and mayors that would close with the elections of March 1994.

The successes of Alfredo Cristiani's 1989-94 administration in achieving a peace agreement to end the civil war and in improving the nation's economy helped ARENA--led by former San Salvador mayor Armando Calderon Sol--keep both the presidency and a working majority in the Legislative Assembly in the 1994 elections. ARENA's legislative position was weakened in the 1997 elections, but it recovered its strength, helped by divisions in the opposition, in time for another victory in the 1999 presidential race, bringing President Francisco Guillermo Flores Perez to office.

Flores concentrated on modernizing the economy and strengthening bilateral relations with the United States. Under his presidency El Salvador committed itself to combating international terrorism, including sending troops to aid in the reconstruction of Iraq. El Salvador also played a key role in negotiations for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). The Francisco Flores government launched Mano Dura (iron fist) strategies to combat gangs and gang-related violence. These policies led to spikes in the number of gang members arrested. As a result, the prison population grew from an incarceration rate of 130 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2000 to 567 per 100,000 in 2016. The increase in the prison population has led to severe overcrowding within the prison system.

Taking advantage of both public apprehension of Flores policies and ARENA infighting, the chief opposition party, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), was able to score a significant victory against ARENA in the March 2003 legislative and municipal elections. ARENA, left with only 29 seats in the 84-seat Legislative Assembly, was forced to court the right-wing National Conciliation Party (PCN) in order to form a majority voting bloc. However, in 2003 the PCN entered into a loose partnership with the FMLN, further limiting ARENAs ability to maneuver in the legislature.

The elections created divisions deeper than any seen since the war, when the FMLN was a guerrilla group and ARENA was linked to counter-insurgency operations. Despite these constraints, ARENA made a strong showing in the March 2004 presidential election, which was marked by an unprecedented 67% voter turnout. ARENA candidate Elias Antonio "Tony" Saca handily defeated the FMLN candidate and party head Shafick Handal, garnering 57.7% of the votes cast. The defeat of the FMLNs presidential candidate rekindled an internal FMLN struggle between hardliners and more moderate members who saw the partys 2004 defeat as a call for reform.

Given its relatively small size (6.7 million people in an area smaller than New Jersey), El Salvador has a relatively rich media environment and a fairly well- defined number of "players" jockeying for power and influence. Though their combined circulation is scarcely 300,000, newspapers may be considered the most influential of the media. Internet and cable television access largely remained concentrated in the hands of educated urban dwellers, though the government was making a long-term effort to bring the Internet to all schools, and Internet- ready "info centros" are available throughout the country. While broadcast media reaches the largest number of people on a regular basis, print media and a variety of individuals and institutions - including churches, political parties, the business community, academia, civil society, overseas Salvadorans, and the U.S. Embassy - wield considerable clout, with the degree of influence of each depending on the issue involved.

By far the two most influential Salvadoran newspapers are the major dailies, La Prensa Grafica and El Diario de Hoy. Both have circulations of about 100,000, and each has a well-developed web site. Both are owned and operated by politically conservative families who had direct lines of communication with the Presidential Palace. La Prensa Grafica's editorial tone is generally centrist and sometimes critical of the government, while El Diario de Hoy's is more openly conservative and is considered the nationalistic voice of the elite "old guard."

In January 2009 legislative and municipal elections, the incumbent ARENA party garnered 32 assembly deputies and 122 mayoralties, while the opposition FMLN won 35 legislative seats and 75 city halls (plus 21 additional mayoralties in which they participated as part of a coalition). The PCN, PDC, and CD carried 11, 5, and 1 assembly seats, respectively. The new assembly took office in May 2009. In October 2009, 12 ARENA deputies left the party to form a new movement, the Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA), and two other deputies (one each from ARENA and the PCN) left their parties to become independents. As of January 2010, the assembly was composed as follows: FMLN - 35 seats, ARENA - 19 seats, GANA - 12 seats, PCN - 10 seats, PDC - 5 seats, CD - 1 seat, independent deputies - 2 seats. In December 2009, former President Antonio Saca was expelled from ARENA for his suspected involvement in the defection of the GANA deputies.

The country held legislative and municipal elections on 18 January 2009, with the leftist FMLN winning a slim plurality of the seats in the Legislative Assembly. Mauricio Funes, a former journalist who hosted one of El Salvador's most popular television news programs, was the first FMLN Presidential candidate who was not a former guerrilla leader. Funes' candidacy, fueled by name recognition, voter discontent over high crime, and the perceived lack of shared economic benefits under ARENA stewardship, offers the FMLN its strongest opportunity yet to win the Salvadoran presidency. On March 15, 2009, FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes won El Salvadors presidential elections, defeating ARENA candidate Rodrigo Avila. Final vote totals were 51.3% for the FMLN and 48.7% for ARENA. The elections marked the first time since the 1992 peace agreement that ended the civil war that an FMLN candidate was elected president and the first left-of-center government in El Salvadors history. President Funes was inaugurated on June 1, 2009.

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