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El Salvador president under fire

A year into his presidency, the leftist Mauricio Funes faces mounting criticism for failing to tackle corruption and halt rising violence and drug trafficking.

June 24, 2010|By Alex Renderos, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Salvador — When Mauricio Funes took office a year ago as El Salvador's first leftist president, he promised to "reinvent" the impoverished, polarized nation.

"The Salvadoran people asked for change, and change starts now," he proclaimed in his inaugural speech. His election was greeted with high expectations and celebration by many Salvadorans who had long felt disenfranchised.

A year later, Funes faces an avalanche of criticism, from opponents and supporters alike, over broken promises, corrupt management and a failure to halt rising violence that threatens to turn the nation into "a criminal state."

"Violence is undermining El Salvador and is capable of sinking the entire country," said Jose Luis Escobar Alas, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador.

"Salvadorans are not better off than they were a year ago," the popular online newspaper El Faro said in an editorial. "And while in the middle of the worst public security crisis in a decade, the national police force remains without resources and has been infiltrated by organized crime."

El Salvador, a tiny nation of 6 million, records about 12 homicides a day, one of the highest rates in Latin America. Drug traffickers seeking transportation routes have operations throughout the countryside. From the Roman Catholic Church to business groups, critics are warning that the lack of public safety is detrimental to economic growth and potential investment.

Funes, a former television reporter who led the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, once a coalition of guerrillas, to the pinnacle of power, has been hamstrung by political infighting and unable to push through basic reforms of the police or judiciary. Critics say he has failed to take on the traditional centers of economic power in the country; his agriculture minister quit, accusing Funes of corruption and nepotism.

A poll last month by the Institute of Public Opinion at the Jesuit-run University of Central America in San Salvador revealed that more than 60% of the population believes delinquency has increased with the new government. And 59.3% "identifies the issue of criminality as the main problem facing the country," the poll said.

The institute, which has been conducting polls in El Salvador for 24 years, found that nearly a quarter of those polled reported being a "direct victim" of crime in the last 12 months, one of the highest rates in the last decade. And 37.2 % said fighting crime should be the administration's top priority.

According to statistics provided to The Times by the national police, about 40% of homicides are gang-related and 30% are tied to drug trafficking and other elements of organized crime.

"There is a visible and increasing presence of the Mexican cartels that want to control not only the traffic of drugs but also control of gangs, auto theft and the trafficking of persons," said a high-ranking security official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "With the inexperience of this government in terms of security matters, and its cowardice to stand up to organized crime, you have the ingredients for a criminal state."

Funes' failures have hit the poor and working class especially hard. After two decades of one-party right-wing rule, they greeted the rise of the left with great hope. Today they are deeply disillusioned.

"People expected a change, and I know change isn't rapid, but we see nothing," said Maria Cristina Ramirez, 30, who sells grain in the city market and struggles to feed and protect her three children. "I am disappointed. Crime is up, beans and milk are up. What change?"

Funes defends his administration, saying that insecurity remains the country's major challenge but one that he has faced head-on "from Day 1." More than 237 officials have been dismissed on corruption charges and 1,000 are under investigation, he said. Also, he said, 115 criminal gangs have been dismantled and more than 5,000 people arrested on murder charges.

In addition, he said, his government has created 7,000 jobs and attracted $400 million in foreign investment.

Funes also noted that many of the dire predictions when he took office have not come to pass.

"A lot of people said that my government was going to be ungovernable, democracy would tumble, and there would be huge capital flight — in a few words, chaos," he said in a speech before Congress. "None of this has happened."

Bristling at mounting criticism, Funes, in another appearance, said, "I have not said at any moment that the country is in good condition. What I have said is that we have kept on going this year, despite all the difficulties."

But Salvadorans are growing impatient. Though his margin for maneuvering is narrow, El Faro's editorial concluded, Funes "still has the historic opportunity to cement a true transformation in El Salvador, an opportunity he has squandered in his first year."

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