Salvadoran leader speaks of criminal gangs’ links to drug cartels

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El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, the country’s first leftist leader since the end of its civil war in 1992, finds himself preoccupied with a deepening struggle against criminal gangs and international drug cartels.

Since winning office in 2009, Funes has deployed the army to back up police, who are trying to curb a drug-fueled homicide rate that claims about 12 victims a day.

On Thursday, he signed a controversial law criminalizing gang membership. The gangs responded by shutting down nationwide public transportation with the threat of violence.

During a visit to Los Angeles this week to meet with community leaders on immigration issues, Funes spoke with Times editors about the growing links between Salvadoran gangs and international drug cartels, and he argued that boosting U.S.-led economic investment holds the most hope for defeating drug violence and illegal immigration.

Who controls the narcotics traffic in El Salvador?

Everybody. There are Salvadoran cartels in connection with Colombian cartels. Guatemalan cartels are there. And recently we have found evidence of the presence of [the Mexican-based drug cartel] Los Zetas.

Just a few days after I came to office, I received an intelligence report saying that Los Zetas were exploring the territory and that they had started to make contacts with Salvadoran narco-traffickers and Salvadoran gangs, particularly the MS [Mara Salvatrucha, a transnational gang born in L.A.’s Salvadoran immigrant community]. It is the one that has shown, up to now, to have the most firepower.

The change that has occurred lately is that the [criminal] gangs have become involved in the business. At the beginning, the gangs were just a group of rebel youngsters. As time moved on, the gangs became killers for hire. Now the situation is that the gangs have become part of the whole thing. They control territory and they are disputing territory with the drug traffickers. Why? Because they need to finance their way of life: basically, getting arms.

Have state institutions been infiltrated?

I am convinced that the army is not infiltrated by the cartels. The grenades and the arms that these people have, they have not gotten them through the army. That does not mean that there are not other institutions that are infiltrated. Since my government started, we have dismissed more than 150 police officers, out of a total of slightly more than 20,000, because of suspicions they were involved with organized crime. I have my suspicions that the judicial system is also infiltrated by organized crime.

Yes, organized crime has penetrated certain institutions, but these institutions have not collapsed. We are talking about rotten apples, and we still have the opportunity and the time to get rid of them.

How do you explain that civilian institutions remain stronger in El Salvador than in Guatemala or Mexico?

The 1992 peace accords [which ended the civil war] allowed for a sort of re-foundation of the Salvadoran state. Through that process, it was possible to cleanse the army and security forces that were linked to gross violations of human rights. And now we have a professional armed force. If that cleansing of the armed forces had not taken place, we would probably be in the same situation as Guatemala.

Are current U.S. policies on drugs and immigration on the right track?

There will be [cartels] as long as there are consumers of drugs.

Furthermore, the only way we can prevent more migrants from coming to the U.S. is by providing jobs, opportunities and development. The same thing applies to narcotics. If the United States is concerned about [illegal] immigration and drug traffic, the best solution is a strategic alliance that together will bring development and job opportunities and social benefits to El Salvador.