Why you should care

The country’s democratic future could be imperiled by links to regional crime networks and Marxist insurgents.

The most powerful man in El Salvador is a shadow.

“Comandante Ramiro” was nowhere in the official photos of the June 1 inauguration of El Salvador’s new president, nor did his name appear in any news reports.

“Ramiro” is the nom de guerre of José Luis Merino, a Marxist guerrilla commander turned political mandarin and underworld fixer with the ear of the president and unaccountable control over hundreds of millions of Venezuelan petro-dollars.

Diplomats describe Merino as a ‘shadowy [Marxist] hardliner strongman,’ while political rivals say he’s a ‘gangster.’

That combination makes him kingmaker in San Salvador, and that’s got many people worried. Merino has a web of murky contacts throughout the region, making him the link between corrupt government officials and the Latin American underworld, with the potential to undermine the democratic process in a Central American country with a troubled past.

“It’s one more element that is able to carry out criminal activities under state sponsorship or state control, and I find that very worrisome,” said Douglas Farah, a writer and security analyst who testified on Merino’s activities to a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Sub-committee on Terrorism in February this year.

Short, pudgy and casually dressed in short-sleeved shirts, Merino is an unassuming sight. His party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), insists he’s also an unassuming person, who reactionary forces have falsely made into a communist bogeyman.

The U.S. Embassy doesn’t agree. Diplomats describe him as a “shadowy [Marxist] hardliner strongman,” while political rivals say he’s a “gangster.”

Merino’s connections to the Venezuelan government — and the access to Venezuela petro-dollars it provides — are the source of much of his power.

He controls a joint FMLN-Venezuelan venture called ALBA Petróleos, which sells Venezuelan oil at discount prices. ALBA’s finances are shrouded in secrecy but the company has control over hundreds of millions of dollars in social and business investments.

He’s probably going to be the most powerful person in the government … because of the economic clout he wields.

- Douglas Farah

In his role as “advisor” to ALBA, Merino has faced accusations of money laundering, corruption and using company profits to buy votes and influence.

“He’s probably going to be the most powerful person in the government, maybe even more than [President] Sánchez Cerén, because of the economic clout he wields,” said Farah.

Will Merino wield this influence to guide the country down the moderate, pluralistic path described in the new president’s election rhetoric? Or use it to secure long-term political and economic power for himself and his allies?

His past might yield clues.

Born into poverty in the town of Santa Tecla in 1953, Merino’s mother was 15, his father an itinerant farm worker. Working as a mechanics assistant, Merino, then 15, joined the Marxist May 9th Revolutionary Party, setting him on a path to lead the armed wing of the Communist Party during El Salvador’s 13-year civil war, which ended in 1992.

Man with gun in uniform running

El Salvador Civil War

Schooled in Soviet Russia and trained in guerrilla warfare in Cuba and Vietnam, Merino became a skilled rebel commander, leading hundreds of rural fighters and an urban guerrilla network that carried out a series of infamous kidnappings and spectacular bomb attacks. Salvadoran intelligence documents finger Merino as the leader, as do militants.

Merino featured prominently in 10 years of communications recovered by the Colombian government in 2008 from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), where he’s a key connection helping to build a network of regional political support and using his web of contacts for million dollar money-laundering deals and to source sopisticated weaponry.

Democracy, Merino ominously told the news site El Faro in 2005, was but a stepping stone to socialism. The FMLN’s moderate electoral platform — leading to the 2009 election of Sánchez Cerén’s predecessor, the centist Mauricio Funes — was a strategic move.

…Investigations suggest Merino still works closely with the FARC and maintains his network of underworld contacts.

“For us, this program is tactical, the grand wars are made up of a succession of battles, winning the hearts and minds of the people,” he said.

Sánchez Cerén and Merino have played down their hardline credentials before and after the election, which the FMLN won by just 0.2 percent of the vote. The president has appointed moderates to the government and reached out to the opposition and the private sector.

“It’s a very pragmatic approach given the narrowness of the electoral margin,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Arnson believes the new government will be wary of maintaining underworld contacts such as their relationship with the FARC. “The Salvadoran government knows it has a lot to lose in running afoul of the U.S. government on this issue,” she said.

Others are not so optimistic. Farah’s investigations suggest Merino still works closely with the FARC and maintains his network of underworld contacts. He also believes that Merino’s wooing of the private sector is part of a plan to neutralize opposition with financial incentives from ALBA funds.

The model, Farah believes, is a local variant on the “21st-century socialism” of Venezuela and Nicaragua, where social reforms and poverty reduction accompanied accusations of creeping authoritarianism, rampant corruption and criminal collusion.

As for democracy? It’s just a path to power.

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