“…In no way did I want an association with a fugitive FMLN politician.”
I gripped the handle above the door with white knuckles. Despite all the aftermarket additions to the Jeep, it still bounced violently every time we jumped a curb. The driver kept changing the station on the radio and the volume was too high for comfort. I found the noise and his endless complaining extremely annoying but my instincts were screaming. I had no real idea where we were, where we were going, or who was taking us there. We were in the midst of the darkest part of one of the most violent outposts in the world, and the owner and operator of this ridiculous vehicle was waging automotive warfare on his fellow motorists. The night was young in San Salvador.
The astonishing beauty in the passenger seat seemed not to notice and instead fixated on every aggravated word her boyfriend had to say. She was no more than twenty years old and it dawned on me that we were taking her home. As if reading my mind, Roberto nodded in her direction and said with a conspiratorial wink: “She’s eighteen.”
I rolled my eyes. ‘Probably past her bedtime’ I thought wryly as yet another oncoming car lurched out of our way, its driver blinded by the giant LED light set on the front of our Jeep. Ignoring the girl, I refocused my attention on potential threats outside. A man like our host was bound to have enemies and I intended to survive any encounters with them. I gripped the handle and scanned the dark streets just as I had done dozens of times in war zones around the world. This time however, I was unarmed.
The tragic history of El Salvador is as long as it is well-documented. In 1525, one of Cortés’s lieutenants conquered the territory on the southern fringes of Spain’s Mexican dominion. Three hundred years later the country declared its independence from Madrid and joined a short-lived federation of Central American states. That arrangement didn’t survive long because the familial dynasties that sat atop this hierarchy never succeeded in settling their borders. Instead they pressed their claims against each other in an endless cycle of invasion and revolution. The lasting legacy of Spanish rule in Central America was a careful stratification of society where white skin was more valuable than mestizo, mulatto, indigenous, and black in that order. In Central America, where terrain and vegetation and climate and poverty conspired against development, it was the indigenous people that suffered the brunt of political squabbles between the white descendants of the Conquistadors.
Marxism made everything worse. Arriving in the early 20th Century and supported by the Church as a liberating idea, the structural arguments of Lenin and Marx offered the poor a way out…or at least an enemy they could pin their anger on. The capitalist families that ran Central America since the defeat of Spain were the natural targets of Marxism which served as a wedge to divide everything and everyone in the region. Grievances of race coincided with those of economics, culture, social class, and income. The periodic struggle between oligarchs became war amongst the people as large numbers of poor campesinos turned out for the Marxist revolution. Backed by the Soviet Union and opposed by the United States, Marxism converted the “masses” into the critical indicator of power in Central America; a commodity to be gained or, if that wasn’t possible, to be denied to the enemy. The ambivalence of the campesinos to their capitalist white overlords left the oligarchy only one guaranteed way to deny recruits to the Communists…
So began a dark period of mass murder in Central America. Communist cadres, trained by the Soviet Union, attempted to mobilize rural, mostly indigenous, communities into a tool for revolution. Those that refused to convert were abused and destroyed. Tens of thousands died in ignominy. Unable and unwilling to join the Army and encouraged by the Church, indigenous men sided largely with the Communists in the vain hope of relief. Nationalist governments, supported by the United States, responded with repression of equal and opposite brutality. The Army and Police became the tormentors of people previously concerned only with feeding their families and going to church. The tendency of Central American governments to rule through violence was not what Washington wanted so the killing went increasingly underground. Army and Police officers formed extrajudicial death squads, the secrecy of which was a license to rape and maim and kill. Where race was once a mere determinant of one’s place in a more or less stable society, in Cold War Central America, it became an intractable basis for strategically important homicide.
Roberto rubbed his forehead with genuine incredulity. “My cousin Rudy is an amazing man.” Leveling his hand at the center of my chest he said “He’s this tall and ugly as a frog. When I stand next to him I feel tall and good-looking but for some reason all the women ignore me and go to him!” Roberto’s eyes widened. “I don’t understand it. He doesn’t even understand it, there’s just something about him. He’s 53 years old, he’s never been married, and he has an endless string of beautiful 20-year-old girlfriends.” It was my turn to rub my forehead. I knew the kind of man my friend was describing and I wasn’t looking forward to meeting him.
An hour earlier I had agreed to meet Rudy for a night out but got cold feet when he informed us the clubs in San Salvador do not open until 11 PM. That wasn’t the kind of night Roberto or I wanted to have so we decided instead to just get together for a drink. I enjoyed chatting with Roberto. Originally from El Salvador, he was an interesting man in his own right. We had served together in two different disaster responses and I liked him for the same reasons our boss did: he is always happy and he always gets the job done. That night we shared a bottle of wine and some good stories and just as I was about to slap the table and call it a night, his phone rang. “Yes.” He said; repeating himself twice before hanging up.
“My cousin Rudy is here. Let’s go.”
I cursed and Roberto responded with a sympathetic shrug. We paid our bill and I followed him out to the front of the establishment where a line of cars waited to pick up friends and family leaving the cinema next door. Quickening his pace, Roberto strode straight to the one vehicle I wanted to avoid: an elongated Jeep Wrangler covered with darkened windows, expensive modifications, and all sorts of four wheel-drive accoutrement that had clearly never seen a trail. If I imagined a Salvadoran drug lord’s car, it looked just like this.
The Dark Road
The 1970s and 80s were a violent political roller coaster for the region. Communist cadres armed with ideological fervor — and assault rifles from Moscow — contested for leadership of a number of Central American states including El Salvador. They were opposed by brutal military dictatorships whose dependence on patronage increased corruption and actually strengthened the hand of both the Communists and the drug dealing “Narcos.”
America’s “War on Drugs” started officially on 28 March 1973 when President Richard M. Nixon submitted ‘Reorganization Plan No. 2’ to Congress. “This administration,” he said, “has declared an all-out global war on the drug menace.” The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was born. Since that time, every US President, with the full support of Congress, has continued the policy with remarkable consistency. In the early years, the Drug War and the Cold War were seen as separate and distinct, occasionally even contradictory, as the DEA, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the US Military pursued their aims separately. But as enforcement drove up the price of illegal drugs, rising profits also buoyed the fortunes of the Narcos that manufactured them. With narco dollars corrupting institutions in Central America, the cash flows were so immense it was virtually impossible for anyone in power to stay clean and survive.
Recognizing the dilemma, the United States tried to keep the Narcos out of government with a dual strategy. Washington shifted its efforts to raising crack police and military units that were seen as a less corrupt and more precise tool to fight both the Narcos and the Communists. At the same time, the United States sought anti-Communist leaders that were also relatively free of drug connections. This proved difficult as the money required to keep them in power led to many of the same abuses the Narcos were perpetuating. The result was a growing unity of purpose between DEA, CIA, and the Pentagon and the rise of the military dictators that did their bidding. The Cold War had militarized the Drug War and there was no going back.
When the last military man, General Carlos Romero, took power in El Salvador in 1977, resistance escalated into a vicious civil war that lasted until 1992. The peace accord that ended it legitimized the Communist-supported Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and unleashed the Narcos that filled the corruption void with extreme violence and large amounts of cash. Thereafter, the money that kept El Salvador’s leaders in power had to be balanced against the corruption that kept them safe from Narco assassins.
Within a few years, a series of Salvadoran Presidents went down in a cloud of corruption charges. By the time Antonio Saca assumed the office in 2004, even his American backers were using terms like “beyond the pale” to describe the graft. The vast amounts of money flowing through the hands of political cronies of the President were irresistible, even to the formerly-Communist FMLN whose first successful Presidential candidate fled the country with $700,000 from the treasury. Like so many men before him, this champion of a Marxist party was unable to resist the money and violence generated by the narco-economy that is so powerful in El Salvador. His short political career was surely a tumultuous struggle to avoid assassination and stay in power.
I knew none of this as we bounced through San Salvador en route to take Rudy’s girlfriend home. For some reason, Roberto picked that moment to lean over and yell above the din of the music. “Oh by the way, this car belongs to Funes.”
“Who?!” I yelled back.
“Mauricio Funes.” He strained. “The former President of El Salvador. Currently in exile in Nicaragua for pillaging the national treasury. Rudy used to work in his office.”
I groaned with annoyance bordering on anger. In no way did I want an association with a fugitive FMLN politician. Feeling trapped and now extremely wary of Rudy, I simply shook my head and yanked on the safety handle as we skidded to a halt in front of an urban shack on the side of the road. The girl’s house. She had reached the end of her dark road home but my very long night was just beginning.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He has never met Mauricio Funes or any other FMLN member.