For the second time this week, the Wall Street Journal has turned its attention to El Salvador. An article by José de Córdoba in the August 28 edition of the business paper looks at senior FMLN party official José Luis Merino, and in particular his apparent links to Colombian FARC guerrillas. Those links were exposed when the Colombian army captured laptop computers in a raid on the FARC last March.
The WSJ article reports:
The FARC computer documents, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, include an email written in September by Iván Márquez, the guerrillas' main contact with the Venezuelan government. In the email, Mr. Márquez says he met two Australian arms dealers "thanks to Ramiro (Salvador)."
"The friends of Ramiro," writes Mr. Márquez, "have everything we need at very favorable prices: rifles, PKM machine guns, Russian Drugunovs with sights for snipers...and missiles. Everything Russian and Chinese made....They have a thermobaric grenade that destroys everything in closed spaces, (like the bombs the gringos use against al Qaeda hiding places) for $800." Also available, according to the email: the latest Chinese ground-to-air missiles, at $93,000 each.
It is unclear whether the weapons deal, which was to have gone through Venezuela, was consummated. The email did not name the Australian dealers.
The documents could complicate the FMLN's campaign to convince voters it has left behind its violent past. Already the governing Arena party has seized on the issue, which came to light shortly after the computer was found in March.
"We are worried about the FMLN's involvement in the arms trade," El Salvador President Tony Saca said in an interview. "We are talking about the most important person in that party," he said, referring to Mr. Merino. El Salvador's attorney general is probing the allegations, he said.
Mr. Merino, the son of a farm foreman, joined the Communist Party's youth wing, studied intelligence at an elite Soviet military academy and guerrilla warfare in Cuba, former guerrillas say.
During the war, the Russian-speaking Mr. Merino fielded some 400 fighters on volcano slopes near the capital. There, he demonstrated his penchant for secrecy. When a television news crew showed up in 1991, Mr. Merino sent a lieutenant to play the role of commander while he looked on a short distance away, a former guerrilla recalls.
Mr. Merino also commanded urban cells that carried out assassinations and kidnappings of high-level Salvadoran officials, according to other guerrillas and former Salvadoran security officials. The guerrillas demobilized after a 1992 peace deal, ending a war that claimed more than 75,000 lives. But the Communist Party kept Mr. Merino's network of safe houses intact and continued to kidnap for ransom, intelligence officials and former guerrillas say.
In 1995, kidnappers grabbed 15-year-old Andres Suster, the son of a prominent businessman, and kept him in a tiny underground chamber for 354 days before his father secured his release by paying a $150,000 ransom. Raul Granillo, Mr. Merino's top lieutenant during the war, was convicted in absentia for that kidnapping as well as two others.
According to Salvadoran intelligence reports and former security officials, El Salvador's security agencies have believed since then that Mr. Merino was one of the masterminds behind the abductions. He was never charged. Former officials involved in the investigation say the probe was stymied by pro-FMLN judges. A witness was murdered days after agreeing to testify against FMLN leaders, the officials say.
Over the years, Mr. Merino apparently kept contact with the FARC, emails indicate. Mr. Reyes recounts a visit in 2005 from Ramiro, who boasts that he has gained full control of the FMLN and reoriented the party to "the conquest of real power."
Emails indicate the two organizations were pursuing joint ventures. A 2003 email from Mr. Reyes appears to propose a joint kidnapping operation in Panama, to fund the FMLN's 2004 presidential campaign. "We can suggest they gather intelligence on an economic target in Panama for 10 or 20 million dollars that we can do jointly and split the profits down the middle," the email says. There is no record of such a kidnapping taking place at the time.
A 2004 email written by an unknown FARC official tells of a meeting in Caracas with Ramiro and a Belgian associate about the possibility of the FMLN and the FARC obtaining, through front companies, Venezuelan government contracts in areas including waste management and tourism. "We agreed to split the profits, between...FMLN, the Belgians, and us," the FARC official wrote.
In El Salvador, intelligence officials say, Mr. Merino oversees Capsa, a company that operates the country's second-largest landfill and has garbage-removal contracts with 52 municipalities. The officials say Capsa is used to generate revenue for the FMLN's political campaigns.
Capsa's director is Mr. Merino's half-brother, Sigfredo Merino, 40. The younger Merino said his brother isn't involved with Capsa and the business does not fund the FMLN.
Orlando Mena, the mayor of Santa Ana, El Salvador's second-largest city, disagrees. Mr. Mena says José Luis Merino sought him out in 2003, when the mayor was a member of the FMLN, to renew Santa Ana's $1 million garbage contract. "He said 15% would go to the FMLN," Mr. Mena says. "He told me it was the municipality's contribution to the party."
Mr. Mena did not renew. Shortly after, he was drummed out of the party. "In the FMLN, they do what Ramiro says," Mr. Mena says.
None of this information will be news in El Salvador. La Prensa Grafica has had a steady drumbeat of articles linking the FMLN leader and the FARC since the e-mails surfaced in March. The article gave LPG the chance to beat the drum one more time as it wrote a news story about the Journal article. The more interesting question is why the Wall Street Journal decided to run this article which presents no new information. The article fits neatly with ARENA's campaign strategy of fear, which seeks to keep the FMLN's guerrilla force past in front of the voting public.
The author of the article writes that "Mr. Merino, 55 years old, is considered the dominant force in the ... FMLN." The more interesting question is whether or not that is still true in 2008 and how it will impact a Mauricio Funes presidency. Funes has denounced the Colombian FARC as terrorists and has proposed a moderate leftist program for governing. Is Funes just a puppet being manipulated by the hard line elements in the FMLN, or, as seems more likely, does the Funes nomination suggest that the FMLN is starting to transition from the hard-line leaders grounded in Marxism like Merino?
You can read a 2005 interview in El Faro with Merino in Spanish at this link.