A changing of the guard in El Salvador

The appointment of a retired general as Minister of Justice is part of a trend of militarising state institutions.

President Funes
President Mauricio Funes recently appointed a retired general as Minister of Justice and Public Security [EPA]

Scranton, Pennsylvania – Manuel Melgar resigned as the Minister of Justice and Public Security two weeks ago in El Salvador. Initially, there was no public explanation for his voluntary resignation. On Tuesday, President Mauricio Funes appointed retired general David Munguía Payés to replace Melgar. The alleged involvement of the United States in Melgar’s resignation, the role of the military in post-war El Salvador, and President Funes’ relfationship with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) are three important issues related to Melgar’s replacement with Munguía Payés.

Melgar’s resignation two weeks ago was abrupt and came without explanation. Many have speculated that the United States was behind his removal however. The US believes that Melgar is responsible for the 1985 Zona Rosa attack that killed four off duty US military personnel and eight civilians. This terrorist attack occurred during the country’s civil war in which the US was involved. The US provided economic, political and military support to the Government of El Salvador and its armed forces in order to defeat the Marxist-Leninist FMLN, of which Melgar was a guerrilla commander.

While there is little direct evidence of his involvement in the marines’ deaths, one FMLN defector identified Melgar as the guerrilla responsible for the attack. Little additional evidence has come to light about Melgar’s participation outside of this informant. A July 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks indicated that US diplomats believed Melgar’s appointment had complicated co-operation between US and Salvadoran law enforcement agencies. According to the cable, Melgar’s appointment was made by FMLN hardliners and not necessarily Funes.

El Salvador’s murder rate of 66 per 100,000 makes it the second-most violent country in the world after Honduras.

We don’t know whether it was actually the case, but sources within the Ministry of Justice and Public Security told the online periodical El Faro that the US pressured Funes into replacing Melgar as a condition for the country receiving assistance through the US Partnership for Growth initiative, “a comprehensive proposal aimed at accelerating and sustaining broad-based economic growth”. El Salvador is one of four countries throughout the world that was chosen to take part in this signature effort of President Barack Obama’s development policy.

In Funes’ defence, he might simply have decided to replace Melgar because, in his role as Minister of Justice and Public Security, Melgar had failed to make any significant improvements in the country’s security situation. El Salvador’s murder rate of 66 per 100,000 makes it the second-most violent country in the world after Honduras. Funes alluded to Melgar and his administration’s failure to bring crime under control during the announcement of Melgar’s successor. In his press conference introducing Munguía Payés, President Funes also alluded to the likelihood that other high ranking officials will be replaced in the coming weeks as he reaches the midpoint of his five-year term in office.

Few people would have a problem with Funes’ decision if it was simply a decision to replace an official who was underperforming in his job. However, there is real concern that Funes simply gave in to US demands and that the US continues to interfere in Salvadoran domestic politics.

Militarising public security

A second concern with recent events surrounds the appointment of Melgar’s successor, David Munguía Payés. On January 16, 2012, Salvadorans will celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the end of its civil war that resulted in the deaths of over 75,000 people. Munguía Payés will be the first military official in charge of the country’s domestic security since the war ended in 1992. FMLN officials and civil society have stated that Munguía Payés’ appointment goes against the spirit of the Peace Accords, is a step backwards for Salvadoran democracy, and a worrisome sign of the continued militarisation of the public security apparatus of government.

President Funes rejects this characterisation of his appointment. Munguía Payés is retired, not on active duty, and, Funes says, “nobody with good intentions think that this appointment could lead to a militarisation of security, and that means a decrease in the spirit of the Peace Accords”.

The US had problems with Melgar as Minister of Justice and Public Security because the former guerrilla is alleged to have committed war crimes. Well it’s more that he killed four off-duty US marines at a bar in San Salvador. It doesn’t appear that the US would have had a problem with a different former guerrilla in that post.

The FMLN, non-governmental organisations, and some in the upper-ranks of the National Civilian Police (PNC) do not have a problem with Munguía Payés personally. Many view Munguía Payés as a moderate member of the armed forces who until recently served as the country’s defence minister. He has not been accused of human rights violations during the war. And he also seems to have had good relations with the FMLN going back several years.

They have a problem with a former military official in charge of a civilian institution. According to the United Nations Truth Commission (1993), the Salvadoran armed forces committed the majority of human rights violations during the 12-year civil war. As a result, the Peace Accords were designed to purge the military from public institutions.

Munguía Payés’ appointment is also problematic because he represents the continued militarisation of El Salvador’s public institutions, and those of the region as a whole, as a solution to crime and insecurity. In his previous role as Minister of Defence, Munguía Payés oversaw the deployment of troops throughout the capital in an effort to retake the streets back from the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs.

Finally, I imagine that the FMLN’s outrage is not simply based on principle alone. It is based on pure politics. With Melgar’s resignation and Munguía Payés’ appointment as Minister of Justice and Public Security, the FMLN has lost control of a very important government position. Melgar is an FMLN loyalist. Munguía is more loyal to President Funes. Munguía Payés was among a small group of entrepreneurs, former state officials and professionals that formed the Friends of Mauricio and helped get the FMLN to nominate him for president.

“David Munguía is a man I have the utmost faith in, a retired soldier who deserves recognition from civil society for his performance in the armed forces during the two-and-a-half years he has been working under my mandate,” Funes said.

Funes does not appear to be someone who cares what the FMLN, civil society, the Catholic Church, and international solidarity activists say about his decisions. He has shown this in the past with his use of the armed forces on the streets of San Salvador and with Decree 743 that temporarily neutered the Constitutional Court. Funes does what he thinks is right. On the other hand, Munguía Payés’ appointment could indicate that Funes does not have a deep group of individuals in which he places much trust. Funes might have felt that he had no option but to stick with Munguía Payés over the objections of much of Salvadoran society.

Personally, I think that Munguía Payés’ appointment sets bad precedent. I am not worried so much about him as I am the fact that his appointment opens the door for additional appointments of former military officials to head state institutions. That’s not a path that anyone wishes to see El Salvador travel down.

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the political science department and a member of the Latin American and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  He blogs on Central American Politics here.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.