Authorities in El Salvador say they arrested five people and seized “revolutionary propaganda” belonging to a guerrilla group, but government officials have made such claims before, with little to back them up.

Police engaged in a shootout with a group of at least 10 people in eastern Sesori, San Miguel department on February 15. Five people were detained, two of them wounded during the 15-minute firefight. At least one of them was found wearing a police uniform.

Afterwards, Security and Justice Minister David Munguia Payes said police found an AK-47, materials for making bombs, and “revolutionary propaganda” at the campsite. He called the detainees an “irregular armed group” and said he could not give more details about the ideological literature reportedly found at the scene.

“I don’t think this is related to gangs. The strange thing is the propaganda,” Payes said.

The police subdirector general confirmed Payes’ report, stating that the propaganda could not be linked to any political party in El Salvador. The country’s ruling party, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), originally formed from a coalition of guerrilla organizations which fought the 1980-1992 civil war against the military junta.

According to El Faro, Payes claimed that one of the detainees, a woman, said that the guerrilla group was actually politically opposed to the FMLN. She also implied that the group received help from some noted public figures and government organizations, Payes added.

Subdirector of Police Investigations Hector Mendoza went further, and said that the group referred themselves as “the new guerrilla” of El Salvador, adapting the name the “Popular Armed Revolutionary Forces of January 22,” according to a report from El Diario de Hoy. One of the detainees is a former guerrilla wanted on kidnapping charges, and there is evidence of at least four other cells active in other parts of El Salvador connected with the guerrilla group, Mendoza said. He added that there was enough evidence to charge the group with terrorist activity.

However, the Attorney General’s Office countered there was not enough evidence to support terrorism charges, nor to warrant the description of the organization as an “illegal armed group.”

It is not the first time that government officials and media outlets have warned against the presence of “armed groups” remaining in El Salvador’s countryside. In the past, such allegations have appeared intended to create damaging associations with the FMLN. Talk of “armed groups” was particularly common just before the FMLN won its majority in the municipal and legislative elections of January 2009. Two months later, the party won the presidential elections with Mauricio Funes as its candidate.

In December 2008, Diario del Hoy published a cover story which stated “The FMLN supports armed groups.” The story quoted then-Security and Justice Minister Rene Figueora, who said there were more than 40 armed groups active inside the country. The groups were supposedly active in the same region controlled by the FMLN during the civil war. El Salvador’s National Security Council (CSN) backed up the assertions, saying that the groups were armed with Galil rifles and AK-47s, and were training child soldiers. Such groups had been “operating clandestinely” in the country since the 1992 Peace Accords, the CSN secretary said.

Funes’ predecessor as president, Antonio Saca, also spoke of the threat of “armed groups” during the late 2008 election season. He said that such groups were behind heated protests against water privatization efforts in El Paisnal municipality, which broke out in July 2007. He added that an armed group had attempted to fire on the presidential helicopter when he was touring the area.

All of this supposed intelligence spoke of “armed groups” as most active in western El Salvador; none of the allegations mentioned San Miguel department as an area of interest. And despite assertions by the CSN that there were maps, pictures, and intelligence to back up the existence of these groups, since 2009 there have been few reports of any “guerrilla” activity. Indeed, during the FMLN’s reign in power, there has been little evidence that alleged “armed groups” in the countryside, if they exist, pose a significant threat to national security.

El Salvador is set to hold Congressional elections on March 11. Unless authorities release harder evidence that the alleged “revolutionary” group in San Miguel preached a political ideology, and were capable of posing a significant threat to public security, they may face accusations of playing a political game.

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