By Nelson Renteria and Michael O'Boyle
SAN SALVADOR, Feb 2 A former left-wing guerrilla
commander had a strong lead in El Salvador's presidential
election on Sunday and heads into a run-off vote well
positioned to defeat a conservative rival who wants to fight
powerful street gangs with the army.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who became a top leader of the
now-ruling leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front
(FMLN) during El Salvador's civil war, had 49 percent support
with votes in from more than 94 percent of polling booths.
His right-wing opponent, former San Salvador Mayor Norman
Quijano, had 38.9 percent of the vote.
Sanchez Ceren had needed 50 percent to avoid a run-off on
March 9 but with a 10-point lead over Quijano he was optimistic.
"We won the first round ... we are sure that in the second
round we will win by more than 10 points," he told cheering
supporters. "It a great victory for the people of El Salvador."
The FMLN turned into a political party at the end of the
civil war in 1992 and it took power at the last election in 2009
after softening some of its hard-left policies.
Still, Sanchez Ceren's campaign was helped by the FMLN
government's mix of popular welfare programs, including pensions
and free school supplies.
"The Front is going to win because of the poor. They are
giving us opportunities. My kids would not have been able to
study without their help," said housewife Patricia Concepcion,
43, as voting wrapped up.
The third-place candidate Antonio Saca, who was president
from 2004 until 2009, had about 11.4 percent support.
After he left office, Saca broke away from Quijano's
Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) party.
The Universidad Centroamericana estimates that while about
60 percent of Saca's supporters would likely opt for Quijano in
the run-off, around 25 percent would go with Sanchez Ceren. That
would be enough to give him a clear win.
A victory for the FMLN would also boost the influence of
Venezuela's socialist government in Latin America, as Sanchez
Ceren has said he would seek to join the South American oil
giant's Petrocaribe oil bloc, which furnishes mainly leftist
allies with cheap energy.
El Salvador's sluggish economy is heavily reliant on money
sent home by migrants living and working in the United States,
and poverty has contributed to the surge of violent street gangs
in the past two decades.
Quijano campaigned on a promise of tough policies to crack
down on the gangs, and won over some voters.
"It is just terrible. You can't even leave your house
because there is danger everywhere. It is time to put an end to
this," said Sandra Marin, 40, a shoe saleswoman.
Sanchez Ceren rejects the idea of deploying the army to
fight the gangs and instead vows to forge a political pact to
break through gridlock that has kept a divided Congress from
carrying out reforms to tackle crime and weak economic growth.
He was a rural teacher before the civil war but joined the
FMLN ranks and became a senior commander as it fought a series
of U.S.-backed conservative governments.
The FMLN won the last election when it put up a popular
journalist, Mauricio Funes, as its candidate. He had no role in
the civil war and has helped lead the FMLN toward more moderate
Although many Salvadorans are terrified of the street gangs,
a two-year-old truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang
and its rival, Barrio 18, has helped cut the number of
murders in half from one of the highest homicide rates in the
world to a 10-year low in 2013.
Quijano, a 67-year-old former dentist who became San
Salvador's mayor, accused the FMLN of making deals with gangs to
win votes in areas controlled by the criminal groups.
"Do you want to stay with a government that makes deals with
criminals?" Quijano asked after he voted in a Roman Catholic
school's basketball gym while supporters waved blue, white and
red Salvadoran flags.
Orlando Sanchez, a 73-year-old bricklayer, believes Arena,
which was founded by members who backed death squads during the
civil war, would steal public money if it regains power.
"This country is poor because they left it that way," he
said as he walked in a park in the center of the capital.
El Salvador is known for its high-quality arabica coffee
beans but it has been the country hardest hit by the spread of
the tree-killing fungus roya in Central America. The fungus has
infected more than 70 percent of the country's coffee