One cloud-covered weekend a few years ago, Felton resident Les Gardner was on vacation in El Salvador, a country that he first visited in the late ’90s. He’d grown to love its lush, rainforested mountains, and especially the kind, generous people.
At the Sheraton Presidente hotel in the city of San Salvador, Gardner sat at the edge of the hotel restaurant’s garden patio, beside a large outdoor pool, where a waterfall poured into the quiet waters. Up above, the crescent-shaped hotel wrapped around the restaurant bustling with visitors, Gardner recalls.
A veteran of U.S. political campaigns, Gardner chatted with Carlos Ramos, the former mayor of a nearby city. They discussed the Salvadoran politician’s possible career opportunities. Ramos trusted the California native’s perspective—in part due to Gardner’s deep connections to the U.S. Democratic Party, but also because of all the time he had spent visiting the country, where he kept a beach house. Gardner was enjoying catching up with Ramos and his father Roberto Gomero, an attorney who also once served as mayor.
At one point, Gardner, who doesn’t speak much Spanish, noticed a heavy-set man suddenly standing beside their table. The man started chatting up Ramos and Gomero. Hearing his name a few times, Gardner stood up to shake hands with the man, who bantered with Ramos and Gomero for a few minutes before leaving.
Afterwards, Gardner had a few questions—starting with, “Who the hell is he?”
The man was Alberto “Beto” Romero, then the minority whip in the country’s Legislative Assembly. He was a longtime member of El Salvador’s conservative Arena party, a rival of the left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) party, which counts Ramos as a longtime member. Ramos and Gomero revealed that Romero had told them, “You guys must be talking about something important here, because if it wasn’t for Les Gardner, my party would have won the election.”
Gardner was a bit shocked, but Ramos says he “absolutely” agrees with Romero’s assessment of the 2014 presidential race, in which the FMLN secured the presidency for the second straight election. Ramos calls Gardner “a determinant factor” in the presidential race, as well as in the one before it.
“Without a doubt, yes,” Ramos tells GT, speaking via an interpreter. “Les—with a progressive mind and, above all, a loving heart for Salvadoran people, and with a lot of courage—embarked on a journey to help support this vision we had to win the elections of 2009 and 2014.”
El Salvador has roughly the same population and total area of the state of Massachusetts, making it geographically the smallest nation in Central America. Stretched out along the Pacific Ocean, it sits between the neighboring countries of Honduras and Guatemala, in the same time zone as the state of Mississippi.
Talking to Gardner, it’s easy to see why he’s a quasi-celebrity in the country.
It isn’t only his love for Central America or his political savvy, which was honed over the years as a major Democratic booster in the states. There’s something larger than life about the 72 year old. When talking about his work in El Salvador, Gardner frequently pauses mid-sentence to glance around his home office and gather his thoughts, a reminder that he’s never told this story to the media before.
The walls of his office are covered in lifetime achievement awards, as well as resolutions from Congress and California’s state legislature, some matted with cobwebs. There are also framed pictures of Gardner with former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, former Gov. Jerry Brown, former Gov. Gray Davis, Senator Dianne Feinstein, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. On the door hangs a soccer jersey with his first name on the back, from a team he sponsored in the Salvadoran province of La Paz.
Every year, Gardner writes several thousand dollars worth of checks to Democratic politicians—former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Assemblymember Mark Stone, Sheriff Jim Hart, city council candidates. In the two most recent election cycles, Gardner donated $27,000 to state and federal elections alone, according to campaign filing data. He also hosts fundraisers. His checkbook, combined with his experience, lends him deep political connections, particularly in Santa Cruz County. Gardner claims that he doesn’t leverage those connections often, but they came in handy in El Salvador.
In business, Gardner has made most of his money over the years in real estate, and he owns properties from the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the state of Oregon. He prefers to work behind the scenes, and he downplays his political influence in Santa Cruz County, though he’s helped groom some of the region’s top politicians. Recently, he helped organize against efforts to expand the county’s needle exchange, a program that he says he still supports when tightly managed.
Gardner went back to El Salvador in the early 2000s for a PBS documentary that he produced about the damage of a devastating magnitude 7.6 earthquake. Over the years, he stayed involved, supporting orphanages in the country, writing checks to pay for kids’ school books and arranging to have four ambulances donated.
When it comes to helping presidential candidates in El Salvador, he didn’t take the decision to get involved lightly. Gardner says the thought of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election to aid President Donald Trump concerns him. But he says the difference between that and his work in El Salvador is that he only started helping because he saw that Republicans were already involved, and trying to move the country in a more conservative direction. Gardner thought the FMLN would deliver the kinds of social programs that Salvadorans needed, and more than anything, he says he wanted a fair fight.
“They were bringing out the big guns,” Gardner says. “We were just leveling the playing field.”
The U.S. has a long history of wading into Latin American politics that stretches back to the 19th century. Robert Cavooris, a UCSC Latin American and Latino studies PhD student, notes that the U.S. has often sided with conservative regimes and propped up dictatorships.
Part of the irony is that, in the 1980s and 1990s, conservatives lectured revolutionaries that if they really wanted change, they should use the electoral process to create it, Cavooris says. But once leftist groups got serious about running for office, conservatives pivoted and started trying to subvert socialist campaigns run by the same factions. The message heard loud and clear in Latin America was that the U.S. was shunning socialist movements.
“It sounds like Les Gardner was saying, ‘We’re going to send the opposite message. We’re not going to let our state interfere in foreign affairs,’” says Cavooris, who’s studying Marxist theory in Latin America.
But what’s the difference between “hacking” an election and a well-funded activist trying to “even it out?”
Generally speaking, UCSC Associate Professor Sylvanna Falcón says that when Americans get involved in foreign movements, the political energy and the vision for change should come from people in those countries at the grassroots level. “We need to be mindful that we’re not affecting policy work on the ground,” says Falcón, who teaches Latin American and Latino studies.
There are signs that Gardner’s volunteerism is something other than a brash game of ego-boosting political bloodsport. One example is what happened in the most recent Salvadoran presidential election—namely, Gardner stayed out of it. He says that, this time around, he didn’t spot any red flags indicating meddling from conservatives in the U.S. This year, center-right candidate Nayib Bukele won the presidential race. FMLN candidate Hugo Martínez finished third. In March, Jacobin, the New York-based socialist magazine, reported that the developing country’s left was “in crisis.” Unconcerned, Gardner told me in April that the loss would probably be good for the socialist party in the long run—a chance to rebuild.
But looking ahead, Gardner tells me he has questions about the future of the party, and the country as a whole. After Bukele took office June 1, he took to Twitter to dissolve five federal ministries, and quickly began firing FMLN-affiliated officials via tweet.
“I’m really concerned about the country, and I’m concerned about the institutions,” Gardner says.
Although economic inequality has fallen over the last decade, daily life in El Salvador is not without struggle, especially for the 31 percent of Salvadorans still living on less than $5.50 a day. The country’s homicide rate is among the highest in the world, which has fueled ongoing migration and controversy about political asylum under Trump.
PUSH AND POLLS
By 2008, after decades of political and economic turmoil in El Salvador, the U.S. was home to an estimated 1.1 million immigrants from the country.
In 2009, Watsonville resident Edenilson Quintanilla, Gardner’s friend, was living in his native El Salvador and began volunteering for the campaign to elect journalist Mauricio Funes, the FMLN’s presidential nominee.
While the party tried to win its first presidential election, Quintanilla remembers campaign workers fearing that the U.S. would try to interfere in the race, as it had before. In the 2004 race, numerous Republicans, including then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, publicly sided with Arena candidate Tony Saca, the conservative who ended up winning the presidency. Republicans threatened to cut off the remittances that Salvadorans living in the U.S. send back to their families—which account for about 20% of the country’s GDP—if a socialist was elected.
The FMLN worried that Republicans might pull a similar stunt again in 2009. Funes, the race’s onetime frontrunner, started to slip in the polls in the weeks leading up to the election, the New York Times reported. That was after conservatives started running a slew of vitriolic attack ads linking him to Hugo Chavez, then-leader of Venezuela.
To provide assurances to voters, the FMLN wanted to get it in writing that the U.S. wouldn’t interfere with or retaliate after the election in El Salvador, no matter the outcome. They wanted a U.S. lawmaker to speak with Spanish-speaking media to set the record straight. Shortly before the March 15 election, Quintanilla called Gardner, hoping his friend could leverage his political ties to help. “Let me see what I can do,” Gardner told him. “I make no promises.”
Around this same time on March 11, 2009, three Republican legislators took to the floor of Congress to claim that Funes was pro-terrorist. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), went the farthest, referring—without any evidence—to the FMLN as an “ally of Al-Qaeda and Iran.”
The way Gardner tells it, he started making phone calls and, via Pelosi’s office, was able to put pressure on Rep. Howard Berman (D-Los Angeles), then-chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to release a letter saying that the U.S. would remain neutral in the race. Berman, who’s now retired and works as a lobbyist, did, in fact, release such a statement. It said that the U.S. would not interfere with the flow of remittances, no matter the outcome of the election. “Sunday’s election belongs to the people of El Salvador,” Berman’s statement read. He tells GT that he weighed in purely because he was appalled by what his Republican colleagues had said, not because of any strings Gardner may have pulled.
Quintanilla says that back in El Salvador, the Funes campaign took out huge ads in newspapers to run the short letter.
Gardner also called his friend Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who speaks fluent Spanish, and asked him to speak with the Salvadoran media.
Farr agreed to do an interview with a television station. Volunteering from a small house that served as FMLN headquarters, Quintanilla set up the interview. Talking to the news anchor, Farr asserted El Salvador’s right to independent elections. At FMLN headquarters, about two dozen campaign officials crowded into a small office with an old tube TV that took up much of the room and teetered on a small stand, Quintanilla remembers. After the interview, he says, “Everyone just exploded in joy, celebrating the small victory they felt they had achieved in getting a response from the United States.”
On March 15 of 2009, Funes won the race by 69,000 votes, or 2.6% of ballots cast. It was the first-ever presidential win for the FMLN after decades of right-wing rule.
Party leaders say that Gardner and Quintanilla played a pivotal role in the victory. “It also shows that people-to-people relations are still valid,” says Lourdes Palacios, who served in the Legislative Assembly, “that they are relationships that we must appreciate.”
With the FMLN in the driver’s seat, the country boosted literacy. El Salvador began providing students with school supplies, uniforms and shoes—as well as a hot lunch and a cup of milk, to ensure that they would get at least one square meal each day. The country opened hundreds of new medical clinics and cut drug prices. It provided new assistance to farmers.
On the streets, El Salvador’s notorious gang problem continued to paralyze many residents with fear, although homicides fell for a few years in the early 2010s. A recent Harper’s investigation laid much of the blame for the troubling reversal since 2014 at the feet of Arena and the U.S.
Charges of political corruption also linger. Three years ago, the El Salvador Supreme Court ordered Funes, who was no longer in office, to stand trial for embezzlement. Prosecutors allege that the former left-wing leader stole $351 million from the nation’s coffers. Funes now lives in Nicaragua, which granted him asylum. Quintanilla and other FMLN supporters dismiss the charges as nothing more than a political attack from a conservative court and attorney general.
El Salvador’s previous president, the more conservative Saca, has come under fire, too. The former Arena leader is serving a 10-year sentence and recently pleaded guilty to bribery charges. Some scholars of Latin American politics argue that the election of right-wing Bukele earlier this year, as well as widespread Assembly losses for the two main parties, show that voters are fed up with the status quo.
Gardner isn’t sure what to think about it all. He figures that if there had been anything to the charges against Funes, Interpol would have weighed in and asked for his capture, something the international law enforcement agency has twice declined to do.
But then again, if he’s innocent, Gardner wonders why Funes hasn’t been more vocal.
“I didn’t know him. In retrospect, I’d still do the same goddamn thing again. I mean, what the hell? I look at the direction that country went in, and I’m happy with it. Did we have a bad penny there? I don’t know,” Gardner says, crossing his arms and shaking his head. “I don’t know.”
Growing up in the rural foothills of El Slavador in the 1980s, Quintanilla would walk three miles to school every day, down a dangerous highway, starting when he was 5 years old—the same age that his son is now. He and his classmates walked in groups for safety.
“Sometimes if we saw a vehicle coming down the highway, we would hitchhike,” Quintanilla recalls. “Other times, if we thought the vehicle, from far away, looked suspicious, we would hide in the mountains out of fear. In the Civil War, you had to be fearful.”
His family wanted to stay neutral in the Civil War, careful not to ally themselves with either the U.S.-backed military or the rebels. But because his dad was a military veteran, the guerillas distrusted the Quintanilla family. The military, meanwhile, expected Quintanilla’s father to reenlist, and when he repeatedly declined, they assumed that he had joined the resistance. Soldiers would show up at the house, high-caliber rifles slung over their shoulders, looking for hidden weapons. They would pull out the drawers in every desk, empty every closet and rip all the books off the shelves. They would berate Quintanilla’s parents, and sometimes push them.
Meanwhile, the family’s neighbors and relatives kept disappearing. The lifeless bodies of other locals would sometimes show up, mangled and dismembered, in the streets. Other times, they would wash ashore on nearby beaches. Quintanilla remembers praying every time he went outside and sprinting past a mass grave along the highway on his way to school. “We really thought we were next. We were never gonna find out,” he says. “Thank God we weren’t.”
In 1989, when he was 11 years old, Quintanilla’s family snuck away from their home in the middle of the night, leaving everything behind. They reached Mexico on foot, catching buses when they could. Quintanilla, the oldest of three brothers, remembers the coldest night of his life. His 8-year-old brother caught the stomach flu. His mom became anemic, and soon weighed half her normal weight.
Later that year, the family arrived in Watsonville, where they were granted asylum as refugees. After getting a master’s degree from American University and returning for a time to El Salvador, Quintanilla has since come back to Watsonville, where he lives with his wife Silvia and their two kids. He flies back to his home country frequently, where he owns two construction companies based in the city of Santa Ana.
Now 41, Quintanilla yearns to stop the suffering that wracked his home village when he was a child. The 12-year civil war ended in 1992, but political divisions and scars were still raw. In some ways, the 2001 earthquake deepened the pain, mollifying businesses, hospitals, churches and entire neighborhoods while draining the country’s sparse financial resources.
BALLOTING IT OUT
After the 2009 race, Gardner says he had no intention of jumping in to help the FMLN or the party’s presidential candidate, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, then the country’s vice president, in his 2013 campaign.
But then Gardner found out about a 2012 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Mary Anastasia O’Grady. The writer claimed that, after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Sánchez Cerén had turned a street in San Salvador, the country’s capital, “into a celebration of the carnage,” complete with flag burning. There had also been a protest over the claims during a visit Sánchez Cerén made to Long Island.
Gardner, who had met Sánchez Cerén once before, says he never believed there was any merit to the flag-burning tale. Quintanilla says the claim was based on a video that has since been discredited. At the time, Sánchez Cerén affirmed his love for the U.S. A Salvadoran consulate official called the criticism a “misinterpretation of the facts,” according to a New York-area newspaper article, which also referenced Rohrbacher’s claims about El Salvador and terrorism years earlier.
Quintanilla and Gardner say it shook the electorate, and Sánchez Cerén’s campaign. “They didn’t think they had a prayer,” Gardner says.
Gardner remembers that Sánchez Cerén was third in the polls for the 2014 race. Some polls showed better odds, with the socialist candidate in first place. FMLN officials say that nonetheless, the perception was that Sánchez Cerén wasn’t welcome in the U.S.
“That’s when I said, ‘Bring him here,’” Gardner recalls.
In August 2013, Gardner invited Sánchez Cerén, along with Carlos Ramos, the mayor of San Pedro Masahuat (whom Gardner later advised poolside at the Sheraton), to his Felton home. The group went to Watsonville, where the community honored both men with a sister city delegation. There was also a press event for two bills from then-state Assemblymember Luis Alejo—one to raise the minimum wage and another to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Gardner figured that the bills had the potential to help the 680,000 Salvadorans living in California, and by extension family in their home countries. But the bills would have to pass.
“Surprisingly enough, both of them pass,” Gardner remembers. “Those things pass, and I’m a genius, right? Well, I’m not a genius. It was the right thing, but Jesus! There was a lot of luck in this stuff, I swear to God.”
Gardner threw the group a party at Jalisco’s Restaurant, and the entourage got a special tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Gardner also hosted a celebration at the Darling House bed and breakfast on West Cliff, where the delegation received more resolutions and honors, plus a fifth ambulance for San Pedro Masahuat. Film crews captured the trip for a curious Salvadoran electorate.
“All this is going back to El Slavador!” Gardner recalls, waving his arms overhead. He paid for the trip out of his own pocket—the only financial contribution he ever made to an FMLN candidate, he adds—to broadcast a message that Sánchez Cerén was a guest of honor in the U.S.
On his next trip to El Salvador, Gardner gave a speech to a few dozen people. When it went well, the Sánchez Cerén campaign started booking him for rallies. He invited down California elected officials like Alejo, Santa Cruz Port Commissioner Steve Reed, and Fred Keeley, the former state assemblymember and county treasurer, all of whom joined him onstage. Alejo and Gardner also ended up doing campaign commercials for TV.
On March 9, 2014, election night, Gardner threw a viewing party at the county Democratic Party’s Front Street headquarters and sent a press release to Salvadoran news agencies—just to stick to the Arena party. Sánchez Cerén won by 6,400 votes (or about the same number of people who live in Aptos). Arena candidate Norman Quijano called for a military coup, prompting the country’s defense minister to say that the military would stay out of it. Sánchez Cerén became the first-ever former guerilla from the Salvadoran civil war to win the presidency.
The new president’s team invited Gardner to attend the inauguration, but he declined. As happy as he was about the result, it was the Salvadoran people’s win, not his.
After the 2014 election, Gardner took more trips to El Salvador in an effort to build diplomatic ties between the country and California. It appears to have worked. El Salvador was the first country that Gov. Gavin Newsom visited this year after taking office.
In 2014, Gardner invited a delegation of California lawmakers, including Alejo and Darrell Steinberg, then the president pro-tem of the state Senate. Gardner threw one of his many parties at his beach house, where a children’s marching band played “God Bless America.”
Another weekend, when Alejo was visiting, Quintanilla remembers looking over at Gardner and realizing that neither of them had any idea where the assemblymember was. They began to search frantically for Alejo. Quintanilla’s thoughts jumped to nightmarish scenarios about how U.S. law enforcement would handle the pair if they learned that they had lost an elected official in a foriegn country.
It turned out that Alejo, who’d fallen in love with the Salvadoran fishing community, had hopped in the bed of a pick-up truck and hitched a ride to a nearby fish market, where he spotted fish he’d never seen before. He returned with armfuls of lobster, shrimp and other fresh catches.
Despite the threats from 2009, the U.S. never eliminated remittances to El Salvador. President Trump did cut aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras last year as a punitive measure for increasing numbers of migrant refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border. Farr and Berman, the former congressmembers from California, both say that if the U.S. wants to cut down on undocumented immigration, leaders should improve the lives of Central Americans. That would mean sending more money, they say, not less.
Gardner, since stepping away from the rallies and campaign ads, has kept in touch with FMLN legislators.
The FMLN’s liberal coalition, often identified as socialist, might seem unfamiliar to many California liberals, he says. “Come to America,” Gardner likes to tease them, “I don’t know if we’d let you in the Democratic Party.”
He finds Salvadoran politics around women’s health particularly troubling. Since 1998, the predominantly Catholic country has enacted perhaps the most restrictive abortion ban in the world. Salvadoran lawmakers refuse to allow exceptions, even when the mother’s life is at risk or in cases of incest or rape, despite high rates of violence against women.
Gardner says he’s concerned about “Las 17,” a group of 17 women who were sentenced to up to 40 years in jail after experiencing miscarriages, many on charges of aggravated homicide, from 1999-2011. Some of the women have been released, but Gardner says he and his wife Nancy hope to support Central American nonprofits working on women’s issues.
Back in the days full of meetings in El Salvador, Gardner liked to race back to his place on the beach in time for the sunset. He’s since sold the property; the upkeep had grown to be too much for a man in his seventies.
But Gardner still pictures himself sitting on his steps overlooking the ocean and drinking a Golden beer, his favorite no-frills Salvadoran lager. Gardner would watch fishermen bring in their panga boats and occasionally jog over to the beach to help. Now and again, a local lawmaker like Salvadoran Assemblymember Damian Alegria, would join him on his back stoop. Sometimes they talked politics, but usually not.
“It was just at a different pace,” Gardner says. “Slow speed.”