Left-wing FMLN presidential candidate Mauricio Funes has declared victory in El Salvador. The candidate had campaigned in Washington, since there are an estimated 133,000 Salvadorans in the area. Salvadorans are the largest immigrant group in the metro area.

Funes was a widely respected talk show host who became a new kind of FMLN candidate – more moderate, less strident than candidates in previous years. Several members of the local FMLN committee went down to El Salvador to vote—-absentee voting is not allowed—-and to serve as election observers.

The FMLN was a guerrilla movement during the 1980s, formed to bring down a repressive right-wing government that maintained order in part by deploying death squads throughout the country. The civil war cost 75,000 lives and featured some of the more horrific massacres and assassinations of the decade. The war ended in 1992 with peace accords that legalized the FMLN as a political party.

But in the 17 years since the war, that new political party hadn’t managed to capture the presidency. Congress, yes, and countless City Halls. But even as so many other countries in Latin America turned left – even Nicaragua has re-elected its revolution-era president – El Salvador remained resolutely under the control of right-wing presidents.

If you thought the Obama presidency was changing the face of Washington, just think what this will mean for San Salvador. “There’s going to be a new president from the party the United States poured almost $6 billion into defeating,” says Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America. “And among his senior advisers and on his cabinet are going to be people who were guerrilla commanders and community organizers and union activists in El Salvador 20 years ago.”

Thale worked against U.S. support for the Salvadoran regime during the civil war. He says the change in government is the result of years of hard work – there and here. “In the United States there’s a whole history of an activist and solidarity movement that tried to defend human rights and open political space,” he says. “And the people we worked with and defended are about to assume power in the country. It’s a tribute to the long-term commitment of the people there and their friends and allies here.”

El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world – second only to Iraq – and a gang network that terrorizes not just San Salvador but also Columbia Heights and Prince George’s County. The outgoing president, Tony Saca, promised to use an “iron fist” in dealing with the problem, but the violence has only increased. Getting the epidemic of violence under control will be one of the most serious challenges to the new president.

—-Tanya Snyder