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Salvadorans head to vote with ex-rebel favored

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MARCOS ALEMAN | March 9, 2014 12:43 PM EST | AP

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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Salvadorans were expected to elect a former Marxist guerrilla as president in a runoff Sunday, favoring him over the conservative former mayor of the capital who has pledged to get tough on gang violence.

Salvador Sanchez Ceren, 69, the candidate of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, would be the first true guerrilla to lead the Central American nation. Outgoing President Mauricio Funes was a journalist who was sympathetic to the FMLN rebels during the country's civil war but was never an actual guerrilla.

Sanchez Ceren has promised to deepen the outgoing government's popular social programs and govern as a moderate. He said he envisions ruling like Uruguay's President Jose Mujica, also a former guerrilla who formed an inclusive government.

His victory would give the FMLN a second consecutive term after Funes ousted the long-ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, in 2009.

Sanchez Ceren's ARENA opponent, former San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano, 67, called the former guerrilla out for appearing to want to lead the country like Venezuela's late socialist president, Hugo Chavez. He warned of a return of communism.

But analysts say Quijano's campaign strategy of bringing back Cold War memories only appealed to the most privileged in the country of 6 million.

Polls showed Quijano 10 to 18 percentage points behind Sanchez Ceren, who was a top rebel commander who helped negotiate the 1992 Peace Accords that ended the 12-year civil war. During the war that killed 76,000 people, the United States supported the Salvadoran government against the FMLN to prevent communism from spreading in Latin America.

Early voting appeared to be going smoothly in most places. Polls close at 5 p.m. (2300 GMT) and electoral tribunal president Eugenio Chicas said he expects preliminary results late Sunday.

El Salvador is dealing with one of the highest murder rates in the world. A 2012 gang truce seemed to cut the country's daily average of 14 dead by half, but the drop appears to have been short-lived.

Homicides, mostly of gang members, are up again this year; police statistics show 501 murders the first two months of this year— a more than 25 percent increase over the same period of 2013. More unsettling is the fact that many dead have turned up in mass graves, leading some to believe the gang truce could have been either an illusion or an agreement to cover up the violence.

During the campaign, Quijano lambasted Funes for negotiating with criminals because of the truce he struck between the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gangs. He promised to get tough on criminals, possibly militarizing public security.

The ruling party, in turn, focused on alleged ARENA corruption, accusing Quijano's former campaign manager of mismanaging millions in aid he received from Taiwan.