Lots of people riding around in the backs of pickup trucks, and sedans with windows tinted so dark, they’d be illegal in the US. That was about all I could see of El Salvador when I passed through its airport a year ago, just another gringo in transit, looking out the window on my way to someplace with a safer reputation.
But what was out there? I remember the temptation to screw Ecuador and run out the door into one of the only two countries in Central America I hadn’t visited, skipped over for fear of violence while I wandered around Guatemala and took shady taxis in Nicaragua. But a couple weeks ago, when I saw I’d be coming back from Peru in no particular hurry, I put in a nine day stopover in this infamous land of gangs, volcanoes, and….more gangs.
When I was at University, El Salvador meant the long, bloody civil war that killed 75,000 people, mostly civilians in a nation plagued with death squads and a repressive military government (supported by the US, of course, during those darkest days of American foreign policy). Since then, the modern news has been a relentless devil’s arithmetic of homicide rates and mass graves.
Search for El Salvador crime statistics and you get a lot of bad news. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2010 published a list of countries in the world with the highest murder rates since 1995.
#4: El Salvador, 1998.
#3: El Salvador, 1997.
#2: El Salvador, 1996.
#1: El Salvador, 1995.
The country shows up twice more in the top 10, meaning it is on the list more than all other countries combined.1
The UNODC that year put Afghanistan’s murder rate at 2.4 per 100,000 people, Palestine’s at 4.1 and Pakistan at 7.8. El Salvador? 69.2. For further comparison, Massachusetts is about the same size and population as El Salvador, and their 2012 homicide rate was 2.6.2
That figure got worse in 2011 (about 713), and 2012 was on track to be the worst yet, until the Catholic Church (and unofficially the Salvadoran government) negotiated a gang truce between the two main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha 13, and Barrio 18. After that, the murder rate fell immediately and impressively.
Since the initial plunge, homicide rates have been rising steadily, while mass graves4 and twice as many “missing” persons in 2013 as 20125 have cast doubt on the actual efficacy of the ceasefire. In addition, other crimes have increased during the lull in gunfire, including the country’s rampant extortion which has destroyed an unknown number of small businesses in this struggling economy. A report last week detailed the doubling of bus company extortion to $36 million dollars, taking roughly 10 to 25 percent of a company’s profit, leaving many of them on the edge of bankruptcy.6
No one knows for sure how many gang members there are in Central America, with estimates ranging from 69,000 to 200,0007. When 69,000 people is the lowest estimate? We’re in trouble.
How’s that for a travel solicitation? Not exactly what you want to see on a glossy brochure. Maybe the US State Department can paint a better picture.
“Armed robberies of climbers and hikers in El Salvador’s national parks are common…The Government of El Salvador lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases and to deter violent crime. El Salvador’s current criminal conviction rate is five percent…Transnational criminal organizations conduct narcotics, arms trafficking, and other unlawful activities…such as murder-for-hire, carjacking, extortion, armed robbery, rapes, and other aggravated assaults.”8
I should have known better than to ask the Americans. What does Canada say? “There is no nationwide advisory in effect for El Salvador. However, you should exercise a high degree of caution due to the high crime rate.”9
That must be why I was surrounded by elderly Canadians in the immigration line at Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport.
I had contacted the Salvadoran American National Association (SANA)10 some of whose members are in the country to monitor the upcoming elections. Because what better time to visit a volatile and violent Central American nation than during a fiercely contested and pivotal presidential election?
The polls open Sunday morning, to choose between the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the political party descendant of the guerrillas that has been nominally in charge of the government since the last election in 200911, and The Nationalist Republican Alliance, ARENA, the Right-wing conservative party that controlled the government for the 20 years leading up to 2009.
This is the first time the Leftist government will be defending its place in power, as this violence-weary nation chooses between a former revolutionary party, and the people who gripped the nation with an iron fist for two decades. Will the reforms of the FMLN be protected and continued under another administration of the party whose platform lists the three fundamental values of Employment, Security, and Education?
Or will the pendulum swing back to the conservative party, whose platform is based on economic reform to increase foreign investment, sending the military to fight the gangs, and talks of drafting all males between 18 and 30 who are not working or studying?
Sending the military against the cartels hasn’t worked out well for Mexico, and some Salvadorans fear the resurgence of unaccountable death squads. But in the five years since the FMLN took power, crime has risen rapidly, and a series of scandals have shaken people’s confidence in them.
The choice is critical to the nation’s future, and tensions are high, as people fear violent disruption of the electoral process. Wish the Salvadoran people luck on Sunday, and leave a little aside for me.
All this was rattling around in my head when I arrived in San Salvador, but more immediately, I needed to get into town. The SANA people had said they would pick me up, and given the chance to avoid the customary chaos of airport taxi drivers, I gratefully accepted. I walked out of the air-conditioned holding pen of immigration into 90 degree sunlight and a cluster of people uninterested in me.
I seeped through the crowd like the sweat under my arm, wondering what I’d do if they weren’t here, until a man approached me and asked if I was Señor Tim. When I told him I was, he turned to his companion and said “See? I told you, we were looking for a gringo with only a small backpack, Americanos like to travel light!”
Their hospitality was warmer than the sun, and as immediate as my need to pee, when they led me to the car. A sedan with windows tinted so dark, they’d be illegal in the US.
11 The Salvadoran people were nervous of a former guerrilla commander, so the party was forced into an alliance with Mauricio Funes, a moderate who has left the core of the party feeling unfilled in their agenda.