Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Murder and Crime in El Salvador

I suppose I can't have a blog about El Salvador without mentioning the crime. When I have visitors coming down, I tell them not to Google "El Salvador".

You'll come up with articles like the recent one in the LA Times saying that San Salvador is the murder capital of the world. This is based on the number of murders per capita. But almost half of all murders are between gangs and involve 15 to 29 year old males living in four areas of the country: San Salvador, La Lib, Soyapango and Usulutan.

But the vast vast majority of people who visit never have any problems and really love the country and the people. Of the many Latin American capitals I have visited, the nice bits of San Salvador are very clean and orderly and it feels like a much smaller town. Friends of mine from Guatemala and Colombia have said that they would move here if they had the chance.

I happen to think that life here is very peaceful and quiet. Perhaps this is because I live in a bubble in San Benito. I can walk down to the Zona Rosa for some excellent beer at the Cadejo Bar. I pass the Taiwanese Embassy, the American School, and the Hilton so there is lots of security in the area. I shop and entertain in Escalon, Santa Elena and Santa Tecla, also safe areas. My elderly parents visited for two months and walked almost every morning to the Parque Maquilishuat, about 15 minutes away.

Walking in public was something a foreigner (or gringo) couldn’t do a few years ago due to all the kidnappings but now it is very common to see people out with their dogs or jogging.

But how to reconcile this with the number of murders in this country – 14 to 17 a day? The vast majority occurs within the gangs and in a few dangerous areas. A lot of these gang members have been deported from the US where they learned their gang skills. They come to ES and end up with the gangs as that is what they know. Plus there is a job shortage in this country and most of the jobs pay terribly.

I have been asking people if they feel it is getting better or worse here compared to five years ago. The answer I am getting is that the crime situation is worse. I ask what that opinion was based on:  were they victims of crime or perhaps their friends or family members were. The answer to that is “no” but they say crime is worse because of they see it in the news. Now like the rest of Latin America, the media outlets (TV, radio and newspapers) are controlled by the wealthy right wing elite. Of course they report on sensationalist issues like crime as that is what sells but they also report on crime to discredit the left wing government.  I think that is what is going on here because the vast majority of Salvadorans are peaceful and want to live in peace.

But gangs have ingrained themselves into the society here and I have read that up to 85% of all businesses pay “renta” or a protection fee. It can be as low as $40 a month for a taxi driver or $100 for a small restaurant but almost everyone pays. For most businesses, it is better to pay each month than to have a waitress killed. I know a huge food company that pays in every neighbourhood where they deliver and sell their product.

So how to stop the problem with the renta when it is easier to pay than not? I know a very honest and hard working woman who opened up a small cafeteria and was paying the renta but had to close her businesses because too many Maras were coming in for free meals. This is an unusual case because the Maras, parasites in this society, are usually smart enough not to ruin their host.

I know one night club where the owner has stood up to the Maras, once kicking out a bunch of them who had stripped down to show their gang tattoos. They came back with 15 guys with guns and the owner stood up to them with three security guys with shotguns.  The Maras said they would be back and he told them that they already were back and that he was ready. The Maras just swore at him and backed out, wanting a softer and easier target. It is possible to stand up to them.

The Maras are also expanding in isolated areas, preying on fincas to the point that it isn’t safe for the owners to go out to their own properties. Clearly this has to be stopped as well. I heard the Government recently received $750M to fight crime and to develop programs to divert young kids from gangs. There is also a new tax on cell phone usage which is to be used for this initiative. I hope they can turn the corner on this problem.

This just in ... Industria La Constancia has just suspended it's Agua Cristal water bottling and distribution system claiming that there is too much crime and it is dangerous for its workers. My first thought was, great, they are refusing to pay the "renta" or extortion fees to the gangs and this will pressure the government to act and that someone had to stand up against the gangs and why not one of the biggest companies in the country. La Constancia is also the main brewer in this country and is owned by SABMiller. Then looking into this a bit further, it looks like Agua Cristal has suspended operations because their water source was running low and the government refused to let them move into another area with limited water resources. The company seems to be trying to strong arm the government to make decisions that will benefit the company while hurting the local population. Plus, this may be part of the right wing initiative to discredit the current government saying that they cannot provide a safe business environment. But why would a huge multinational company like SABMiller get involved in local politics? Or am I being naive by asking that question?

We have had two empty 5 gallon bottles of water outside our door for the past few days and no one has swapped the for full ones. Looks like we are going to have to switch to a competitor until Agua Cristal decides to restart their plant.


  1. Hello! I'm from Brasil I have an opportunity to go to San Salvador to teach English for a year and stuff and I started researching about the country and I'm having now second thoughts because of the violence problem. Thank you very much for your article and I'd like to know if you have any comments about that, I mean, is it really worth it? I was really excited until I saw the news... anyway, thanks again :)

  2. Please read my other positive comments about this great country. Depending on where you live and work, this can be a safe and great place to spend some time. Where is your teaching offer? Write me at bsicuba@compuserve.com

  3. nice artikel

  4. As I have read before... It is impossible to say anything of El Salvador without mentioning the murder and crime. I am salvadoran living in Canada, and I hope in God do not go back to my country, it is sad but it is the truth.