Many tourists travel to El Salvador every year and have incredible experiences. The small, yet charming Central American country is home to gorgeous beaches, cities and sites full of history, and friendly and welcoming people.
Despite these obvious perks to visiting the country, El Salvador currently sits at a level three warning according to the US State Department’s travel warnings. For those of you unaware of the new ranking, in January 2018, the US State Department categorized each country in one of four levels ranging from level one (exercise normal precautions) to level four (do not travel). El Salvador’s level three warning reads “reconsider traveling.”
What Makes El Salvador Unsafe?
In 1979, a civil-military Revolutionary Government Junta took control of the country after a coup d’etat. The following year, all three members of the junta stepped down as the more extreme members of the faction gained more power, and the country entered into a 12-year civil war. On one side was the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a leftist guerrilla group, backed by Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. On the other side of the conflict was the Salvadoran government, backed by the United States.
During those years, hundreds of Salvadorans fled to the United States to seek refuge from the violence at home. It was in the streets of Los Angeles that some Salvadorans banded together to conserve cultural pride and protect their families against rival gangs. Thus, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, was born.
18th Street Gang, or Barrio 18, MS-13’s main rival, was formed originally of Mexican immigrants, but in the 1980s began to include immigrants from other Latin American countries as well. When the FBI attempted to take down 18th Street Gang’s leader, he was able to mobilize more forces inside the federal prison, allowing the group to grow.
In 1993, the U.S., in an effort to crack down on street crime, increased deportations of Latino immigrants, sending many members of MS-13 and 18th Street Gang back to El Salvador, a country at that time just recovering from the war.
By the time the 21st century came around, gangs had grown so much so in Central America that many of the countries were controlled by the warring groups. The government of El Salvador, in an attempt to crack down on the rising violence, implemented a “mano dura” or “iron fist” attitude — at times arresting people for associating with gang members. This backfired, however, when the members of the rival gangs committed violence against each other in prison. As a result of the violence, authorities separated the gangs inside the prison’s walls, but this only lead to more gang power within prisons.
Today, MS-13 boasts an estimated 70,000 members between the U.S., Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. 18th Street Gang has roughly 30,000 to 50,000 members in the U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Both groups have linked up with other organized crime groups, including the Mexican Mafia, or La Eme. In 2013, the two gangs entered in a truce which quickly dissolved, leading to a sharp increase in violence.
In El Salvador, entire sections of the country are controlled by gangs vying for ultimate power and control of the country. MS-13 is a particularly ruthless group and has played a major role in turning El Salvador into one of the most dangerous countries not at war, and San Salvador into one of the most dangerous cities not at war. According to The U.S. State Department, the homicide rate in El Salvador was 80.94 per 100,000 people in 2016, the highest in the world.
Crimes committed in El Salvador include street-level drug sales, extortion, arms trafficking, carjacking, contracted killings, home invasions, burglaries, and other street crimes. Other crimes, specifically for a threat to tourists, include credit card skimming and ATM and credit card scams.
Despite the statistics, there is no proof that US tourists are targeted more than others in El Salvador. That said, tourists run the risk of being victims of crimes of opportunity. The biggest threat, according to the State Department, is armed robbery.
Outside the capital city, gang activity and crime may still occur, but at a much lower rate. The rural, small towns tend to be much safer and welcoming to travelers.
Tips for Traveling as a Foreigner
We’re not saying not to travel to El Salvador. But the violence and gang activity are not to be ignored. As a foreigner, you’ll stand out, and this could invite unwanted attention. Foreigners are perceived as wealthy and can become targets for theft. Keep any expensive cameras or phones away either in a hostel, or just don’t show them on the streets. As crime increases at night, we recommend trying to limit how much you go out, especially in larger cities, at night.
If you rent a car to travel outside the city, be cautious of car thefts and carjackings. Another thing to watch out for is road conditions. Many roads may be in disrepair, and many drivers drive very defensively.
If you don’t know the area and don’t speak the language, it can be very easy to accidentally wander into an area you really shouldn’t be in. While many unsafe areas look very unsafe, some may not look unsafe at all, making it harder to tell the difference between where you should and shouldn’t explore. We recommend going with a guide or a Salvadoran friend through major cities and some rural areas of the country. Your guide can make sure you aren’t in any areas that will present immediate safety concerns.
As a foreigner, you’re likely not to be targeted by gang activity. As long as you keep to yourself and with a well-known guide you likely won’t experience any trouble from gangs. You may have to pay a little more, but if you pay to have a well-known guide that is well respected, you’ll get more protection from possible crimes, as well as someone to recommend the best places to go.
Female travelers, especially solo female travelers, should exercise increased caution. Don’t walk around at night, and try to take a taxi to get to your destinations. LGBT travelers should also be advised that while there are many gay nightclubs in major cities and LGBT pride groups exist, much of the country is still very intolerant to LGBT people and LGBT issues, and if queer couples are traveling together, they may run into discrimination.
Basically, our biggest piece of advice for those seeking to travel to El Salvador is to be smart. Don’t ignore travel warnings just because others have had positive experiences, but don’t discount the country because of the statistics. Gang violence is not to be underestimated, but at the same time, if you’re smart, always alert and aware of your surroundings, and, as we’ve recommended, with a guide, you can have a trouble-free trip to El Salvador.