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Country profile: El Salvador

El Salvador

Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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El Salvdoran gang leader

Gang leader Carlos Tiberio Valladares mirrored in his prison cell in Ciudad Barrios. © Adam Hinton/Panos

El Salvador is still associated in many people’s minds with the 12-year-long civil war between rightwing government forces (backed by the US) and leftwing FMLN guerrillas, which ended in 1992 but left 70,000 people dead. The relative calm since – and the election as president of former FMLN rebel Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who took office in June 2014 – is somewhat misleading, however.

El Salvador flag

With an average of nearly 30 homicides per day, El Salvador could soon overtake Honduras as the most violent country in the world (excluding warzones such as Syria). Since a 2012 truce between the country’s two main gangs (MS-13 and Barrio 18) began to fall apart in 2014, El Salvador has experienced its highest number of murders since the civil war.

The truce, secured by the Catholic Church with the tacit approval of then-president Mauricio Funes, had managed to halve the country’s murder rate and had raised hopes that El Salvador could overcome its history of violence.

Imprisoned gang leaders were transferred from high-security jails to regular prison facilities and the Red Cross established a special mission to monitor human rights in prison. In exchange, the gangs agreed to end the forced recruitment of children and young people, respect schools and buses as zones of peace, reduce attacks on security forces and surrender limited amounts of weapons.

This effort to reduce violence by negotiating with criminal groups and focusing on the reintegration of gang members into society rather than on punitive measures was unique to the region and a far cry from the ‘iron-fist’ approach of previous administrations.

Valeria Michel Hercules is supported by friends on the way to the funeral of her stillborn child in the Las Victorias district of San Salvador.

Adam Hinton/Panos Pictures

However, as details began to emerge of what this fragile truce actually entailed, public opinion became increasingly polarized, with conservatives and the media raising questions about criminal organizations being legitimized as well as pointing out that extortion and other violent crimes had not diminished.

When the truce entered a more complex phase it began to flounder as the government failed to deliver money for prevention and rehabilitation programmes. Then the newly elected President Sánchez Cerén withdrew support for the truce. Gang leaders were returned to maximum-security prisons and violence soared once again.

Although the truce ultimately collapsed, it highlighted the inequality and lack of opportunities that allow gangs to recruit vulnerable young people – the huge disparity between El Salvador’s small, wealthy elite and the overwhelming majority of the population was at the root of the civil war but is still all too visible today.

There has been a massive exodus of Salvadorans to the US over the past three decades, fleeing unemployment, the civil war, natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and earthquakes in 2001. As a result, one in three Salvadorans currently lives in the US and remittances sent by them are now El Salvador’s main source of income, totalling $4.2 billion in 2014.

Some of those who fled to the US during the war joined dangerous Latino street gangs there for protection and livelihood. In the mid-1990s, the US authorities began a mass deportation of gang members, who took with them the culture of violence and territorial disputes that now characterizes El Salvador’s gangland.

Although the Salvadoran authorities unequivocally blame the violence on gangs, a number of recent massacres bear the signs of drug-cartel involve­ment. The country’s weak institutions and rampant corruption have made it all too easy for drug cartels to infiltrate the police and other institutions, transforming El Salvador into an important trans-shipment point for drugs heading north to the US market.

The Washington-based thinktank Insight Crime describes the patterns of criminality in El Salvador as increasingly ‘taking on the overtones of a low-intensity war’.

Fact file

Leader President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
Economy GNI per capita $3,720 (Guatemala $3,340, United States $53,670).
Monetary unit US dollar (the switch from the colón took place in 2001).
Main exports Clothing, coffee, electrical capacitors, raw sugar. Remittances from abroad accounted for 17% of GDP in 2014, benefiting one in three households. Along with Guatemala and Honduras, it has signed up to the US-sponsored ‘Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle’.
People 6.3 million. Annual growth rate 0.7%. People per square kilometre 301 (UK 260).
Health Infant mortality 14 per 1,000 live births (Guatemala 26, US 6). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 600 (US 1 in 1,800). HIV prevalence rate 0.5%.
Environment As a result of heavy cutting, forest resources had been reduced to 6% of the total area by 1996. Some 75% of the land area is threatened by erosion and desertification at a rate of 20 tons per hectare per year.
Religion Catholic 57%; Protestant 21%; Jehovah’s Witness 2%, other or none 20%.
Language Spanish is the main and official language. The indigenous Nahuat language has survived but is only used by small communities in the west.
Human Development Index 0.662 (Guatemala 0.628, US 0.914).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution More than two decades after the peace accords were signed, El Salvador has failed to address the socio-economic inequalities that were the root causes of the country’s civil war.
Literacy 85%. Primary school net enrolment rate 95%.
Life expectancy 72 years, up from 64 in 1992.
Freedom Labour activists have been targeted; some have been murdered or disappeared. Activists against free trade agree­ments, environ­mental destruction and water privatization have encountered repression.
Position of women El Salvador has one of the most draconian anti-abortion laws in the world, putting women’s and girls’ lives at risk. Female participation in the labour force is 46%, compared to the male rate of 77%. The percentage of women in office compared to men is dismal.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is legal for both sexes from the age of 18. A law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation also exists. But anti-gay harass­ment remains a serious problem and gay rights activists have faced death threats.
New Internationalist assessment President Sánchez Cerén has been eager to prove that, despite his revolutionary credentials, he is no radical. He has travelled abroad sending out the message that El Salvador is 'open for business', including a trip to the US to meet World Bank representatives. He has continued with the social-welfare programmes introduced by his predecessor but has bee attacked for failing to meet his campaign pledge to increase public spending on education to 6% of GDP. Corruption, particularly within the police, remains a serious problem and has led to widespread distrust of government institutions.

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