Don’t Go There! You’ll Die! This is all anyone said to us when we told them we were going through El Salvador. Murder Capital of the World! MS-13 gang members everywhere! Heads hanging from bridges! No respect for human life! Ugly, violence-torn country with no redeeming qualities!
A nice guy named Mike who is a security agent at the US Embassy in Guatemala City even told us we should hire a security escort car for our drive through El Salvador. Oh, Mike.
YOU WERE ALL WRONG
Why are Americans always so fearful? Actually, let me correct that, its not just Americans - every person in every country we have visited has been afraid of the next country down the line. The next country we are going to visit is always "Muy Peligroso!" Is this fear of the unknown? Is it subconscious nationalism? Or is it based in truths of the past that are no longer true but have yet to shed the demons of history?
I can’t say with any honesty, that before taking this journey, I was any different. Although, I always get past my fears and jump off whatever cliff may be available, fear has always been my go-to emotion when it comes to the unfamiliar.
After two days in El Salvador, what I learned was that I know nothing – about anything, that everything we think we know is a lie. Everything. You know nothing, Juan Snow.
We loved El Salvador! It is in our top 3 of places we visited. We stayed for six weeks and could have stayed a lot longer. We weren’t murdered, robbed, roophied, shot or raped. We swam in the ocean almost every day. We made some friends. We ate a lot of pupusas.
To be fair, some of El Salvador’s reputation has been earned, the hard way. And its citizens know it. Crime Statistics are terrifying to look at with a murder rate hovering around 43 per 100,000 people. According to the locals we spoke with, the fear surrounding gang-presence and violence is not myth. However, that violence rarely touches anyone outside of gang culture. It is even more rare for it touch someone who is not an El Salvadorean national.
What people also feel to realize, when talking about MS-13, is that it began in the States. El Salvadoreans who fled to the States during the civil war, like many immigrant populations, faced discrimination, poverty and a lack of opportunities, particularly in the very expensive cities where they land. In the case of El Salvadoreans, the city was LA. These young people, as children, had witnessed horrible acts of civil war in their own country, experienced terrible losses and learned the most basic rules of survival.
I admit, I’m a criminal defense attorney and I tend to be soft in my perspectives on gangs but ultimately, I think whenever you have disenfranchised young people, you will find gangs. Everyone wants to belong to something, everyone creates their own culture, everyone wants to feel important, to feel strong. Gangs provide all of those things.
In the 90’s, Los Angeles and the federal government engaged in a major push against gangs and there was a mass deportation of El Salvadoreans thought to have MS-13 affiliation back to El Salvador - which is happening again now. El Salvador wasn’t ready. The war had depleted policing resources and these, even further disenfranchised gang members blossomed. As with the beginnings of so many gangs, they initially began to enter neighborhoods with the promise and intentions of fixing problems the government was unable to fix – of putting money back into neighborhoods and the people. And as with the majority of gangs, these efforts failed and deteriorated into power struggles with police, with other gangs and were armed with the practices of stateside gangs relative to drugs and trafficking. I am not speaking to the right or wrong of doing this or making any political statement on immigration/deportation policy - I have opinions but they are mine, dont matter and dont belong here. ;)
With all of that said, in the six weeks we spent traveling through El Salvador, the only gang member we met was a guy whose car was stuck in the sand at the beach. He was covered in the MS-13 characteristic facial tattoos and had the words, Mara Salvatrucha tattooed on his abdomen. He just couldn’t believe it was two women helping him out of the sand and invited us to a beach party later that day.
We saw no heads hanging from bridges, heard no gunfire in the streets. We didn’t even see gang-related graffiti. That isn’t to say that if you were seeking it out that you wouldn’t find it, you most certainly would, but for the average traveler, it would never touch you or affect you in any way.
Just like anywhere in Central America, or even in the States, its important to exercise diligence at night, not walking around in neighborhoods you aren’t familiar with or where you don’t see a lot of locals walking around and not carrying valuable items with you. Just like anywhere else, including the states, we avoided neighborhoods known to be sketchy or dangerous.
We actually did drive at night in El Salvador more than we have other places (I know, I know - breaking the rules!) and while I’m not a big fan of anecdotal evidence, I will say that we encountered zero problems and always felt comfortable doing it.
What we found, instead of the violent lands we expected, was a DAZZLING country, filled with devastatingly exquisite beaches, the most extraordinary sunsets of our entire trip, people who were not only friendly and helpful but THRILLED we had given El Salvador a chance and come to visit.
We found, in San Salvador, a place we were DEFINITELY not supposed to go, a vibrant, metropolitan, modern city complete with cool coffee shops, art galleries, an incredible restaurant scene, high-end malls, hipsters, progressive organic markets, yoga studios and artists, decent medical care and well-planned streets. They also have more than their fair share of Olive Garden’s.
So, do I think El Salvador is safe for travelers? Absolutely! Do I think you should go? Hell YES. Its one of our favorite places on earth. Do I think El Salvador has a long way to go for its own people to feel secure about their country? Yes, I do.
But I believe in El Salvador.
Please continue to Part 2 - Don't Go There! You'll Die! Aka what we did in El Salvador.