Like you, I wondered the inevitable question, “Is El Salvador Safe”? I had wanted to go for years, as it was my last country in Central America to visit, but the constant warnings from people like my mother and internet trolls, I put it off for a while.
With nothing but negative news from the U.S. media, and of course anyone who has heard it, I won’t deny that others made me skeptical of going to El Salvador, especially alone. But alas, the true traveler and global citizen in me was reminded that this has been the situation for many places I’ve been to.
People told me not to go to places like Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco alone, and I did, and it was safe. So I decided to do some research, and give El Salvador a chance. I did what any smart traveler would do, and booked a tour with a reputable local company. It’s called Tunco Life, and I’d highly recommend them! Salva is super knowledgeable, organized, and fun, and will ensure that you feel extremely safe the entire time!
What I found from the two weeks with Tunco Life, is that El Salvador times are changing. I contacted Salva beforehand, and asked the same question; is El Salvador safe right now?
His response was honest, informative, and reassuring! Here’s what I learned about the current safety concerns and measures in El Salvador, and how El Salvador times are finally changing!
So here is what I learned, what I experienced, and my answers to the question, is El Salvador safe?
Where the Violence Started: El Salvador Civil War
The El Salvador civil war lasted from 1979 until 1992! It was fought between the military-led government, and the FMLN left-wing groups. Many people were killed for protesting, and you probably wouldn’t have heard this, but many people were also killed by the US-trained government death squads who targeted civilians, and recruited child soldiers.
In fact, the U.S. contributed to the war by providing military aid of o$1-2 million per day along with significant training. This made the Salvadoran government an ally to the U.S., but at the cost of killing more than 75,000 people.
The U.S. also denied and tried to cover up the El Mozote massacre, calling it “leftist propaganda”. Even though it really did happen, and killed up to 1000 unarmed civilians, including 146 children, to make an example out of them, stating that if they let them live, they would just grow up to be guerillas.
The violence continued to expand towards its own citizens, killing anyone who physically or verbally supported the left-wing, and also anyone who “questioned official policy”.
Why the Violence Continued
Similar to the cartels in Mexico that basically run each town, El Salvador has gangs. But not similarly, these gangs were actually formed in the U.S. One of the main gangs, MS-13, was started in California in the 1980’s, when imprisoned Central American immigrants came together to protect themselves from rival Hispanic prison gangs.
Then in the 1990’s, former President Bill Clinton suddenly and aggressively deported criminal immigrants back to El Salvador. The government was unprepared for their level of organization or violence, and they were able to run free, carrying out horrific crimes on innocent people.
The other main gang, and the rival of MS-13, is 18 Barrio (“18th Street), which also has California origins. Both of the gangs brutally murdered thousands, and carried out drug and human trafficking. This is why so many Salvadorans fled to safety in the US. Sadly, many are also constantly denied.
Additionally, the violence affected innocent locals in a very sad way. A gang could approach a community member and give them an ultimatum like; either join the gang, or they’ll harm your family members. This is what caused a lot of people, mostly women and children, to make the life-risking trek up through Mexico, to seek a safer life in the U.S.
In fact, many people don’t realize that a large majority of migrants crossing the border are Salvadorian. And that the reason they attempt it, is to avoid getting killed or raped by the gangs. Also because they believe they’ll be able to make more money there.
This gang violence existed for several decades. So you can probably imagine why so many Salvadorians try to cross the U.S. border.
Does the Gang Violence Target Tourists?
If you read the info above, you may understand that the gang violence for the most part, affected locals. Just like cartels, the gangs tend to leave tourists alone because they bring in the money. However it’s not unlikely a tourist could have gotten caught in a crossfire, or targeted for theft if they aren’t being vigilant. And especially if they are trying to get involved with drugs.
Now there’s even less of a chance of gang violence or crime affecting tourists though. Because of the new El Salvador president, and his new rules.
El Salvador Times Are Changing with the New El Salvador President
In 2019, finally a new El Salvador President was elected. His name is Nayib Bukele and he’s 39 with a background in marketing! This new, young, image-focused El Salvador President has made huge strides in turning around the safety issues in his country, and finally showing the U.S. that El Salvador is a much safer place.
For starters, he made gangs illegal. Hundreds of gang members were sent to jail, and if anyone is found to be in one, even without committing a crime, they go to jail. This mass raid of gang members was also backed by the US, and expanded across Honduras, Mexico, and into the US as well, targeting mostly the two main gangs.
This has drastically reduced the violence in El Salvador, making it a safer place for locals and tourists alike. That means that more and more tourists are coming to El Salvador, providing more income for the people here.
The new El Salvador president is also doing a really good job at focusing on international publicity for El Salvador. Not only are things happening like increased budgets for the tourism board to bring people like me there. But he also played a part in getting the ISA International Surfing Games competition held right in Tunco Beach! The competition qualified 12 pro surfers for the Olympics!
Is El Salvador Safe with Covid?
If you’re wondering is El Salvador safe in regards to Covid, my personal answer is Yes. I was here for two weeks, around people, and didn’t get sick, however I’m also a young, healthy, human.
The population in El Salvador isn’t large, so numbers of covid cases are relatively low, and vaccine rates are high! Many places take your temperature, provide hand sanitizer, and ask you to wear your mask upon entry.
You also need a (printed) negative covid test or proof of vaccine to enter El Salvador. If you need a test to go back home, you can find a full list of testing centers with prices on the US Embassy website!
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