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El Salvador is now one of the most violent countries in the world. Here’s what it’s like.

"Tell me, Jorge, is it safe to wait curbside for this bus?" I rest an elbow on the open taxi window, striking an affectedly casual pose while gazing into the snarl of traffic and diesel exhaust. The driver's response is unhesitating:

"Como no. Of course — why not..."

But the car rounds the corner, and we come face to face with the police tape. An entire block of this tree-lined neighborhood — one of the trendier areas of San Salvador — lies cordoned off, empty except for a smattering of police officers and a bus.

When I see it, I can tell that it's an old American school bus, once yellow, now painted in bright reds, greens, and blues for its second life as a public bus in Central America. In this second life it had become a scene of death, a murder scene only a block from where last night friends and I walked to a birthday celebration.

"Otro muerto." Another one dead. No sharp intake of breath, no startled expression — Jorge barely reacts at all as he redirects his taxi down a side street.


Here in El Salvador, "peacetime" homicide rates have been higher during the past decade than in almost every other country in the world. Murder rates driven by gang violence continue to rise, spiking 67 percent in 2015 over the year before. On average, 18 people are killed every day in a country with fewer people than Massachusetts.

How would you live differently if you had to play a round of Russian roulette each morning? What if you had been robbed once on the 7B bus route and twice on the 26? Bad luck. Consider the taxi driver who picked up a woman and baby from the only tertiary care hospital in El Salvador accessible to the poor. "I don't have cash right now," the young woman said, "but I'll pay you when we get home." Upon arriving, her gang affiliates descended on the taxi and robbed the driver of everything.

Each year, they drive in thicker traffic because everyone else who can afford a car has taken to driving, too

Imagine what life in cities like London or New York would be like if they experienced 18 homicides every day. Salvadorans live in a world in which gang violence is pervasive, extortion is on the rise, and hard-handed incarceration tactics do little to address root causes of the violence.

Daily routines have adapted, often subtly enough to create a thin veneer of normalcy. Middle-class grandparents Noemi and Juan de Dios spend multiple hours each day crawling through traffic to take their granddaughters to school and back. They drive the teenagers three miles to school, on a route that has a well-serviced bus line, in order to avoid the risk of robbery or worse. Each year, they drive in thicker traffic because everyone else who can afford a car has taken to driving, too.


The day of the bus homicide, a longtime friend waits for me at the side of the highway. When I arrive at this village, I jump down from the bus, and we exchange enthusiastic greetings while trucks thunder past. A part of me laments losing the freedom to walk across the ravine and into the village on my own. Nowadays, an outsider like me needs a local escort for that seven-minute walk. Gang members monitor the road entering the village, and anyone who is unknown (or not accompanied by someone known) is treated as a threat.

I fall asleep that night to the soothing sounds of children laughing and adults chatting on the streets outside. Their voices are a small victory: A few years earlier, streets would go silent at sunset, with families locked behind barred windows and doors to keep out the gunfights that erupted in the dark streets. Now the turf war has moved on, and this village, while still under gang control, is not contested. On occasion, a rival gang will come and kill a youth in the community — for gang connections, usually, or, in some cases for having the bad luck to be mistaken as someone else. But in general, violence here has declined, and villagers have reclaimed their evening streets.


That night, I sleep in the house of Salvador, a man whose history embodies the history of the country whose name he shares. He and his wife are survivors: grassroots organizers in the 1970s, internally displaced refugees in the 1980s, coffee workers, home rebuilders, caring parents, village elders. They and their six children all survived El Salvador's 12-year civil war and strove unimaginably hard over the next 15 years to construct a better life for themselves and their community.

Then, in 2008, this fragile "post-conflict" world was shattered when gang members killed their son Arnulfo. Arnulfo was a police officer with a photography business on the side, and his work, combined with a refusal to pay protection money, led to his disappearance and death. It took three months to find him. Seven years later, the loss still weights visibly on Salvador and his wife. It is in the way they carry their shoulders, in the slight mutedness of their speech.

The truth I didn't know until much later —shared in almost a whisper by a church acquaintance living two hours away — was the gruesomeness of the loss. Arnulfo's body was found buried in a field and bound in barbed wire. The coroner determined that he had been buried alive.


Can one ever really become inured to the violence? Should one? Even someone like me, who mostly sees my Salvadoran friends from afar and comes to know death only second- or third-hand, knows the disorienting, disquieting sensation of being at once too desensitized and too hurt. The image of Arnulfo's body is like a festering sore, well bandaged but never quite healed and never quite out of mind.

There is a practical side to things, too. The question of how a business can grow when gangs require monthly or weekly "protection" fees. The question of how 6-year-olds will thrive when up to 70 percent of the youth in that area are in gangs and gang members may threaten to shoot a child's parents if he doesn't join them. Add to that the lack of work, low salaries, and an inability to put enough food on the table...

More and more, people choose to flee. Last year, Central America briefly made the headlines when more than 68,000 unaccompanied children crossed into the US, trying to escape violence back home. Now, as media attention focuses on Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe, Mexican authorities and US border agents are attempting to stem the northward flow of men, women, and children who are fleeing the horrific violence in our own hemisphere.

What future did his 6-year-old have, growing up in an environment like that?

As Jorge drove me to the bus stop, he informed me that his wife and child had just crossed into the US with the help of a coyote and had called for asylum after turning themselves in to border patrol. In his neighborhood, Jorge said, gangs have a much stronger presence than the police, and the violence rates reflect this. His neighborhood is poor, schools are crowded and underresourced, and unemployment remains high. What future did his 6-year-old have, growing up in an environment like that?

By the time I left El Salvador, Jorge's son had attended his first day of kindergarten in Los Angeles. Jorge's wife, working long hours cleaning Beverly Hills homes, marveled at how much peace of mind residents have walking down the streets ("even while holding cash or a nice phone!"). Jorge longed to join his wife and child, but he would need to save his money and wait until desert temperatures dropped to try the 30-day journey through Mexico, across the desert, then over to California.

When I lived in El Salvador nine years ago, I tried to dissuade people with dreams of making it to the US from trying. Like back then, people who ride the freight trains through Mexico still are robbed and raped, lose limbs and even lives. Crossing the desert in the US Southwest remains expensive and deadly, and all for what? A life in the shadows, facing years of separation from the language, culture, and the people you love?

Now it's different. When gentle 17-year-old Carlitos puts down the guitar he's been practicing and starts telling me how he wants to go the US, I see the flash of fear and heartache in his usually smiling mother's eyes. I see the way his little sister adores him. And I see the hole he'll leave in his village if he goes.

I see exactly why he wants to leave, and all old words of dissuasion fail me.

Elaine Denny has engaged with El Salvador's story for a decade, both at human rights organizations in the US and Central America, and through the Faces of Witness project.  She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California San Diego, and consults for international projects promoting women and children's rights.


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