El Salvador is one of the most violent and dangerous countries in the world. It is so difficult a place to live that tens of thousands of migrants have been taking El Tren de la Muerte, or The Train of Death, to cross into Mexico to try to arrive safely — without losing a limb or one’s life — to the United States. This voyage refers to the network of Mexican freight trains that migrants use to quickly traverse the length of Mexico, also known as La Bestia (The Beast) and El Tren de los Desconocidos (The Train of the Unknowns).
This mode of travel is extremely hazardous and illegal, but that does not stop more than 500,000 Latin Americans from making the trip annually. This year so far, the number of migrants from El Salvador apprehended by the US Border Patrol could be as much as 25,000, says the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights advocacy organization. In 2014, roughly 80,000 Salvadoran migrants were apprehended by the Border Patrol. No figures definitively ascertain how many migrants cross into the US successfully.
Yet the danger of staying home, in El Salvador, is worse for many people, which is why migrants make the trek north, determined to leave behind violence, extreme poverty and gangs, a trio of ills that drives not only Salvadorans but also others from Latin America to the US. Some people also leave to see relatives they may have not seen in a decade, others who fled north.
In El Salvador, which has a population of 6.3 million and where I am originally from, the statistics keep pouring out: the weekend of May 16-17 was the most violent of the year so far: that Saturday, 26 murders were committed; the next day, 37 murders were confirmed, according to the National Civil Police in El Salvador. The 635 homicides tallied for all of May made it the single-deadliest month since the end of the nation’s civil war in 1992, The Associated Press reported.
El Salvador is the smallest, most densely populated country in Central America. Located between Guatemala and Honduras, it is only 20,720 square kilometers of land, or 8,000 square miles. More than 25 percent of its population, it is estimated, migrated or fled during the country’s long civil war, which began in 1979 and ended in 1992. Approximately 1.6 million Salvadorans now live and work in the US, the fourth-largest Hispanic community in the country. Salvadorans are predicted to become the third-largest Hispanic group in the next census in the US, replacing Cubans.
Salvadoran migrants are not confined to the US: 39,000 live in Canada, according to Statistics Canada; 20,000 in Australia; and 12,000 in Italy, says the Migration Policy Institute, based in Washington, D.C.
As for myself, a Salvadoran who lives in New York, I grew up in a world of shooting. When I was a child, everyone in San Salvador, the capital, had to be home by six in the evening because of the curfew. Almost every night since 1980, I heard clashes between the left-wing guerrillas and the military-led Salvadoran government — until 1992, when the peace agreements were signed.
It became normal to live with high walls around our homes and to endure constant power outages and helicopters flying day and night. People in the countryside fled their homes every time they heard that guerrillas or soldiers were coming to their villages. Nowadays, the confrontation between the guerrillas and the armed forces has been replaced by violent confrontations between gangs and the rest of society.
The effect has been so huge that humans are replacing coffee, cotton and sugar as the country’s most important export. Remittances have become critical sources of revenue — more than half of all export earnings and more than 17 percent of the gross domestic product.
Yet the government appears to be more focused on engaging its diaspora rather than stopping the outflow of its citizens. It is also dealing with immigrants coming in from neighboring countries and the attendant issues around human trafficking.
El Salvador is a source, transit point and destination country for women, men and children who become subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Women and girls, many from rural areas of El Salvador, are exploited in sex trafficking in urban centers. Some Salvadoran adults and children are forced to work in agriculture or domestic service or beg.
The majority of foreign victims are women and children from countries nearby, particularly Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras, who come to El Salvador, responding to job offers. They end up forced into prostitution, domestic service, construction or work in the informal sector.
Gangs exert an enormous negative influence on our society: they use children for a range of illicit activities, sometimes through coercion. Narco gangs use children, women and the very poor to become drug mules and even assassins, says the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a research group in Washington. Sexual violence against people who have been recruited or are forced to work for drug gangs is common. Drug cartels recruit at schools, youth centers and churches.
The desperate conditions for many El Salvadorans came to light in the US last summer, when a surge of children crossing illegally into the US hit the front pages and nightly news of major media. More than 68,000 children caught crossing the US border alone, without adults, were tallied in October 2014. President Obama called the surge an “urgent humanitarian situation.”
Although the number of unaccompanied children escaping Latin America this year has appeared to halved compared with last year, one reason for the decline has been the increasing militarization of Mexico’s southern borders, said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations human-rights commissioner, recently.
Among the northern triangle of organized crime in Central America — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — the network of gangs members and drug trafficking has intensified in El Salvador. Douglas Farah, an American ex-journalist in El Salvador and now a security consultant, points out in a report that in El Salvador, certain gangs are collaborating with drugs traffickers tied to Mexican drug cartels. But not all gang members collaborate with such consortiums; some browse — working now and then for them.
How did El Salvador turn into such a crime-ridden country? Like most Central American nations, it remains a bastion of huge inequalities, even after its long civil war was meant to counter that gap. The minimum wage is low among most economic sectors, from coffee to sugar to textile manufacturing, while the number of millionaires is high. Food costs generally outrun the average paycheck of a textile worker.
The UN played a large part in ending the civil war, including setting up a peacekeeping mission from 1991 to 1995. The UN also helped the left-wing militia, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), become a formal political party as part of the peace accord. The country’s current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, is from the FMLN party.
Although the UN has a more limited participation in El Salvador’s governance now, it has not abandoned its focus on the entrenched human-rights problems in the country.
As Zeid, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, said at a Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs discussion in May, “We had a discussion with a group of very seasoned UN mediators, and they were telling us that in Central America the only frame through which they could push the political discussions in Guatemala and El Salvador and Nicaragua was the human rights frame.”
Zeid added that they all agreed “that there were certain boundaries beyond which you couldn’t go in terms of human cruelty.”
It is the government of El Salvador that needs to take the big steps to counter the gangs, the organized crime and the corruption running throughout our government forces and to address the inequalities that hurt the human rights of so many people. Until then, the large wave of people leaving El Salvador to find a better world will grow.
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Claudia Arbizu de Lavagnino is a writer and painter from El Salvador who now lives in White Plains, N.Y. She has a journalism degree from Central American University in El Salvador and speaks English, French and Spanish.