Thursday, April 7, 2011

El Salvador's national reality

I recently wrote this article for Programa Velasco's new website (to be unveiled in the near future, so keep your eyes open!) on the national reality of El Salvador, for those interested in a brief overview of the social and economic situation here.

El Salvador’s Current National Reality

El Salvador is a country of extremes. In this small country, extravagant wealth exists alongside abject poverty. There is incredible natural beauty and incredible destruction of the country’s natural resources; great faith and hope, but also great despair and disillusionment.


The economic situation is difficult for the majority. While El Salvador has embraced the international market, signed a free trade agreement with the United States, and even adopted the US dollar as the national currency in 2001; the poor have seen few benefits. Exports and international investment have not sparked real economic growth, especially for the poor. The minimum wage is about $200 per month, but the cost of living is so high that many who work full time still struggle to make ends meet – and the situation is that much more difficult when supporting a family. Unemployment is so high that people are grateful for any job that can be found, and often bear long work hours, difficult working conditions, and exploitation. Even the minimum wage is sometimes not respected, as the government does not oversee the treatment of workers in many businesses.

In a recent article for the National Catholic Reporter, Dean Brackley, Jesuit professor at the University of Central America, writes, “The U.N. Development Program recently reported that only one in five economically active Salvadorans has a decent, stable job. Even before the recent crises –a great spike in fuel and grain prices, followed by the fallout from the financial crisis--, things were getting worse in Central America. For example, while chronic malnutrition declined from 13 percent to 10 percent from 1990 to 2003 in Latin America and the Caribbean overall, it increased in Central America from 17 to 20 percent.”

Salvadorans do what they can to respond to this reality. When stable employment cannot be found, they turn to the informal sector, which may mean selling bread around one’s neighborhood every day to washing windows of passing cars to selling hand-made jewelry or clothing. This work may provide a small income, but the reality is that life for the poor is a daily struggle to survive.


One manner of responding to this situation of poverty and disenfranchisement is to take power by any means possible – and many Salvadorans have resorted to violence and crime as a manner of taking control over their own lives and the lives of others. With an average of 11 violent deaths per day, El Salvador has become the one of most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the 10 most violent countries in the world.

While some of this crime is a result of random violence and delinquency, much of it is highly organized. El Salvador is a war zone between the two main gangs – La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang. There are somewhere between 10,000 to 39,000 gang members in El Salvador, and they gain control over the population through fear tactics, extortion, and intimidation. Gangs charge “rent” on many sectors of the formal commercial sector - from street vendors to private homes to local business to the bus routes. They maintain their power through fear of violence, which they will not hesitate to use.

For example, in June 2010 two buses in Mejicanos, on the outskirts of San Salvador, were attacked by gang members. During the first incident, gang members intercepted the bus, doused it with gasoline, set fire to it and closed the doors so no one could escape. When passengers tried to flee by climbing out of the windows, they were shot. Eleven people died on the scene, seven were badly hurt, six of whom later died. Roughly ten minutes later, other gang members attacked another bus on the same route, killing the driver, a passenger and a 11-year-old girl. Many claim that these attacks were acts of revenge on the bus company because they were unwilling to pay "rent" to the 18 Street gang because they were already paying rent to MS 13. Most acts of violence exist between rival gangs. However, there has been a recent change in the culture of violence were as now, just like in these bus incidents, the civilians are being targeted in an attempt to instill fear in the population. President Mauricio Funes calls these particular events pure terrorism. In early January 2011, three family members who belong to the 18 Street gang were sentenced to 12 years and 6 months in prison for the terrorist attack on the burning bus which took the lives of 17 people.

Voices on the Border, a grassroots organization in El Salvador, wrote in the blog the following about the level of violence recently: “in the first 36 days of 2010, there were 440 murders reported in El Salvador. The victims range from political activists, presumably killed for their opinions and public pronouncements, to bus drivers, robbed and murdered by groups locally called delincuentes. If this pattern of violence continues consistently, the country could expect to experience near 5,000 homicides this year. In comparison, New York City, whose population size is similar to El Salvador’s, reports only 412 homicides for the entirety of 2009.”

The motives for this kind of violence is hard to know, but the results are clear: the Salvadoran population lives in increasing fear and insecurity, with violence reaching levels that were not seen even during El Salvador’s civil war. Given, this insecurity and poverty of opportunity, many people flee.


A few years ago the U.S. embassy estimated that an average of 740 Salvadorans were abandoning their country every day, mostly bound for the U.S. Today's estimates run between 400 and 500 a day. If all were leaving for good, El Salvador, with a population of six million, would lose one percent of its population every five months and half the population in twenty years.

This phenomenon is not so much about what the US has to offer as it is about what El Salvador does not have to offer. According to Dean Brackley, these migrants flee because of a lack of economic opportunities. There are simply not enough jobs to support the people, and not enough resources put into the education system and social services to care for the population. El Salvador, simply put, would not function without remittances, the money sent to Salvadorans from family and friends who live in the US.

More than 2.5 million Salvadorans live in the United States - more than a third of the population of El Salvador itself. The country’s principle export is, in fact, the Salvadoran people; El Salvador's principal import are remittances from Salvadorans in the U.S., estimated at $2.5 billion annually, 17.1% of the GDP. The reality revolves around the fact that the Salvadoran economy simply would not function without the flow of people from South to North and the flow of money back again.

The result of such migration on a society is huge. Families are torn apart, while one or two parents leave in search of a way to care for their children, leaving them to be raised by others. Sometimes, people leave and never come back – they leave behind the life they had in El Salvador and find a new beginning in El Norte. Those who stay are often put under even more stress, raising grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. The emotional and economic stress is often overwhelming.

Programa Velasco’s Response

Programa Velasco seeks to respond to the reality here in the way that we can – by taking small steps, planting seeds that will one day grow. We cannot combat the violence and fear in which people live, but we can create safe spaces for children to learn, laugh and grow, and spaces for parents to start to let go of the fear and stress they live with in the daily struggle to stay afloat. We cannot change the economic structures that keep the poor impoverished, but we can offer small opportunities for women to invest in their small businesses here, to gain technical and leadership skills to keep moving forward. Child sponsors and other donors offer their friendship, support, and solidarity, and together we all seek to move forward and create pockets of hope in the midst of this harsh reality.

To learn more about how you can support Programa Velasco, check out