According to the current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication, El Salvador has been assessed as Level 3: reconsider travel.
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
U.S. Embassy San Salvador does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The American Citizens’ Services unit (ACS) cannot recommend a particular individual or location, and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.
The U.S. Department of State has assessed San Salvador as being a CRITICAL-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.
Please review OSAC’s El Salvador-specific page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.
Crime can run the gamut from credit card skimming to homicide and is unpredictable, gang-centric, and characterized by violence directed against both known victims and targets of opportunity. There is no information to suggest that U.S. citizens are specifically targeted by criminals. The threat of violent crime in San Salvador leads to the curtailment of recreational opportunities. Crimes of every type occur routinely.
The threat from transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) is prevalent throughout Central America. El Salvador has hundreds of gang “cliques.” Violent, well-armed street gangs — 18th Street (“Barrio 18”) and MS-13 ("Mara Salvatrucha") being the largest — concentrate on street-level drug sales, extortion, arms trafficking, murder for hire, carjacking, and aggravated street crime. In 2015, there was evidence that the gangs gained access to weapons and explosives left over from the country’s civil war and/or from the military. Recognizing the threat posed by MS-13, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the MS-13 a TCO in their list of Specially Designated Nationals. Gangs and other criminal elements target affluent areas for burglaries and are quick to engage in violence when resisted. Many of the gangs are comprised of unemployed youth who do not hesitate to use deadly force when perpetrating crimes.
Although the murder rate has consistently declined since 2015, El Salvador continues to have one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Crime statistics indicate the 2017 annual homicide rate — 60.07 per 100,000 inhabitants — was significantly lower than 2016’s 80.97 per 100,000. In 2017, authorities recorded 3,954 homicides, a 25% decrease from the 5,280 in 2016. Homicides are not uniformly committed across El Salvador, see the Travel Advisory for the list of the most violent municipalities. The Salvadoran government’s response, Plan El Salvador Seguro, focuses on the areas with highest levels of crime, poverty, and gang presence.
Police also reported a reduction in home invasions/burglaries in 2017. Home invasions/burglaries during daylight continue to occur in residential neighborhoods throughout San Salvador. Some home invasions reportedly occurred when individuals posed as deliverymen or police officers in order to gain access to a home. Cameras, concertina wire, and grilles on all windows/doors appear to dissuade some would-be burglars, as residences without these features in affluent neighborhoods are frequently robbed. The presence of armed security and the use of security features in homes have proven successful in combating home invasions.
A new phenomenon of armed robberies of nightclubs and restaurants was reported toward the end of 2017. Police reported at least three instances during November/December 2017. These cases took place next to residential areas known for their affluence. Many restaurants and business owners hire private security for their premises; this has the tendency to deter most petty crime and spontaneous robberies.
One case involved an armed robbery of 100+ patrons of a restaurant in Colonia Escalon on November 17.
On November 29, police reported that multiple assailants robbed a Chinese restaurant in the same general area. The individuals stole over $3,000 from the cash register. A shooting ensued, wounding two security guards.
On December 9, a similar robbery occurred at a steak house in the same area.
Police continue to investigate all three robberies. In a separate incident, multiple assailants robbed a restaurant located in La Libertad on a route to the beach used by Salvadorans and tourists alike. A large number of armed assailants (approximately 30, according to witnesses), gained access to the roadside restaurant and subdued patrons and employees at gunpoint while they stole money and other valuables. Several perpetrators of this crime remain at large.
Extortion continues to be a common, lucrative criminal enterprise in San Salvador; however, data shows an incremental decline in reported cases from its peak at about 4,400+ cases in 2009. In 2017, the number of reported cases was at 1,414, a 35% decrease in reported cases from the 2,183 reported in 2016. However, victims of extortion have underreported this crime to authorities. Many opt to pay rather than risk their livelihoods or their safety to file a report. This fact affects the actual number of Salvadorans victimized by this crime each year. In 2017, the National Police launched an anti-extortion call center for victims and witnesses to anonymously report extortion, or to solicit police support to stop the extortion.
There were 1,209 car thefts and 528 carjacking cases reported in 2017, vs. 2,007 car thefts, and 975 carjacking cases reported in 2016, representing a roughly 50% decrease.
In 2017, there were 1,850 reported rape cases nationally, up from 330 reported cases in 2016, reflecting an 18% increase. Services for victims of rape are very limited, and many victims choose not to participate in the investigation and prosecution of the crime for fear of not being treated respectfully by the authorities. Additionally, many murder victims show signs of rape, and survivors of rape may not report the crime for fear of retaliation.
San Salvador has concerns regarding ATM/credit card scams. Credit card skimming is on the rise. U.S. citizens have been victimized at well-known restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and retailers. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud.”
Other Areas of Concern
A contributing factor to crime is the significant income disparity. There are few, if any, areas without reported cases of violent crime.
Visitors are advised to take precautions when transiting or visiting the downtown area of San Salvador (do not carry large amounts of cash, do not wear jewelry, remain alert to your surroundings, know the exact destination you are headed to).
For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.”
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Poorly maintained roads are common and pose a significant safety and security risk to travelers. There is limited street lighting on minor roads, creating a serious risk after dark. It is common to encounter pedestrians, dogs, livestock, or abandoned vehicles on the roadways. Missing manholes or storm drain covers are prevalent and may be flagged with large objects in the roadway (placed to mark the danger but difficult to see).
A significant percentage of vehicles are in disrepair, underpowered, beyond their service life, or do not meet U.S. road safety standards. Passing on blind corners is common. Driving while intoxicated is common and is a major contributing factor to traffic accident fatalities. Due to lax enforcement of traffic laws, drivers must drive defensively.
Travel outside the cities and to Guatemala or Honduras should only be done during daylight hours and, if possible, with convoys for safety. When traveling to rural areas try to caravan as well. Refrain from driving outside the capital after dark, for both personal security and traffic safety reasons.
For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”
Public Transportation Conditions
Avoid public transportation, especially local buses. Public buses are often in poor mechanical condition and plagued by bands of armed robbers.
Mini-bus, bus, and taxi drivers commonly disregard traffic rules and cause many accidents. In 2017, there were 1,239 deaths due to traffic accidents, an increase over the 1,207 deaths reported in 2016. Regional commercial bus travel is generally safe, although robberies have occurred in neighboring countries.
Privately-owned cabs are not regulated, and caution should be taken to choose reputable taxis, usually located in front of major hotels. Use only taxis you can call via telephone or that you find at reputable hotels. If headed downtown, use a trusted taxi service or a contract driver or company to travel during daylight hours only, as the likelihood of a criminal encounter increases at night.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the government’s Civil Aviation Authority as being in compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards for oversight of El Salvador’s air carrier operations.
Other Travel Conditions
The CA-4 agreement between El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua allows for the inspection-free travel of citizens of these countries using only an identification card and may contribute to the ease of regional travel of criminals.
The U.S. Department of State has assessed San Salvador as being a LOW-threat location for terrorist activity directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
There are no known international terrorist groups that operate in El Salvador. El Salvador does not appear to be utilized as a terrorist safehaven. There were no legal cases involving instances of terrorism affecting U.S. citizens or facilities brought before the judicial system in 2017, nor were there any judicial developments that would appear to have a significant impact on U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
The U.S. Department of State has assessed San Salvador as being a MEDIUM-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.
Public protests and strikes against the government, generally by government employees, are quite common. Most demonstrations are concentrated in/around city centers or public buildings and other public areas. Although usually non-violent, these public displays sometimes create security problems and impede traffic.
El Salvador is in an active seismic zone, producing numerous earthquakes. El Salvador suffers a major earthquake approximately every 10 years. Seismic tremors measuring 5.0+ occur on a regular basis, usually causing little damage. There are close to 2,000 tremors that affect the country per year.
In October 2014, a 7.4 earthquake struck off the coast, causing moderate damage and killing one person.
There are approximately seven active volcanoes.
In December 2013, Chaparratique erupted, causing little damage but forcing hundreds to evacuate San Miguel.
Approximately nine significant tropical storms and hurricanes have affected El Salvador recently. Two of the most damaging storms were Hurricane Stan (2005) and Hurricane Mitch (1998). While direct hits by hurricanes are a concern, damage to infrastructure results mostly from flooding and mudslides during the rainy season or tropical storm.
In 2011, Tropical Storm 12E dumped heavy rains on the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador), causing extensive damage and resulting in the deaths of dozens of people.
During the rainy season (May-October), heavy and persistent storms can cause landslides, topple trees/power lines, and wash away roads and bridges.
In October 2015, heavy rains forced the government to close schools nationwide for several days.
A common cause of death of U.S. citizens is drowning as a result of strong rip currents and large surf at many of the beaches. There are a few public beaches, some protected by armed guards. Swimmers should exercise caution.
El Salvador has revised several of its laws to comply with CAFTA-DR's provisions on intellectual property rights (IPR) and has a National Intellectual Property Policy that recognizes protection of IPR as a key element for the economy’s development and competitiveness. The Policy specifically addresses geographical indicators with an eye toward the promotion of Salvadoran products.
The Attorney General's Office and the National Civilian Police enforce trademark and IPR by conducting raids against distributors and manufacturers of pirated goods. Salvadoran law authorizes the seizure, forfeiture, and destruction of counterfeit and pirated goods and the equipment used to produce them. It also allows authorities to initiate raids ex officio. Since 2006, piracy has been punishable by jail sentences of 2-6 years. As a practical matter, however, the Attorney General’s Office lacks a trained team of IPR investigators and prosecutors, and, in a country with limited resources and a high crime rate, IPR cases do not receive a high priority. The judiciary, due to the lack of familiarity with IPR issues and inconsistent enforcement, continue to be the weak link in IPR protection, and using the courts to seek redress for IPR violations is often a slow and frustrating process. Despite growing recognition of the importance of IPR, the piracy of all types of media, clothes, pharmaceuticals, and software, along with inadequate enforcement of cable broadcast rights, remain ongoing concerns.
El Salvador is not on the Special 301 Watch List, nor notorious market report. Internet trolling and other disreputable practices have been publicly reported over the past year, but there is little evidence of organized economic espionage activity.
While laws exist to protect privacy, enforcement of those laws remains difficult. The release of personal and medical information over the phone, by email, or in person is a common practice. There are few incidents of identity theft. Consequently, it is common for Salvadorans to include their photo, national ID number, date of birth, address, and other personal information on resumes and other documents.
Personal Identity Concerns
There is negative sentiment toward individuals who identify as LGBT. There have been reports of violence against LGBT individuals, including a well-reported case involving an attack on a transgender man in June 2014 following the San Salvador Pride event. However, some reports suggest that this incident was more a result of gang involvement than a hate crime. Authorities are still investigating the case.
El Salvador is not considered a major transit point for illegal narcotics, though maritime smuggling routes do exist in the country’s coastal waters in the eastern Pacific. Illicit narcotics from South America are smuggled through Salvadoran territory/coast and onward to the U.S. El Salvador is party to the 1988 United Nations Drug Convention. The relatively small volume of drugs transiting the country in comparison with some regional neighbors, as well as active efforts by Salvadoran authorities to combat transit routes, has kept El Salvador from becoming a major transit location.
TCOs are not thought to be major narcotics trafficking organizations. These gangs are involved primarily in street-level drug sales, which are believed to be low in El Salvador, particularly due to economic conditions.
Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking illegal drugs are strict, and convicted offenders can expect lengthy jail sentences and fines.
U.S. citizens and Westerners are not the target of kidnapping plots in El Salvador. However, the kidnapping, torture, and murder of rival gang members occurs with some frequency.
While receiving significant support from U.S. and other partners, the police are often hampered by inadequate funding and limited resources, and as a result of perceived and actual corruption, they do not enjoy the full confidence and cooperation of much of El Salvador’s citizenry. The police’s investigative units have shown great promise; however, routine street level patrol techniques, anti-gang, and crime suppression efforts remain a constant, difficult challenge. Equipment shortages (particularly radios and vehicles) limit their ability to deter or respond to crimes expeditiously. Other impediments to effective law enforcement are unsupportive laws, general distrust, and the occasional lack of cooperation between the police, prosecutors, and corrections.
Many prisons and detention facilities supply only the bare minimum of basic necessities. In some cases, prisoners may have to purchase their own food, clothing, and bedding. Prisons are extremely overcrowded, and many prisoners do not have access to beds. Although prison regulations require that prisoners have access to medical care, the standard of care varies widely.
Local law allows the police to detain individuals for up to 72-hours for administrative processing. This is a common practice for most automobile accidents resulting in personal injury and for criminal acts, including accusations.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
Arrested or otherwise detained foreigners are generally treated well by the police. U.S. citizen residents/travelers should insist on speaking to U.S. Embassy representatives. Except in some very rural locations, police are usually aware of a U.S. citizen detainee's right to contact the Embassy. Embassy assistance is limited to ensuring U.S. citizens are not mistreated, contacting family/friends, protesting breaches of due process, and providing a list of local attorneys.
Judicial procedures are not always clear or easily understood by foreigners, and significant delays during the investigation and legal process are common.
Crime Victim Assistance
If you are the victim of a crime, contact the police and the U.S. Embassy. The Office of Overseas Citizens Services in Washington, D.C. can be reached at (888) 407-4747. The American Citizen Services (ACS) Unit of U.S. Embassy San Salvador can be reached at (503) 2501-2999.
For public safety emergencies, dial 911. Operators generally only speak Spanish.
There is only one national police service: The Policia Nacional Civil (PNC). Each major city, municipality, or town has a PNC delegation. The PNC also has a number of specialized units that investigate specific crimes and traffic enforcement, anti-gang, civil disturbance, VIP protection, and other special operations units.
Recognizing the need to address the level of extortions, the Fuerza de Tarea Anti Extortiones (Anti-Extortion Task Force, FTAE) was formed in 2006 and has been recognized as effective in combating this persistent and common crime.
Private tour companies frequently employ national police officers to accompany their groups for personal security.
Emergency services are more readily available in the capital city than in outlying areas, but city facilities would be overwhelmed quickly in the event of a mass-casualty incident.
Public hospitals are very crowded. Their resources are typically very limited, and they do not see patients quickly that are not assessed to have an obvious life threatening emergency.
Pharmacies are plentiful, but not all medicines found in the U.S. are available. Medicines often have a different brand name and are frequently more expensive than in the U.S. Recent regulatory changes that established price limits for pharmaceuticals may affect quality and availability of certain medicines. RSO recommends that U.S. citizens carry an adequate supply of any medication they require in its original container, which should be clearly labeled. A copy of the prescription from the prescribing doctor will be helpful if immigration or customs authorities question you about your medications. For more information, please refer to OSAC’s Report, “Traveling with Medications.”
Priority Ambulance: Tel: (503) 2264-7911— the only private ambulance service with a fleet of vehicles in San Salvador that has trained personnel and medical equipment to manage emergencies. The response time is often less than ideal because of the heavy traffic in San Salvador; therefore, it is often quicker for people to transport themselves by private vehicle.
Contact Information for Available Medical Services
There are few private hospitals. The Embassy uses Hospital Diagnostico and Hospital de la Mujer for most routine medical and surgical needs. Embassy health professionals assess the standards of these hospitals to be less than those of the U.S.
For medical assistance, please refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page.
Available Air Ambulance Services
Air Ambulance: (305) 535-7380 (International SOS, Mount Sinai Hospital, Miami Beach, Florida)
Private hospitals and physicians expect up-front payment (cash or, for hospitals, credit card) for all bills, as there are no hospitals or medical offices who will bill U.S. insurance companies.
Visitors are advised to check with insurance providers to ensure they have adequate medical insurance valid for El Salvador, including coverage for medical evacuation.
Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
All routinely recommended immunizations for the U.S. should be up to date. Measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, pertussis, and chickenpox are much more common than in the U.S., especially among children. Additionally, hepatitis A and typhoid immunizations are recommended for all travelers. Hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for all those who may have sexual contacts, receive tattoos, or require medical treatment.
The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for El Salvador.
OSAC Country Council Information
There is no Country Council in San Salvador. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Western Hemisphere Team with any questions.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
Final Boulevard Santa Elena
La Libertad, El Salvador, C.A.
Hours of operation: 0800-1700, Mon-Fri. The Embassy observes all U.S. and Salvadoran holidays.
Embassy Contact Numbers
Embassy 24-Hour Contact Number: (503) 2501-2999
U.S. citizens traveling to El Salvador should register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to ensure they receive pertinent security updates and notices.
El Salvador Country Information Sheet