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El Salvador 2013 Crime and Safety Report

Western Hemisphere > El Salvador > San Salvador

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

El Salvador is rated “Critical” for crime by the U.S. Department of State. El Salvador is considered one of the most violent countries in the world. The criminal threat in El Salvador is unpredictable, gang-centric, and characterized by violence directed against both known associates and targets of opportunity. There is no information to suggest that U.S. citizens and other Westerners are targeted specifically. The Department of State issued a Travel Warning for El Salvador in January 2013 due to continuing levels of critical violent crime: http://www.travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_5871.html.

Crimes of every nature occur 24 hours a day; daylight is not a deterrent. There are no areas that are deemed free of violent crime. Robberies and robbery attempts, home invasions, and extortions occur in the most affluent neighborhoods, and closely guarded officials, independent business persons, and diplomats are not immune from these attacks. As a result, neighborhood watch groups employ armed private security, while security checkpoints and police patrols have increased.

The government and municipalities have invested in the development of affluent and commercial areas such as Zona Rosa in San Benito, Escalon neighborhoods, and parts of Santa Tecla. While these areas still see frequent violent crime, the remodeling and improvements of these areas have brought investors and spawned economic growth.

Most U.S. citizens (close to 90 percent) die of natural causes in El Salvador. The leading cause of non-natural death is homicide. In 2012, U.S. fatalities included 11 non-natural deaths (seven homicides, two vehicle accidents, one suicide, and one drowning). 2011 saw eight non-natural deaths (four homicides, two vehicle accidents, and two drowning). And 2010 saw 13 non-natural deaths (11 homicides, one vehicle accident, and one drowning). Of 32 non-natural deaths from January 2010 to December 2012, 22 were homicides. 

The effect and threat of violent crime in San Salvador, including the neighborhoods in which many Americans live and work, leads to isolation and the curtailment of recreational opportunities. Based on current statistics, violent crime remains significantly higher than U.S. and international rates. El Salvador has the second highest per capita murder rate in the world: 69 per 100,000 in 2012 (UNODC statistics) (by comparison the murder rate in Massachusetts, with a similar geographical area and population, was 2.6 per 100,000). Police statistics show there was an average of seven murders and three carjackings reported daily in 2012. The number of murders for 2012 was 2,576, and the number of carjackings for 2012 was 960; this is a decrease in the statistics reported in 2011, which saw 4,371 homicides and 1,256 car-jackings. Police crime statistics for 2012 for the number of reported robberies, assaults, and rapes showed significant increases. The number of missing persons has increased significantly (1,601 for 2012) while the homicide rate has fallen. Many observers believe that a large percentage of the decrease in homicides is directly linked with the large increase of missing persons. Authorities continue to find mass graves; identification of the remains is often not possible. 

The National Civilian Police (PNC) reported that 64 percent of all homicides in 2012 were committed with firearms. Due to lax customs enforcement and porous borders, weapons are readily available and easily obtained. The number of illegal weapons is estimated at more than 600,000, including AK-47s and M-16 assault rifles, various handguns, and military-grade weaponry, in addition to the 260,000 legally registered firearms. The number of weapons caches, with non-decommissioned weapons that survived the civil war, is unknown. Crimes committed by criminals armed with automatic weapons are considered routine.

In 2012, armed robberies continued at the accelerated 2011 pace and arguably could be the single greatest security threat facing U.S. Embassy staff and business persons. As an example, in November 2012, an Embassy employee was robbed at gunpoint while stopped at a red light at a major intersection 10 minutes from the Embassy. Two unidentified men approached the driver’s side of the car, pointed a gun at him, and demanded his belongings. He complied with their demands, and the attackers robbed the vehicles stopped behind him as well. In another example, a shootout that killed one person and injured two others took place in the middle of the afternoon at one of the most popular shopping malls in El Salvador, just five minutes from the Embassy. Shootouts in public locations are common. Poorly trained private security guards with shotguns and pistols only make the shootouts more dangerous to innocent bystanders. 

Personal attacks, such as muggings, continue in the public transportation sector. Passengers on public buses are frequently robbed en-route, at roadblocks, and at bus stops. Would-be muggers and gang members have become so brazen that they are known to keep to a daily schedule, riding city buses from one stop to the next, mugging and committing criminal acts with impunity from criminal prosecution.

Extortion persists as a very common, effective criminal enterprise. Recent progress in the reductions of homicides has not translated to a significant reduction of extortion that often leads to other violent crimes. Many extortion attempts are no more than random cold calls that originate from imprisoned gang-members using cellular telephones, and subsequent threats against the victim are made through social engineering and/or through information obtained on the victim’s family. Nevertheless, these calls are still very effective based on the fear associated with the daily murders committed against extorted small business operators and bus drivers. In 2011, a two-year old U.S. citizen was kidnapped from his grandparents’ house by 8 to 10 armed men. Ransom demands made to family members in both El Salvador and the United States were traced back to a local prison used exclusively to incarcerate gang members. Hitting its peak a few years ago, extortion has dropped in the last two years. It may be attributed to the creation of a joint police-attorney general anti-extortion unit in 2009 or to the public trend toward underreporting or dismissing clearly ill-prepared extortion attempts. However, extortions dropped nearly 11 percent in 2012, from 3,296 (2011) to 2,933 (2012). The decrease in reported cases notwithstanding, extortion affects all sectors of the population (including Embassy staff), and recent reports show that there is an increase in the level of violence associated with extortion cases, including media reports of extortion victims and witnesses being killed, adding to the suspicion that the decreases can be accounted for by decreased reporting of the crime for fear of retribution.

El Salvador has hundreds of known gang cliques, totaling more than 20,000 members. Violent, well-armed, U.S.-style street gang growth continues, with Los Angeles' 18th Street and MS-13 ("Mara Salvatrucha") gangs being the largest. Gangs concentrate on narcotics and arms trafficking, murder for hire, carjacking, extortion, and violent street crime. Recognizing the threat posed by MS-13 to El Salvador, the United States, other Central American countries, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated MS-13 a Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO) in their list of Specially Designated Nationals. Gangs and other criminal elements roam freely, day and night, targeting affluent areas for burglaries, and gang members are quick to engage in violence if resisted. Many of the gangs are comprised of unemployed youth who are street trained and do not hesitate to use deadly force when perpetrating crimes. The U.S. government has assigned a Gang Advisor to assist the government with combating the gang problem. Additionally, the FBI has established a transnational anti-gang unit with the PNC based in San Salvador. 

El Salvador witnessed an increase in the number of reported rapes in 2012; it remains a serious and ever-present concern. There were 378 rapes reported to the PNC in 2012, up from 326 in 2011, a 16 percent increase. Local police and judicial experts estimate that less than 20 percent of rapes are reported. 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 being “victimized” again. Many murder victims show signs of rape, and victims who live do not report the crime for fear of retaliation. 

Home invasions and/or the burglaries of residences during broad daylight are becoming more prevalent in affluent residential neighborhoods in San Salvador. Some of these home invasions occur by individuals posing as delivery men or as police officers to gain access to a home. Some come up on a motorcycle and push the tenant back in their residence to rob them. ‘Follow home’ home-invasions by gang members are also occurring in communities where Embassy families live. Recently, the next door neighbor of an Embassy family was victimized when armed assailants followed him to his residence and rushed him as he pulled into his garage. Once inside, they closed the garage doors and robbed the man of $1,500 at gun point and then drove off in his vehicle. Due to the large amount of cash stolen, it is likely that this individual was surveilled departing a bank or ATM. Attempted burglaries of heavily fortified Embassy housing are also a fact of life. In December 2011, burglars likely had good information that the occupants were away since they methodically cut the razor wire and scaled the rear wall of the residence before attempting to gain entry through a rear door. Once the criminals attempted to force the door open, the alarm sounded, and the thieves took flight. A contributing factor to crime in well-to-do neighborhoods is the unimpeded development of squatter slums in the midst of some of the best areas in the capital. For example, less than 300 meters from a popular area for Embassy housing is a squatter slum.

Another crime on the rise and directly affecting the Embassy community is credit card skimming. Staff have been victimized at well-known restaurants, hotels, and retailers in San Salvador. Embassy employees are briefed on the importance of maintaining direct visual contact with their credit cards at all times and on the importance of closely checking monthly statements. 

Overall Road Safety Situation

Poorly maintained roads and vehicles are common and pose a significant danger to travelers. There is virtually no street lighting on minor roads in urban areas, a serious problem after-hours. U.S. Embassy San Salvador advises all personnel to avoid driving outside of the city during hours of darkness. During both daylight and nighttime hours, it is not uncommon to encounter pedestrians, feral dogs, livestock, or abandoned vehicles on the roadways. Even within San Salvador, missing manhole and storm drain covers, and large objects in the roadway marking the danger are common. During the rainy season (May-October), heavy and persistent storms can cause landslides, topple trees and power lines, and wash away roads and bridges. 

A significant percentage of vehicles are in disrepair, under-powered, and/or beyond their lifecycle and do not meet U.S. road safety standards. Mini-bus, bus, and taxi drivers do not adhere to traffic rules or regulations, and they cause many accidents. Because of a near complete lack of enforcement of traffic laws, drivers must make an extraordinary effort to drive defensively. If traffic signals are working, they are often ignored, and passing on blind corners is common.

Beyond the capital, security concerns, including insecure roads in many areas of the country and along the border with Guatemala, also severely limit persons from enjoying the tourist opportunities. To compound matters, many of El Salvador's tourist and recreation areas are accessible only by unsafe and damaged roads. Accidents are frequent and serious in areas with limited medical resources, and they discourage many citizens, especially those with children, from traveling far beyond San Salvador.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

There are no known international terrorist groups in El Salvador. There were no legal cases involving instances of terrorism affecting U.S. citizens or facilities brought before the judicial system in 2012, nor were there any judicial developments that would appear to have a significant impact on U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. The government cooperates closely with the United States on counter-terrorism and takes active steps to protect U.S. interests and citizens. El Salvador does not appear to be utilized as a terrorist safe haven.

The CA-4 agreement among El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua allows for the inspection-free movement of citizens among these countries and reduces overall inspection at land crossings. The agreement has raised concerns that its implementation could facilitate easier international movement of terrorists. 

The threat from transnational narcoterrorism cannot be ruled out. In addition, there is some evidence that the Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas, may have infiltrated El Salvador. The government strongly supports the U.S. government's War on Terrorism, and has worked hard to tighten both border and airport security. It appears that these actions, if sustained, could reduce organized crime, like drug smuggling, over the long-term.

Since the end of the civil war in 1992, most groups who once opposed El Salvador's ruling government and the U.S. government's policies in El Salvador have demobilized and joined the political process as peaceful actors. Some fringe domestic groups have resorted to street violence, including the 2006 assassination of Salvadoran riot police. 

Civil Unrest 

Public demonstrations and strikes against the government, generally by government employees, are not uncommon. Most demonstrations are concentrated in and around city centers or public buildings and other public areas. Although often non-violent, they have created public security problems.

There are numerous protests each month by workers and students, demanding more resources, benefits, money, etc. from the government. Many government offices and public schools protest by work slowdowns, in some cases letting criminals go free and children go home from school. Many recent protests by war veterans and public transportation workers have blocked major highways and caused up to 85 percent stoppage of public transportation. Protestors have had violent confrontations that involved rock throwing and tear gas with police.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

El Salvador is in an active seismic subduction zone, where the Caribbean plate overrides the Cocos plate, producing numerous earthquakes from multiple sources. El Salvador suffers a major earthquake every ten years. In 1986, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake destroyed the old U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. Approximately 1,500 people were reportedly killed, over 10,000 injured, and 200,000 left homeless after the earthquake and a week of aftershocks. An earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale devastated parts of El Salvador in January 2001. A second earthquake in February 2001 measured 6.6 and caused significant damage and loss of life. In total, there were three earthquakes that struck El Salvador in 2001 that resulted in over 1,000 deaths, one million people homeless, and over 400,000 homes destroyed. In December 2006, an earthquake measuring 5.7 struck in the northwest corner of the country. More than 100 families were displaced. In March 2007, an 5.6 earthquake struck in the northern section of the country, knocking down a number of homes and damaging buildings. Seismic tremors measuring over 5.0 occur on a regular basis, usually causing little damage. It is estimated that there are close to 2,000 tremors per year.

There are approximately seven active volcanoes. The most recent eruption occurred in October 2005 when one of the country's largest volcanoes, llamatepec, erupted twice in a two-day period in the Santa Ana Department. There were two deaths reported and over 4,850 people evacuated from their homes.

Approximately nine significant tropical storms and hurricanes have affected El Salvador. Two of the most damaging storms on record were Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Stan in 2005. While hurricanes are a concern, much of the damage to infrastructure is a result of flooding and mudslides during the rainy season. In 2011, Tropical Storm 12E dumped heavy and consistent rains on the three Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) that caused extensive damage to infrastructure (i.e. many washed out bridges and roads) and resulted in the deaths of dozens of people. The rainy season usually runs from May through October.

The beaches along the Pacific coast are beautiful, but the undertows and strong currents can make swimming very dangerous for even experienced swimmers. Drowning is a common cause of death of U.S. citizens in El Salvador. El Salvador is a popular surfing destination. Rocky beaches and often powerful waves can make for dangerous conditions for inexperienced travelers. In December 2012 an U.S. tourist drowned while surfing in La Libertad. Beach options are effectively limited to private beach clubs or residences, which can be expensive. 

Visitors should use caution when climbing volcanoes or hiking in remote areas. Armed robberies are common. Tourists wishing to hike volcanoes, visit national parks, and do other tourist activities rely upon private tour companies who use police officers from the national police to accompany the tourists and protect them and their belongings.

Recreational options for children are particularly limited; most head to the U.S. during the summer and rely on playgrounds or school activities for organized play during the rest of the year. The government has attempted to create safe public parks for walking, hiking, bike riding, and outdoor activities. Parks like the new “Parque Bicentennario” are relatively new, and RSO is evaluating reported and anecdotal crime statistics and trends. 

Industrial and Transportation Accidents

For 2010, the last year that data was available, the Salvadoran Social Security Institute reported a total of 16,773 accidents in the workplace. According to the same source, workplace accidents have declined from 20,863 since 2007.

Transportation accidents are common. In 2012, there were 998 deaths due to traffic accidents. Drunk driving is very common and a major contributor to traffic accident fatalities. Public transportation is very dangerous due to crime on buses and the overall condition of the bus units themselves. 

Economic Espionage and Intellectual Property Thefts

There have been no reported cases of economic espionage. El Salvador hosts many international trade shows and business representatives from countries such as Russia, China, Taiwan, and Korea frequently attend. 

Privacy Concerns

While laws exist to protect privacy, they are rarely enforced. Releasing personal and medical information over the phone, by email, or in person is regular practice. Salvadorans have not experienced the impact of identity theft that U.S. citizens have. Salvadorans generally include their photo, national ID number, date of birth, address, and other personal information on resumes and other documents. 

Regional Travel Concerns and Restricted Travel Zones

There are no restricted travel zones. Travel outside the cities and to Guatemala and Honduras should be done during daylight hours and with multiple vehicle convoys for safety. Regional commercial bus travel is generally safe; however, robberies have occurred in neighboring countries. 

Drug-related Crimes

El Salvador is a transit country for cocaine and heroin along the eastern Pacific maritime smuggling routes. Illicit narcotics originating in South America are smuggled over land and by sea to the United States via Mexico. 

El Salvador hosts a Cooperative Security Location (CSL) crucial to regional narcotics trafficking detection and interception efforts. El Salvador is party to the 1988 United Nations Drug Convention. 

TCOs, including MS-13 and M-18, are major threats to public security but are not thought to be major narcotics trafficking organizations. These gangs are apparently more involved in street-level drug sales. The gangs have collaborated with large Mexican drug cartels to carry out murders and have sold the cartels weapons and explosives left over from the war and/or from the Salvadoran military. 

The production of precursor chemicals and illicit trading of bulk ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are not significant problems. However, the importation and transiting of precursor chemicals has occurred. Specifically, between approximately October 2010 and approximately April 2011, multi-liquid quantities of ethyl phenyl acetate, methylamine, and glacial acetic acid were illegally imported into El Salvador from China, and were seized by the Policia Nacional Civil (PNC). These chemical precursors were destined for non-existent businesses within the country when seized. Indicators do suggest that some diversion of these chemical precursors is being conducted but continues to be a work in-progress.

Kidnapping Threats

Economically motivated kidnappings for ransom were a serious concern; however, press reports indicate that kidnappings have decreased significantly since 2005. The PNC has had notable success in dismantling kidnapping gangs through strong policing and investigations. Police statistics reported three kidnappings in both 2011 and 2012. While the kidnapping rate is very low, kidnappings that result in the death of the victim are logged as homicides. While the kidnapping, torture, and murder of rival gang members is extremely common, these victims are recorded as homicides. 

Police Response

The National Civilian Police (PNC) was created in 1992 as part of the Peace Accords following the civil war. To bolster broad-based support for the organization, the recruiting effort focused on hiring new officers to meet hiring quotas: 20 percent of the PNC would be former or public security officials, 20 percent would be former leftist combatants, and the remaining 60 percent would be drawn from the civilian population with no former military or police experience. The PNC is still in the developmental stages of becoming a modern and effective police force that can protect the public. While several of the PNC's investigative units have shown great promise, routine street level patrol techniques, anti-gang, and crime suppression efforts remain ineffective. Equipment shortages (particularly radios and vehicles) further limit their ability to deter or respond to crimes effectively. The PNC command changed in 2011; nearly all command and leadership positions are occupied by former Salvadoran military personnel. 

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment 

U.S. citizen residents or travelers detained by the police should insist on speaking to U.S. Embassy representatives. Arrested or otherwise detained foreigners are generally treated well. Except in some very rural locations, police are aware of a U.S. citizen detainee's right to contact their Embassy. Travelers should be aware, however, that the assistance the Embassy can provide is limited to making sure U.S. citizens are not being mistreated, contacting family or friends, and providing them with a list of local attorneys. Local law allows the police to detain someone for up to 72 hours for administrative processing. This is a common practice for most automobile accidents where there is personal injury and for criminal acts, including being accused of a criminal act. The court uses the 72 hour detainment to investigate the crime or accident. Travelers are reminded to seek legal representation before admitting or signing any legal form that acknowledges culpability.

U.S. citizens are subject to the laws of the country in which they are traveling. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking illegal drugs are strict, and convicted offenders can expect lengthy jail sentences and fines. 

If you are the victim of a crime overseas, contact the nearest embassy or consulate. The Office of Overseas Citizens Services in Washington, DC can be reached at (888) 407-4747 (business hours), (202) 647-5226 (after hours), or overseas at (202) 501-4444. The American Citizen Services (ACS) Unit of U.S. Embassy San Salvador can be reached at (503) 2501-2628 (business hours) or (503) 2501-2252 (after hours duty officer).

Where to Turn to for Assistance if you Become a Victim of Crime

For public safety emergencies, dial "911." Operators only speak Spanish. 

Various Police/Security Agencies 

There is only one police service: The Policia Nacional Civil (PNC). Each major city, municipality, or town has a PNC Delegation that serves that community. The PNC also has a number of specialized units that investigate specific crimes (like extortion and homicide) as well as traffic enforcement units, anti-gang units, civil disturbance units, VIP protection, and other special operations units. For more information, see the PNC website at:  http://www.pnc.gob.sv

Medical Emergencies

Medical care is somewhat limited. Emergency services, even in the capital, are basic at best. Although many physicians are trained in the United States, their staff and equipment are generally not up to U.S. standards. For more information on medical facilities and health resources see the Country Specific Information on El Salvador at http://www.travel.state.gov. 
 
Contact Information for Recommended Local Hospitals and Clinics

Diagnostic Hospital & Emergencies: (503) 2264-4422
Women's Hospital: (503) 2265-1212 
Priority Ambulance: (503) 2264-7911 

Recommended Air Ambulance Services

Air Ambulance: (305) 535-7380 (International SOS, Mount Sinai Hospital, Miami Beach, Florida) 

CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

For health guidance, please visit the CDC at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/el-salvador.htm

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Areas to be Avoided and Best Security Practices

While there are no restricted travel zones, many neighborhoods in the urban centers are completely gang controlled and should be avoided. All of El Salvador is critical for crime, with the rural areas affected by violent crime as much as the urban centers. 

The majority of U.S. business persons are able to conduct their daily activities without security-related incidents by following basic security precautions and exercising good judgment. Avoid travel into the downtown area of San Salvador unless absolutely necessary. Always remain alert to your surroundings. Research recent crime trends prior to planning your trip.

Leave expensive jewelry and watches at home. If confronted by an armed assailant and he/she demands your property, comply. Leave valuables and important documents in a secure location at your office or in a hotel safe deposit box. Be sure to have copies of these documents in a second location.

Avoid public transportation, especially the local buses. There have been numerous reports of robberies involving inter-city and international buses. Use only taxis you can call via telephone or that you find at reputable hotels. 

Always drive with your doors locked and windows up. Bring your cell phone with you, with emergency numbers on the speed-dial list. Try to park in a secure area whenever possible. At stores, restaurants, and other locations with uniformed guards, try to park near the guard post or the business' entrance. Be alert to your surroundings when entering or leaving a parking area, including private residences. Check your vehicle before entry. Ensure no one is hidden inside the vehicle or standing in vicinity of where you have parked. Do not leave any valuables in your vehicle, anything left visible in your vehicle will appear inviting to petty criminals. Do not drive outside the capital after dark, for both personal security and traffic safety reasons. When traveling to rural areas, travel with a large group and more than one vehicle whenever possible. Be sure someone is aware of your travel itinerary. Avoid unpaved roads. These are indicators of areas where police presence may be minimal. Use caution when traveling or spending the night in an isolated or rural area. Telephone communication may be non-existent or erratic. In an emergency situation in a rural area, you may not be able to summon assistance - including the police. Schedule trips on the highway between San Salvador and the Comalapa International Airport during daylight hours. The highway is dangerous, especially at night. 

Swimming at the few public beaches, which are protected by shotgun-toting guards, is inadvisable.

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information

Embassy/Consulate Address and Hours of Operation 

Final Boulevard Santa Elena
La Libertad, El Salvador, C.A. 
Hours of operation: 08:00 - 17:00, Monday-Friday, except all US and Salvadoran holidays. 

Embassy/Consulate Contact Numbers

24 hour number: (503) 2501-2999 Regional Security Office: (503) 2501-2244Consular Section, American Citizens Services Unit: (503) 2501-262824 hour Embassy Dispatch: (503) 2501-2252MSG Post 1: (503) 2501-2316

U.S. citizens who live in, or who are visiting, El Salvador are encouraged to register with U.S. Embassy San Salvador. Citizens can register online through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at https://step.state.gov/step.

OSAC Country Council Information

The American Chamber of Commerce sponsors an active local Country Council that meets monthly. The Country Council frequently holds seminars and briefings on local criminal trends. Contact the American Chamber of Commerce for further information on the OSAC Country Council at phone: (503) 2263-9494, fax: (503) 2263-9393, email: amchamsal@amchamsal.com, or URL: www.amchamsal.com.