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El Salvador 2015 Crime and Safety Report

Western Hemisphere > El Salvador; Western Hemisphere > El Salvador > San Salvador

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Rating: Critical

Crime Threats

While 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 or other Westerners are specifically targeted by criminals. The effect and threat of violent crime in San Salvador, including the neighborhoods in which many U.S. citizens live and work, leads to greater isolation and the curtailment of recreational opportunities. Crimes of every type routinely occur. 

The threat from transnational criminal organizations is prevalent throughout Central America. There is some evidence that the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas may have infiltrated El Salvador, although only in extremely low numbers. El Salvador has hundreds of gang “cliques,” with more than 20,000 members. Violent, well-armed, U.S.-style street gang growth continues, with the 18th Street (Barrio 18) 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. The gangs have collaborated with Mexican drug cartels to carry out murders and have sold the cartels weapons and explosives left over from the war and/or from the military. Recognizing the threat posed by MS-13, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the MS-13 a Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO) in their list of Specially Designated Nationals. Gangs and other criminal elements roam freely, targeting affluent areas for burglaries, and gang members 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.

A contributing factor to crime is the presence of impoverished shanty communities in the midst of high-income residential and higher-end commercial areas in the capital. There are few if any areas immune from violent crime. However, the presence of armed security and the use of security features at homes have proven to be successful in combating home invasions. In 2014, armed robberies continued to be the greatest security threat facing diplomats, tourists, and business persons. Home invasions/burglaries during daylight continue to be prevalent in residential neighborhoods in San Salvador. Some home invasions occur when individuals posing as delivery men or police officers gain access to a home. 

Extortion persists as a very common, effective criminal enterprise. Hitting a peak in 2009, the number of extortions has dropped from 4,528 reported cases of extortion in 2006 to 2,480 reported cases in 2014. Many of the extortion calls originate from prisons.

There were 2,480 car thefts and 1,331 carjackings reported in 2014. Not tracked however, are the significant numbers of smash-and-grab-type of auto burglaries pervasive throughout the urban areas of El Salvador. 

El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and the Department of State updated the Travel Warning for El Salvador in November 2014 to notify U.S. citizens about travel safety concerns and challenges. Police statistics show an increase in annual homicides during 2014, attributed primarily to the cessation of a controversial 2012 truce between local gangs. Crime statistics showed that the 2014 annual homicide rate — 68.6 per 100,000 inhabitants — was significantly higher than the previous year’s 43.7 per 100,000 rate. In 2014, authorities recorded 3,912 homicides, a 55.7 percent increase from the 2,513 in 2013.

Rape remains a serious concern; in 2013 and 2014, an average of 376 rapes per year were 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 not being treated respectfully by the authorities. Many murder victims show signs of rape, and survivors of rape may not report the crime for fear of retaliation.

Another crime on the rise is credit card skimming. U.S. citizens have been victimized at well-known restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and retailers.

Areas of Concern

Avoid travel into the downtown area of San Salvador unless absolutely necessary. 

Travel outside the cities and to Guatemala or Honduras should only be done during daylight hours and with multiple vehicle convoys for safety.

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions 

Poorly maintained roads are common and pose a significant danger to travelers. There is virtually no street lighting on minor roads, creating a serious risk after dark. It is not uncommon to encounter pedestrians, feral dogs, livestock, or abandoned vehicles on the roadways. Missing manholes or storm drain covers with large objects in the roadway (placed to mark the danger but difficult to see) may be regularly encountered. If traffic signals are working, they are often ignored.

A significant percentage of vehicles are in disrepair, under-powered, beyond their service life, and do not meet U.S. road safety standards. Due to lax enforcement of traffic laws, drivers must make an extraordinary effort to drive defensively. Passing on blind corners is common. Driving while intoxicated is common and a major contributing factor to traffic accident fatalities. 

The main road linking the capital to the international airport can be treacherous with numerous accidents, disabled vehicles, and occasional illegal road blocks. Schedule travel along the treacherous main road linking the capital to the Comalapa International Airport during daylight hours.

Mini-bus, bus, and taxi drivers commonly disregard traffic rules and cause many accidents. Transportation accidents are common. In 2013, there were 1,028 deaths due to traffic accidents with the number increasing to 1,043 in 2014. 

Always drive with your vehicle doors locked and windows up. Carry your fully charged cell phone - with emergency numbers on the speed-dial list. When possible, try to park in an illuminated, secure area. At stores, restaurants, and other locations with uniformed guards, try to park near the guard post or the business' entrance. Always remain alert to your surroundings when entering or leaving a parking area, including private residences. Do not leave any valuables in your vehicle; anything left visible in your vehicle will appear inviting to petty criminals. Refrain from driving outside the capital after dark, for both personal security and traffic safety reasons. When traveling to rural areastry to caravan using multiple vehicles. Share your travel itinerary with others. Use caution when traveling or spending the night in an isolated or rural area, as telephone coverage may be sporadic and/or non-existent and medical and police assistance limited. 

Public Transportation Conditions 

Avoid public transportation, especially local buses. Public buses are often in poor mechanical condition and plagued by bands of armed robbers. However, 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.

There are no trains or ferries that run between cities.

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 and/or other nefarious actors. 

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Political Violence Rating: Medium

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

There are no known international terrorist groups that operate in El Salvador. There were no legal cases involving instances of terrorism affecting U.S. citizens or facilities brought before the judicial system in 2014, nor were there any judicial developments that would appear to have a significant impact on U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

The government cooperates closely with the U.S. on counterterrorism and takes active steps to protect U.S. interests and citizens in country. The government has worked hard to strengthen both border and airport security and provided military personnel to support U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. El Salvador does not appear to be utilized as a terrorist safe haven.

Terrorism Rating: Low

Civil Unrest 

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. 

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. El Salvador suffers a major earthquake approximately every 10 years. 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 that affect the country per year. In October 2014, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast, causing moderate damage and killing one person. In December 2006, a 5.7 earthquake struck in the northwest, displacing over 100 families. In 2001, three earthquakes and their aftershocks resulted in over 1,000 deaths, a million homeless, and the destruction of over 400,000 homes.

There are approximately seven active volcanoes. In December 2013, Chaparratique erupted, causing little damage but forcing hundreds to evacuate San Miguel. In October 2005, one of the country's largest volcanoes, Santa Ana Department’s Llamatepec, erupted twice in two days. There were two deaths reported, and over 4,850 people were evacuated.

Approximately nine significant tropical storms and hurricanes have affected El Salvador in recent years. Two of the most damaging storms were Hurricane Stan in 2005 and Hurricane Mitch in 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 three 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.

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. Swimming at the few public beaches, even though protected by armed guards, is inadvisable.

Privacy Concerns

While Salvadoran laws exist to protect privacy, they are rarely enforced. Releasing 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.

Drug-related Crimes

El Salvador is a transit country for cocaine and heroin along the eastern Pacific maritime smuggling routes. Illicit narcotics from South America are smuggled through Salvadoran territory and coast and onward to the U.S. El Salvador is party to the 1988 United Nations Drug Convention. 

Transnational street gangs, including MS-13 and Barrio 18, are not thought to be major narcotics trafficking organizations. These gangs are involved primarily in street-level drug sales.

Kidnapping Threat

The kidnapping, torture, and murder of rival gang members is extremely common. However, the government records these crimes statistically as homicides, which makes the kidnapping numbers artificially low. There were 14 kidnappings reported in official crime statistics for 2013 and 17 reported in 2014.

Police Response

The Policia Nacional Civil (PNC) is hampered by inadequate funding and limited resources, and as a result of perceived corruption, the PNC does not enjoy the confidence and cooperation of much of El Salvador’s citizenry. While several of the PNC's investigative units have shown great promise, 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.

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. 

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 or 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. Travelers should be aware, however, that 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. The Embassy cannot secure their release or act as legal representation for any U.S. citizen. 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 resulting in personal injury and for criminal acts, including accusations. Travelers are reminded to seek legal representation before acknowledging any culpability or signing any legal document.

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 and may be forced to sleep on the floor. Although prison regulations require that prisoners have access to medical care, the standard of care varies widely. 

Judicial procedures are not always clear or easily understood by foreigners ,and significant delays during the investigation and legal process are common. U.S. citizens should be aware that due process and other constitutional guarantees in the U. S. do not necessarily exist in El Salvador.

Crime Victim Assistance

If you are the victim of a crime, contact the U.S. Embassy. The Office of Overseas Citizens Services in Washington, DC 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." However, operators are not bilingual and generally only speak Spanish.

Police/Security Agencies 

There is only one national 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 (extortion, homicide) and traffic enforcement, anti-gang, civil disturbance, VIP protection, and other special operations units. For more information, see the PNC website at: http://www.pnc.gob.sv/. 

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.

Medical Emergencies

Medical care is limited. Emergency services, even in the capital city, are rudimentary at best. Although many physicians are trained in the U.S., 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: http://www.travel.state.gov/content/travel/english.html.

Contact Information for Recommended Hospitals/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 vaccine and health guidance, please visit the CDC at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/el-salvador.htm

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Situational Awareness Best Practices 

Follow basic security precautions and exercise good judgment. It is recommended to research recent crime trends prior to planning your trip. Travelers should consider bringing smaller denomination U.S. notes and one dollar coins (which are used much more than U.S. dollar bill notes). Do not wear expensive jewelry. If confronted by an assailant demanding your property, comply. Secure valuables and important documents in your office or in a hotel safe deposit box. Maintain copies of identification documents in a separate location. 

Avoid exercising near unguarded public roads or parks.

Cameras, concertina wire, and grille on all windows and doors appear to dissuade some would-be burglars, as residences without these features in affluent neighborhoods are frequently robbed. 

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information 

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation 

Embassy of the United States of America 
Final Boulevard Santa Elena
La Libertad, El Salvador, C.A. 

Hours of operation: 08:00 - 17:00, Monday - Friday. The Embassy observes all U.S. and Salvadoran holidays.

Embassy Contact Numbers

Embassy 24-Hour Contact Number: (503) 2501-2999
Website: http://sansalvador.usembassy.gov/

Embassy Guidance

U.S. citizens 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

There is an active OSAC Country Council in San Salvador run in conjunction with the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). To reach OSAC’s Western Hemisphere team, please email OSACWHA@state.gov.