Crisis in El Salvador

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by

The city of San Salvador, pictured above, is the capital of the Central American country of El Salvador. Crime related to the illegal drug trade makes this city one of the most violent in the world.

El Salvador is the most densely populated country in Central America. It is also the smallest. A total of 6.3 million people live in an area of 8,000 square miles. In land area, it is a little bit larger than the U.S. state of Massachusetts. The country has a GDP per capita per year of $8,900. In comparison, the United States has a much greater GDP per capita of $59,500.

In 2015, 41 percent of Salvadorans lived in poverty. As a result, many Salvadorans have left their country for better opportunities elsewhere. In 2016, the money that Salvadorans living abroad sent to their families back home totaled $4.6 billion. This money is called remittances, and it accounted for 17.1% of El Salvador’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Most of that money—more than 90%—came from the 1.42 million Salvadoran immigrants living in the U.S.

A Town Thrives

Life is a little easier in the Salvadoran town of Jucuapa. Here, at least, business is good. The town is the center of El Savador’s coffin making industry. The town of 18,000 residents has 18 registered-coffin making businesses.

People as young as 14 years old work in one of the coffin-producing workshops. Nineteen-year-old Salvador is one of them. “I studied until the ninth grade, and I do not want to go back to school, and I went . . . to work in the workshops,” Salvador said. “It is a good business, it allows me to help my parents and family.”

Twenty-three-year-old Pacheco had planned to go to college to study architecture. After an economic crisis hit the country in 2012, he instead remained at home to help his father. Pacheco’s family was converting their bakery into a coffin-making workshop.

“I got started just on building coffins, that was my first challenge,” said Pacheco. “Now, my challenge is building a room for the services with more advanced technology so people away can livestream it.”

One important reason for Jucuapa’s economic success is that the town has ready access to the lumber supplies that are needed to build coffins. Another reason is a fact that many in Jucuapa are not glad of: There is a high need for coffins. El Salvador is the most violent country in the world. Its capital, San Salvador, has more murders per year than any other city in the world.

Sadly, Salvadorans are familiar with violence. During a bloody civil war in the 1980s, about 75,000 people were killed. During this time, there were about 113 war-related deaths per 100,000 citizens. Although it is now free from warfare, in 2015, El Salvador’s national murder rate was about 116 per 100,000 citizens. With 6,656 killings in 2015, peacetime El Salvador is actually more dangerous now than it was during its civil war.

Why is there so much violence in this small country?

The Effect of Geography

The Republic of El Salvador is located in Central America. To the north, it borders the countries of Guatemala and Honduras. To the south, it borders the Pacific Ocean.

Like many other Central American countries, El Salvador’s location is a primary reason for its high crime rate. The illegal drug cocaine is manufactured in South America, while the world’s largest market for the drug is the United States. Some cocaine is transported by boat through the Caribbean. However, when it is transported by land, it must then pass through Central America. Most routes start in the South American country of Colombia. From there, the routes travel through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicarauga, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, before they reach the U.S. The drug trade makes Latin America and the Caribbean two of the most dangerous regions in the world.

According to Brazilian think tank the Igarapé Institute, eight of the ten countries with the world’s highest murder rates are located in this region. Of the 50 world cities with the highest murder rates, 43 are in Latin America or the Caribbean. El Salvador and its capital, San Salvador, top both lists.

Gang Violence

Much of the drug trade in El Salvador is controlled by criminal gangs. The business is so lucrative that rival gangs often have violent disputes over cocaine shipping and sales. Along with San Salvador, the Salvadoran cities of La Libertad, Soyapango, and Usulutan are the main locations of most of the killing and violence. This fact led a Los Angeles Times editorial to conclude that, “The country’s cities are increasingly uninhabitable.”

Many of the members of these gangs, or maras, are young men. It is no surprise then that teens and young adults are more likely to be victims of violence. In 2015, almost 50 percent of all homicide victims in El Salvador were men from 15 to 29 years old.

The maras first arose in the U.S. in the 1980s. Because of the civil war, thousands of Salvadorans fled to the U.S. for safety. Some young Salvadorans stayed connected with other young Salvadorans through gangs. One notorious gang, MS-13, was formed in Los Angeles, California. MS stands for Mara Salvatrucha. Mara means gang, while Salva- means Salvador and -trucha means street smarts. The number 13 is the position of the letter M in the alphabet. MS-13 members also came from Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

When the peace treaty that ended El Salvador’s civil war was signed in 1992, the U.S. deported gang members back to El Salvador. When they left, those deported took the gangs with them.

MS-13 usually recruits new members from poor and at-risk teenagers. There are about 60,000 members of MS-13 in Central America. In 2008, the FBI estimated that there were also 6,000-10,000 members in the U.S. MS-13’s annual revenue was estimated at $31.2 million by 2017. Most of that money was a result of the drug trade.

While MS-13 uses violence to battle both police and rival gangs, recently internal tensions are further escalating violence. Gang members are on the lookout for fellow gang members who they determine to be “traitors” or “snitches.” Because of gang violence, the U.S. Congress approved $750 million to fight gangs, organized crime, and corruption in Central America in 2016. “They’re just extremely violent,” said University of Houston sociology professor Luis Salinas. “They’re so violent that their activities get a lot of attention. Even drug cartels hire them as their muscle.”

Because of drugs and gangs, Jacuapa thrives. However, like many Salvadorans, Jacuapa resident Julio Cesar feels frustrated in the face of such out-of-control violence. “Unfortunately, we live in a situation in which life is worthless,” Cesar believes. “we have reached that extreme where life is not valued any more … people can easily kill and it’s like nothing happened.”

Yet, Cesar manages to be hopeful. “This is what I do for a living,” he says of the coffin-making industry, “but my hope is that in our country, blood is no longer spilled.”

A Coast Guard crew member unloads packages of cocaine that were discovered on a vessel 21 miles west of the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Most cocaine is manufactured in South America. Since the world’s largest market for illegal cocaine is the United States, the drug is either transported by land through Central America or by sea through the Caribbean.

Illegal and Dangerous

Cocaine is a drug made from the coca plant, which is native to South America. It is a stimulant drug, meaning that it can stimulate both the brain and the central nervous system. Cocaine affects the brain by changing the way that nerve cells, or neurons, communicate.

Neurons send messages to one another using chemicals called neurotransmitters. One type of neurotransmitter is dopamine. If you do something that you enjoy, dopamine is what makes you feel good. Normally, dopamine is recycled, going back into the cell that first released it. However, cocaine prevents dopamine from being recycled. With so much extra dopamine, at first users can feel joyful and energetic.

With repeated use, however, cocaine disrupts how the body processes dopamine. Without taking the drug, people lose the ability to feel pleasure from normal activities. Users may develop a tolerance, meaning they may need to use cocaine just to feel normal. After the initial high, sometimes users can feel sad for days afterward once the drug wears off. As a result, they crave more cocaine in order to feel better.

Cocaine is both illegal and dangerous. In 2015, 7,000 people in the U.S. died from cocaine overdoses. If people combine cocaine with other drugs or alcohol, the risk of harm increases. Most cocaine-related deaths happen when the user’s heart stops, followed by their breathing ceasing.

Cocaine is addictive. Addiction is a brain disease in which people can’t easily stop using drugs even they want to. Eventually addiction not only hurt users, but also affects their friends and family.

If you or someone you know has a drug problem, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has two suggestions.

  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK): Don’t be confused by the name. This organization also provides help with drug addiction and other problems.
  • Call the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator (1-800-662-HELP): This group can put you in touch with people who specialize in treating drug addiction. If you don’t feel comfortable calling, you can instead visit
Additional Resources

Read more about how Salvadorans are dealing with violence at Al Jazeera and the Los Angeles Times.

Learn more about El Salvador at the C.I.A. World Factbook and the B.B.C.

Find out ways you or someone you know can get help with drug problems at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Images and Sources

El Salvador skyline photo: Rodet7
El Salvador skyline photo license: Creative Commons 3.0

Coast Guard photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Sabrina Elgammal
Coast Guard photo license: public domain