Is el salvador really unsafe for travellers?

There's no denying it - a lot of backpackers avoid El Salvador. Government warnings, sensationalist documentaries and, let's face it, some pretty shocking crime statistics have resulted in Central America's smallest country being side-stepped on the way up and down the continent, with some travellers nervous to even step across the border. 

On one bus ride in Nicaragua, a young American girl loudly proclaimed that she had loved her time in Central America, how it was so much nicer and safer than she had ever thought. Someone asked which parts she had visited and she listed all but one. "Didn't you go to El Salvador", someone asked? "Of course not, I didn't want to be killed" was her reply. 

We encountered that attitude a lot. Everywhere else was open to altering your perception, but tiny El Salvador was still too hot to handle. 

what are they scared of? 

Unquestionably, El Salvador faces huge problems. The capital, San Salvador, frequently features in the top ten of lists on 'the world's most violent cities'. 

We spent some time reviewing the 2014 El Salvador Crime and Safety Report produced by the US Department of State - it makes for some terrifying reading. Murder, rape, kidnapping, car-jackings, muggings, beatings, extortion, drug-trafficking and arms-deals.  It's amazing that any Americans EVER visit.

According to recent statistics, El Salvador has a murder rate of 43.3 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants - that equates to 2,492 murders in 2013 alone (which was a significant improvement on previous years due to a now defunct gang truce). It's even worse in the capital at 61.1 per 100,000. And all this in country of only 6 million. 

For some perspective, the murder rate in the UK is 1.0 per 100,000. 

However, what a lot of people (certainly those we have met on this trip) fail to realise, is that the vast majority of violence is gang-related, that it is limited to certain neighbourhoods between rivalling cliques and so, for a tourist to become embroiled in this, is often the result of awful luck or stupendous stupidity. 

why so violent?

To understand gang culture in El Salvador, one needs to look to the US where, for the latter part of the last century, large swathes of Salvadoreans fled to the States, escaping the violence of the civil war and in search of a better life.

Whilst undoubtedly a great number of those who left adjusted to their new lives with ease, for others, they faced continued threats and intimidation from more established migrant communities in Los Angeles. 

It was from these conditions that Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) - one of the most fearsome international gangs - was born. 

Ostensibly they formed to fight back and protect their families, communities and pride but over time, this group devolved into something much more evil.

They had seen things in the civil war, awful things, which planted seeds to enable them to be more violent and vicious than their rivals. These were young people who had grown up in a culture of violence, in a world where you didn't just shoot your enemy, you knew how to make him suffer. 

MS-13s members, and their methods, are unmistakable. Facial tattoos, sign language and their strict code of honour leave little doubt of their affiliation. And once you are in it, you are in it for life.

Blood in, blood out.

Following a crackdown by the government in 1993 aimed at breaking up LA street gangs, there was a mass deportation of El Salvadorean criminals back to their home country. 

This was a short-sighted policy by the US. El Salvador was still in a fragile state, recovering from its civil war with poverty, discontent and ineffective government rife throughout the country. It was ripe for exploitation and was the perfect environment for the cancer of MS-13 to spread and take hold, not just at home, but across the Americas. 

In the last two decades, MS-13 numbers have swelled. There are now an estimated 50,000 members, the majority of whom live in El Salvador.

And it is the on-going rivalry between them, the police and another gang - 18th Street - which is largely responsible for the horrendous murder rate. 

And, with each battling for the 'top spot', despite constant efforts at truces, increased imprisonment and powers for the police to combat the gangs, the violent war is destined to be played out on the streets and in the barrios they each claim as their own for a long time to come.

how does it affect your travels?

So, for the average tourist, is it really this bad? Given the level and history of violence, are a few weeks in El Salvador inevitably going to include a trip to a police station, the hospital, or the morgue? 

Were our three weeks a blur of face-tattoos, handguns, violence and intimidation? 

No, not at all. 

This isn't to say that we weren't aware of the potential for danger. 

Wandering around the market in downtown San Salvador we stumbled upon a cordoned off section of pavement, protected by heavily armed police and a number of blood stains which could only have been fatal. 

A late-night conversation in the tourist town of El Tunco with a couple from the capital left us in no doubt that we should never head out after dusk, and the expensive DSLR should stay safely in our hostel. So far so standard for hanging out in any Central American capital city, but, given the headlines, we probably heeded the warnings a little bit more and were that bit more cautious than usual.

A bus ride through most towns will let you see gang insignia adorn the crumbling walls of certain neighbourhoods. In the small city of San Miguel, it was much more prevalent, meaning that the short walk to the bus station, carrying every valuable we own was not something we would ever choose to repeat.

So the gang presence was clearly there for us to see. And you would definitely find it if you went looking for it - but it is heavily concentrated to specific areas. 

We're certain that had we wondered into the 'wrong' neighbourhood of San Salvador, we could now be reciting a terrifying incident and vowing never to set-foot in the country again. However, apart from a few up-and-down looks and the odd encounter with the sort of chap one would normally try to avoid, we mostly felt safe. One of us being an avid-watcher of 'Ross Kemp on Gangs', there was actually a little disappointment at the invisibility of maras (gang members) on the streets. And as aspiring photographers, having the opportunity to just take one shot of a tattooed face would have been a great opportunity. But would it have been worth the risk?

Probably not. 

We spent some time in the Ruta de las Flores, staying in a delightful hostel owned by a native Englishman. In his eight years in El Salvador, surely he had encountered the darker side of his new home? Again, no.

Not a single mara in eight years. Here in the tranquil coffee-growing mountains, a million miles away from the urban sprawl, the gang culture so long associated with this country felt like an alien concept. 

a different narrative for el salvador

In stark contrast to the abject rudeness we experienced in one Central American country, we felt nothing but welcome in El Salvador. Here, we found a people that would go out of their way to help you. And this wasn't an exception; every other traveller who went there positively glowed about how these were the friendliest people on their trip. 

Due to the usual stories of gangs and murder, large-scale tourism has not swept across the country as it has in the rest of the continent (with the exception of El Tunco), but if you handle El Salvador gently, you will enjoy it as much as us. Take the usual precautions and sensible approach to adventurous travel, ask your hostel which places or streets you should avoid and be aware of the people around you. 

Salvadoreans want you to visit and, more importantly, enjoy their country. And although the headline crime statistics here are unlikely to improve overnight, they want to show you that there is more to their home than gangs, graves and gunshots.

As evil as MS-13 are, we can't help but be captivated by photography featuring them. Check out this fantastic work by Thomas Munita.

so, what's in el salvador? check out some of these posts to find out