The travel question
The question I receive from readers more than any other is whether it is safe to travel to El Salvador. This question has come with more frequency this year as headlines have proclaimed El Salvador as the murder capital of the world. My answer to this question is always “Yes, if you are smart about it.”
It’s worth starting with the language of the most recent Travel Warning from the US State Department:
Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit El Salvador each year for study, tourism, cruise ship visits, business, and volunteer work. There is no information to suggest that U.S. citizens are specifically targeted by criminals; however, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country.
US State Department Travel Warning, June 22, 2015. In the next sentence the Travel Warning goes on to state:
Since January 2010, 34 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador including a nine-year-old child in December 2013.
What is challenging about this statistic is that it does not break down whether those US citizens were Salvadoran born and living in El Salvador or were tourists. I simply do not recall a tourist, or someone travelling with a church or volunteer group, ever being murdered in the past 12 years. More tourists have died from drowning in the strong rip tides on El Salvador’s Pacific Ocean beaches than as a result of criminal violence. (However, a US Army veteran was killed in El Salvador in 2013 in a crime of passion, killed by his estranged Salvadoran ex-wife).
It’s important to understand the source of the murders in El Salvador : gang members killing rival gang members, gang members killing people such as bus drivers to enforce extortion demands, police killing gangs, gangs killing police, death squads killing supposed gang members, domestic violence, personal vendettas and rivalries, attacks to vindicate someone’s belief they have been dishonored. None of these factors put the foreign tourist at risk unless you happen to be caught in a crossfire.
I speculate that one factor at play may be that if you kill a Salvadoran, 95% of the time you are not going to be successfully prosecuted and sent to prison. Sadly, Salvadoran lives are cheap in 2015. But if you killed a foreign tourist, the government would feel obliged to expend significant resources to investigate and capture those involved.
Property crime, however, is a very real threat. The possibility of having your belongings stolen or of being robbed, mugged, carjacked, assaulted is a real one.
The most important advice I can give you, is to affiliate with someone who understands El Salvador and understands what is safe and what is not. Just as there are dangerous sections of every city in the world where you should not venture at night, there are dangerous sections of El Salvador. As an example of what can happen when you don’t know where to go, in July of this year, a group of Canadians traveling in a car to Suchitoto got lost and made a wrong turn into a gang-controlled colonia near San Martin. Presumed gang members opened fire on the vehicle and the Canadians narrowly escaped. A Facebook page called Analytic Map of Criminality in El Salvador demonstrates that crime is not uniformly distributed across El Salvador’s communities.
Beyond associating yourself with someone who knows the territory, practice basic travel safety:
- Do not wander off alone away from the group
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Do not become an attractive target for crime: do not flash smartphones, jewelry, electronics, IPads, stuffed wallets, expensive cameras
- Obey the instructions of your group leader
- Only get money from an ATM in a secure location
The US Embassy makes many of the same points in its practical advice for travelers unfamiliar with El Salvador:
Travelers should remain in groups and avoid remote or isolated locations in order to minimize their vulnerability. Travelers should also avoid displaying or carrying valuables in public places. Passports and other important documents should not be left in private vehicles.
U.S. Embassy security officials advise all U.S. Government personnel not to walk, run, or cycle in the unguarded streets and parks of El Salvador, even in groups, and recommend exercising only in gyms and fitness centers. Criminals often become violent quickly, especially when victims fail to cooperate immediately in surrendering valuables. Frequently, victims who argue with assailants or refuse to give up their valuables are shot. U.S. citizens in El Salvador should exercise caution at all times and practice good personal security procedures throughout their stay.
Armed holdups of vehicles traveling on El Salvador's roads are common, and we encourage U.S. citizens to remain aware of their surroundings. The U.S. Embassy warns its personnel to drive with their doors locked and windows raised. Avoid travel outside of major metropolitan areas after dark and on unpaved roads at all times because of criminal assaults and lack of police and road service facilities. Armed assaults and carjackings take place both in San Salvador and in the interior of the country, but are especially frequent on roads outside the capital where police patrols are scarce. Criminals have been known to follow travelers from the El Salvador International Airport to private residences or secluded stretches of road where they carry out assaults and robberies. Armed robbers are known to shoot if the vehicle does not come to a stop. Travelers with conspicuous amounts of luggage, late-model cars, or foreign license plates are particularly vulnerable to crime, even in the capital.
Travel on public transportation, especially buses, both within and outside the capital, is risky and not recommended. The Embassy advises official visitors and personnel to avoid using mini-buses and regular buses and to use only radio-dispatched taxis or those stationed in front of major hotels.
U.S. citizens using banking services should be vigilant while conducting their financial exchanges either inside local banks or at automated teller machines (ATMs). Recently, there have been cases reported in which criminals observe and follow customers making withdrawals at ATMs and banks, and then rob them on the road or at a residence. U.S. citizens have also been victimized at well-known restaurants, hotels, and retailers within San Salvador.
The bottom line is this. You should come visit El Salvador. I have traveled there frequently over the past 15 years, and I have never been the victim of a crime of any sort. It’s a beautiful country with picturesque beaches, looming volcanoes, great food, important history and warm, welcoming people. The country needs the tourist dollars and investment which foreign visitors bring.
El Salvador’s Minister of Tourism wants you. José Napoleon Duarte Durán told an international press conference in San Salvador Friday that the country’s greatest asset beyond its variety of attractions from city, surf, lakes and picturesque volcanoes are its people.
“The difference is the people,” the minister said. The tourism boss added that all off of the country’s famed attractions, tourists will encounter a very welcoming people who will go out of their way to make visitors feel at home. The Minister later added that Salvadorans are well aware of the misconception some have that the country is unsafe and go out of their way to more than counter that negativity with hospitality.
Under the tourism minister's leadership, the country is investing millions in the country’s tourism infrastructure including 400 tourism police officers who are trained not only in preventing crime, but providing assistance to travelers in need of first aid or other critical services. In addition, El Salvador maintains six tourism offices outside the country and 52 tourism centers to help visitors in the country.
Explore the possibilities. What you find might surprise you. Consider, for example Boca Olas Beach Hotel, It’s a modern hotel located at Playa El Tunco, as nice as any as you will find, and on a recent stay my biggest worry was only how not to get sunburned by the pool