visits El Salvador in Central America



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El Salvador — Living in the Shadow of Violence

Alex Welsh

Article & Pictures © 2006 Alex Welsh

T/T #69
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I was on my way from the South to the North of Mexico when the proximity of the Guatemalan border sucked me in. It is there that I met Luke and we decided to escape to El Salvador. Because no one else did.

El Salvador, near Suchitoto - click to enlargeEl Salvador is not famous for any of its attractions. It doesn’t have Machu Pichu or Foz de Iguacu. You can easily skip it if you are after high impact photos. But it is an off the beaten track, has unpolluted social landscape and it does have the usual set of things that could occupy you — Bohemia and nightlife in San Salvador, acceptable beaches with a famous surf, volcanoes (one of which is a pure mountain of ash) where you can do scuba diving in the lakes, a national reserve El Impossible with rich wildlife, colonial towns like Suchitoto, Mayan ruins like Joya de Ceren. It is a pleasant, aesthetic country to see from a bus window, with many charming corners.

For me, El Salvador was almost an accident. I was on my way from the South to the North of Mexico when the proximity of the Guatemalan border sucked me in. It is there that I met Luke and we decided to escape to El Salvador. Because no one else did.

Why? There are a few reasons. Some people read in the Lonely Planet that there isn’t that much to see. In addition, it’s way too off the main drag – Guatemala to Utila, North Honduras, where everyone has to scuba dive. Yet others feel nervous. In case you were not aware, the civil war in El Salvador finished in 1992, after 12 years of brutal carnage. But people got so used to sleeping with firearms that the country is still armed to the teeth. For many years after the war the streets remained violent and gangs multiplied. All in all, El Salvador has a reputation of a small, out of the way, dangerous country with not much to see. Great, more for us.

It was a pleasant ride, with plenty of coastal colours. In 2 hours we had already crossed a third of the country and arrived at the capital. San Salvador immediately charmed us with its phlegmatic and strong presence. For a capital, and after Guatemala City, there was quite a sense of order, a sense that things have a direction and are more or less under control. Although it is a city where edges are in all respects sharper, a city that may show you teeth from time to time, chaos definitely would not be part of the description.

The scars of the war appeared immediately, however. There were no ruins but as we were checking into the hostel we were received by a one-armed lady and as soon as we walked out we bought a coconut from a one-legged old woman.

As for danger, we didn’t feel it. But that day we did stay in a heavily protected part of the city. Over time I decided that El Salvador was only slightly more dangerous than Guatemala. It is one of those countries, like Colombia, great to visit while everyone still thinks it is unsafe. The shotguns were indeed numerous: at a pharmacy, at an internet-café, at McDonalds. You would see one every 50-100 metres. But they were all security. Normal people kept guns at home and walked around with machetes. Those were everywhere. I still don’t know if it’s just a universal household item or a poor man's shotgun.

However, for Luke this was a disappointment. Guns were the reason he came to El Salvador. He had read in his Lonely Planet that you could buy them on a market. So we spent the whole first day trying to do that. He would just go up to the stalls and ask if they sold shotguns. Eventually we realised that LP betrayed us. Again. We did find lots of holsters though and bought two huge machetes, just to blend in.

The most travelled route here is south to the coast. Beaches like El Zonte and El Sunzal are considered the best surf in Central America and it’s such a large chunk of the (tiny) tourist economy that you are likely to be approached in San Salvador with “Are you a surfer?” La Libertad is the coastal hub town that serves as a portal for the string of those beaches. By day everyone in that town looks like a pirate, and by night they still do — but spun out on crack. It was a hot and stuffy town and, to be honest, only good for buying some fruit, so there’s just no reason not to make the extra 10km down the line. I say this because I met a few people who didn’t bother. Those beaches are not great but they are OK and convenient, so most Salvadorians from the capital go there. Entirely volcanic, they make you totally black. A storm in El Salvador, viewed from those beaches, is really something special, with spectacular thunder and lightening.

My friend Maria also took me to El Cuco beach, in the East of the country. Another popular spot, it was again OK, but nothing fantastic. The amazing thing was that this well-known beach was entirely domestic, with no thought given to (non-existent) tourists. To get there we had to cross the river Lempa on a newly constructed bridge. The previous one was destroyed during the war and a third of the country had been almost entirely isolated for many years. The East has always been poorer and suffered more in that war; it is still slightly more edgy. San Miguel, the major city of that area, is a Dusk till Dawn haunt. Once the darkness comes people seal themselves in and the beasts walk the streets.

Maria gave me a little tour of the country, through places like L’Herradura, Zacatecoluca and Usulutan. It was an off the beaten track dream. The little tourist awareness that the West of the country has was entirely absent here. A virgin land, free of any pretence. A pure and genuine welcome.

If you stay in El Salvador for a while, you do tend to spend a lot of time in the capital. It is not that San Salvador is that fascinating. It is quite low on things to see, being more residential. Particularly unpleasant is the stuffed centre, which has turned into one dirty market. But the country is so small and the travel arranged in such manner, that it is much more practical to travel to and fro the capital wherever you are bound, unless you get far East. However, the city is fairly pleasant and has decent places to go, both in the day and at night, with a more cosmopolitan atmosphere than elsewhere. Besides, tourism there is still new and it is mainly the capital that can offer decent hostels — and even there you will find only a few.

Santa Ana, a major Western city, was quite sleepy but it had a lot of clowns. Don’t ask, I know it’s bizarre. I had a clown in my pizzeria, a clown in my hostel and I even ended up going for drinks with a bunch of clowns. You could say it was a fun night. By the way, make sure it is a hostel, not a “hostel”, unless eavesdropping on cries of passion is your thing — the Lonely Planet should do more thorough research there.

The centre of the country, around the capital and to the north, is very cosy and modestly lush. There are some very pleasant routes amongst hills and lakes. Then, there is Perquin – a place scarred by the history of the war. Ex-guerrillas will show you around the civil war museum.

Nothing changes a country like a war. That which is history books for many nations is a yesterday’s memory for this one. I realised that all of the things that struck me as unusual about El Salvador have to do with those 12 years of warfare.

The end of 1970s was a turbulent period in Salvadorian politics. Various juntas formed and collapsed, tension soon spilled indo an epidemic of underground political violence and murders, until at some point a war against the government was declared by a leftist coalition (FMLN). After a 12-year carnage, peace was finally struck in 1992, with the government taking necessary reforms to stay in power, and the FMLN re-organising into a political party.

It was not your normal war, even as far as civil wars go. There were bombings by the government and battles between fronts, but most of it was the constant undercurrent of vigilante death squads, punitary expeditions, vendettas and tortures, which targeted the population even in times of relative calm. Some fighting units never even faced an armed enemy, “specialising” instead in civilian targets. El Salvador is scarred not as much by violence as by terror.

As I said, it wasn’t a war of carpet bombings and acres of minefields. The only building I saw that bears that history is the San Salvador University, one of the usual epicentres of the leftist resistance (as everywhere else) - covered in socialist graffiti with the usual set of actors: Castro, Guevarra, Arafat, etc. Looking at it you understand that the idealism in that war was no joke. However, it is the people who bear the scars. Those who were killed were buried. The rest have agreed that it is time to forgive. There seems to be a pact of silence and I didn’t encounter any animosity. Two 30 year-old brothers cuddling a 10 year-old sister, a generation of war between them. Amputees, disabled, orphans. I am not usually very sensitive to street kids but there they were something else. They wept alone, oblivious of the people they were meant to beg from, smudging years of smog over their faces; their insanity was too distant from this world to touch anyone, and they didn’t even walk off the road to fall asleep.

Francisco the boatmanWhat was it about? We have our theories and we operate with concepts of right and wrong. But many Salvadorians simply don’t know. Francisco, a boatman with 7 years of fighting and three bullet holes in him, is not pondering the philosophy of righteous and unrighteous wars, when he says he has no idea. “They recruited me and send me to shoot the other guys. If I hadn't they would have killed me.” In many places 13 was the recruitment age, and both sides did it.

The real scars are in the psyche. The Salvadorians are friendly but many are somewhat quiet. They often seem to be happy, but it feels like the happiness of relief. Many had sadness in their eyes. They are welcoming but it is written all over their foreheads that you shouldn’t mess with them. They are disciplined and tough, they didn’t dwell on the wounds, they just went straight to work and rebuilt the country. I do like the Salvadorians a lot. Generous, friendly, tranquil, they also have this hard inner core, a dignity and respect for themselves and others. They were really easy to relate to, it is a place where the culture gap is not as sharp as in many other places.

These days the country is quite Americanized. El Salvador is one of the places where US Latin American foreign policy fully succeeded. I had never seen so many US fast food chains, shining shopping malls and advertising boards in one place. The full-blown capitalism creates an impression of prosperity and affluence. Yet once you look into El Salvador’s rural areas and find out a thing or two about Salvadorian economy, destroyed by war, you realise who is profiting. Unprotected markets, no questions asked.

While this is the stuff that drives Castro, Chavez and Morales insane, there seems to be no grudge in El Salvador. First, I think there is an element of gratitude. US involvement in the war might have been controversial, but they also accepted masses of refugees. El Salvador has a population of just under 7 million people. The US is estimated to have 2 million resident Salvadorians. Many are well settled and the links are strong. Some say the economy survives thanks to the money some family members earn in the States. And, whether for their own profit or not, the US did invest in the post-war reconstruction.

Secondly, this migration has almost made the country the States’ little cousin. With so many families communicating over the borders and visiting each other regularly, there is almost a sense of belonging. It’s not uncommon to hear “New York” when you ask a Salvadorian where he is from. Neither is it uncommon to hear, “Hey, man, got a nickel or a dime?” from a beggar on the street. If your Spanish is bad, this is one of the easiest countries in the region to travel in. Apart from the fact that you have to use US dollars — I always find it difficult to quickly tell how much money I have in my wallet if all notes are of the same colour.

And lastly, such close ties slowly but surely converted the Salvadorians. I found they generally like all kinds of American things. Consumerism is high and the cultural influence is huge. When I expressed my infuriation at the fact that the US government pressured the country’s structures to make it impossible for the now political leftist FMLN to win the last elections, I was told the results reflected general opinion. “If you are jealous, marginalized and have nothing to lose”, I was told, “you will join the FMLN to take what other people have earned, but if you are even the smallest business owner, the FMLN is a joke.”

Yet, this pro-US sentiment is, naturally, counteracted by some anger. The United States backed the Salvadorian government during the war. Even when the death squads and human rights abuses came to light, Reagan kept sending money and army trainers. Experts agree that most Latin American conflicts are uprisings against class injustice and abuse, yet he was waging his Star War in a Red Alert fostered by the Evil Empire. In the end, the profits have been reached. And 22 of those troops, who were meant to only train government soldiers, died in combat missions.

The Salvadorians are sturdy people with their heads straight. Many know what’s going on and a few find it hard to hide their anger. It is a complex relationship.

They might have dealt with their pain but one thing where the trauma of the terror is still most apparent is their obsession with security. The English talk about weather, the French about wine and the Salvadorians about violence. All the time.

The violence did not finish with the war. Unemployment, devastation and proliferation of weapons drove huge numbers onto the streets. To this day, the two most numerous and vicious gangs in Central and North Americas are from El Salvador. Things have got a hell of a lot better recently, it’s just… no one seems to notice.

Don’t go here, you’ll get killed. Don’t go there, you’ll get killed. Don’t get a bus after dark (if there a silly one that will go, that is), if you get a puncture you are sitting ducks. Don’t leave the door open even in daylight, etc. To be fair, El Salvador can be edgy, and a couple of times I came to an invisible line where things would spin totally out of plan one step further. It kinda creeps up on you. But much of it sounded (and turned out to be) pure paranoia.

A security guardHalf of the nation is employed as security guards. There aren’t even enough uniforms for everyone; a white shirt means a good guy, like in a spaghetti western. And they all kept asking me if I can help them find work in UK. I had to repeat over and over again that the demand for skilled shotgun workers is currently low there.

Security is a commodity everywhere. I am not even talking about house alarms and garden walls. Even a club night flyer will say: “International DJs, discounts on drinks, light show, secure site with security guards.”

Especially paranoid are the upper classes. Not only do they live in fortresses with a 7 metre wall crowned with an electric barbed wire, they simply refuse to walk out of the house. They always use a car. They never take buses. I simply couldn’t believe it and they gave up trying to explain.

The moment of truth came when a guy gave me the usual hour-long tirade about violence, at 11 o’clock at night, well after dark, then opened his front door for some fresh air and calmly sat down for another hour. I concluded that he wasn’t really afraid, the whole talk is a habit.

I found nothing out of the ordinary (by Central American standards) apart from a few more shotguns than in Guatemala. Normal precautions apply. Perhaps El Salvador is by no means safe, but neither is Guatemala, yet families go there all the time. I saw more violence in both Guatemala and Mexico, yet I spent less time in the two of them put together than in En Salvador. It is a beautiful country with beautiful people, and it just doesn’t help tourism when everyone is told that they will be shot. Old habits die hard and I really think it’s time to tone down the talk of violence.

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