Central America, it often seems, is a region that lurches from one crisis to the next. So much so that the whole concept of crisis has become somewhat hackneyed and a tad meaningless.
There are loud calls for the president to resign in Guatemala, and serious concerns about a return to dictatorship and dynastic rule in Honduras and Nicaragua. Human rights abuses abound throughout the region.
But nowhere in Central America is the situation more worrisome than El Salvador. The country is immersed in an escalating conflict that increasingly looks like a new civil war between gangs and the state. As the government's offensive against the gangs gears up, the country's murder rate has jumped by an appalling 55 percent, pushing the country towards a level of violence it has not seen since the worst days of its civil war in the early 1990s. The government insists it won't negotiate with the gangs or allow itself to be defeated by the criminal organizations.
But increasingly, it's a conflict that's claiming collateral damage — including tourists. Last Saturday night, two unidentified gangsters on a motorcycle hurled a grenade into the restaurant at the Sheraton Hotel, blowing out windows but — miraculously— injuring no one. The incident was quickly denounced by the Salvadoran attorney general as an "act of terrorism."
On Wednesday, gangsters fired on a group of Canadian tourists who were driving back to their hotel in the colonial town of Suchitoto. The car was hit with bullets but nobody was seriously injured.
The U.S. embassy issued a security message yesterday warning U.S. citizens in El Salvador to avoid outdoor seating in restaurants and bars.
"The U.S. Embassy is aware that criminal elements in El Salvador have threatened to escalate the level of violence by attacking hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and other public venues," the embassy warned in its July 29 release. "The grenade attack at a major hotel on July 25 demonstrates both a will and a capability to carry out such plans."
The embassy also reiterated its boilerplate list of other recommendations for U.S. citizens in El Salvador to avoid using public transportation, avoid wearing jewelry, avoid walking around the city after nightfall, and avoid exercising outside.
The embassy's long not-to-do list is not appreciated by El Salvador's tourism sector. Mercedes Perla, executive director of the Salvadoran Tourism Chamber (CASATUR), says she thinks the embassy's warning is blowing the situation out of proportion, and is entirely counterproductive to the U.S. government's efforts to help El Salvador's small business growth.
"This is terrible for tourism," Perla told Fusion, referring to the embassy's warning, not the terrorist attack on the Sheraton. Perla acknowledges concerns about El Salvador's worsening security problem, but says the tourism sector's real problem is the media, not the gangs.
"The media is affecting us more than gang violence," Perla told me. "Tourists are not normally targets of gang violence. These were isolated events."
Crime happens everywhere, she says, but not all crime is treated equally. "In Costa Rica you can get robbed at any red light, but nobody talks about security problems there. And I lived in the U.S. for one year and had my credit card cloned and my car stolen."
But unfortunately for El Salvador's tourism industry, which draws more than a 1 million foreign visitors each year —mainly to its famous surf breaks — the universal nature of crime has little bearing on the escalation of brazen violence in El Salvador, which appears to be taking on more of a political nature, as evidenced by a foiled gang plot to attack the presidential palace earlier this month.
Increasingly, the violence is affecting everyone. This week an estimated 80 percent of public transportation in the capital was shut down for three days when bus companies went on strike to protest gang extortion. The government blamed the transportation shutdown on the Pandilla 18 Revolucionarios, or 18R, and in retaliation moved two of its incarcerated leaders back to solitary confinement Zacatecoluca maximum security prison.
In another worrisome sign of trouble, the office of the presidency released a statement this week denying that the Salvadoran Army is conspiring against the government of left-wing President and former FMLN guerrilla leader Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
"There are absolutely no soldiers implicated in any operation to destabilize the government," the presidency said in a statement, as the president himself left for Cuba for what he called routine medical treatment.
So why should anyone else care about the problems in the smallest country in Central America? Because, as Refugees International pointed out in a report released today, gang violence in El Salvador is forcing thousands to flee their homes into neighboring countries, including the United States.
"While the government focuses its attention on trying to combat the gangs, very little attention is being paid to the gangs’ victims,” said Sarnata Reynolds, senior advisor on human rights for Refugees International. “With no official government programs in place to help them internally, the only option for many is to flee to other countries.”
The D.C.-based group claims that "roughly 90 percent of the country under the de facto control of criminal gangs," making El Salvador "one of the deadliest countries in the world." Last year alone more than 32,000 unaccompanied Salvadoran children arrived at the U.S. border, many fleeing gang violence. The exodus continues now, though many more immigrants are getting nabbed in Mexico as border-control efforts move south.
If the situation of violence continues to spiral in El Salvador, the country will continue to export its problems on the rest of the region. Then there won't be any reason to visit El Salvador at all, because it will come to you.