At first glance, driving through central San Salvador is much like other Central American cities – or a North American city, for that matter. Passing through the palm-lined streets spotting familiar signs marking Starbucks, Walmart, or McDonald’s, you can easily miss the increased militarisation of San Salvadoran society amidst a worsening migration crisis. Walmart greets you not with a smile, but a barbed-wire fence and IED checkpoint far from the main entrance. A pat-down by armed guards bearing military-grade assault rifles is a routine hurdle before ordering a Big Mac. Passing through airport-style security is common in most public buildings. At sundown, the streets empty out entirely as people retreat indoors.
The larger story spans decades, a civil war, a long, complex history of migration north to the United States, Canada, and beyond. A weak government, and mass deportations from the U.S. caused a lasting surge in gang activity amid a breakdown of a truce with the government in 2012. Gangs now effectively control much of the country. In 2015, tiny El Salvador reported 6,656 murders, making it the most dangerous peace-time country in the world.
It’s not difficult to understand why families and their children, often unaccompanied, are fleeing north. Near constant harassment and extortion from the gangs makes even going to school a life-threatening task. One school I visited in San Salvador recently had a former student, presumed to be affiliated with a gang, killed and dumped outside the school’s gates as a warning to rival gangs. The result? Plummeting school enrolment, an entire 3-story wing of the school shuttered, and surging numbers of young people looking for a better life elsewhere. Replicate this on a national scale and you have one of the world’s most severe refugee and migration crises, with over 300,000 displaced in 2014, and 30,000 children detained along the dangerous route to the United States via Guatemala and Mexico. Many of these children are considered refugees from gang-related violence, and yet are deported in the thousands back to their communities. At a reception centre for returnees to San Salvador, dozens of teenagers stream out of a bus, sullenly determined to make the trip yet again despite the risks of theft, sexual assault, and forced labour.
Their stories are difficult to absorb; the violence too horrific and banal to comprehend. One young mother, weeping yet determined to tell her story, recalled as her husband was murdered for refusing to join a gang. She was subsequently raped and attacked with boiling water, her son being abducted for extortion after birth.
Outside the city, at a primary school situated in an idyllic and lush mountain setting, a group of school girls told me about their commute to and from class. “We can’t walk, it’s too dangerous,” one girl tells me. “So I take the bus with my grandmother. Last week the bus was stormed by a gang, because they didn’t like someone there. They sliced his throat, and cut open his stomach so his insides went everywhere. There was blood everywhere.”
The 10-year old promptly changed the topic, asking me what animal I would be if I could choose anything (an elephant, obviously!). I asked her if she were President, what would be the first thing she would do in office. “Clean up the streets. There’s too much garbage here. And help the dogs and other animals people hurt. If we can’t help our animals and our environment, how can we be kind to each other?”
Yet again, I’m stunned into silence by a child wise beyond her years, despite the horrors faced in day to day life. Beyond the violence, plunging school attendance, refugees streaming out of the country, and untold numbers of IDPs; there is hope. There’s always hope.