The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens that crime and violence levels in El Salvador remain critically high. This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning dated January 24, 2013 to include additional information about crime rates, gangs, and the ability of the Salvadoran police force and criminal justice system to respond effectively.
Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit El Salvador each year for study, tourism, business, and volunteer work. However, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country. In 2011, El Salvador had one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world: 69 per 100,000 people (by comparison, the murder rate in Massachusetts, with a similar geographical area and population, was 2.6 per 100,000).
Since January 2010, 25 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador, three of whom were killed in the first half of 2013, although U.S. citizens do not appear to be targeted based on their nationality. During the same time period, 274 U.S. citizens reported having their passports stolen. Armed robberies of climbers and hikers in El Salvador’s national parks are common, and the Embassy strongly recommends engaging the services of a local guide certified by the national or local tourist authority when hiking in back country areas, even within the national parks. In 2000, the National Civilian Police (PNC) established a special tourist police force (POLITUR) to provide security and assistance to tourists, as well as protection for the cultural heritage of El Salvador. It has officers located in 19 tourist destinations.
A majority of serious crimes are never solved; only six of the 24 murders committed against U.S. citizens since January 2010 have resulted in convictions. The Government of El Salvador lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases and to deter violent crime. El Salvador’s current criminal conviction rate is five percent. While several of the PNC’s investigative units have shown great promise, routine street-level patrol techniques, anti-gang, and crime suppression efforts are limited. Equipment shortages (particularly radios, vehicles, and fuel) further limit their ability to deter or respond to crimes effectively.
Transnational criminal organizations conduct narcotics, arms trafficking, and other unlawful activities throughout the country and use violence to control drug trafficking routes and carry out other criminal activity. Other criminals, acting both individually and in gangs, commit crimes such as murder-for-hire, carjacking, extortion, armed robbery, rapes, and other aggravated assaults. El Salvador, a country of roughly six million people, has, according to Government of El Salvador statistics, some 40,000 known gang members from several gangs including the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Eighteenth Street (M18) gangs, and gang members are quick to engage in violence if resisted.
Extortion is a particularly serious and very common crime in El Salvador. Some extortion attempts are no more than random cold calls that originate from imprisoned gang members using cellular telephones, and the subsequent threats against the victim are made through social engineering and/or through information obtained about the victim’s family. U.S. citizens who are visiting El Salvador for extended periods may be at higher risk for extortion demands. Hitting its peak a few years ago, extortion has dropped in the last two years; however, recent reports show that there is an increase in the level of violence associated with extortion cases, including media reports of extortion victims and witnesses being killed. Many extortions are not reported for fear of reprisal and lack of faith in the ability of the government to protect the victims. Extortion attempts can be transnational in nature and can include kidnapping of victims. For example, in 2011, a two year-old U.S. citizen was kidnapped from the home of his grandparents in El Salvador by eight to 10 armed men. Ransom demands made to family members in both El Salvador and the United States were traced back to a local prison used exclusively to incarcerate gang members.
U.S. citizens should be vigilant of their surroundings at all times, especially when entering or exiting their homes or hotels, cars, garages, schools, and workplaces. Whenever possible, travel in groups of two or more persons. Avoid wearing jewelry, and do not carry large sums of money or display cash, ATM/credit cards, or other valuables. Avoid walking at night in most areas of El Salvador, and do not walk alone near beaches, historic ruins, or trails. Incidents of crime along roads, including carjacking, are common in El Salvador. Motorists should avoid traveling at night and always drive with their doors locked to deter potential robberies at traffic lights and on congested downtown streets. 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.
The location and timing of criminal activity is unpredictable. We recommend that all travelers exercise caution when traveling anywhere in El Salvador. However, certain areas of the country demonstrate higher levels of criminal activity than others. Salvadoran "departments" (a geographic designation similar to U.S. states) with homicide rates higher than the national average include:
In addition, of the 262 municipalities in El Salvador, the following municipalities are experiencing chronic, high levels of reported criminal activity:
La Union/Tamarindo Beaches
San Francisco Gotera
San Luis Talpa (surrounds the International Airport in Comalapa)
San MartinSan Miguel
San Pedro Masahuat
San Pedro Perulapan
Santa Rosa de Lima
Santiago de Maria