El Salvador 2030

Gang Violence, Police Corruption and Women's Rights

By: Alicia Lau

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, recognized as the "Land of the Volcanoes", and is home to arguably one of the best soccer/fútbol players in history, Magico Gonzales. However, despite these praiseworthy facts, it does not overshadow the major controversial issues that haunt the nation. First of all, gang violence escalation can be deemed as the root of the current Salvadoran civil war, whereas police corruption continues to persevere as a critical concern. Lastly, nearly no changes have been implemented in the area of women's rights and abortion laws, and therefore, it still remains as a serious topic of discussion. First arisen as major issues around 2015, the matters of gang violence, police corruption and women's rights have persisted and become the crucial Salvadoran subjects of today's World Conference on Global Issues.

Gang Violence

A pressing issue in 2015, gang violence continues to be a major concern today in El Salvador as seen through the current civil war between the gangs and the government. According to the National Civil Police, 481 people were killed in March of 2015 at a rate of 15 per day. Unsurprisingly, by 2016, El Salvador surpassed Honduras in becoming the world’s deadliest peacetime country. Authorities said that the murders were mostly due to gang-on-gang violence that had followed after the collapse of the truce formed in March of 2012 by the government and the two biggest and most violent gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18. (Laccino)

Andrew Chestnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, told IBTime UK in 2015, “There are similarities especially in the type of criminal activities in which they engage such as drug and human trafficking, kidnapping and extortion. However, the MS-13 and Barrio 18 aren't as disciplined because they are not as vertically and militarily structured as most of the Mexican cartels." He believed that the government had not been able to effectively combat gang violence in El Salvador and despite the fact that the truce temporarily reduced homicide rates, it caused gangs to become “more predatory of the general population" (Laccino)

Consequently, the country is currently facing another civil war. Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the new president who took office in June of 2014, had opposed the idea of forming another truce and refused to negotiate with gangs as a way of tackling crime. (Watson) Moreover, many believed that gang warfare had merely replaced the guerrilla warfare and death squads that were present in El Salvador from 1980 to 1992; this was when Marxist rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) fought against the government. Raul Mijango, a former FMLN leader who helped negotiate the truce between the gangs in 2012, stated in 2015, “Today, the problem El Salvador is facing is no longer an issue that's just between gangs. Now, what you have is a problem between gangs and the state.” (Watson)

Numbers last recorded in 2015 counted approximately 70,000 active members and more than four times as many people in some way connected or associated in some way with gangs. (Laccino) With the great percentage of Salvadoran lives touched by this still growing violence, El Salvador is discussing today at the World Conference the issue of tackling their civil war.

Police Corruption

Secondly, despite the growing amount of exposure on the international stage, corruption is something that still exists everywhere and in all parts of Salvadoran society. Journalist, diplomat and publisher, Héctor Silva Ávalos, explains, “There’s increased emphasis on the military being the front lines in this struggle [against violent crime and drug trafficking]. Let’s pull back from militarization as a fallback option, and let’s focus on the police.” (Luxner)

In 2015, director of Insight Crime, Steven Dudley, observed that in order for El Salvador to tackle the daunting challenge of managing the country and its crimes, they had no other option but to reform its corrupt police force - the liaisons between the government and citizens, and the first responders in an emergency. “Criminal drug trafficking organizations cannot work without the aid of the police,” he said. “They can offer you protection and safe passage during operations. They can shield you from investigations, destroy evidence related to investigations, provide weapons, provide assassins off the books, arrest rivals, steal your rivals’ merchandise for you, offer you safe houses and vehicles, and spring jailed leaders from incarceration.” (Partlow)

Despite the drop in homicides in 2012 and 2013 due to the temporary truce between the major gangs, it was short lived. Silva asserted that the new president had no choice but to “clean up” corrupted institutions. “We are back to 10 or 11 killings a day. We are now fully aware that our institutions don’t work and that we need to change them,” said Silva. “For two decades, the official narrative has been, ‘we don’t really have a problem. Honduras has a problem. Guatemala has a problem,’” he said. “Governments used the gangs as a way to explain everything from killings to drug trafficking. Even U.S. officials say the gangs are drug dealers. But no, they’re not. The gangs don’t have the kind of money necessary to bribe the director-general of the National Police. And it’s not just the police that’s corrupt; it’s the attorney general’s office and the judiciary too.” (Luxner)

With the given attitude and the current laws that are protecting the actions of police and government institutions, it is most likely that corruption will continue in the future. Albeit there have been some improvements in the laws and maybe some internal investigations done, it can be expected that the current situation will more or less persist the same and action needs to be taken today.

Women's Rights & Abortion Laws

Lastly, El Salvador, along with its neighbours such as Nicaragua have some of the strictest abortion laws and as a result, are the cause of much dissent on the nation's streets. Nearly no exception is allowed for the termination of a pregnancy, not even for rape, incest, malformed fetus or the endangerment of the woman’s life. However, the law was taken to a whole new extreme in 2015. El Salvador started criminalizing miscarriages and stillbirths and was imprisoning women who had lost their fetus faultlessly. Activist, Sara Garcia stated, “We live in a misogynist, machista society … with prejudices about how a woman should behave and the punishment she should receive for not fulfilling those expectations. There is no presumption of innocence.” (Wilkinson)

The irony of it all is that the two countries, El Salvador and Nicaragua are both run by leftists governments. (Wilkinson)

International organizations including Amnesty International and the United Nations had asked El Salvador to relax its abortion laws. The World Health Organization estimated that more than 35,000 women in El Salvador obtain unsafe abortions every year. ("Woman Who Had a Miscarriage but Was Accused of Having an Abortion Is Pardoned after 7 Years behind Bars in El Salvador")

Even with the growing amount of exposure on the issue and the progress of the issue of women’s rights to exercise abortion in relation to human rights, there have been nearly no changes to El Salvador’s laws. It even prompted Amnesty International’s Americas Director, Erika Guevara-Rosas, to start a petition imploring El Salvador’s president to officially repeal the country’s ban on abortions.“El Salvador is moving to becoming a strong democracy. The battle over abortion is an extreme reflection of discrimination against women,” Guevara-Rosas said in a statement published by Al Jazeera America. “We know of 129 cases of women charged with abortion-related crimes and put in prison between 2003 and 2013. But there is no statistical information, and the number could be higher. And we know of 17 cases of women jailed for aggravated homicide.” ("Woman Who Had a Miscarriage but Was Accused of Having an Abortion Is Pardoned after 7 Years behind Bars in El Salvador")

Progress was first seen back in 2015 when domestic worker, Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez, was initially accused of the crime of abortion which entailed 8 years in prison. Later, prosecutors would elevate the charge to aggravated assault and sentence Vasquez to 30 years. Mid January of that year, El Salavador’s Legislative Assembly approved a recommendation by the high court to have Vasquez exonerated. Leftists members of Congress voted in favour along with the support of lawmakers from the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). It was the conservative National Republican Alliance (Arena) who voted otherwise. (Beaubien) Jorge Menjivar, the representative for El Salvador’s leading activist group seeking the decriminalization of abortion, stated, “This case establishes a precedent for justice for poor women who have been criminalized for the supposed crime of homicide without proof.” Additionally, Paula Avila, a lawyer who serves as an advocacy adviser at the Centre for Reproductive Rights, a nonprofit in New York that advocates for abortion rights, stated, "This is the most significant news that we have received from Salvador in the 15 years of work we have been doing there," says. ("Woman Who Had a Miscarriage but Was Accused of Having an Abortion Is Pardoned after 7 Years behind Bars in El Salvador")

All in all, with the given momentum that issue has been gaining since 2015, along with the international support, it is hoped that a positive change can be seen to the strict abortion laws of El Salvador and progression can be seen in the area of women’s rights.

Although these issues of gang violence, police corruption and women's rights were first apparent as serious problems back in 2015, they remain to be the same obstacles the country El Salvador faces today. As seen through the civil war, gang violence continues to escalate and pose as a problem alongside the corruption of the government's police force. Finally, in relation to women's rights, abortion laws still continue to be a strong controversy in Salvadoran society. Yes, El Salvador is currently recognized for its unpleasant issues, but with resolutions instituted to face these given problems, maybe the country will be distinguished in the future for its beauty rather than its shadows.


Beaubien, Jason. "30-Year Sentence Lifted For Woman In El Salvador Abortion Case." NPR. NPR, 22 Jan. 2015. Web. 2 June 2015. <http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/01/22/379138247/30-year-sentence-lifted-for-woman-in-el-salvador-abortion-case>.

Laccino, Ludovica. "El Salvador to Become Deadliest Peace-time Country in the World: Who Are MS-13 and Barrio-18 Gangs?" International Business Times RSS. BTimes Co., Ltd, 10 Apr. 2015. Web. 1 June 2015. <http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/el-salvador-become-deadliest-peace-time-country-world-who-are-ms-13-barrio-18-gangs-1495637>.

Luxner, Larry. "Diplomat-turned-scholar Héctor Silva Exposes Police Corruption in El Salvador." The Tico Times. The Tico Times Newspapers, 21 May 2014. Web. 2 June 2015. <http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/05/21/diplomat-turned-scholar-hector-silva-exposes-police-corruption-in-el-salvador>.

Partlow, Joshua. "El Salvador Debates Which Is Worse: Gangs or Police? | Toronto Star." Thestar.com. Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd, 25 May 2015. Web. 2 June 2015. <http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/05/25/el-salvador-debates-which-is-worse-gangs-or-police.html>.

Watson, Katy. "How Gang Violence Is Spreading Fear in El Salvador." BBC News. BBC, 29 May 2015. Web. 2 June 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-32913749>.

Wilkinson, Tracy. "El Salvador Jails Women for Miscarriages and Stillbirths." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 1 June 2015. <http://www.latimes.com/world/great-reads/la-fg-c1-el-salvador-women-20150415-story.html#page=1>.

"Woman Who Had a Miscarriage but Was Accused of Having an Abortion Is Pardoned after 7 Years behind Bars in El Salvador ." Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 2 June 2015. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2922947/Woman-miscarriage-accused-having-abortion-pardoned-7-years-bars-El-Salvador.html>.

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