SAN SALVADOR — The US State Department announced earlier this month that it had downgraded its travel alert for El Salvador from level 3, “reconsider travel,” to level 2, “exercise increased caution.” The statement, issued in a press release, went on for two additional paragraphs saying the decision was not political: “Security is the only factor considered in making a readjustment… Travel alerts do not reflect the nature of bilateral relations with any country.” Nevertheless, the timing of the “readjustment” raised questions for many Salvadorans and international observers.
Diplomatic engagement between the United States and El Salvador
The announcement came suspiciously soon after a week of intense diplomatic engagement between the two governments. El Salvador’s Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill Tinoco and acting US Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan signed an agreement late last month allowing the United States to transfer asylum seekers from other countries to El Salvador while their claims are pending.
Five days later, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele met with President Donald Trump in New York. In opening remarks during a public appearance, Trump praised Bukele for doing “an incredible job with MS-13… They have been very, very tough, and we all appreciate that.” Bukele replied that “for us, the United States is not only a partner and an ally but also a friend. And we’re going to show that friendship—that’s one of the reasons we signed the agreement is because we want to show our friendship to our most important ally, which is the United States.”
However, Bukele later clarified in a statement that El Salvador does not currently have “the conditions for asylum,” and that his government has merely committed to building institutional capacity to hear asylum claims as well as reducing forced migration. During his US tour, he also called for increased investment in the Salvadoran economy.
Temporary decrease in violence
Other “level 2” countries include most of Western Europe (France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom), as well as China and Saudi Arabia. Despite the downgraded travel alert, the State Department’s security summary for El Salvador remains the same as before: “Violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape, and armed robbery, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.” (In fact, because the email alert sent to US citizens registered with the embassy contained only the text of the revised alert and not the press release, several people I know initially believed the security situation was deteriorating and they were being encouraged to “exercise increased caution” beyond their usual habits.)
While El Salvador’s homicide rate has declined since Bukele took office in June, it remains one of the world’s highest. After a record-breaking dip in July and August, murder levels rose again in September. September 20—the day of the Asylum Cooperation Agreement—was the bloodiest day of the Bukele administration’s term, with 19 homicides. The government reacted by suspending leave for police officers and soldiers in order to keep more of them on the streets. The move was consistent with security policy to date under the “Territorial Control Plan” (#PlanControlTerritorial), which has increased police presence and deployed soldiers onto the streets in an effort to “take back” gang-controlled territories.
The police and military have indeed been highly visible. I was recently stopped at a seemingly random police checkpoint on the highway. The officer was friendly and told me to have a nice day when he handed me back my driver’s license and tarjeta de circulación, the card showing I own my car. On the road’s shoulder, a young man on a motorcycle was being subjected to a much more detailed interrogation. I have also witnessed several people arrested at gunpoint or searched by the side of the road.
Several Salvadorans have told me they believe the decrease in violence is merely temporary and does not reflect a sustainable improvement. As more police and soldiers have been out on the streets, the gangs have “calmed down,” but many anticipate they are regrouping and there will be a surge in violence in reaction to the government’s attempt to take back “territorial control.”
Safe to visit, but not for everyone
Only seven Americans died in El Salvador in 2018 (and only one in a homicide). The US Embassy had already registered six deaths in the first half of 2019, but none had been classified a homicide. The embassy does not distinguish between casual visitors with no connection to the country and the hundreds of thousands of US citizens of Salvadoran descent, who may be at a higher risk. It’s true that most of the violence in El Salvador is not directed at foreign visitors, and a tourist may be statistically more likely to be killed in a Parisian terrorist attack than by a member of MS-13. Regardless, the fact remains that El Salvador is not safe for many of its own citizens and the recent reduction in violence has not yet proven to be lasting.
Downgrading the travel alert to El Salvador benefits both the Trump and Bukele administrations. For Trump, the assertion that conditions in El Salvador are improving can be used to justify his cruel asylum policies as well as his earlier decision to cut off aid to the region. For Bukele, the announcement validates his government’s security policy and opens up increased opportunities for tourism and foreign investment, boosting the country’s weak economy. Given the timing of the announcement and the reality on the ground in El Salvador, it is difficult to believe that it was anything more than a political decision.