El Salvador Travel Warning
Issued by US Department of State
Jan 23, 2013
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 the second highest murder rate in the world: 71 per 100,000 people (by comparison, the murder rate in Massachusetts, with a similar geographical area and population, was 2.6 per 100,000). In 2012, a truce between El Salvador’s two principal street gangs contributed to a decline in the homicide rate. However, the sustainability of the decline is unclear, and the truce had little impact on robbery, assaults, and other violent crimes. Most of these crimes go unsolved. In March 2012, as a result of an administrative review of the security situation, Peace Corps El Salvador substantially reduced the number of its volunteers in country.
U.S. citizens do not appear to be targeted based on their nationality. However, 22 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador since January 2010. During the same time period, 230 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 five of the 22 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. The PNC is still developing into a modern and effective police force that can protect the public. 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.
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 hundreds of known street gangs totaling more than 20,000 members. Gangs and other criminal elements roam freely day and night, targeting affluent areas for burglaries, and gang members are quick to engage in violence if resisted.
Extortion is a particularly serious and common crime in El Salvador. Many 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. Extortion attempts can be transnational in nature and can include kidnapping of victims. For example, in 2011, a 2 year old U.S. citizen was kidnapped from the home of his grandparents in El Salvador by 8 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, the following municipalities are experiencing chronic high levels of reported criminal activity:
La Union/Tamarindo Beaches
San Francisco Gotera
Santa Rosa de Lima
For more detailed information regarding personal security, please see the State Department's Country Specific Information for El Salvador. For the latest security information, U.S. citizens traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Bureau of Consular Affairs' Web site, where the Worldwide Caution, Travel Warnings, and Travel Alerts can be found. U.S. citizens living or traveling in El Salvador are strongly encouraged to sign up for the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to obtain updated information on travel and security within El Salvador.
The Embassy is located on Final Boulevard Santa Elena Sur, Urbanización Santa Elena, Antiguo Cuscatlán, La Libertad, and can be reached by telephone at 011-503-2501-2999 or by fax at 011-503-2278-5522. For after-hours emergencies, please call 011-503-2501-2253. The Embassy's American Citizen Services (ACS) Unit can be reached directly by fax at 011-503-2501-6020 or by e-mail at [email protected] Travelers may register with the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Travelers may obtain up-to-date information on security conditions by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the United States or outside the U.S. and Canada on a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444. For information on general crime and security issues, U.S. citizens should also consult the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador. Stay up to date by bookmarking our Bureau of Consular Affairs Web site, which contains Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts as well as the Worldwide Caution. Follow us on Twitter and the Bureau of Consular Affairs page on Facebook as well. You can also download our free Smart Traveler App, available through iTunes and the Android market, to have travel information at your fingertips.