SAN SALVADOR – On Jan. 16, a tiny country with nearly 10 times the murder rate of the United States – and a quarter of its people living there – celebrated 15 years of peace.
El Salvador’s 1992 Peace Accords put an end to a 12-year civil war between the U.S.- sponsored government and a mostly rural, socialist, guerrilla army, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Yet many argue that the social problems and violence have not gone away.
According to the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington, D.C., the war’s 75,000 deaths, proportional to the country’s population, would be like wiping out 3.2 million U.S. citizens.
The peace treaty cut the nation’s military by 70%, established a civilian police and sought to integrate fighters from both sides into civilian and political life.
El Salvador’s leading political parties are direct descendants of the two sides of the war, the U.S.-backed National Republican Alliance (ARENA) is the ruling party, and the leftist FMLN has become the leading opposition party. ARENA holds 34 seats in the current legislature, compared to 32 of the FMLN, which controls the Mayor’s Office of San Salvador.
Both parties still regularly blame each other for the war.
In a recent meeting with U.S. university students, the political section of the U.S. Embassy said it appreciates ARENA for its commitment to free-market economics, transparency in government and the security of property. In contrast, a representative of the political section accused the FMLN of being “completely out of step with today’s world.”
Under President Tony Saca, El Salvador last year became the first to implement the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), and is the only Latin American country with troops still in Iraq. The FMLN opposed both those measures.
Representatives from all of Central America, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Colombia this week attended the Salvadoran government’s commemoration of the Peace Accords. Political parties signed and presented a “social peace accord,” in which they pledge to work together on electoral and tax reform.
Political ideology aside, most Salvadorans today want to move north, or already have.
According to the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, more than 2 million Salvadorans live in the United States. Slightly fewer than 7 million live in El Salvador, with some 700 leaving for the United States every day.
In 2005, the U.S. Embassy said, Salvadorans in the United States sent home $2.83 billion, roughly equal to 17% of El Salvador’s gross domestic product. Last year’s figure was closer to $3 billion.
About 1,000 Salvadorans line up each week outside the U.S. Embassy west of San Salvador, each having paid $100 in application fees for non-immigrant visas.
Nearly $4 million worth of these requests were denied last year. The embassy’s consular section says it processes 50,000 to 60,000 annually, turning away two-thirds of the applicants for not being able to prove that they’ll return to their native country.
Many who left El Salvador in the 1980s to flee the fighting, such as 70-year-old Guillermo León, are now returning home to retire.
“I went on foot, by bus and by train,” said León, a former school teacher, describing his early 1980s trip to the United States to escape military persecution. “They were killing teachers then.”
León was 54 when he left El Salvador. In California he worked as a mason, painter, gardener, carpenter and electrician before working his way into a high-school teaching job in San Francisco.
Still others who left illegally in the past and then returned to El Salvador are finding it difficult to get back to the United States.
A 37-year-old man who identified himself as “Tino” said he once had political asylum in the United States, but now can’t get a U.S. tourist visa to return north to work for a few months. He says a “coyote,” or migrant smuggler, costs at least $6,000.
The U.S. Embassy believes CAFTA will help the Salvadoran economy, though it said Salvadoran exports to the United States fell by 6% during the first six months of the trade pact last year.
El Salvador’s exports to the United States are now at $202 million, while U.S. exports to El Salvador last year increased from $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion, according to the U.S. Embassy.
El Salvador’s textile industry, on which the country has built its export industry in recent years, is now having a harder time competing with countries such as Nicaragua, which got a better rules-of-origin deal under CAFTA and where labor is cheaper.
In addition to economic uncertainty, post-war El Salvador is plagued by citizen insecurity and rising gang violence, fueled by social exclusion and Salvadoran criminals deported by the United States.
Last year, the United States sent 3,000 Salvadorans with “criminal backgrounds” back to their homeland, an embassy representative said. In 2006, police statistics showed El Salvador’s murder rate rise to 12 homicides daily, which is slightly higher than the murder rate in war-torn Colombia.