A vortex churning at the mouth of Hell

As the Peace Corps pulls out of El Salvador, I figure it is time to share my memories. The first draft was written a year ago upon my return to the U.S. after visiting my daughter, a Peace Corps volunteer in the highlands of El Salvador. As the situation worsened, I updated last summer.

At 6:30 a.m., I am sitting on a sofa in the home of Dorita, a nurse from San Salvador in the violence-torn country of El Salvador. A black Chihuahua is curled by my side, and the savagery seems far away. Outside, the cocks crow one after another, as if in response to each other, perhaps offering defiant challenges. The controlled cacophony punctuates the background chatter of birds, barking dogs and an occasional old truck sputtering down the steep track.

I am accompanied by two of my daughters, the three of us visiting my youngest daughter, a Peace Corps volunteer in La Laguna, located in the highlands of Morazán Department along the northeastern border with Honduras. During El Salvador’s vicious civil war, which encompassed the entire decade of the 1980s, Morazán was the most troubled of the country’s zonas rojas, and the site of the notorious El Mozote Massacre. Members of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion slaughtered as many as a thousand civilians in and around the village of El Mozote during the war. The Reagan Administration at first hotly denied reports of the atrocity, which were later proven to be accurate.

Until recently, the highlands of Morazán were safe, far distant from the drug-fueled turbulence that has plagued the region since the construction of the Pan-American Highway made transportation of drugs from the south much easier. Then, a government-brokered truce between the gangs disintegrated. The violence escalated. In a recent crackdown, the Salvadoran government transported some of the worst gang leaders to a high-security prison in the capital of Morazán, the hot, bustling city of San Francisco de Gotera. Gotera for short, the municipality is located on the optimistically named Ruta de Paz—Route of Peace.

The presence of the tattooed gang leaders caused the country’s miasma of violence to seep northward into Gotera and the surrounding countryside. In June, the country’s newspapers reported that 10 Morazán residents had been murdered in just 48 hours. One of the victims, a 52-year-old woman who was thought to be a collaborator with the national police force’s Prevention Committee in Morazán, was attacked by a gang of men who invaded her home in the pueblo of Cacaopera, just 15 miles from my daughter’s site.

The canton of La Laguna

La Laguna, where my daughter lives, is a canton of the pueblo of El Rosario, but use of the word “pueblo” is perhaps deceptive. El Rosario is a random collection of small homes for a few thousand souls, scattered up and down steep green hills and reached only by a dirt road. There is no downtown shopping district, no hospital, no fire department, no infrastructure to speak of. There is a clinic, although most of the neighbors visit Dorita with their minor health concerns.

A couple of our friends in La Laguna.
A couple of our friends in La Laguna.

Two plastic bookshelves crammed with over-the-counter medications, bandages and mysterious elixirs are the only sign of her profession. Above the shelves is a handwritten sign, proclaiming in Spanish: “Good faith died, killed by bad payment.” The same sentiment is shared at the front door, before prospective patients enter. By 9 a.m., Dorita had already received two patients, one a little girl with a slight fever, another a woman with a headache.

Dorita’s house is luxurious for La Laguna, with an indoor toilet and shower utilizing water from a well. The shower is for the hardy, since there is no hot water. My daughter and I washed breakfast dishes outside in the guacales, which hold rainwater collected from the metal roof via a pipe. We filled two tubs with cold water, and then my daughter scrubbed the dishes with a soapy sponge before dipping each one in the first tub to remove the soap. I rinsed in the second tub. All clothing, even at Dorita’s home, is washed outdoors by hand with cold water, scrubbing relentlessly. The only way to get rid of trash is to burn it. Dorita’s front and back doors are always wide open, and sometimes a chicken from the backyard pen comes exploring inside. Neighbors appear unexpectedly, as well. There is no such thing as privacy.

Remesas and La Renta

Several small homes have been built in the neighborhood with remesas sent by relatives living in the U.S. Remesas translates roughly to “remittances,” and these payments are vital to the region’s economy. In fact, they are vital to the economy of the entire country; the estimate of the number of Salvadorans living in the U.S. is equal to one-third of El Salvador’s current population, and the U.S. dollar is the standard currency. In the early 1820s, newly independent El Salvador even petitioned the U.S. government for statehood. Every child I met had an American name—Gladys, Cindy, Katelynn and Evelyn are a few examples.

Economic prospects in Morazán are virtually nonexistent, but migrating to San Salvador or another city means dealing with the gangs. Like almost everything else in El Salvador, the gangs—the two biggest being Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13)—have an American connection. Mara Salvatrucha, for example, evolved on the streets of Los Angeles during the 1980s, and most of the members were the children of Salvadorans who fled the country’s civil war. In the 1990s a wave of deportations removed the gang members to El Salvador, where none had lived since they were small children—if they had ever lived there at all.

Now, the warring criminals in some ways rule the country. Children as young as 10 who live in poor neighborhoods are forced to join one of the gangs or face retribution. Almost every business is required to pay la renta, or protection money. Many of the businesses in the better parts of San Salvador have security guards posted, their guns in clear view. Visiting a McDonald’s protected by armed guards is a disconcerting experience.

The requirement to pay la renta is an effective deterrent to entrepreneurial efforts, and tourism is efficiently strangled by the presence of armed guards on beaches and outside restaurants, along with the coiled barbed wire atop the walls surrounding facilities like our hotel, which was perfect in every other way. That is a shame, because the country boasts rugged Pacific vistas, mountains, volcanoes and shimmering crater lakes. As the venerable Frommer’s tourism guide notes, much of the violence is between gang members, and the Salvadoran people are both friendly and gracious.

Twin threads of fear and hope

They are also anxious to get out of the country. My stay in Morazán Department reminded me that the quest for economic gain does play a role, but it is difficult to tease apart the twin threads of fear and hope. My daughter’s friend, another Peace Corps volunteer living in a nearby pueblo, reported that 14 youngsters left her village just in the week I was there. Neither violence nor drugs were a problem there at the time, but choking poverty is pervasive.

All of the young people have family in the United States, and members of their extended families pool their funds to engage coyotes, the name for the businessmen who arrange transport. Although the trip is inherently dangerous, some of the coyotes are trusted because family members have previously utilized their services.

My daughter says the average cost is $7,000 for a trustworthy, reliable coyote. Relatives could just as easily pool their dollars to start a small business, but why bother when extortion will bleed away profits? And there are almost no jobs in the safer regions like Morázan. The privileged few are teachers, nurses or policemen, but most men work the land in one capacity or another. Gladys’ stepfather, for example, labors as a caretaker on the estate of a wealthy landowner from the city of San Miguel. He earns just $2 a day.

Gladys lives with Dorita and my daughter because her stepfather said he couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. She goes to school in the pueblo and had been staying with a teacher, for whom she worked as a maid in exchange for room and board. When 13-year-old Gladys broke her arm and couldn’t do the heavy work, the teacher kicked her out.

The government provides free health care, so Salvadorans are fairly healthy. Diabetes is a problem, and serious health issues can be difficult to address because of poverty combined with the inaccessibility of more sophisticated care. Vilma, a neighbor who helped Dorita during our stay, is thin and tires easily because she has a heart problem that was treated with a mechanical valve when she was 3 years old. The valve is nearing the end of its useful life, but Vilma is unable and unwilling to travel to San Salvador for the regular cardiac care she needs. For one thing, the cost is too high. A bus ride costs $10 each way, an impossible sum.

Pulling out the first time

In late 2011 and early 2012, the Peace Corps pulled out of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—known as the Northern Triangle of Central America—after a Peace Corps volunteer was shot accidentally during a bus robbery in the troubled Honduran city of San Pedro Sula. The volunteer group returned to El Salvador in 2013 after reassessing safety measures. My daughter, among the first crop of returning volunteers, was instructed to stay out of San Salvador and use only approved transportation. She felt safe, and she was safe. That is the paradox of El Salvador, which I have come to view as the vortex churning at the mouth of Hell.

The Peace Corps has not yet returned to Honduras, which until this year claimed the dubious honor of having the most murders of any country in the world outside of a war zone. Volunteers were hanging on in El Salvador until the country’s death toll surpassed that of Honduras. In 2015, a total of 6,657 people were murdered in tiny El Salvador, not quite the size of Massachusetts. The Bay State, by contrast, suffers an average of 170 homicides a year. El Salvador’s murder rate is the highest of any year since the end of the civil war in 1992, and the country recently claimed Honduras’ title.

Clearly, the already impossible situation has deteriorated in recent months. Gang killings of bus drivers have paralyzed San Salvador’s transportation system, and in late July two motorcycle-riding gangsters tossed a grenade into the restaurant at San Salvador’s exclusive Sheraton. Windows shattered, but no one was hurt. At one point, rumors swept the country—reaching even remote La Laguna—that gang members were targeting women with blonde or red hair, so the salons filled up with desperate women dying their hair brown or black.

With the gang violence comes extraordinary abuse of women. Gang rape is common, sometimes as an initiation, sometimes as punishment, sometimes as threat, and sometimes out of sadistic indifference. A young girl was gang-raped at a site near La Laguna, and my daughter worried about the girls on her soccer team. The girl joined family in the United States, where she is seeking asylum. Last fall, U.S. immigration attorneys told the Associated Press they were seeing an exponential increase in the number of women and girls from Central America seeking asylum after being kidnapped and raped.

The most nightmarish aspect of the chaos, though, is that the good guys and the bad guys sometimes seem to be interchangeable.. The specter of the civil war still haunts the country; the governing party is the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, which started life as a coalition of guerrilla fighters. The main opposition is the conservative ARENA, founded in 1980 in response to the FMLN insurgency. Now, the FMLN, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén (a former guerilla leader) and the national police have adopted a crowd-pleasing mano duro (iron fist) approach; they have been accused of complicity in the kind of “extrajudicial killings” made infamous by right-wing death squads during the civil war. At the same time, government officials are pointing fingers at the “oligarchic right wing,” suggesting they are spreading rumors and lies to undermine the democratically elected government.

The gangs

All the while, the gangs continue their depredations, a third force estimated to be at least 60,000 strong (in a country of six million), with a support network possibly in the hundreds of thousands. By contrast, the FMLN guerilla force never numbered more than perhaps 15,000. As police violence against the gangs escalates, a few journalists have penned articles that sounded vaguely sympathetic, quoting gang leaders saying they are somehow in touch with the country’s poor and downtrodden.

People are suggesting that another kind of civil war is evolving, between the gangs and the state. The army has launched several “rapid response battalions” to react to gang violence, and the National Association of Private Enterprise, the country’s most prominent pro-business organization, hired former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani as a consultant. He talks of “annihilating” the gangs. In early August, the nation’s bishops issued a statement pleading with their Divine Savior to protect and save their nation. They asked every parish priest to organize a holy hour, fasting, the praying of the Rosary and processions.

Much has been written in the U.S. press about a wave of unaccompanied minors that last summer swept across the porous border between the United States and Mexico. Most of the youngsters came from Central America, and they will continue to come, like drowning people fighting to board a lifeboat. The flood of young immigrants prompted the passage of a massive U.S. aid package, a plan that includes increases in programs that have already promoted militarization of the region’s security forces, as well as measures promoting social programs and private enterprise. Critics say any attempt to find a military solution to the gang problem is a big mistake in a country with a history of violent repression.

The situation calls to mind theater of the absurd, with repetitious and meaningless dialogue and confusing plots that defy logic. I flash back to the early 1980s, when I worked for an organization providing aid to Salvadoran refugees at a camp in Honduras. I collected the peasants’ stories about fording the Rio Lempa, seeking safety in Honduras, as the Salvadoran military fired upon them. They were poor so they must be revolutionaries, and the U.S. was providing aid to the Salvadoran government in hopes of defeating the leftist FMLN, who were allegedly supported by the Soviets and Cuba. Helicopters firing from overhead bore the insignia of the U.S. government, the refugees told me.

A few weeks ago, police arrested a La Laguna resident, and there were murders at two of the formerly peaceful Peace Corps sites in Morazán. “I don’t worry about myself,” my daughter says. “I can return home. I worry about all those who can’t leave.”

the girls in el salvador2
The girls and I in El Salvador.