Back

Country Reports

El Salvador Country Report

Overview

INTRODUCTION

The small Central American country of El Salvador (population 6.2 million) presents a wide range of risks to travelers, notably due to the concerning lack of security that continues to prevail throughout the country due in large part to the presence of powerful gangs.

CRIME and GANG VIOLENCE

El Salvador, including capital San Salvador, continues to suffer from extremely high murder rates, attributed predominately to fighting between rival gangs ("maras") and the 2014 dissolution of a truce between the country's two most powerful gangs, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has taken a hard line against gangs since coming into power in 2014, refusing to enter into negotiations with "criminals." With 81.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016, El Salvador remains one of the most violent countries in the world (despite a 20 percent drop from 2015 that the government has attributed to intensified policing measures).

The violence has since escalated to war-like levels and has led to internal displacements and emigration, as well as the formation of self-defense groups due to the police's inability to bring the violence under control (as well as major corruption issues within the security forces). The government has begun to treat gangs as terrorist organizations, with violent clashes between gang members and police commonplace in urban areas and increasingly common in rural areas.

A joint security force made up of police, military, intelligence, migration, and customs officials from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (the Northern Triangle countries) began operations in mid-November 2016. The task force aims to combat organized crime and gang activity by focusing on cross-border migration and drug trafficking along the 600 km (375 mi) of shared borders.

Beside murders, gang members and other criminals regularly commit armed robbery, attacks against public transportation, kidnapping, car theft and carjacking, extortion, highway banditry, petty crime, and credit card fraud.

That said, business travelers and tourists are not usually specifically targeted and tourist sites are generally well-patrolled by security forces (including the Tourist Police). Nevertheless, due to these extremely high crime rates, individuals present in El Salvador are advised to adhere to certain security precautions.

Be particularly vigilant in downtown San Salvador, especially at night; safer areas of the capital include the Escalón, Santa Elena, San Benito, Maquilishuat, La Gran Via, and Multiplaza neighborhoods (more dangerous areas include Soyapango, Apopa, Nejapa, Ilopango Mejicanos, and Tutunichapa).

Do not take public transportation, particularly municipal buses, as they are regularly targeted by street gangs. Only use official, licensed taxis (often parked outside hotels or shopping centers) and avoid hailing taxis on the street.

Intercity and international buses are also subject to attack and private cars are sometimes attacked by highway bandits (e.g. at scenic overlooks); when possible, travel by plane for long-distance trips or, if driving, do so only during daylight hours, remain on main highways whenever possible (where there is a police presence), and limit rest stops to the bare minimum.

Keep in mind that criminals are often armed. If confronted by a thief, adhere to all demands, do not offer resistance, and do not directly look at the attacker or otherwise do anything to alarm him/her.

In case of emergency, the police can be contacted by dialing 911.

TRANSPORTATION

Avoid traveling at night and exercise vigilance on the roads as driving habits and armed attacks (e.g. at stoplights and stop signs) are obstacles to safe travel. That said, most primary roads are in relatively good condition with sufficient signage. Transportation disruptions are possible during the rainy season in the event of floods or landslides (see NATURAL RISKS section). Due to the risk of traffic accidents (as well as armed attacks), it is advisable to avoid driving at night, except between San Salvador and Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport (SAL, formerly known as Comalapa International Airport).

Avoid traveling alone and never use long-distance or city buses (see CRIME section).

In theory, land borders with Guatemala and Honduras are open 24/7, but border crossings have been known to close without warning, especially after nightfall. Whenever possible, plan to cross land borders during the day.

SOCIOPOLITICAL UNREST

Anti-government protests and strikes are fairly common in El Salvador, particularly in the capital at Plaza Las Americas. Most incidents of social unrest occur in or near city centers or public buildings/areas and are typically non-violent. The rate and scale of protests may increase during electoral periods. Legislative and municipal elections will take place on March 4, 2018, followed by presidential elections in February 2019.

Visitors should note that foreign nationals are prohibited by law from engaging in political activities, including attending political rallies or protests.

NATURAL RISKS

Travelers should note that El Salvador is vulnerable to natural disasters, especially due to seismic activity.

Earthquakes occur frequently, sometimes causing sizeable material damage. Offshore earthquakes have the potential to trigger tsunamis that can threaten coastal areas. A powerful earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale struck off the coast of El Salvador in November 2016. However, no casualties or material damage were reported and no tsunami was generated. Two other earthquakes with magnitudes 7 or above also hit in 2001 and 1986, causing significant damage. 

The country is also home to some 20 volcanoes, three of which (San Miguel/Chaparrastique, Santa Ana, and Izalco) occasionally show signs of activity. The last major eruption in the country occurred in 2014.

El Salvador's rainy season lasts from May/June to October/November; during this period, flooding can occur, along with landslides in hilly or mountainous areas. This coincides with the Atlantic and Pacific Hurricane seasons (June to November); while the country is relatively rarely hit directly by hurricanes and tropical storms, their remnants often bring potentially hazardous torrential rains. The US-based National Hurricane Center closely tracks all cyclonic activity in Central America. 

Information, alerts, and recommendations regarding natural disasters are available (in Spanish) at the government's Civil Protection agency website.  

HEALTH

Healthcare in El Salvador is wanting; few private hospitals in urban areas provide services comparable with Western standards, and even fewer do in rural areas. All travelers are advised to take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance prior to departure.

Health conditions in the country are relatively poor. Aside from the water-borne illnesses that tend to plague developing countries (e.g. cholera, traveler's diarrhea, typhoid fever), El Salvador is also affected by a number of mosquito-borne diseases including:

  • Malaria may pose a health risk in low-lying, rural areas, although the risk is very low.
  • Dengue fever is an endemic health risk in El Salvador, with peaks of cases typically reported during the rainy season (June-November). Nearly 8000 probable cases were reported in 2016.
  • Chikungunya is present; some 6000 suspected cases were reported in 2016.
  • The Zika virus is present in the country, although case rates appear to be falling. While the virus is usually relatively benign, links between the Zika virus and severe birth defects have been established. There is no vaccine. The disease is also transmittable via sexual intercourse.

Finally, cases of rabies (transmitted by dogs and bats) have been reported in recent years.

OTHER

The government takes drug trafficking very seriously and individuals caught with drugs, even small quantities, may be imprisoned for up to 15 years; take care to never let baggage out of sight when traveling.

The United States dollar has been used as the local currency since 2001, when it replaced the Salvadorian colón. Prices are sometimes still listed in colones as a reference.

Climate

The climate is tropical along the coast, semi-tropical on the central plateau, and temperate in mountainous areas. During the dry season (November to April), the air is hot and dry. From May until October, it rains almost every day and there is the risk of hurricanes. Temperatures are relatively steady throughout the day along the Pacific coast all year long (from 25°C to 29°C). Temperatures are cooler at higher elevations: along the plateau, the average temperature is 23°C; in the mountains temperatures range between 12°C and 23°C, sometimes dropping down to 0°C.

Useful Numbers

Country Code: +503 Police: 911

Electricity

Voltage: 115V ~ 60 Hz

Outlets:

More