The U.S. Peace Corps has suspended its program in El Salvador due to safety concerns.
Suffering from rising homicide rates and violent crime, the small Central American country is now deemed too unsafe for Peace Corp volunteers “due to the ongoing security environment”.
The organization is withdrawing all 58 of its volunteers in El Salvador, where more than 2,000 Peace Corps delegates have worked on community projects in the troubled country since 1962.
In a press statement, Peace Corps said that “it has enjoyed a long partnership with the government and people of El Salvador and is committed to resuming volunteers’ work there in a safe and secure environment.”
Homicides and violent crime
El Salvador is plagued by violent crime. According to a August 2015 report in the Guardian, the Central American nation witnessed its highest homicide rate since 1992, when the country’s civil war ended.
The country did, however, experience a reduction in homicide rates during 2012 and 2013.
The county’s homicide rate dropped from 70 murders per 100,000 in 2011 to around 40 murders per 100,000 in 2012 and 2013. This decrease was attributed to a 2012 truce between the country’s two main rival gangs; Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18.
However, the truce soon began to fall apart and police officially declared it finished in March 2014.
According to a report by Insight Crime – a U.S.-based foundation that studies organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean – during 2015, violence in El Salvador “skyrocketed” and that this rise in violent crime has been driven by both MS-13 and Barrio 18.
Indeed, the rampant violence has forced many Salvadorians to flee their homes and migrate north to the United States.
Crossing the border
The end of last year saw a surge in the number of undocumented Central American families and unaccompanied children entering the U.S. from Mexico.
According to U.S. Border and Customs Protection statistics, between October 1 and December 31, 2015, 17,370 unaccompanied minors were apprehended on the U.S.-Mexico border, a 117 percent increase from the same period during 2014 in which just 7,987 children were detained.
The number of families apprehended increased even more dramatically. During October 1 and December 31, 2015, the number of families, 21,469, detained on the U.S.-Mexico border increased by a massive 187%. During the same time period in 2014, 7,468 families were apprehended.
The number of Salvadorian children apprehended between October 1 and December 31, 2015 was 5,017, and the number of families reported from the country was 7,290.
At the beginning of this year, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents initiated raids, taking 121 undocumented adults and children into custody and deporting them back to Central America.
Guillermo Cantor, deputy research director for the American Immigration Council, a Washington D.C. advocacy group, is among those concerned that the violence-ridden country of El Salvador is deemed too dangerous for Peace Corps volunteers, but safe enough to return migrants to.
Cantor told The Washington Post: “Even though there is an acknowledgment by our government that the situation in Central America is so serious that U.S. citizens should not be going there under these programs, it’s ok to send people who are fleeing those conditions back to those countries, and who knows what’s going to happen to them?”
In 2012, Peace Corps withdrew its volunteers, 158, from neighboring Honduras. U.S. officials did not reveal exactly what led to this decision, but security concerns were cited. Similarly to El Salvador, Honduras is suffering from endemic violence and drug and gang-related crime.
Guatemala is also experiencing high levels of violence. However, as yet, the Peace Corps has not suspended its operations in Guatemala, and there are currently 123 volunteers working in the country.