El Salvador's Most Important Export

 /  Jan. 5, 2021, 3:51 p.m.

A pro-DACA march in Los Angelos, CA, 2017.

As the Migration Policy Institute reports, it is increasingly the case that “people are replacing coffee, cotton, and sugar as El Salvador’s most important export.” However, migrating from Central America to the United States is a perilous undertaking. Central Americans fleeing the civil wars of the 1980s referred to it as a “trial by fire,” and conditions have hardly improved since then. In 2010, roughly 10 percent of the 140,000 people who crossed Mexico perished on the journey, 1,600 migrants were kidnapped every day on average, and more recent estimates of the incidence of rape among Central American women and girls along the migrant trail are as high as eight in ten. 

While inflammatory tweets by President Donald Trump portray migrants from Mexico and Central America as “stone cold criminals,” the International Crisis Group reports that “there are now fewer young men making the journey in search of jobs and many more families with children and young or expectant mothers escaping poverty and gang violence.” The record numbers of families fleeing Central America indicate that the increase in migration has far more to do with life in El Salvador than any attempts to evade justice. In particular, the surge in migration from El Salvador since 2011 can be linked to widespread poverty and high levels of both gang-related and gender-based violence. 


Many Salvadorans migrate in search of jobs and a higher standard of living. It has become increasingly difficult to find work in a country where the minimum wage barely covers the cost of living. In 2018, roughly 26 percent of Salvadorans were living below the poverty line, and this figure rises to 36 percent in rural areas that have suffered neglect as a result of increasing urbanization. 

Contributing to the cycle of poverty are low education and literacy rates: almost 20 percent of males and 25 percent of females fifteen years of age or older cannot read or write. Most young people never attend secondary school and many families cannot afford to send their children to school at all. Approximately 1.8 million minors between the ages of 5-17 are forced to work to support their families and these children are often placed in unsanitary or dangerous work environments, where they earn just a few dollars a day.

Health care is also a challenge. Thirty public hospitals serve a population of 6.5 million people, and these are generally understaffed and poorly equipped. These problems are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors Without Borders reports that the system “is on the brink of collapse, with an increasing number of people dying from COVID-19 and other illnesses at home before they can receive medical care.”

Even the most basic needs, like food, water, and shelter, are often unmet. In urban settings, most homes are cramped, averaging about 480 square feet, even for very large families. In the poorest areas, houses are huts made with aluminum sheets, cardboard, and plastic, similar to the makeshift shelters erected by migrants at the US-Mexico border. 

Over 600,000 Salvadorans do not have access to clean drinking water and hundreds of thousands more have only limited or intermittent access. This problem is particularly urgent in areas where fetching water from remote sources means greater risk of robbery, rape, and other violent encounters. 

When Central America suffered a record drought in 2014, some 96,000 Salvadoran families were left without adequate food. As climate change progresses, the frequency of these droughts is projected to increase, resulting in higher levels of migration as more Salvadorans are compelled to leave El Salvador in search of more acceptable living conditions elsewhere. 

Gang Violence

While material concerns drive many Salvadorans to migrate from El Salvador, others seek asylum in the United States after fleeing gang-related or gender-based violence—and sometimes both. In “the world’s most dangerous place outside a war zone,” violence poses a constant threat to Salvadorans.

Nearly 20,000 people were murdered in El Salvador between 2014 and 2017, which is more violent deaths per capita than in several countries at war during those years, including Libya, Somalia, and Ukraine. The murder rate spiked at more than 100 homicides per 100,000 residents between 2015 and 2016, a period that corresponds with a surge of migration. Disappearances, which are not counted in official homicide statistics, are also common, with at least 3,382 people reported missing in 2019. 

About 500,000 Salvadorans are involved in gangs, either through direct participation or coercion, amounting to roughly 8 percent of the population. Gangs generally start recruiting boys around the age of twelve. Girls are also targeted at an early age, albeit for different purposes: gang members are known to sexually abuse girls at casas locas, houses confiscated from residents in the gang’s territory where many gang activities take place, including ritual initiations of recruits, drinking, and taking drugs. Shopkeepers are expected to pay regular installments of protection money and individuals on their way to work or school must pay similar fees. Most people avoid public places as much as possible, especially after dark. 

Salvadoran security forces—composed of the police, paramilitary, and military forces—face many barriers to effectively managing the violence in El Salvador. Because so much of the violence is linked to gang activity, the danger of retaliation from gang members when their comrades are arrested, injured, or killed by police is high. Attacks on the police are so common that officers routinely wear balaclavas to protect their identities, afraid that they or their families will become targets for brutal revenge killings. 

Salvadoran security forces typically adhere to an “iron fist” policy that targets anyone with suspected gang affiliations and imposes lengthy prison sentences on those who are convicted. Though this strategy advances the politically favorable image of being “tough on crime,” it is largely ineffective. Shootouts between gang members and security forces result in high numbers of civilian casualties: in 2018, for every police officer killed in these confrontations, 125 civilians lost their lives. Further compounding the problem, prisons can be incubators of crime, with gang bosses strengthening their leadership, recruiting new members, and even running extortion rackets from behind bars. 

According to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of asylum applications from Salvadorans seeking refuge in the United States has quadrupled since 2010, especially after the collapse of a gang truce in 2014. But gang violence is not the only form of violence driving migration from El Salvador.

Gender-Based Violence

In addition to its significant gang problem, El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide—the killing of a woman or girl because of her gender—in Latin America and the third-highest rate globally. These figures speak to a deeply ingrained system of gender-based domination, known as machismo, which encourages men and boys to exercise power over women and girls, and this power is legally prioritized over female rights. 

A femicide occurred every twenty-four hours in 2017 and 1,218 Salvadoran women went missing last year. Despite the passage of the Special Comprehensive Law for Violence-free Life for Women in 2012—which mandates prison sentences of 20 to 35 years for individuals convicted of femicide, among other provisions—the conviction rate for gender-based crimes in El Salvador remains extremely low. Between 2013 and 2016, only 5 percent of femicide cases reached a conviction.

Low conviction rates should not obscure how few cases of gender-based crime are reported in the first place. According to a 2017 survey, 67 percent of Salvadoran women had suffered some form of violence, but only 6 percent of victims reported abuse to the authorities. 

Machismo is more than a tenet of gang culture: it permeates every sector of society, including law enforcement. The Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace in El Salvador found that in 12 percent of gender-based violence cases, the perpetrators were judges, prosecutors, lawyers, or police officers. To report or not to report presents a double bind, as the line between protector and perpetrator is often ill-defined.

In 2016, 65,000 women fleeing gender-based violence in El Salvador and its neighbors Honduras and Guatemala sought asylum in the United States, and violence continues to be a major factor driving Salvadoran women to the US-Mexico border. As of 2019, El Salvador was the ninth most common country of origin for refugees admitted to the United States, which is particularly significant considering that only about one-quarter of credible fear cases end with an asylum-seeker being granted protection.

Possible Solutions

Even in the United States, a country in which a majority of people view immigrants as assets, anti-immigration stigmas persist. In recent years, leaders like President Donald Trump have enacted harmful policies like family separation, which displaced more than 2,000 children from their parents at the US-Mexico border, and alleged mass hysterectomies at Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. 

It is important to understand that migrants do not pack up and leave everything familiar on a whim. Conditions such as endemic poverty and extreme violence are making El Salvador unlivable. 

The Salvadoran government and foreign actors could pursue a broad set of policy measures to improve the conditions that drive migration. Providing more opportunities for quality education and vocational training could make gang recruitment efforts less appealing and help young people break the cycle of poverty. Some steps have already been taken towards creating these opportunities in El Salvador—such as USAID’s Expand Broad-Based Economic Growth program, which supports higher education and job training, in addition to economic development and sustainable agriculture practices—but these efforts could be expanded to reach more individuals. 

The Salvadoran government could also focus more attention on rehabilitating former felons and gang members. This approach garnered attention in 2015 when the Salvadoran government proposed the country’s first-ever gang rehabilitation law. Had it passed, it would have provided counseling, witness protection, and an official accreditation of innocence to gang defectors. Ultimately, politically lucrative “iron fist” policies won out and continue to this day, with the current administration of President Nayib Bukele largely adhering to the hard-line script. Despite political resistance, some third-party organizations are implementing their own restorative justice programs. For example, Catholic Relief Services, in partnership with League Central America, is using US funds for “Second Chances,” a program that seeks to provide employment opportunities to former inmates and includes job training, cognitive behavioral therapy, and workshops focused on topics like childhood trauma, violence, and distorted ideas of manhood, which USAID singled out as “the single most effective violence-prevention strategy” in 2016.   

While the Salvadoran government has historically punished gang members severely, it has been considerably more lenient towards perpetrators of gender-based crimes. To address this deficiency, the Salvadoran government could improve legislative protections for women so that more perpetrators of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and femicide are convicted. The 2012 Special Comprehensive Law for Violence-free Life for Women provides a decent framework, but it lacks a robust set of mechanisms for reporting gender-based violence, leading to underreporting and a conviction rate that remains extremely low. Additionally, while foreign aid should not be treated as a cure-all, the United States has funded seven women’s shelters and legal aid clinics to great effect. A sample study showed that of the 99 domestic violence cases received by one of these centers, all were presented in court and 97 resulted in convictions.

These are just a few examples of policy measures available to the Salvadoran government and foreign actors to improve the conditions that drive migration. Although in the United States, migration has often been treated as a domestic issue that demands domestic solutions—like increasing border security, lowering the cap on immigrants and refugees, and restricting the definition of asylum—El Salvador exemplifies the benefits of viewing migration through a foreign policy lens instead. Acknowledging the hardships migrants face in their home countries and investing in programs that seek to address these challenges holds the key for policymakers to shape a future in which people are no longer the most important export in countries like El Salvador. 

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. No changes were made to the original file, which was taken by Molly Adams and can be found here

Emily Grant


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