With homicide rates on the rise, the Peace Corps pulls out of El Salvador

Soldiers guard a corner in a gang-controlled neighborhood in Ilopango, El Salvador. File 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

As El Salvador slips deeper into the grip of violence, the U.S. Peace Corps exits the country, suspending a program in the Central American country that has been in operation since 1962.

The withdrawal was “due to the ongoing security environment,” the agency said in a statement, but did not identify any specific security incidents or threats that triggered the suspension.

The organization’s decision to pull out 55 volunteers, who work on youth development and community economic development projects, highlights the gang wars and violence that has long plagued the Central American nation.

The increasing violence is also a major reason many Salvadorans are leaving the country in droves.

At the southern U.S. border, federal agents took into custody 121 undocumented adults and children and deported 77 of them just last month, according to the Washington Post. Since October, border agents have captured more than 7,200 families attempting to enter the country as well as around 5,000 children, all of whom were found traveling without their parents.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, immigrants from El Salvador can apply for temporary protective status if they have been in the U.S. since March 2001. Many House Democrats and activists are calling on the administration to extend this status to Central Americans who entered the country after that date, but according to Huffington Post, the White House has no plans to extend temporary protected status.

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Some immigrant rights supporters have expressed concern that the U.S. government is willing to deport Salvadorans back to their violence-ridden home country while removing its own Peace Corps volunteers because of that very violence.

“It’s very problematic,” said Guillermo Cantor, deputy research director for the American Immigration Council, in a Washington Post report. “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?”

A spokeswoman from the Salvadoran Embassy told La Prensa Gráfica that El Salvador respects but doesn’t support the decision, which it considers a preventive measure since none of the 55 Peace Corps volunteers has reported a violent incident. The spokeswoman, who requested anonymity because her office did not authorize her to speak with reporters, said the decision by the U.S. is based on perceptions, not facts, and she thinks the withdrawal will be temporary.

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“There is no evidence that Americans or American interests are being targeted in El Salvador, and the rate of crimes against Peace Corps Volunteers in El Salvador is among the lowest in the region,” the Peace Corps said in a statement. “However, this decision is based on the safety and security environment in the country as a whole.”

El Salvador’s murder rate surged 70 percent in 2015 from the year prior as feuds escalated between the police and the country’s two most powerful gangs. In August alone, 907 murders were recorded across the country in the highest monthly toll since the 1980-1992 civil war. The start of the civil war also marked the first time Peace Corps volunteers withdrew from El Salvador.

According to El Salvador’s State Department, the government lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate crimes, prosecute cases and deter violent crime. Violence is primarily attributed to criminal gangs who fight for control over drug trade.

In 2012, Peace Corps withdrew its program from neighboring Honduras, which also suffers from endemic violence and drug-related crime.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.