Week Nine: El Salvador

In partnership with Act for Displaced


Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University
Barrister Shahriar Yeasin Khan, Act for Displaced


Overview of the Conflict

El Salvador, part of the infamous Northern Triangle alongside neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to live in today. It has been called the world’s most homicidal country and has even been dubbed as the murder capital of the world. Turf wars between rival gangs are an everyday occurrence in El Salvador. People regularly face threats, extortion and persecution from various organized and armed criminal gangs – often precipitating to murders and unabated gender-based violence and femicide.

Plagued with extreme levels of violence, hundreds of thousands of people in El Salvador have been forcibly displaced from their homes. El Salvador is also one of the poorest countries in Latin America, making the situation for displaced persons even more dire as they receive none or very little governmental assistance and humanitarian support. The current plight of the Salvadoran people is strongly entangled with armed gangs and the culture of violence that is rampant across the country. Currently, the most significant criminal gangs in El Salvador are the two rival factions MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and Barrio 18. These two, and a number of other armed criminal gangs, were formed by Salvadoran immigrants who fled to the US during the 1980-1992 Civil War in El Salvador.

The Civil War itself, which took place during the Cold War era, was extremely violent and took the lives of more than 75,000 El Salvadorans. The US was allied with the then Salvadoran government, which was fighting against a coalition of leftist guerrilla groups known as the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). During the civil war, the US gave approximately $6 billion in aid, including at least $1 billion in direct military aid, to the ruling El Salvador government and its army. The Civil War encompassed widespread violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law, including indiscriminate killing of civilians, torture, extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. Although all sides to the conflict were involved in these violations, reports suggest that the overwhelming majority of these were committed by the then government-led military apparatus through a brutal counterinsurgency policy sponsored by the US, which aimed at effectively destroying all government opposition. Although the US gave human rights training to the then El Salvador army, there were still instances of mass atrocities such as the infamous El Mozote massacre that was reported to have been committed by the army against innocent civilians. Several reports have alleged that the US was complicit with the El Salvador army in that attack.

During the Civil War, a vast number of Salvadorans fled the country, ironically, seeking refuge in the neighboring US. A number of Salvadorans formed various gangs in Los Angeles (where they primarily operated). Many of the gang members were convicted and jailed in the US for various crimes. The Civil War ended through a UN-brokered peace agreement between the then government and the FMLN on 16 January 1992, known as the Chapultepec Peace Accords. Only one week after the Civil War ended and the peace agreement was signed, immigration officials in the US began notifying many Salvadoran refugees (including gang members) that they will be deported back to a war torn state.

The US Illegal Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996 was enacted to bolster the US immigration policy of deporting back Salvadoran refugees living in the US; however, it resulted in an export of the gangs of Los Angeles to El Salvador. Over time, the gang members who were deported were either killed by rival gangs when they returned to El Salvador, or were integrated into the Salvadoran branches of their respective gangs. This exacerbated and promoted a gang culture in El Salvador which has now permeated all across the country. Today, these gangs have become transnational gangs, with members living both in the US and in El Salvador, and in other countries in the region.

The homicide rate in El Salvador skyrocketed following gang members’ deportation from the US back to the war torn nation. In 1995 there were 142 intentional homicides per 100,000 people; this rate decreased during the 1990s, and reached 60 per 100,000 in 2000. The homicide rate remained stable at an average of 55 per 100,000 in the 2000s. By 2015, the rate had dramatically increased to 105 per 100,000; it plummeted to 36 per 100,000 in 2019.

With President Bukele taking up office in June 2019, many significant changes were initially apparent. In August 2019 he tweeted that El Salvador went through one whole day without a single homicide on the final day of July. In January 2020, a law was passed aiming to address the ongoing plight of the forcibly displaced in El Salvador; although, the effects of this legislation are yet to be felt. Gang violence, although temporarily, decreased significantly under the current administration in 2020 and in 2021. However, in 2022 a sudden spike in the homicide rate re-emerged, with 62 killings in one day, setting an unprecedented national record. The very next day, on March 27, the government invoked a state-of-emergency, granting security forces greater powers and resources in order to curtail the increase in gang violence. This state-of-emergency was extended again in April and in May.

Displacement in Numbers

El Salvador’s population in 2020 stood at 6.48 million people according to the World Bank. The population trend suggests that in 2022, there will be at least 6.5 million people living in the country. Unfortunately, there are no reliable estimates of the exact number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in El Salvador. While civil society organizations have been active in collecting data, given the massive scale of forced displacement, there has not been sufficient mobilization of resources in this regard (both through the El Salvador government and international organizations).

The UNHCR reports that as of January 2022, there are 114,400 IDPs in El Salvador, with another 10,000 deportees with protection needs. The International Rescue Committee estimates that every year between 200,000 and 300,000 people are internally displaced in El Salvador. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported, based on a representative survey, that there may have been as many as 175,000 cases of adult persons forcibly displaced due to violence in the country in 2021 alone, without counting the number of children (which would ultimately drastically increase this number).

In total, between 2008 and 2021, estimates suggest that there could have been as many as 1.9 million cases of internal displacements due to conflict and violence in El Salvador. This is in stark contrast to the estimated 119,489 cases of displacements in the country due to natural disasters during the same period. It should be noted that these are estimates by the IDMC, admittedly with some gaps in the data. Nevertheless, even if the actual numbers are close to these estimates, then it suggests that an individual person is most likely forcibly displaced multiple times within a timespan as short as a decade.

Realities in Host Countries

The US Department of Homeland Security has reported that between 2015 and 2017 the country received 28,490 affirmative asylum applications (with unaccompanied children making up the majority of affirmative asylum applications) and 66,056 defensive asylum applications during the same period, of which a total of 7,783 Salvadorans were granted asylum. According to UNHCR, Salvadoran asylum seekers globally numbered approximately 46,800 in 2018, and in 2020, 14,999 people from El Salvador fled and applied for asylum in other countries. The most common destination countries hereof have been the US, Mexico and Spain. Overall, 70% of the asylum applications have been rejected. The most successful have been the refugees in Germany and in Panama.

According to Pew Research Center, Salvadorans constituted the second largest group of Latin American migrants in the US, the second largest group of unauthorized migrants and the second largest group of DACA recipients. Since 2014 migration from El Salvador has been characterized by the significant presence of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers. Migration of minors challenged the US asylum system due to special infrastructure and procedures necessary to receive minors. According to Human Rights Watch, of the estimated 1.2 million Salvadorans living in the US who are not US citizens, just under one-quarter are lawful permanent residents, with the remaining three-quarters holding a temporary or precarious legal status. While Salvadorans have asylum recognition rates as high as 75 percent in other Central American nations, and 36.5 percent in Mexico, the US recognized just 18.2 percent of Salvadorans as qualifying for asylum between 2014 and 2018. Throughout the same period, the US and Mexico deported an estimated 213,000 Salvadorans (102,000 from Mexico and 111,000 from the US).

As reiterated, levels of violence in El Salvador remain among the world’s highest. Multiple news sources confirm that police regularly turn a blind eye to violence by gang members, including both MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, either due to corruption or concern for their own safety. As a result, Salvadoran police frequently fail to meaningfully protect people from gang violence. Under these circumstances, sending migrants from the US-Mexico border to El Salvador is a violation of the non-refoulement principle in international law. The US is repeatedly violating its obligations to protect Salvadorans from returning to serious risk of harm according to Human Rights Watch. The international organization also confirms that even Salvadorans who have resided for an extended period in the US face several unique risks as deported persons. They are often easily identified because of their style of clothing, way of speaking, and financial resources. Additionally, they often do not understand the “unspoken rules” Salvadorans follow in order to protect themselves from gangs, extermination groups, or corrupt authorities. As a result, they can be particularly susceptible to harm in El Salvador after deportation.

International Political, Legal and Humanitarian Efforts

In response to a July 2018 ruling of the Supreme Court in an ‘amparo’ proceeding (a remedy for the protection of constitutional rights), El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly adopted the Special Law for the Aid and Integral Protection of Persons in a Condition of Internal Forced Displacement on January 9, 2020. This law has still, however, fallen short of translating into truly tangible reform.

No government, UN agency, or nongovernmental organization has systematically monitored what happens to deported persons once back in El Salvador. Presently, UNHCR works closely with the Salvadorian State in the implementation of the National Plan for Citizen’s Safety (Plan El Salvador Seguro) on the protection of internally displaced persons and other victims of criminal groups and other forms of violence, who have special protection needs. UNHCR’s Regional Office in Panama continues to implement the Regional Protection and Solutions Strategy in close collaboration with partners, and the UN agency’s regional office continues to financially oversee the operations in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, as well as protection activities in Cuba, Panama and Nicaragua. Since 2017, UNHCR has significantly scaled up its operational capacity in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in order to better respond to complex protection needs.