Where a woman is imprisoned for 30 years—and soon to be a half-century—convicted of “aggravated homicide” for miscarrying or still-birthing, another woman is murdered every 15 hours, mutilated by machetes, strangulated and shot dead.
I buckled my backpack and took a foreboding step off the plane into the crawling Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport in San Salvador—the capital of the deadliest peacetime country per capita, an inglorious title El Salvador took from Honduras, its neighbor.
Navigating passport control, with virtually no knowledge of Spanish, was nothing short of a nightmare. A lone woman, devoid of any local address, there to spend the night in the murder capital of the world with a man to whom she’d only briefly spoken online—no one could quite understand; they took my passport and sent me on a free-for-all that lasted hours, directing me in every which way for undisclosed expenses I’d been obliged to pay to be let into the country. But I wanted answers. Answers to the enigmatic narrative of a place so many people asked me to avoid.
I was able to Facebook message my friend, whose last name I hadn’t yet learned, to let him know about the holdup. He didn’t mind the wait that had me increasingly anxious. The thing is: Anticipation is, typically, the most intimidating part.
Upon stepping into the swathing sun, I walked self-assuredly by armed officer after armed officer until I found his face, familiar only from his Couch Surfing photo. He was generous, with a keen curiosity. And, despite how poorly meeting a strange man in a strange place could have gone, his benevolence put me at an immediate ease. There wasn’t a dull moment in our long drive from the airport to his home, where he’d offered me a spare bed for the night. And it was along the snaking highways engulfed in unchartered mountainscapes and the Santa Ana Volcano, where he divulged his country’s story.
Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha 13, warring street gangs, have unleashed an unprecedented bloodbath across the staunchly Catholic country of six million. Murders fell by more than half in 2012 when the government negotiated a truce, but since the threadbare pact unraveled in 2014, the death toll has surged to levels unsurpassed since 1992, when the country’s 12-year civil war between the military-controlled government and leftwing guerrillas ended with 75,000 people dead.
Driving through Plaza Las Americas, home to Monumento al Divino Salvador del Mundo, was comfortingly reminiscent of Route 23, which hugs the small New Jersey town in which I grew up. We walked through neighborhoods that smelled of simultaneously sweet and spicy pupusa, a Salvadoran corn tortilla dish we later ate for dinner during the NBA finals we watched on the flat screen of his friend’s botanical terrace. Children bounced on trampolines that sat in the middle of quieter streets and the crowd of a school soccer game could be heard for miles. A bare-shouldered woman with dimples that deepened with her smile poured me a rum hot chocolate, which I sipped with sorbete de carretón, a syrupy coconut ice cream plopped in a red waffle cone we’d picked up from a nearby cart. San Salvador seemed strangely familiar. It seemed happy. And safe.
But an estimated 104 murders per 100,000 inhabitants (compared to a global average of 6.2) ranks El Salvador the deadliest of any country in nearly 20 years. There were 6,657 homicides last year, a 70 percent increase from 2014. Less than 10 percent of cases in 2015 saw the inside of a courtroom.
President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a guerrilla commander during the civil war, has opposed negotiations, moving gang leaders into tighter-security prisons and intensifying the climate of confrontation.
Gang members are the brothers, sons and husbands of Salvadorans, even basketball teammates of my friend. Violence pervades neighborhoods, though at varying degrees; it’s become a normalcy.
“It’s not something that might happen to you here,” a local woman who’d recently been robbed at gunpoint said to me. “It’s something that will happen, often.”
For this reason alone, my friend had already scheduled my early morning cab back to the airport with a man he’d used before. Drivers can’t be trusted in San Salvador. Uber is not even a thought to be entertained. It was in the dark dawn of the day, leaving the city, that I felt uneasy again, trusting another strange man with my life.
Last year, women made up 8.6 percent of all homicides, up from 7.5 percent the previous year, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine.
Gallup’s 2016 Global Law and Order Report paints a grim global context of the severity of security issues in Latin America. The poll graded 133 countries on a 100-point scale based on responses to three questions related to security and trust in local police forces. Salvadorans reportedly feel less safe than people living in Syria and a host of other conflict-ridden nations. It’s ranked among the worst of them, second only to Venezuela.
Groups like the Organization of Salvadoran Women (ORMUSA) are, indeed, creating change. ORMUSA helped draft a law that came into effect in 2012 making femicide—the deliberate murder of women on the basis of gender—a criminal category in El Salvador, and established special provisions to protect women from gender-based violence. Despite legal protections, however, 75 percent of femicide cases are never prosecuted.
There’s this dichotomy between perception and reality—one that isn’t always so palpable to the naked eye. In a country that doesn’t seem so scary after all, and with so much to offer, rich in history and terrestrial diversity, I slept soundly whilst women were soundlessly slain.