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Opinion: Can surfing save El Salvador?

On returning from his four-day fact-finding trip to El Salvador to find out why so many El Salvadorans try to sneak into the United States, Gov. Gavin Newsom, opined that perhaps it might be a good idea to establish a surfing industry in El Salvador, and turn what is now largely a crime economy into a recreational economy.

As it is, while it sounds like jolly fun, that might not be such a good idea. While the surfing itself in El Salvador seems like a good thing to Newsom, who has access to bodyguards, the not-so-good thing which might discourage surfing fans from sneaking over the border to El Salvador is the danger of suffering bodily harm, being a victim of bandits, and maybe even death.

Here, from the U.S. Department of State is a report on Crime Threats in El Salvador. It would seem that crime is a much bigger share of the economy than surfing:

“Crime can run the gamut from credit card skimming to homicide and is unpredictable, gang-centric, and characterized by violence directed against both known victims and targets of opportunity,” the State Department report says.

“There is no information to suggest that U.S. citizens are specifically targeted by criminals. The threat of violent crime in San Salvador leads to the curtailment of recreational opportunities. Crimes of every type occur routinely.

The threat from transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) is prevalent throughout Central America. El Salvador has hundreds of gang “cliques.” Violent, well-armed street gangs — 18th Street (“Barrio 18”) and MS-13 (“Mara Salvatrucha”) being the largest — concentrate on street-level drug sales, extortion, arms trafficking, murder for hire, carjacking, and aggravated street crime. (the export into the United States of Barrio 18 members and MS 13 members is well known. In 2015, there was evidence that the gangs gained access to weapons and explosives left over from El Salvador’s civil war and/or from the military. Recognizing the threat posed by MS-13, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the MS-13 a TCO in their list of Specially Designated Nationals. Gangs and other criminal elements target affluent areas for burglaries and are quick to engage in violence when resisted. Many of the gangs are comprised of unemployed youth who do not hesitate to use deadly force when perpetrating crimes.

Although the murder rate has consistently declined since 2015, El Salvador continues to have one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Crime statistics indicate the 2017 annual homicide rate — 60.07 per 100,000 inhabitants — was significantly lower than 2016’s 80.97 per 100,000. In 2017, authorities recorded 3,954 homicides, a 25% decrease from the 5,280 in 2016.

Homicides are not uniformly committed across El Salvador. See the Travel Advisory for the list of the most violent municipalities. “The Salvadoran government’s response, Plan El Salvador Seguro, focuses on the areas with highest levels of crime, poverty, and gang presence.

Police also reported a reduction in home invasions/burglaries in 2017. Home invasions/burglaries during daylight continue to occur in residential neighborhoods throughout San Salvador. Some home invasions reportedly occurred when individuals posed as deliverymen or police officers in order to gain access to a home. Cameras, concertina wire, and grilles on all windows/doors appear to dissuade some would-be burglars.

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