Tuesday, September 6, 2011


It’s not unusual when I’m talking to someone, especially another foreigner, and the optic of my working here as a photographer during the war emerges, that they ask, “Wasn’t that frightening?” Salvadorans know the answer—much less frightening than the period after the war. And it seems that twenty years later some of the violent aftershocks are still very much part of life here.

During the war, although obviously there were no guarantees, and the violence of the conflict or of government repression might reach wherever you were, in general one knew the rules of the game. You could in general terms decide what level of danger you could accept.

Once the war ended, that changed dramatically. The incidence of random criminal violence soared in every city, town and village in the country. I remember that in January of 1995 there was a headline in the papers about the rate of homicide in the previous year. Another Northamerican friend said, “Well at least it’s not as bad as New York City.” So we did the calculation, and the murder rate for the entire country of El Salvador was eleven times the rate in NYC!

This morning’s headline in La Prensa Gráfica was “Ocho asesinatos en cuatro ataques” (Eight murders in four attacks). And they provided these official statistics: to date this year there have been 2,929 homicides in the country; every day there are 12 violent deaths.

To put some perspective on this, in NYC last year (2010) there were 536 homicides, or fewer than 2 per day. Incidentally, this represented a substantial increase over 2009. El Salvador has a population of a little over 6 million. NYC has a population of nearly 8.2 million.

This is a terribly sad part of the social scene in this country, and in the region. One of the participants in the workshops I’m leading is in the middle of a project in which he is making portraits of people who have survived being shot, in order to show the extremely wide social range of the victims.

We have all heard about the recent terrible levels of violence in Mexico, largely the result of the activities of narco-trafficking gangs. Here, much of the blame—but far from all of it—it laid on the gangs, the famous “maras” or other gangs. There was an article in one of the papers this week about a plan in San Miguel department, in the east, to put young guys who are “at risk” of becoming gang members into the army to “straighten them out.” Sounds familiar…But a judge in a court for young offenders opposed the plan. She says it’s impossible to identify which young people are “at risk,” since the issue is kept in secrecy, and she fears the result is that gang members will get military training that will end up raising their violent effectiveness.

And of course, in the media there is no discussion of the ultimate roots of much of the violence in public policies, especially policies of successive US governments. For example, in a broad swatch of territory from Peru to Mexico, US drug policies have in the long run encouraged the development of the gangs and cartels and the violence—and certainly they have been entirely ineffective in stopping the flow of drugs into the US, though they have produced changes in the places where the drugs originate…

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