Life in El Salvador:
What Makes People Seek Refuge in the U.S.?
El Salvador is one of the countries in the Northern Triangle of Central America, a region with alarmingly high rates of gender based violence (GBV). Women face rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking, and abuse due to their gender. Transgender women also regularly experience discrimination at the hands of Salvadoran police and military. Femicide remains the leading cause of female death. In 2017, a woman was murdered every eighteen hours in El Salvador. The country is facing some of its overall highest homicide rates, 91 homicides per 100,000 people in 2016, since the end of its Civil War in 1992, which resulted in the displacement of more than one million Salvadorans.
The U.S. government played an influential and detrimental role in the civil war, giving millions of dollars to a right-wing government that killed, disappeared, and tortured dissidents. The United States trained anti-communist forces in the Salvadoran Civil War as part of its Cold War tactics. Over 75,000 people were killed in the war, and additional tens of thousands were tortured or disappeared altogether. Despite the United States contributing to the war, they did not recognize Salvadoran migrants, overwhelmingly women and children, as refugees. Doing so would have been equivalent to admitting wrongdoing in Salvadoran political affairs. Because they were not recognized as refugees, many Salvadorans struggled in the U.S., and many young men joined urban gangs as a way to belong to some kind of community and have a sense of identity.
Now, ironically, many of these gang members have been deported back to El Salvador. The current situation of violence in El Salvador is due in part to the gangs, and this too is related to the U.S. refusal to recognize their role in the war. As Leisy J. Abrego, a scholar on El Salvador, writes: “Gangs are a legacy of U.S.-funded state terror." Abrego continues:
There are now more than 20,000 gang members in El Salvador. These gangs sometimes use rape as a strategy to discipline girls and their families for failure to comply with gang demands. Gang members are responsible for some of GBV, but so are intimate partners.
Furthermore, gender based crimes are rarely punished. In 2011, the Special Comprehensive Law for a Life Free of Violence Against Women made the sentence for femicide twenty to fifty years in prison. Between 2013 and 2016, 662 femicide cases were opened, but only five percent resulted in a conviction. In 2017, there were at least 468 femicides with the majority of victims under the age of 30. However, femicide affects all ages and rates are highest during September, October, and June. El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in Latin America with more than 10 killings for every 100,000 women.
LGBTQ Based Violence and Social Exclusion
An increasing number of queer individuals in El Salvador are being forced to flee their homes due to gender and sexuality based violence. El Salvador is hostile to members of the LGBTQ community at both institutional and community levels. Transgender hate is promoted in schools. Police and other government authorities are abusive towards LGBTQ individuals. Members of the LGBTQ community face targeted violence from maras (youth gangs), which takes the form of murder, rape, and extortion. Familial rejection is also common, and LGBTQ individuals are often forced to bounce between different family members. While “mobility is inextricably linked to survival,” finding a safe place to live can be incredibly difficult. Self advocacy often results in murder, and many LGBTQ individuals in El Salvador find immigration to be the only opportunity to exist safely.
As we describe on the LGBT+ page on this website, Ingrid had to flee El Salvador due to the dynamics we outline here. Yet she misses her home country and her family very much. In the below letters, you can read letters from Ingrid describing how much she misses her home.
*In her letter entitled “The Last Day I Went Fishing,” Ingrid describes the things she misses most about her home, her family, and her country.
In “Memories of Home,” Ingrid heart-wrenchingly describes joyful memories of freedom, friendship, and family. The letter is a humbling reminder of the inhumanity of and pain caused by immigrant detention.
“The Joy of Walking” describes the walks Ingrid used to take arm in arm with her mother and the heartbreak and feeling of confinement she experiences within the walls of Batavia.
By Olivia Larson and Kaitlyn Panczner