In March 2019 The Washington Post published a story titled: “It’s so dangerous to police MS-13 in El Salvador that officers are fleeing the country.”
But just 8 months later, El Salvador’s president boasts the country’s homicide rate has fallen to its lowest number in decades.
So what caused such a drastic shift?
In Latin American countries with ever changing political landscapes, a country could be safe to visit one day and forbidden to visit the next.
The up and down turbulence makes countries like El Salvador one crisis away from being too dangerous to travel.
In El Salvador, a bloody civil war began in the late 70s and lasted until the early 90s leaving over 75,000 people dead – with nearly a million fleeing the war-torn land.
And it was here in the United States that MS-13, the brutal Salvadoran street gang actually got started.
Some refugees returned to El Salvador at the end of the war, but with corruption and violence many politicians did whatever it took to get elected – at the expense of the people.
Poverty ravished El Salvador, and many displaced members turned to gangs for security.
In 2015, El Salvador was so violent it earned the nickname the “Murder Capital Of The World.”
And in 2016, ABC News reported there was nearly one homicide per hour during the first three months of the year.
Massive Spiritual Transformation
But a massive transformation is taking place in El Salvador – once violent criminals are choosing to leave the gangs, and convert to Christianity.
With gang members locked behind bars – many are turning to Jesus in record numbers as they realize the gang lifestyle provides no hope.
Church services are being held in prisons, men with gang tattoos who actually killed people are truly being transformed.
“It is this emphasis on personal transformation that makes El Salvador’s gang members embrace evangelicalism, says José Miguel Cruz, director of research at Florida International University’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, who has studied the relationship between the two.
In Cruz’s research, more than half of the Salvadoran gang members he surveyed identify as evangelicals and attend church services an average of 15 times a month…
Becoming a devoted member of an evangelical church at a young age is the only way many adolescent boys are able to avoid being roped into a gang, Cruz says. And it’s also the only way for them to get out of a gang if they’re in it, short of leaving the country.
“You join the gang. You join [the] evangelical church. Or you leave El Salvador and you migrate,” he says. “So those are sort of the three options that young people in these communities controlled by criminal groups have.”
If a former gang member leaves the gang and truly becomes a Christian leaving behind their former gang lifestyle – they have a way out.
But if a gang member sees a new Christian doing anything that could allude to the fact they haven’t left their former way of life behind – such as drinking, smoking, or cheating on their wives – they’ll be killed.
I had the chance to personally interview former MS-13 gang members while I was in El Salvador, and confirm truth in the spiritual revival.
In fact, some of the men I interviewed were actually going out into the streets to evangelize and help others leave the gangs and choose a life of peace instead.
A New President
In 2019, Nayib Bukele was elected as the new “anti-incumbent” president of El Salvador – coming from neither of El Salvador’s major right or left party.
This 37-year old leader ran on a platform of new ideas and standing up to government corruption and gang violence.
And his promises held true, with El Salvador ending 2019 with its lowest murder rate in recent years.
With people gaining confidence in the President – it looked like things were going well for El Salvador.
But just this past weekend El Salvador’s president was accused of playing politics and attempting to stage a “mini coup.”
The Globe Post reported:
“Over the weekend, the popular Bukele attempted to force legislators to vote on a loan, roused his supporters with talk of insurrection, and then used the armed forces to intimidate democratically-elected lawmakers.”
This power play shows just how sensitive countries like El Salvador can easily sway at the command of a politician.
Only time will tell how this stunt will play out.
Fluctuating Political Climates
El Salvador is just one example of how politics and policies can transform a country for better or worse.
Take Venezuela for example.
In former years, many college kids used to study abroad and vacation there over the summer.
Now the State Department has it ranked at the highest Level 4 – which is a “Do Not Travel” warning – the highest threat level there is.
When I traveled to El Salvador in May 2019, the State Department ranked El Salvador as a Level 3 “Reconsider Travel” and told me I should have a will and hostage negotiator should I get kidnapped.
But in just under a year, I traveled back to El Salvador in January of 2020 and El Salvador dropped to a Level 2 (same rating as Denmark and Italy).
Other Latin American countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua still remain at a Level 3.
The main point is – things can change at the drop of a dime. All it takes is one coup (or alleged coup) spiritual revival, or political crisis to change the travel game.
So should you want to plan a trip to Latin America – make sure you are registered with the U.S. Embassy to receive updated travel alerts, and be sure to stay vigilant on the news.
I recommend not booking your trip too far in advance, because anything can change.
But don’t let the politics deter you!
A Latin American vacation is full of good food, vibrant colors, and an experience you’ll never forget.
So book it – but be ready for anything.
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