The smallest and most densely-populated in Central America, El Salvador is still feeling the effects from a civil war that raged from 1980 to 1992. An estimated 75,000 people were killed, thousands disappeared, and more than a million were displaced in a country of only around 6 million people.
Even now, almost 30 years from the war’s end, justice is slow for those who died or lost loved ones. El Salvador President Nayib Bukele recently vetoed a new law that aimed to allow the prosecution of war crimes, saying that it was in reality “an amnesty law” that would allow judges to reduce the sentences of war criminals.
El Salvador also faces a pervasive threat from gangs. While gang-related crime has dropped in recent years, violence is a daily reality for many, and the country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. This is a major factor, along with ongoing drought and high unemployment, in so many locals fleeing their homes and heading for the US border.
President Nayib Bukele was elected in early 2019 in a strong protest vote against the major parties; the political outsider and former mayor ran on a platform of tackling corruption and swept to power. But the Congress is dominated by traditional party members and it remains to be seen how effective President Bukele’s calls for change will be.
Up to one in three Salvadorans lives in poverty, with about 8.5 per cent of citizens living in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. Malnutrition is a threat for many children, especially in rural areas where so many families rely on agriculture for their income. Drought has led to widespread crop failures and tropical storms and hurricanes have also caused widespread damage.
Children and young people are also targeted by gangs, particularly in urban areas; many girls are threatened, abused and raped—or simply disappear—while boys are coerced into joining gangs and inducted into a life of crime. Education and graduation rates are low, and those that do persist with their education and graduate can still find it difficult to obtain steady employment.
Yet local churches across the country are at work, serving the children of their communities and sharing a hope more powerful than poverty.