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Saving El Salvador

Central America relies on America’s friendship and we have a shared vision: to make Central America a safe and great place to live by fostering responsible and responsive leadership.

Article by Claudia Umaña April 3, 2019 //   6 minute read
Matias Romero, Oaxaca / Mexico - Nov. 10, 2018: A Salvadoran family fleeing poverty and gang violence in the third caravan to the U.S. wakes up at dawn at an ad hoc migrant shelter at a sports field.

Not long ago, I watched a migrant caravan assembling around “El Salvador del Mundo,” a public plaza in San Salvador with a statue of Christ astride the globe evoking El Salvador’s formal name, “The Savior of the World in Central America.” I saw the faces of men, women, and children who made the difficult decision to leave their families and start a long and dangerous journey in search of hope and opportunity. They were optimistic for their future, but we need that optimism to stay in Central America. 

Violence and lack of opportunities are the driving forces of emigration. Despite the murder rate dropping over the years, El Salvador is still dangerous. For instance, the murder rate was 50.3 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018. That’s down from 60.8 the previous year, and less than half the 103 recorded in 2015, but still among the highest in the world. We also have a young population that can’t find work. As a result, they are prime targets for gang recruitment. 

It doesn’t help that our justice system is in crisis. Sadly, an astounding 95 percent of violent crimes in El Salvador go unpunished due to weak prosecutorial capacity, lack of scientific evidence, and corruption in the courts. Our chain of justice is broken; we need data and guidance to fix it. If we can’t repair the system, we are rewarding bad behavior. 

Living conditions are also stagnant. Three out of every 10 Salvadorans are living in poverty. When you look at Honduras and Guatemala the figures are even worse, 64.3 percent and 59.3 percent, respectively. Our youth don’t have access to education and don’t feel safe walking in the streets. This has caused basic education enrollment to decline from 92.4 percent in 2009 to 83.8 percent in 2016, further undermining our country’s future.  

Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans live in a sad reality in which many must seek opportunities outside of the Northern Triangle. But the migration of these individuals has weakened our social cohesion and family unity. It’s not a sustainable solution. What can we do to change this reality? 

First, we must fix our justice system. The shaky rule of law deters investment and reduces economic opportunity. Secondly, the private and public sector must work together to rebuild a vibrant economy in our region.  

We are trying.  We have seen successes like LEAGUE, a factory in which 15 percent of the workforce is comprised of rehabilitated gang members. The company encourages self-improvement and makes the community safer. Once training is complete, the workers are encouraged to pursue careers or start their own businesses. 

I am invested in seeing my country thrive. I am the first female Vice President of Fusades, one of the most renowned think tanks in the region. We have created public policies to foster and strengthen our democratic institutions, the rule of law, and business investment. We have already seen positive change where these policies were adapted: 

  • With the help of U.S. foreign aid, we proposed the creation of a freedom of information act to help with transparency and accountability on public institutions. However, when the law passed, no budget was created to start the Institute of Transparency. With US support and enthusiasm, we were able to build the foundation for this department of government. Six years later, we have created a more open government. This has been an important tool to fight corruption and create accountability. 
  • The United States has been pivotal to the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Thanks to U.S. support for programs to improve prevention strategies, gang control, and prisons, El Salvador has been able to reduce overcrowding in our prisons. 
  • Through project “Imagina” (Imagine), USAID, Glasswing International, and The Howard Buffet Foundation have sponsored an alliance among the private sector, local authorities, community organizations, churches, and our youth to restore public spaces for recreation. As a result, “Parque Cuscatlán,” San Salvador’s Central Park, was restored in the heart of our capital, which will improve the city and expand spaces for civic coexistence. 
  • Last February, El Salvador held its sixth presidential election since the 1992 Peace Accords, which is evidence of a strong and fair electoral system. A new government means new opportunities for sustaining progress and development. 

The support from the United States has been fundamental to building our democracy. We have been long-standing friends and commercial partners. The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is another example of how the U.S. has helped generate growth. In 2017, El Salvador alone exported nearly $6 billion worth of goods, including $2.58 billion to the United States, and we imported over $10 billion worth of goods, including $3.37 billion from the United States. This trade provides job opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans. Agreements such as this one allow our countries to thrive. 

We need to keep investing and finding creative ways to promote justice, democracy and economic opportunities in the region. We recognize that the challenge is ours and the solution will ultimately be ours, but it is important that efforts come from all stakeholders. We rely on America’s friendship and we have a shared vision: to make Central America a safe and great place to live by fostering responsible and responsive leadership.

Claudia Umaña is a George W. Bush Institute Central America Prosperity Project Participant and the first female Vice President of Fusades.