El Salvador: burdened by gangs, war and poverty

Migrants with an El Salvador flag headed to the United States (AFP Photo/MARVIN RECINOS) (AFP)

San Salvador (AFP) - The small Central American country of El Salvador, which holds presidential elections on February 3, suffered a brutal civil war and remains burdened by gang violence and poverty.

Here is some background.

- Conflict and dictators -

Once part of a Spanish colony, El Salvador has been independent since 1821.

In 1932 acting president Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez crushed a peasant rebellion, leaving more than 30,000 people dead.

In 1969 the country clashed with neighboring Honduras over the expulsion of 300,000 Salvadorian migrants, provoking the "Soccer War" just weeks after the two faced each other in a football World Cup qualifier.

In just 100 hours about 5,000 people were killed.

At the end of the 1970s violence intensified between far-left insurgents and the army.

Following a series of military regimes, president Carlos Humberto Romero was ousted in a coup in 1979 and a military-civilian junta was installed.

- 12-year civil war -

Civil war then erupted, fuelled by social injustice, repression and the 1980 assassination of peasants rights defender, archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down at mass.

Between the military government and FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement) grouping of far-left guerrilla outfits, it lasted a dozen years.

About 75,000 people were killed and more than 7,000 disappeared before the conflict ended in 1992 after UN-mediated peace negotiations.

The FMLN became a political party and in 2018 Romero was canonized.

- Deadly triangle -

Gang-plagued El Salvador and neighboring Honduras and Guatemala form the "Northern Triangle", the world's most violent region outside of a conflict zone.

Its murder rate has halved since 2015, but remains among the world's highest. In 2018 it stood at 51 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to government figures.

Most murders are committed by gangs such as the ultra-violent Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, involved in drug trafficking, extortion and turf wars.

The country has around 70,000 gang members, 17,000 in prison.

Violence and poverty have generated a wave of illegal immigration towards the United States.

- US-dependent economy -

El Salvador sent more than 44 percent of its exports to the United States in 2017, according to the World Bank.

It produces textiles, coffee, plastics and medicine, among other items.

Remittances from the three million Salvadorians living abroad -- 2.5 million in the United States -- account for roughly 16 percent of GDP, according to the country's central bank.

The World Bank says around 29 percent of the population of 6.37 million (2017) lives under the poverty line, down from nearly 32 percent in 2014.

Over 2010-2016 real GDP growth averaged 2.6 percent, one of the weakest rates in Central America, the Bank says, forecasting 2.8 percent for 2018.

- Draconian abortion laws -

Predominantly Christian El Salvador has some of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the world, with a ban in place since 1998 even in cases of rape or risk to the mother's life.

Prison terms range from two to eight years but courts often find women guilty of the more serious crime of aggravated homicide, which carries punishment of up to 50 years.

Some cases have made world headlines, such as that of Teodora Vasquez who was freed in 2018 having served 11 years after being accused of an abortion following a stillbirth.

- Nature's curse -

The smallest country in Central America, El Salvador is situated on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" that makes it vulnerable to earthquakes and cyclones.

A quake in 1986 killed 1,500 people and two in 2001 each claimed several hundred more lives.

The site of Joya de Ceren, buried under a volcanic eruption in AD 600 as Pompeii was, is on UNESCO's World Heritage List.