El Salvador Town Wants to Combat Violence With Tourism

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San Pedro Perulapán, in El Salvador, is one of the most violent towns in one of the world’s most violent countries. The situation in the historic municipality has become so grave that the government has given it priority in its national security plan. But local authorities believe the key to combating the violence lies in promoting tourism.

Sunday, August 26, was a special day for Sergeant Miguel Beltrán Vásquez because it was the start of the Tamal Festival. The sergeant — who heads the town’s metropolitan police (Cuerpo de Agentes Metropolitanos – CAM) — had been managing the event’s security since May.

And it was a considerable responsibility.

*This article was originally published by El Faro. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish version here.

San Pedro Perulapán, in El Salvador’s central department of Cuscatlán, has suffered the most homicides in the country over the last five years.

With crime rates so high, hosting such a large event might seem overly confident, even reckless.

San Pedro Perulapán’s CAM is made up of six agents, at the time scattered throughout the El Centro neighborhood. They were decked out in impeccable uniforms and shiny boots, as if attending a movie premiere. The sergeant opted for civilian clothes: well-shined shoes, jeans and a dark shirt with the town seal on its breast, bordered by the slogan, “Culture and Peace.”

Beltrán Vásquez was born on July 1, 1963 in the outskirts of San Pedro Perulapán, and he still lives there.

Today, the city’s Avenida Morazán has been closed to traffic to play host to the “tamal eating contest”, a main attraction at the festival.

“One of the new administration’s proposals is to give San Pedro a new face, to stop its being labeled as a violent city and make it known as a tourist town,” said Beltrán Vásquez.

The Most Violent City

San Pedro Perulapán is one of the most violent cities in the most violent country in the hemisphere.

In the decade between 2008 and 2017, El Salvador’s National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) registered 548 dead bodies in San Pedro Perulapán, whose population in 2018 is estimated at 54,000. In 2017 there were 42 murders. In 2016 there were 97. And 143 people were murdered in 2015. These are just the homicide rates, without counting people who have disappeared.

What happened in 2015 — when the first Tamal Festival was held — was almost apocalyptic. That year, media outlets listed the world’s most violent cities based on research conducted by a Mexican nongovernmental agency, and Caracas, Venezuela, topped the list with a rate of 120 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The rate in San Pedro Perulapán was 276. But the report did not include the city because it only counted metropolitan areas of more than 300,000 inhabitants.

A perfect storm in local gang relations began to brew in 2015 throughout San Pedro Perulapán. And the situation ultimately developed into an open war between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), both factions of the Barrio 18 gang, the PNC, the Salvadoran military and various family clans.

“Massacre Town” (El pueblo de las masacres) was the headline chosen for a report published in media outlet Prensa Gráfica towards the end of that year.

The storm has calmed slightly since its peak in 2015, but the rain continues to fall.

Sergeant Beltrán Vásquez knows it. He experiences it. He has spent almost his entire life armed with some kind of weapon. He was a military sergeant during the civil war, a sergeant in the now-defunct National Police, a security guard at a bank in the 1990s, and a member of the PNC’s personal security unit (División de Protección a Personalidades Importantes – PPI). Before the gangs and the authorities agreed to a truce, Beltrán Vásquez escaped an attempt on his life. Gang members opened fire on him near his home, but he was not harmed.

“Things started to get complicated in La Loma in 2003,” he said.

“The social issue El Salvador is experiencing has many reasons: few opportunities for work, broken homes, migration, and young people are losing values because maybe their parents didn’t know how to raise them the right way. This is all feeding into the problem with the maras [MS13].”

Perhaps the little time Sergeant Beltrán Vásquez has spent at the helm of the CAM buoys his optimism about San Pedro Perulapán’s short- and medium-term future.

He believes in tourism’s potential through events like the Tamal Festival and feels they are the key to destigmatizing the town. His opinion mimics statements from his superior, city Mayor Oswald Sibrián Miranda, a military colonel who took office on May 1 as a member of the joint party formed between the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) and the Partido Concertación Nacional (PCN).

“San Pedro has the conditions to become a tourist town!” Sibrián Miranda exclaimed from a stage constructed for the festival.

Newcomers to the mayor’s office do not lack plans or good intentions, especially when standing behind a microphone. They want to relocate the health center to knock down the building and join the small parks in front of the mayor’s office and the San Pedro Apóstol church together. They want to create tourist look-out points and promote walking paths. They want to promote festivals and celebrations. They want to build a colorful arch that welcomes people entering San Pedro Perulapán on the La Loma bypass.

“And to tell them that San Pedro is a safe town! It’s a safe town!” shouts Mayor Sibrián Miranda.

A Safe El Salvador

El Salvador’s national security plan, dubbed the Safe El Salvador Plan (Plan El Salvador Seguro), created a list of priority municipalities, and San Pedro Perulapán is on it.

The plan mentions security in the neighborhoods, prevention committees, education and employment opportunities, arts and sports promotion, revitalizing public spaces, expanding community services, and providing victim assistance. The 12-page document reads like a letter to Santa Claus but with the “technical and financial support” of the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

However, Sergeant Beltrán Vásquez has a hard time even mentioning the police and military patrols when asked what benefits he has felt — first as a resident of San Pedro Perulapán, and now as head of the local CAM — in the almost two years that the Safe El Salvador Plan has been implemented in the city.

And 2018 has not gotten off to a good start.

While it is still a far cry from the dark days of 2015, the PNC reported 27 murders as of July 31. If that rate continues, this year will end up with four or five more homicides than 2017, ending the city’s two-year streak of murder rate decreases.

For today, the Tamal Festival is running smoothly, but the calm belies just how much more needs to be done for San Pedro Perulapán.

“On Saturday, September 22, we have a national ‘bands for peace’ competition with prizes of up to $500, and at night the Auténtica Banda L.L. will give a concert,” Mayor Sibrián Miranda excitedly said.

“And on the 25th, the anniversary of the battle of San Pedro Perulapán, we’re going to have a military parade like in San Salvador, with the air force, the army, artillery, mounted troops … an incredible parade! Something never before seen in San Pedro!”

“We’ll be here waiting for you on the 25th,” said Sergeant Beltrán Vásquez as a bid farewell. “The parade’s going to be great.”

*This article was originally published by El Faro. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish version here.

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