David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Peace Corps: Semi-leaving Central America?

My house, San Lorenzo, Sensuntepeque, El Salvador, 2003

Having spent 10 months as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador in 2003 (before I early-terminated after losing 30 pounds and being constantly sick), I was disappointed to see that Peace Corps is shutting down its operations in Honduras and not sending more volunteers into Guatemala and El Salvador.

The reported reason is crime: the Northern Triangle of Central America (the three aforementioned countries) has one of the world’s highest crime rates, only rising as drug and gang wars heat up. While I have not been to Central America since 2005 and have lost touch with my village, Peace Corps’s decision mystifies me.

In 2003, crime was certainly an issue in El Salvador. From what I remember of my group’s briefing by Embassy security officers, the murder rate for the country as a whole was comparable with that of the worst of U.S. cities. This briefing included precautions we should all take.

Yet, while I was there–frequently riding buses the 60 miles between my site and the nurse’s office in San Salvador–I didn’t have any issues. Granted, I’m a 5’11”, not small man, but nonetheless, I felt protected by people in my village–even the guys local chisme (gossip) said were gang members. By contrast, two years later I had a bicycle and my backpack stolen within a six-week period in Dupont Circle, one of the better-off neighborhoods of Washington.

I don’t doubt that the security situation in El Salvador has deteriorated since I was there, and I know that Peace Corps has volunteers’ best interests at heart. Nonetheless, I’m saddened and mystified by this decision. Has Honduras gotten so bad–with violence aimed specifically at Peace Corps volunteers–that there was no other choice? Has the country become the equivalent of a combat zone?

The part that mystifies me most, though, is the decision not to send new volunteers into Guatemala and El Salvador. This seems a half-baked compromise. If the countries are that dangerous, then Peace Corps should simply withdraw. If the countries aren’t dangerous enough to necessitate withdrawal, Peace Corps should send the next batch of volunteers there–such as the January group, of whose predecessor I was a member nine years ago.

Is this a precursor to an eventual withdrawal from Guatemala and El Salvador? Is Peace Corps hoping to have fewer volunteers to evacuate if that decision is made?

Peace Corps previously withdrew from El Salvador in 1979, as the conflict between guerrillas and a U.S.-backed government got worse. It would be a shame for Peace Corps to be forced to withdraw again, as violence resulting from drug demand in the United States creates a worsening security situation.

El Salvador needs development assistance, and Peace Corps gets some of the best bang for the buck–its annual budget is a fraction of the military aid sent there every year during the civil war. I hope that any decision on withdrawal is only taken in an absence of any alternative. Not allowing new volunteers into the country does not seem like a viable alternative.

2 Comments

  1. I appreciate your post. If it was not for you and what I was told by a member of the extended family, I would have not been aware of the decision. A few years back (2008?) I was in Guatemala interviewing survivors of the violence of 70’s and 80s. I was with a young woman who was working on the project, and I felt a bit uneasy at night staying in an empty little church, a few miles from where people had their abodes. The bus that was to pick us up after our work was finished, got robbed on the way to get us. They took the bus and the driver had to walk to the near township for help.
    The principal investigator of the project and others involved in the investigation of the massacres were threatened and some of them killed. Even, some of those very dedicated to justice and social change consider leaving the country.
    I guess my point is that it seems that the violence is quite palpable. Violence mainly done by the drug trafficking. The problem so complex. I agree with you that may be other actions should be thought out by the Peace Corps. I think, may be that could imply a fairly different approach to the empowerment of the victims. However, that can be dangerous for the volunteers, usually young men and women out of College. Do you have some ideas?
    Thanks again for bringing to attention this import ant issue.

  2. Dear David,

    You details were passed on to me by Dr. Michael Allison and I found this blog post very interesting. I am currently writing an article on PCV on the ground experiences in the Northern Triangle countries on the count of the ongoing decision being made by PC in the area. Could I trouble you for a short interview to expand on your experiences and your view of the situation?

    Ioulia

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