- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2015

The State Department on Monday warned U.S. citizens traveling to El Salvador to take caution Monday amid reports that the Central American nation’s murder rate has soared in recent months to its highest rate since the 1992 end of a violent civil war.

“U.S. citizens should remain alert to their surroundings, especially when entering or exiting their homes or hotels, cars, garages, schools, and workplaces — and “whenever possible, travel in groups,” the State Department said in statement updating a previous El Salvador “Travel Warning” that had been issued just seven months ago.

The Associated Press reported Monday that there were 635 homicides reported in May for the country of just over 6 million people, with June on track to exceed that figure.

While the bulk of the violence is tied to criminal gangs — suspected gang members killed two government soldiers guarding a bus terminal in the nation’s capital on Sunday — the uptick in violence is drawing comparisons to the civil war that ripped through El Salvador during the 1980s and into the early 1990s.

The U.N. has said 75,000 people were killed during the war that pitted left-wing guerrilla fighters against what at the time was the nation’s military-led — and U.S.-backed — government.

A peace process in 1992 brought the war to an end, initially dissolving and then reforming the military, and the nation has had democratically elected leaders during more recent years.

But gang violence has soared. And fear is currently pervasive across San Salvador, according to The Associated Press, which reported on Monday that as daylight fades in the capital, stores close early and streets empty.

At night, roadblocks go up to thwart possible grenade attacks on police stations, where officers sleep rather than risk being attacked while riding buses home. The State Department travel warning did not explicitly discourage U.S. citizens from going to El Salvador.

The document, posted on the department’s website, noted that “tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit El Salvador each year for study, tourism, cruise ship visits, business, and volunteer work,” and said that “there is no information to suggest that U.S. citizens are specifically targeted by criminal.”

At the same time, however, the warning asserted that “crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country,” and noted that since January 2010, 34 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador, including a 9-year-old child in December 2013.

“During the same time period, 419 U.S. citizens reported having their passports stolen, while others were victims of violent crimes,” the State Department said.

“Typical crimes in El Salvador include extortion, mugging, highway assault, home invasion and car theft. There have also been cases reported in which criminals observe and follow customers making withdrawals at ATMs and banks, then rob them on the road or at a residence,” the department said. “Some victims unwittingly wander into gang-controlled territory and may be targeted, normally at night. Assaults against police officers have risen, and public shootouts are not uncommon.”

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