Issue 69 - Article 3

Towards a response: addressing forced displacement by violence in El Salvador

June 8, 2017
Noah Bullock
A Salvadoran family living in a displaced community.

In the last two years 11,936 people have been murdered in El Salvador, a country with a population of 6.5 million; an estimated 550,000 left the country because of violence in 2016 alone. Based on violent death rates and displacement, El Salvador, and its neighbours in Central America’s Northern Triangle, Guatemala and Honduras, should sit at the top of the list of global humanitarian hotspots. Yet the humanitarian consequences of extreme violence, human rights violations and internal and external displacement in the sub-region remain almost invisible to most of the rest of the world. So-called ‘non-conventional violence’ lacks the compelling imagery of war-damaged infrastructure, siege-imposed scarcity, large concentrations of displaced people and immediately visible and quantifiable humanitarian needs.

The scars of today’s violence are visible, not in bombed-out buildings, but rather in the formidable security architecture, where barbed wire crowns nearly every wall and armed men stand watch over commercial premises and middle-class streets. The displaced prefer hiding in secrecy to camps, fleeing and fearing, to varying degrees, both criminals and the state. Amnesty International’s Secretary-General, Salil Shetty, accurately described the security and humanitarian situation in the sub-region as ‘virtual war zones where lives seem to be expendable and millions live in constant terror at what gang members or public security forces can do to them or their loved ones. These millions are now the protagonists in one of the world’s least visible refugee crises’. ‘Central America Turns Its Back on Hundreds of Thousands Fleeing “Warlike” Violence’, Amnesty International, 14 October 2016.

The problem of political will

Recent reports reflect the important role of violence in driving internal and external displacement in El Salvador. Official data register insecurity as the second leading cause of migration.
See International Organization for Migration, El Salvador: Cifras Oficiales de Retornos, February 2017.
Yet despite the data, the Salvadoran government emphasises the multiple causes of migration and questions the existence of internal displacement by violence. There is no official strategy to assist victims of displacement, and the government made no commitments at the UN High Level Round Table on Forced Displacement in the Northern Triangle of Central America, held in July 2016 in Costa Rica. The victim assistance programmes that have been central to transitional peace processes regionally occupy at best a peripheral place in government security and development policy, and the term ‘forced displacement’ is entirely absent. The Plan Alliance for Prosperity (PAP), the regional development strategy between the three governments in the Northern Triangle and the Inter-American Development Bank, does not have a strong protection component and fails to articulate a clear strategy to address the specific protection needs of people displaced by violence.

The Citizen Security Council, convened by the government in 2014, included specific measures under the ‘Plan El Salvador Seguro’ to strengthen national coordination for victim assistance and improve infrastructure in hospitals and shelters. The first sign of implementation came three years later, when the Minister for Justice and Security, Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, announced in January a plan to establish local victim assistance offices (Oficinas Locales de Atención a Víctimas (OLAV)) in key locations across the country. Ezequiel Barrera, ‘GOES Dice que este año si atendera a victimas de
violencia’, Prensa Grafica, 6 January 2017.
However, with the exception of the OLAV, security policy has focused almost entirely on a strategy of increasing militarisation of public security and repressive legal reforms to combat criminal groups, known as ‘extraordinary measures’. As part of this, the Salvadoran legislature reformed the penal code in April 2016 to criminalise the act of forcing others to leave their places of residence. This reform, known as Limitación Ilegal a la Libertad de Circulación (LILIC), also criminalises the use of violence or threats to restrict freedom of movement. The National Civilian Police (PNC) received 81 cases classified as LILIC involving 141 people between the enactment of the law in April and November 2016. Mesa de Sociedad Civil Contra El Desplazamiento Forzado Por Violencia y Crimen Organizada en El Salvador, ‘Desplazamiento Interno por Violencia yCrimen Organizado: Informe 2016’, 2016. The establishment of LILIC can be seen as a recognition of forced displacement as a crime, but without a corresponding recognition of the responsibility to protect and assist the victims. Victims of violence and displacement also face stigmatisation and discrimination for perceived association with criminal organisations. In the polarising and bellicose narrative of the ‘war on gangs’, victims are regularly associated with ‘the enemy’ by public officials, rather than recognised as citizens with a right to protection. This discourse not only detracts from building a national response, but also corrodes public opinion towards victims and undermines solidarity with people in need of assistance.

The capacity gap and mandate problem

A report by the Civil Society Observatory on Forced Displacement in 2016 includes a review of the national legislative and policy framework to identify existing constitutional legal norms and mandates relevant for the protection of victims of forced displacement by violence. ‘Desplazamiento Interno por Violencia y Crimen Organizado: Informe 2016’, Mesa de Sociedad Civil Contra El Desplazamiento Forzado Por Violencia y Crimen Organizada en El Salvador, 2016. There is no specialised legislation or specific protection programme for the victims of internal displacement by violence. The constitution is, however, consistent with international standards in recognising that the state has the primary duty for protecting citizens, which would apply broadly to citizens in situations of displacement by violence. Article 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador states: ‘Everyone
has the right to life, physical and moral integrity, liberty, security, work, property and possession and to be protected in the conservation and defense of the same’.
National legislation has evolved recently to establish specialised institutions for the protection of vulnerable groups including women and children against violence and discrimination. These institutions are designed to address more traditional criminal and domestic violence, and have limited capacities to comprehensively address the needs of people forcibly displaced by violence. Closing this gap is complicated by the precarious financial situation of the Salvadoran government, which came to the brink of insolvency in 2016. In this context there are neither the resources nor a clear mandate that would encourage or oblige public administrators to take on the task of coordinating a humanitarian response to assist potentially hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

As such, the state response to displacement has been limited to the good faith efforts of individual public servants who, motivated by the many victims that come knocking on their doors, endeavour to assist on a case-by-case basis. This has created an opening for civil society organisations (CSOs) to develop partnerships with state institutions such as the public defender’s office (PGR), the human rights ombudsman (PDDH) and Instituto Salvadoreno para el Desarrollo de la Mujer (ISDEMU) to improve victim assistance. CSOs have lent their expertise to assess existing institutional capacities and procedures, and have provided technical support to improve institutional responses to displacement. CSOs and state institutions have also created referral networks and have had positive experiences using joint case management as a learning and capacity-building exercise.

Displacement patterns

Data gathered over the past two years by the Civil Society Observatory has provided a clearer picture of the profile of victims, their persecutors and the humanitarian consequences they face. Displacement in El Salvador has two interconnected triggers: generalised violence and threats and acts of violence directed at an individual or family. Although cases of the latter seem clear-cut and demonstrate a more imminent threat, the former is a no less serious or valid trigger. For example, one family decided to abandon their home when gangs sprinkled the crushed teeth of their recently disappeared neighbours on the street in front of their house in retaliation for someone in the neighbourhood speaking to the police. A more common example is for families to send their children away when they reach puberty in order to prevent harassment and abuse by the security forces, entanglement with gangs or, in the case of girls, sexual abuse or slavery by gangs.

It is common in case documentation for victims to report multiple types of violence as contributing factors to displacement. Threats may be made directly against a victim, but often involve entire families. When faced with threats, families prioritise protection according to the needs and vulnerabilities of individual members. For example, mothers have reported separating their adolescent boys from the family because young males raise suspicion among gangs and the security forces. If a child has a parent abroad the family may decide to hire a smuggler to reunite that child with the parent while remaining relatives seek protection through family networks in the country. In general, internally displaced people (IDPs) don’t want to be found and counted, and families and individuals often move without informing neighbours or even close relatives where they are. People do not find refuge in camps or in relocation but by hiding, a behaviour CSOs call ‘confinement’.

The challenge of access

The principal operational challenge for humanitarians in the NTCA is to identify and assist victims who, for security reasons, have restricted mobility or are in confinement, without increasing the risk to victims or assistance providers. Most cases documented by the Observatory did not report their situation to the authorities for fear of reprisals, fear of corruption in state institutions and lack of confidence in the state’s capacity to assist them. To overcome this barrier, it is necessary to determine in each case a safety zone where both victims and service providers can engage in relative security. Safety zones can range from a safe house to more open models of support provided by host families or communities. A third option for families enjoying a degree of mobility and facing lower levels of persecution is to establish a temporary safe zone and security regimen that allows for victims to meet with providers while maintaining anonymity. More work is needed to develop shelter and safe zone options that allow families to receive specialised assistance and transition quickly through emergency protection assistance to durable solutions. Experience has shown that combining psychosocial assistance with other humanitarianand legal help is essential in making a transition successful.


The government’s failure to recognise forced displacement and the absence of a central focus on victim assistance in national security and development policy is contributing to the destabilisation of communities most affected by violence. Discrimination against victims because of perceived or real associations with criminal groups will only further polarise the country and potentially increase levels of violence. All actors involved should commit to a principled humanitarian response that guarantees non-discrimination in the provision of protection and humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarians should also work with development actors to build community-based protection options to assist families in the emergency phases of displacement, and to build durable solutions in both host countries and countries of origin. Recognising the important role that widespread impunity for serious crimes and human rights violations plays in driving internal and external displacement, humanitarians should work with human rights actors to assist victims in accessing justice. Interdisciplinary coordination with human rights and development actors can help to resolve displacement-related problems and lend greater viability to durable solution options.

Regional governments should work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and local and international humanitarian organisations to strengthen regional international protection options under the regional refugee protection framework of the Brazil Plan of Action and build referral systems within countries party to the C-4 border control agreement (Convenio Centroamericano de Libre Movilidad) to relocate victims with special protection needs.

Noah Bullock is the Executive Director of Cristosal, a human rights organisation based in San Salvador that focuses on assisting victims of serious crimes and human rights violations in Central America’s Northern Triangle. This article is based on field experience assisting victims of forced displacement by violence, and case documentation since 2014.


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