SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Marta Trujillo crosses herself early in the morning as she begins a long day of selling beauty products and clothes door-to-door in the sweltering heat of the nation’s capital.
“I am afraid of walking the streets,” said Trujillo, a 39-year old single mother of three. “But I have to do it because I have to feed my children.”
Trujillo fears being yet another victim of the wave of violence that has rattled this Central American nation of six million.
“Violence affects not only big businesses anymore,” says Trujillo, adding she’s been assaulted and robbed twice in the past year. “Now, we are all exposed. We can all be victims of the gangs.”
Salvadorans live inside houses surrounded by barbed-wire fences, with trained dogs and private security personnel stationed outside their residences.
El Salvador was home to 4,053 homicides last year, according to the country’s National Civilian Police. The Attorney General’s Office receives at least nine new reports daily from residents claiming they are being extorted by gang members, the majority representing criminal organizations based in neighboring Guatemala.
“What happens here is of Biblical proportions,” said José Ángel Martínez, a 75-year old farmer from Santo Domingo, a rural community 58 kilometers (36 miles) from San Salvador.
“The gangs, the narco-traffickers: They are the pests destroying our lives,” Martínez said.
The lack of security is what is keeping El Salvador – already one of the most economically advanced nations in Central America – from further expanding its economy and attracting international investors, said Salvadoran entrepreneur Francisco de Sola.
“Insecurity and violence have a high cost [for El Salvador],” de Sola said at the VII Private Sector Forum of the Organization of American States, held June 2-3 in San Salvador. “They affect the competitiveness of national companies and scare foreign investment away.”
De Sola added: “Lack of security costs El Salvador more than US$2 billion each year. This is around 10.8% of its gross domestic product, which includes public and private spending.”
Salvadoran industries are less competitive because they spend more money on private security, de Sola said.
“It is not strange to see a private guard standing on every corner in San Salvador protecting businesses,” he said.
There are 209 private security companies nationwide, which collectively employ 23,500 guards, according to the government’s Division of Registry and Control of Private Security Services. By comparison, the National Civilian Police has about 20,500 officers.
“What is left for the country is to accept its role as the one with less growth in the region in 2010,” de Sola said, citing statistics by the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC).
OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said governments throughout the region must improve their security to stop the violence.
“There can be no long-term democracy when our societies are threatened by these scourges,” Insulza said during a speech to El Salvador’s Guillermo Manuel Ungo Foundation, an NGO focused on improving public safety.
Insulza added: “Public insecurity is one of the great challenges of democratic governance. This is a major problem that requires us all to cooperate. It is an issue that states are obliged to resolve, and we must work hard on it.”
Economic development and security are intertwined, Insulza said.
“Today, citizen security is a public service, a social public asset, like housing, education, health,” he said. “It’s something citizens demand so they have better lives, and because they want to enjoy the fruits of their labors and those of their families.”
Insulza added: “As our economies grow and develop, our citizens are entitled to greater aspirations, and one of the things to which they aspire is ever greater security.”
De Sola said it’s imperative the government, society and the private sector work together to make the country safer and attractive to foreign investors.
“We only have one way, and that is dialogue and permanent consensus,” he said.