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In El Salvador, a rare murder-free town asks: What's secret of our success?

A handful of small towns near the Honduran border had no murders last year, a huge feat in one of the world's most dangerous countries. But as gang violence creeps closer, residents race to find ways to keep the peace.

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    Salvadoran police and soldiers secure a crime scene in San Salvador June 21, 2015. The Salvadoran Police and Army participated in a search operation in response of a deadly attack where two soldiers were killed by gang members, local media reported.
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The childlike mural in this quiet town square is a colorful display of the dark violence that wrecked El Salvador during its 12-year civil war. The painted map highlights each place where a massacre occurred between 1980 and 1992, and only one or two provinces are noted as conflict-free.

San José de las Flores was not one of those peaceful zones.

There are plenty of present-day reminders of its violent past: rocket launchers and machine guns used by leftist guerrilla fighters still sit on public display, and photos of revolutionary women hang in the community dining hall. In fact, San José de las Flores was situated in one of the bloodiest corridors during the war, where entire villages were displaced and homes and churches burnt to the ground. 

Despite its history, however, this small town tucked into verdant mountains just 10 miles from the Honduras border is part of a rare sign of hope in El Salvador today. It’s one of a handful of towns in the northern region of Chalatenango that did not have a single recorded murder in 2014, according to government data, and only registered one or two violent crimes a year – or none at all – over the past decade.

That’s no small feat. Some 23 years after signing peace accords here, the nation still faces sky-high violence. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, averaging about 15 murders per day in a country of 6.3 million people. 

But even the towns themselves are struggling to put a finger on what has kept them safe havens amid so much violence. And as signs of crime creep closer – with reports of gang members hanging out in abandoned homes and recruiting youth in some neighboring towns – many hold out hope that the community members’ shared history of overcoming civil-war era violence and displacement will continue to keep the social fabric tightly knit, and gang violence out.

“We can’t speak about a well-articulated policy to prevent violence in our towns,” says Miguel Serrano, the recently elected mayor of nearby San Antonio de los Ranchos. He struggles to pinpoint what makes his community different from one just two-miles away that’s suffering from gang-related crime, noting that both towns share similar social programs and active civil societies. “All the municipalities [here] offer soccer for kids. We all hold open meetings, and have community organizations,” he says.

But Mr. Serrano says that there is a collective desire in his town to keep the peace. “We’ve been working hard to keep [violence] at bay."

'Lucky'?

The murder-free towns here don’t necessarily share crime-fighting policies or local government officials. But what they do have in common are small populations, between 1,000 and 4,000 people, strong community organizations, and resources like clean water, after-school programs, public wifi, and local training and job-creation programs.

Rural regions like Chalatenango have been “lucky” for years when it comes to violence, says Jeannette Aguilar, director of the University Institute of Public Opinion, an independent social science research center in the capital San Salvador. 

But, “these towns won’t be exempt from violence much longer. The moment the gangs can figure out a place like San José de las Flores can represent a new market for them, or whether they can hide out there from police persecution, these towns will fall prey,” Ms. Aguilar says.

Some worry that the recent construction of a freeway connecting this northern region with the eastern edge of El Salvador could do away with the remote nature of many of these towns. The Longitudinal, as the freshly paved highway is called, was built with $278 million in US aid. Once remote towns in Chalatenango are now a quick drive away from the capital, San Salvadoron the interstate, helping with tourism and commerce, but also opening up new routes for drug traffickers. 

According to numerous sources within the Salvadoran police, drug shipments are regularly unloaded and repackaged throughout Chalatenango. The merchandise is then sent north towards Guatemala by truck “without a single obstacle along the way,” said one officer, who asked for anonymity because he’s not permitted to speak to the press.

'Our biggest problems'

On a recent weekday morning, the town of Nueva Trinidad, a 30-minute drive from San José de las Flores, is buzzing by 6:00 a.m. Kids walk to school in groups, and women make bean and cheese pupusas inside the small communal kitchen where local farmers can dine for less than a dollar. 

Nueva Trinidad is hosting leaders from nearby towns this afternoon to discuss their security strategies. 

“Our biggest problems here are illegal alcohol sales, land burning, and the threat of mining,” says one man at the meeting, a local community leader. “It isn’t violence.”

But violence is on people’s minds. A young schoolteacher stands up and talks about gang recruitment at her school. Some in the audience believe there’s a new culture of “no snitching” setting in, making it harder for local police to do their jobs and putting communities at risk. Others argue it is only a matter of time before they have to face gang violence, much like the rest of the country. How can they prepare for such a change – or possibly prevent it?

Many of these small, “homicide free” communities, including Nueva Trinidad, don’t have police stations. San José de las Flores conducted its own community patrols up until last year, manning roadblocks at the entrance of town in order to keep out “undesirables.” The communities say they welcome the presence of security forces, despite their history of military repression during the civil war.

For 18-year-old Alfredo Guardado, Nueva Trinidad has been a fine place to grow up. He enjoys the free wifi and carpentry workshops, he says. For him, the violence of the civil war his elders talk about feels like distant history. And though he and his friends can walk around freely at night without fear, Mr. Guardado recognizes that he may one day like to leave. When he looks around El Salvador, he doesn’t see a lot of options, given the high levels of insecurity. 

“Yes, life is good here,” he says. “But I hear it’s even better in the United States."

– This story was written in collaboration with Round Earth Media. Jimmy Alvarado of El Faro contributed reporting.

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