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El Salvador - Introduction

El Salvador remains deeply divided between left and right, and the rise of violent street gangs has been spurred by persistent poverty and sluggish economic growth. The country is the most dependent in Central America on money sent home by migrants working in the United States - those remittances account for nearly one-fifth of the economy by 2015.

The sharp contrast between those with great wealth and those living in extreme poverty had characterized Salvadoran society for more than a century and had roots in its colonial past. When El Salvador became an independent republic in the early nineteenth century, this pattern did not change. Wealthy landowners, members of only a very few families, organized the national government to secure their positions and continued to dominate Salvadoran national life. Rural peasants and workers provided for their own subsistence needs and labored for the elite. Indeed, as the century progressed, this pattern was sharpened by the successful introduction of coffee as an export cash crop. As the landed elite, along with more recently arrived European banking and financial families interested in coffee, began to realize the wealth potential of this crop, they increased the size of their estates.

In relation to the total population, the Salvadoran elite was very small; by the early 1980s it constituted approximately 2 percent of the population. This social sector, however, owned 60 percent of the nation's productive land, exercised direct or indirect control over all key productive sectors of the economy, and accounted for one-third of the national income. The families of the oligarchy generally intermarried. Daughters anticipated lives as pampered mothers and wives, while sons expected a place in one of the family businesses. The elite educated their children in private schools and in United States universities, entertained at fashionable clubs, and enjoyed extravagant conspicuous consumption.

The Salvadoran upper sector also included the officer ranks of the military. Active or retired military personnel headed the government from 1932 to 1982, and, as a result, ambitious individual military officers and officer factions also emerged as interest groups in their own right. Members of the military gradually became involved in the elite economic structure managing and as well as owning large estates and becoming involved in export agriculture. This combination of the officer corps and the elite families constituted the most powerful political and economic force in the country.

By 2016 violence stemming from a bitter rivalry largely between the country's two most powerful gangs - Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) pushed murder rates to record levels, making El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries outside a war zone. More Salvadorans hadbeen killed since the end of the country's 12-year civil war in 1992, than during the entire conflict in which 75,000 people lost their lives as leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas battled US-backed state security forces. As a result, thousands of people have been driven from their homes to seek refuge from the maras, as gang members are known, in the United States.

Hopes were raised after a 2012 truce between rival gangs was brokered during the previous government, but it was short-lived. By early 2014 the truce had collapsed, leading to a rise in murders with gangs increasingly targeting the police. The government led by President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former FMLN guerrilla commander who helped negotiate the peace accords, responded by setting up a 1,000-strong security force to clamp down on the gangs and capture their top leaders. The government's zero tolerance approach risked escalating the conflict into an all-out war between the gangs, whose ranks number around 70,000, and the security forces.

El Salvador is a densely populated country with an economy based largely on agricultural production and exports. Severe deforestation, population pressure, and inadequate management of resources have led to water shortages, and a deterioration of surface water quality due to increased untreated municipal and industrial waste discharges. Sources of industrial contamination include agricultural chemicals, coffee and food processing waste, petroleum storage, power generation, textiles, and mining. Almost half of El Salvador's electricity-generating capacity is provided by four hydroelectric power plants on the Rio Lempa. Geothermal sources and fossil fuels also are used for electricity generation. Petroleum is transported, stored, and refined in the Acajutla Port area.

With an area (20,720 sq km; 8,000 sq mi) slightly smaller than that of Massachusetts, El Salvador is the smallest independent state on the Western Hemisphere mainland. Most of El Salvador is situated on a plateau about 600 meters (2,000 feet) above sea level on the Pacific slope of the Central American cordillera. Mountain ranges running from east to west divide El Salvador into three distinct regions: 1) a hot, narrow Pacific coastal belt on the south; 2) a subtropical central region of valleys and plateaus, where most of the population lives; 3) and a mountainous northern region. Almost all usable farmland is cultivated. Nearly 300 rivers flow across El Salvador toward the Pacific Ocean. El Salvador's highest point is approximately 2,700 meters (9,000 ft) above sea level. Elevations above 2,500 meters are conducive to altitude sickness, which may result in headache, nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite, malaise, and shortness of breath. El Salvador is in a very unstable geological zone and is subject to many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Ninety percent of the land is of volcanic origin.

Raw sewage is widely used as an informal source of nutrient-rich fertilizer in agricultural areas throughout El Salvador. Contamination of food with fecal pathogens may result from use of fertilizers derived from human or animal waste, unsanitary food preparation techniques, and improper handling of prepared food products. Even onetime exposure to fecal contamination in food may cause a variety of acute enteric infections. The most significant water quality issue in El Salvador is the contamination of drinking water with raw sewage and industrial wastes. Improper disposal of human and industrial wastes has led to widespread contamination of surface water sources and shallow aquifers in El Salvador, particularly those consisting of fractured or porous lava flows.

Algal blooms in the Gulf of Fonseca have resulted in the contamination of seafood sold in El Salvadoran markets. For example, in September 2001, a red tide bloom occurred southeast of San Salvador and 10 people became ill after consuming seafood caught in coastal waters.

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