El Salvador is the last stop on President Obama's three-nation tour of Latin America. Mr. Obama's stops in Brazil and Chile were largely overshadowed by events in Libya, but his reasons for visiting the strategically important South American nations were clear: with their galloping economies, Brazil and Chile are emerging as power players in the region and in the world. However, his reasons for visiting El Salvador are less obvious. A country about the size of Massachusetts, El Salvador struggles with weak economic growth and high crime rates. Though less evident, the ties between Salvador and the U.S. are deep. In fact, about one third of Salvadoran citizens live not in El Salvador but in the United States, and those immigrants send millions of dollars back to El Salvador each year.
Less well known is the role that the U.S. played in the formation of violent youth gangs which terrorize some parts of El Salvador. The gangs took root in Los Angeles in the 1990s and exported their culture of brutality back to El Salvador after the deportation of thousands of young gang members. In the present day, as drug cartel violence in Mexico spreads south, El Salvador is feeling a painful ripple effect.
Donna DeCesare is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin. She has lived and worked as a journalist in El Salvador on and off since the 1980s. She continues to cover issues relevant to Central American immigrants in the United States.