By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
The U.S. State Department has long provided travel guidance to American travelers for virtually every country in the world. While its threat rating system has long been controversial, few have been questioned as much as the recent downgrade in the safety level for El Salvador.
Long considered one of the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere for gang activity and violent crime, not much has changed or improved. However, the downgrade comes just days after President Trump negotiated a migration agreement with El Salvador, raising concerns about whether the downgrade was warranted or initiated for political purposes.
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As Vox.com explains, the State Department rates other countries’ safety for traveling Americans on a scale from 1 (“Exercise Normal Precautions,” indicating a country that is currently without specific potential threats for travelers) to 4 (“Do Not Travel,” a category that includes war zones, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea).
Arguably the most debated rating is level 2, or “Exercise Increased Caution.” Level 2 countries include much of Western Europe and even Antarctica. It’s hard to imagine what specific potential threat might exist for travelers there, and it shares the same safety rating with Mexico, Myanmar, and Turkey—thus the controversy.
El Salvador’s ‘Reconsider Travel’ Rating
Since 2013, El Salvador has held a level 3 rating, or “Reconsider Travel.” This safety level can be assigned for potential violence attributed to criminal activity, terrorist activity or both. Countries in this category include neighboring Honduras, Nigeria, Pakistan and Sudan. Despite no significant changes in the overall security situation in El Salvador, it was reduced to a level 2 in early October.
To be fair, the U.S. State Department also lowered the overall travel safety rating for Guatemala in July 2018 from a 3 to a 2. It followed the same process as it does for Mexico, which is to provide very specific safety guidance for particular areas of the country to avoid. Those areas in Guatemala are still at a level 3 rating. However, the State Department did not outline any specific areas to avoid in El Salvador with higher travel safety ratings like it did for Guatemala and Mexico.
Differences in Travel Advisories
The most recent travel advisory for El Salvador issued by the State Department on Oct. 1 wasn’t encouraging: “Violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape, and armed robbery, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.” In contrast, the level 2 advisory for Antarctica reads as follows: “Exercise increased caution in Antarctica due to environmental hazards posed by extreme and unpredictable weather.”
On Sept. 20, President Trump signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Salvadoran Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill that would require any northbound migrants passing through El Salvador to request asylum there first. However, migrants can only do so if El Salvador is deemed a safe enough country.
Geographically, this doesn’t have much of an impact since migrants from Honduras can technically head northwest through Guatemala without having to cross into El Salvador. However, Guatemala also currently has a level 2 travel safety rating. The largest significance of this reduction for El Salvador is that migrants from El Salvador requesting asylum in the U.S. can now legally be returned there while waiting for their asylum hearings.
‘Asylum Cooperation Agreement’
According to The Washington Post, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan called the accord with El Salvador an “asylum cooperation agreement,” rather than the kind of “safe third country” arrangement Trump officials have pursued for years. That term has been stigmatized in Central America, in large part because it would be difficult to consider the Northern Triangle region of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala safe, given that it has among the highest homicide rates in the world.
In light of this agreement, it would make little sense for the White House to argue that El Salvador would provide a safe refuge for fleeing migrants with a level 3 travel safety rating. This begs the question if the downgrade in early October, and possibly the downgrade in 2018 for Guatemala, was made because security conditions have actually improved on the ground or because of political considerations.
With regards to these concerns, a State Department spokesman said, “Travel advisories are based on a comprehensive and objective review of safety and security conditions that could affect the lives and interests of U.S. citizens abroad.” He continued, “We consider many factors to determine the travel advisory level for each country, including crime. We clearly explain the reason for the travel advisory level and describe the safety and security concerns.” What is interesting is that the language in the advisory for El Salvador did not change after the downgrade.