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El Salvador Schools | Travel | Courtland Photography

I’d like to share my eye-opening experience of visiting elementary schools in El Salvador. One of my friends from the Army had a special assignment working with the US Embassy in San Salvador, El Salvador during the deadliest time in the country’s history since 1983. At the time, El Salvador had one of the highest homicide rate in the world. My friend – we’ll call “F” – was the liaison officer for both military and humanitarian operations. Needless to say, he was very busy during his time in El Salvador.

In the winter of 2017 I visited F in El Salvador for the second time in a year. As dangerous as it seemed, I was eager to photograph this exciting country again. I was confident in my safety because I was with battle-buddy from my Iraq deployment in Ramadi, and also because F speaks Spanish fluently and blends in with the culture. While I stuck out like a sore thumb, I knew I was in good hands.

During my visit, F had an assignment in a nearby suburb called Apopa. His job was to assess the structural conditions of two schools that the U.S. government built a few years prior, as well as speak to the teachers and learn about their current needs and concerns. These schools were constructed to shield local children from the growing gang violence in the area. Deadly street gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 have been known to recruit children as young as nine years old, and these schools helps protect their future. This is a huge problem El Salvador continues to combat even today.

Apopa’s gang activity is extremely high and we needed extra security for this particular assessment. Four “white shirts” escorted us into the city and followed us in the schools. These were the elite units of the San Salvador police- they didn’t mess around. I won’t lie, driving in Apopa felt a bit like going into the lion’s den.

While F did his assessment, I explored the property with my camera in hand. At first the children didn’t know what to think. Who’s this gringo wandering around with a camera? But eventually they warmed up to me and smiles were everywhere. I met some of the teachers and cooks, samples their delicious pupusas, and watched a short recess soccer game.

It was amazing.

After an hour had passed at the first school, it was time to leave and head towards another school. This school had 832 children and an even larger property. There was a bigger soccer field, more classrooms, and even a few dogs. If you know me, you know I can’t resist taking photos of a slum dog. In this case, it was a slum puppy!

Visiting these schools was a real eye opener. It made me realize how good we have it in America, and it also made me feel proud that we’re helping this country that desperately needs it. Today in 2022, the homicide rate in El Salvador has dropped over 75% since the hight of the violence in 2015 where 15-20 homicides occurred every day. Today the homicide rate is down to 3.8 homicides per day for a country with a population of 6.5 million. Even though the murder rate has decreased dramatically, the country still has a long fight ahead of them when it comes to cleaning up the streets.

Despite having a high crime rate, it is safe for travelers. Almost none of the violence is aimed towards tourists, so it’s relatively safe to visit. In fact, I highly recommend you visiting El Salvador; it’s a beautiful country.

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