El Salvador, US agree to bring back Peace Corps after hiatus

Peace Corps will reopens its program in El Salvador

By Nelson Renteria

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - The governments of El Salvador and the United States will revive the Peace Corps program in the Central American country, after the U.S. agency concluded that security conditions have improved following a seven-year freeze blamed on deadly gang violence.

The Peace Corps, a popular U.S. volunteer abroad program dating back to the 1960s, suspended Salvadoran operations in 2016 over surging lawlessness in the country.

Peace Corps assignments going forward will focus on projects that support community economic development, education and youth, the U.S. embassy in San Salvador announced in a statement on Thursday.

Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn said at an event that Salvadorans have been important partners in its past initiatives while forging "deep and lasting friendships."

In 2015, the year before the Peace Corps' departure from El Salvador, the nation suffered a record 103 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest murder rates in the world at the time. The violence was largely attributed to deadly fallout from battles pitting the Barrio 18 gang against its rival Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.

Since early 2022, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has championed emergency powers that have allowed security forces to detain more than 70,000 suspected gang members, which has led to a dramatic drop in violent crime.

The homicide rate slid by nearly 60% last year compared to the previous year, and most locals support Bukele's policy and say they feel much safer, according to the authorities and independent polls.

The popular president's anti-gang push has also generated sharp criticism from human rights groups that denounce the suspension of some constitutional rights, as well as what they describe as arbitrary arrests and 174 deaths of people in state custody after the emergency powers were first enacted.

The administration of U.S. President John F. Kennedy established the program some six decades ago, as its volunteers have been deployed all over the globe.

(Report by Nelson Renteria; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Jacqueline Wong)