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Peace Corps withdraws from violent El Salvador

When Andrew Piotrowski went to El Salvador as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2011, he settled into his labors in the rural village of La Cuchilla without incident.

He taught young Salvadorans computer literacy and sex education. He wrote grants, planted crops and ran soccer tournaments.

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He saw himself making the kind of "small but measurable differences" he believes his 110 or so colleagues were also making in the Central American nation of 6.4 million.

He was one of many associated with the Peace Corps disappointed to learn that the program had suspended operations in El Salvador on Jan. 11 because of a homicide rate that has made it one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

"Volunteers' health, safety and security are the Peace Corps' top priorities," the organization said in a statement Monday.

The Peace Corps, founded by President John F. Kennedy, has sent more than 200,000 U.S. citizens to 139 countries for two-year assignments to work on development projects.

In recent years, it has withdrawn volunteers from Kazakhstan, Niger and Honduras over security concerns.

Officials in El Salvador measured the homicide rate at 104 per 100,000 people in 2015, a surge of 70 percent over the previous year.

The homicide rate in neighboring Honduras, where the Peace Corps suspended operations in 2012, was about 61 per 100,000. The U.S. rate is less than 5 per 100,000.

Salvadoran police say the end of a truce between the nation's two most powerful gangs, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, contributed to the spike.

Piotrowski, a former social worker who lives in Chicago, called the pullout heartbreaking and "not only for what the program meant to me and my community, but for the great staff members there, mostly Salvadorans, who will have trouble finding work in a very shaky economy."

But he and others familiar with the country saw the move coming.

Jim Winship, an author and social work professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, was a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador in the 1970s and visits frequently to study youth and migration.

The Salvadoran civil war of 1980 to 1992 devastated the economy and the education system, he said, and drug-fueled violence has risen over the decades. He said violence and extortion have spiked since mid-2014.

The Peace Corps has responded by placing restrictions on its volunteers. In 2012, it barred volunteers from using public transportation because gang members rob and kill passengers on buses. It also moved assignments from cities into safer rural areas, such as the one Piotrowski served through 2013.

Not long after Piotrowski began his assignment, he said, the Peace Corps barred volunteers from visiting San Salvador, the capital, except in emergencies, and began cutting their ranks in half, to 55.

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Early on in La Cuchilla — a canton of 285 near the border with Honduras — Piotrowski saw no sign of the violence many of his neighbors were talking about. But he soon began spotting unfamiliar men in town who harassed and preyed on shopkeepers.

The incidents left the community on edge, he said, and villagers told him that gang-related crime was infiltrating new regions of the country.

Winship, who was in El Salvador last week, says friends told him of gangsters taking over apartment buildings and collecting rent. Others seemed to be growing paranoid over police, rivals and suspected informants.

The Peace Corps, which left Honduras after a volunteer was struck in the ankle by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting, said it had received no reports of threats or assaults against volunteers.

The agency pulled its volunteers from Niger in 2011 after the kidnapping and murder of two French citizens, reportedly by an al Qaida-linked group, and from Kazakhstan later that year after reports of sexual assaults against volunteers.

Peace Corps workers have mixed feelings on such occasions, Katie Long said. The Baltimore woman served in Honduras from 2005 to 2007 and now works with Peace Corps Response, an offshoot program for professionals who serve short-term assignments, in Panama.

Long, who worked in community development near Tegucigalpa, said her projects had positive outcomes, but "most of the major cities in Honduras were places known to have a certain level of crime and you had to be careful."

Five years after she left, she wrote in an email, it was "definitely strange and sad" to hear that the agency had pulled out of the country.

"From what I know of friends who had to pull out of their Peace Corps country during their service, it is very difficult and can be quite an emotional experience," said Long, who works with Central American immigrants in Baltimore.

The Peace Corps did not make current El Salvador volunteers available to the news media, but several left comments on social media indicating that they generally felt safe in their communities and would have preferred to remain until their projects were completed.

Kennedy established the Peace Corps by executive order in 1961. It started operations with 2,816 volunteers in 28 countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, in the summer of 1962.

The Peace Corps pulled out of El Salvador — one of the three nations, along with Guatemala and Honduras, that make up the northern triangle of Central America — during its civil war. Volunteers returned in 1993.

More than 2,300 have served there, the organization said, most of them in community- and youth-development programs.

The Peace Corps does not abandon host countries lightly, an agency official said in an email. It makes such decisions only after working with the host government, the U.S. Embassy and other international agencies to develop a comprehensive security assessment.

A typical assessment looks at crime rates, the effectiveness of police and the quality of communication, transportation and medical infrastructure, the official said.

The Peace Corps said it will continue to work with the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador to monitor the security situation and determine when the program can resume.

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