War against gangs in El Salvador boosts tourism in Ilopango Lake.

Since the government of President Nayib Bukele began a frontal fight against the pandillas, the street vendors and owners of the food kiosks around the Ilopango Lake have felt secure and their profits have increased without paying extortion. The president’s measures have also led to a resurgence in tourism in the area, as reported by Omar Alvarenga, a boat tour operator, who affirms that “since President Bukele came with the exceptional regime, commerce has increased, thanks be to God.”

For years, the pandillas controlled almost all the businesses and dictated the rules of operation to all the merchants, but with the new measures, everything has changed. Rhina Orellana, a street vendor who has been selling sunglasses and other objects on the shores of the lake for 15 years, affirmed that she had never felt as safe as she did since the government began to implement exceptional measures. She is grateful to the authorities and the president for changing many things for the better.

The strategy has enabled the region to become safer and more attractive to tourists, and the kiosks and merenderos are seeing an increase in profits, according to Concepción López, the administrator of Rosa Mirian. The merendero has a long history in Apulo, and the owner has been serving food there for more than 40 years, witnessing the growth of the area, and the control of the pandillas over the years. The extortion payments and the threat of violence made it difficult for businesses to thrive, but now, with the exceptional regime, the businesses have seen an upturn.

For instance, Juan García, who was celebrating his birthday with his family at La Canchita, said they came to the lake because it is now safe. “We are from Cojutepeque, and we decided to come to this side of the lake because it is safe, because with the exceptional regime, they took away all the bugs that were bothering us.”

For many years, the lanchero Omar Alvarenga was harassed by the pandillas for refusing to join them. Now he appreciates his decision because, otherwise, he believes he would be in prison like hundreds of young people who did not take the opportunity to work honestly and instead joined the pandillas. “All the young people who were in the wrong path had the opportunity to join us and could not because of the bad things they were doing,” he said. The situation in the area has changed, and tourists can enjoy a peaceful visit to Ilopango Lake.