Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Ashes of Apathy in El Salvador

The country’s second city lost its central market to a fire (again), and still no one has rebuilt it.

View of the Bendicion de Dios slum in So

Upon arriving in Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second most populous city, I was struck by the presence of a bored-looking man standing on every street corner brandishing a shotgun. This sight, so discordant yet so normal, seems to be the country’s main form of employment: random dudes loitering around with shotguns.

Santa Ana’s second largest form of employment seems to be the sidewalk economy. The thousands of vendors selling banal knickknacks to an audience where sellers greatly outnumber buyers tell a story of desperation. The food vendors seem to do okay, but I saw at least a dozen stalls each selling the exact same selection of cheap Chinese-produced underwear. These underwear vendors sit around all day with dead eyes and no customers. What’s the point? This isn’t commerce, it’s more like a pantomime of commerce. I think they would be much happier, more productive, more dignified, and more intrinsically fulfilled if they were replaced by Amazon drones.


This strange blend of monotony and desperation embodies the raw, uncut spirit of Latin America—a legion of bored guards standing watch over a legion of equally bored trinket peddlers, all marinating in a soup of stray dogs and sun-roasted garbage.

The sidewalks are jam-packed with vendors, not because people love the fresh air, but because Santa Ana’s heart, the old Central Market—El Mercado Central de Santa Ana—is now a heap of ashes. There are two entire city blocks, prime real estate in the heart of the city, that are just piles of rubble. “Was there a recent fire?” I asked the locals. Their responses were nonchalant shrugs, “Oh, yeah, there was a fire a few years back.”

Over three years have elapsed since a tragic fire in the heart of Santa Ana on March 10, 2021, extinguished the livelihoods of thousands of vendors, pushing them to the chaotic and cramped sidewalks. This fire was sparked by faulty electrical wiring, fueled by overflowing garbage, and exacerbated by inaccessible fire hydrants. “People told us that there were hydrants but when we looked for them we found that they were covered by the street stalls, which makes it difficult for us to react faster,” commented an anonymous firefighter.

The rubble of Santa Ana’s central market is a testament to a crisis not merely of policy but of spirit. How can a society witness the decay of its nucleus of commerce and life and not respond with action? The market’s ashes have been cold for years now, and the locals just shuffle around them, averting their gaze. It’s a sorry state of affairs when folks are so beaten down they can’t even muster the will to pick up a broom, much less rebuild what was lost. The expectation here is that some external savior will arrive to shoulder the burden. The city’s future is left in limbo, a pawn of fate rather than its master.

I think there are two ways to understand the problem. 


On one hand, the problem is structural, because markets (I am talking about the buildings) belong to the government. There is no profit motive for a swift reconstruction, so who cares if it takes five years? Most bureaucratic processes in Latin America are slow and bribes are the only way to dodge the bureaucrat’s cynicism and the Kafkaesque legislation. Ultimately, the government doesn’t care on a daily basis. Except for election years, mayors and local governments can ignore their population’s concerns.

On the other hand, the problem is cultural: Latin America has a culture of paternalism. Whenever there is a problem, Latin Americans simply look up for help rather than acting themselves. Citizens ask for help from their local governments, local governments ask for help from the state governments, state governments ask for help from the federal governments, and federal governments ask for help from the U.S. or some international organization. It is a culture of learned helplessness. Everyone is waiting for someone to do something, but no one has the agency to take it upon themselves.

In this case, external salvation eventually arrived in the form of a $17 million aid package from the World Bank, loan #8948-SV. This largesse, disclosed mere weeks before the Mayor of Santa Ana sought reelection, cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence. The electorate, weary after years of the mayor endlessly “studying” the land, now can observe the machinations of power, where good governance takes a backseat to the ambitions of the individual.

This political theater became even more transparent when the mayor then proudly posted photos on Facebook of construction crews beginning to clear the rubble on February 23, 2024—one week before his reelection. The comments on the photos are mostly heckling him.

“Thank you for your dedication, Mr. Mayor, I am sure you will finish it before the elections,’’ reads one. 

“How are the elections coming,’’ reads another.

“This job is like remembering the cardboard at 10pm on a Sunday,’’ reads another. 

The mayor’s dance around the market’s ashes would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic. This delay transcends mere administrative oversight, becoming a symbol of the politicization that plagues urban development efforts and deepens the chasm between the electorate and their representatives.

Here’s the kicker: Santa Ana’s market doesn’t just burn; it reincarnates just to burn all over again. Twenty years prior to the latest conflagration, the very same marketplace was razed by a fire of even greater magnitude, once again laying waste to the livelihoods of thousands of vendors, once again traced to an electrical short circuit. 

The whole country seems to suffer from the same doom loop. Between 2020 and 2021, no fewer than six central markets in El Salvador were engulfed by flames. None of these six markets that burned down have seen reconstruction. To comprehend the magnitude of this neglect, consider an analogous scenario in the United States, which has over 50 times the population of El Salvador. If over 300 American shopping malls were reduced to ashes in a single year without being rebuilt, it would be inconceivable, a national emergency. Yet in the context of El Salvador, it’s just daily life. 

The newly reelected mayor of Santa Ana (his gambit worked) now pledges that the first stone of the new market will be laid in June 2024. Nobody believes him.