By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Jan 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The U.S. Peace Corps has suspended its projects in El Salvador over safety concerns as the Central American nation struggles to stem rising murder rates and gang violence.
The Peace Corps, an overseas volunteer program, said in a statement that due to the "ongoing security environment," about 55 Peace Corps volunteers working across El Salvador on social and youth development programs were no longer safe in a country with one of the world's highest murder rates.
"The agency will continue to monitor the security situation in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador to determine when the program can resume," said a statement published on Monday on the embassy website.
El Salvador, a nation of 6.4 million people, is racked by drug-fueled violence, with entire city neighborhoods controlled by powerful gangs known as maras.
El Salvador's murder rate surged 70 percent in 2015 due to increasing battles between security forces and the country's two most powerful gangs - the Barrio 18 criminal group and their rivals, the Mara Salvatrucha(MS-13).
In August alone, 907 murders were recorded across the country in the highest monthly toll since the 1980-1992 civil war.
The last time Peace Corps volunteers withdrew from El Salvador was at the start of the civil war.
More than 2,300 Peace Corps volunteers have worked on community projects across El Salvador since 1962.
In neighboring Honduras, Peace Corps volunteers left the country in 2012 over security concerns.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)