Note: This report was updated 4/12/17; see Appendix F: Errata for more information.
El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic. Municipal and legislative elections held in March 2015 were generally free and fair. Election results were delayed, however, due to problems with the transmission, tabulation, and public dissemination of the vote count under the management of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Free and fair presidential elections took place in 2014.
Civilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over security forces.
The principal human rights problems stemmed from widespread extortion and other crime in poor communities throughout the country. They included widespread corruption; weak rule of law, which contributed to high levels of impunity and government abuse, including unlawful killings by security forces, discrimination, and delay and lack of compliance with court rulings; and violence against women and girls (including by gangs), gender discrimination, and commercial sexual exploitation of women and children. According to a 2016 CID Gallup poll, more than one in five families claim to have been victims of violent crimes.
Other human rights problems included harsh and potentially life-threatening prison conditions; lengthy pretrial detention; restrictions on freedom of speech and press; trafficking in persons; migrant smuggling, including of unaccompanied children; and discrimination against persons with disabilities and persons with HIV/AIDS. There was also widespread discrimination and some violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.
Impunity persisted despite government steps to dismiss and prosecute some officials in the security forces, the executive branch, and the justice system who committed abuses.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
During the year there were no verified reports that the government or its agents committed politically motivated killings. There were reports, however, of security force involvement in unlawful killings. As of October the attorney general was investigating 53 possible cases of extrajudicial killings. One took place in 2013, none in 2014, 11 in 2015, and 41 in 2016. The Attorney General’s Office also announced the formation of a Special Group Against Impunity, dedicated to investigating this type of crime. As of March the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) had received 12 complaints of alleged unlawful killings committed by security, military, and other public officials and found substantial evidence in two cases. In September the PDDH stated that it was aware of approximately 50 cases involving potential extrajudicial killings. From January to July, the Office of the Inspector General of the National Civilian Police (PNC) reported that 12 PNC officers faced charges of homicide. All but one of the alleged homicides were committed while the accused officers were on duty.
On April 25, the PDDH found indications that the PNC and the armed forces had committed extrajudicial killings during the March 2015 San Blas case (involving the killing of seven alleged gang members and one other person) and the August 2015 Pajales case (which involved the close-range killing of four unarmed gang members). The PDDH criticized the PNC and the armed forces for issuing a press release portraying the killings as the product of clashes with gang members. The PDDH also noted weak internal controls in the PNC and the armed forces and regretted the lack of interagency collaboration in the investigations. On July 9, the attorney general ordered the arrest of seven police officers accused of committing extrajudicial killings in the San Blas case on charges of homicide and obstruction of justice. Seven officers were charged in the Pajales case, although there was no confirmation arrests were made.
On July 9, the Attorney General’s Office ordered the arrest of five police officers and five civilians for their participation in at least eight homicides as part of an alleged extermination group operating in San Miguel; on July 13, a judge ordered preventive detention of the accused. Eleven additional defendants fled from justice, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Funding for the extermination group reportedly came from Salvadorans living abroad.
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Cristosal compared PNC data that showed 366 armed confrontations through July 2016, during which 350 suspected gang members died. A total of 359 suspected gang members were killed in 676 armed confrontations in 2015, and 83 were killed in 256 confrontations in 2014. The mortality rate of suspected gang members in confrontations with police during the first six months of the year was 109 percent higher (i.e., more than double) that the 2015 mortality rate, which was itself 41 percent higher than in 2014. On October 4, the digital newspaper El Faro cited a Brazilian expert who analyzed PNC data and concluded that the data demonstrated a pattern of abuse of lethal force by police authorities.
As of August, the Office of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Public Security and Justice had received two complaints of extrajudicial killings against police members and two complaints for violations to the right of life.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances, abductions, or kidnappings. As of September, the NGO Association for the Search for Missing Children (Pro-Busqueda) received five new complaints regarding children who disappeared during the 1980-92 civil war. Pro-Busqueda reported in August that it was investigating 960 open cases, had solved 425 cases, and determined that in 15 percent of solved cases the child had died.
According to the PNC inspector general, eight complaints of forced disappearances were filed against the PNC between January and August.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, but there were multiple reports of violations. The PDDH received 21 complaints of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment by the PNC, armed forces, and other public officials.
As of August, the Office of the Inspector General reported 31 complaints against police officers for alleged cruel treatment. The NGOs Foundation of Studies for the Application of the Law, and Passionist Social Service, as well as other civil society institutions reported that poor male youths were sometimes targeted by the PNC and armed forces because they fit the stereotype of gang members. Other credible sources indicated that youths suspected to have knowledge of gang activity were mistreated by law enforcement personnel.
NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against sexual minorities. Persons from the LGBTI community stated that the agencies in charge of processing identification documents, the PNC, and the Attorney General’s Office harassed transgender and gay individuals when they applied for identification cards or reported cases of violence against LGBTI persons. The LGBTI community reported authorities harassed LGBTI persons by conducting strip searches and questioning their gender in a degrading manner. The government responded to these abuses primarily through PDDH reports that publicized specific cases of violence and discrimination against sexual minorities.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and gang activities.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding remained a serious threat to prisoners’ health and lives. As of August 15, the prison directorate reported 34,938 inmates were being held in correctional facilities with a designed capacity of 10,035 inmates. As of July 11, the minister of security noted that his office had moved 1,600 inmates from pretrial detention into the regular prison system. The Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES) estimated that, as of June 30, prison overcrowding was 346 percent. The prison population included 24,675 inmates with convictions and 10,263 inmates in pretrial detention. In many facilities, provisions for sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature control, medical care, and lighting were inadequate. On November 14, the PDDH published a report on deteriorating prison conditions, observed during fact-finding missions between April and July. The report highlights worsening conditions since the April implementation of extraordinary measures, including decreased access to medical care while infectious diseases increased, lack of sanitation facilities for the number of inmates, inmates sleeping on the floor without blankets, and inmates lacking space to sleep because of extreme overcrowding.
Men and women had separate accommodations within the prisons. A separate women’s prison in Ilopango was generally clean and allowed inmates to move freely within and inmates’ children under the age of five to stay with their mothers.
Due to prison overcrowding, police authorities held some pretrial detainees in small detention centers at police stations, which had a combined capacity of 2,102 persons. FUSADES reported in February that authorities held approximately 83 percent of these pretrial detainees in detention centers longer than the 72 hours legally permitted before presenting them to a court, some for up to two years. Similarly, due to the lack of holding cells, authorities often held pretrial detainees in regular prisons with violent criminals.
On March 16, the Legislative Assembly approved temporary provisions to allow parole for inmates considered low-level threats and with prison sentences of less than eight years (291 inmates).
On May 27, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the systematic violation of basic human rights by prison overcrowding, citing the government for violating prisoners’ right to health, and ordered periodic visits by the Ministry of Health. The court ordered prison authorities to build new prisons and to remodel others to shelter inmates humanely and the judicial system to review the inmate rosters with an aim of reducing the number of prisoners. Authorities closed one prison during the year, and another was under construction.
In November 2015 the Public Opinion Institute of the University of Central America (IUDOP-UCA) released the findings of its 2009-15 study on the penitentiary and prison system. The report estimated that 9 percent of the prison population was ill, including with highly communicable diseases such as tuberculosis. In August the General Directorate of Prisons (DGCP) began addressing tuberculosis within the prison system by creating mobile tuberculosis treatment teams and separate holding cells for infected inmates.
Prisoners conducted criminal activities from their cells, at times with the complicity of prison guards. Smuggling of weapons, drugs, and other contraband such as cell phones and cell-phone SIM cards was a major problem in the prisons. On April 1, the Legislative Assembly unanimously approved “extraordinary security measures” to prevent gang members from orchestrating crimes from within the prison system. These measures included preventing communication between inmate gang leaders and their members outside prison, suspending all private communication and contact with their families and limiting access to their lawyers, and detaining and isolating known gang leaders in higher security prisons. The measures also subjected the inmates in prisons designated for convicted gang members to isolation and restriction to their cells for 24 hours per day. According to the PDDH, prison authorities modified some of the measures in July and August and allowed prisoners up to one hour outside of their cells. The extraordinary measures affected 13,162 inmates housed in seven prisons: Izalco, Quezaltepeque, Chalatenango, Ciudad Barrios, Gotera, and Zacatecoluca penitentiaries, as well as one sector of Ilopango penitentiary. In response, approximately 200 relatives of imprisoned gang members organized a march on June 29 to demand the government reinstate family visits and file a complaint with the PDDH. On November 18, the government launched additional extraordinary measures in response to an increase in homicides of police officers and soldiers by gang members. These measures included moving gang members considered responsible for attacks against police officers to higher-security prisons and increasing their isolation.
Gang activities in prisons and juvenile holding facilities remained a serious problem. As of August 15, detention center facilities held 16,215 inmates who were current or former gang members. On October 22, the Prison Directorate ordered 235 inmates moved to different prisons in an effort to break up gang “cliques” within prisons. As of May, the Salvadoran Institute for Child Development (ISNA) reported that two adolescents died in juvenile detention facilities. ISNA also reported that there were 418 juveniles convicted and 230 juveniles awaiting trial.
According to news reports, 25 prisoners were killed within prisons between January and August, including 11 prisoners killed in the Gotera Penitentiary by fellow inmates. As of August, the Prison Directorate had reported only 11 homicides within prisons.
As of September 6, prison authorities removed two guards from duty for carrying illegal objects and sanctioned 29 guards for misconduct. Prison authorities received 17 complaints of human rights violations allegedly committed by prison personnel.
There was no information available regarding abuse of persons with disabilities in prisons, although the government’s National Council for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Disability (CONAIPD) previously reported isolated incidents, including sexual abuse.
Administration: The IUDOP-UCA report noted that, between 2009 and 2015, parole board staffing decreased by 48 percent. In 2015 the prison system had 69 technical employees (including attorneys, sociologists, social workers, and psychologists) to provide services to more than 31,000 inmates. The PDDH has authority to investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has authority regarding the protection of constitutional rights.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison-monitoring visits by independent human rights observers, NGOs, and the media, except to those prisons covered by the extraordinary measures. The PDDH continued to monitor all prisons. Church groups, the Central American University’s Human Rights Institute, LGBTI activists, and other groups visited prisons during the year. After the implementation of the extraordinary measures, which restricted monitoring of the prisons subject to the measures, the International Committee for the Red Cross suspended all prison visits until visitation was restored in the prisons subject to the extraordinary measures.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. The NGO Social Initiative for Democracy stated that officials, particularly in the judicial system, often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: Autonomous government institutions initiated several investigations into corruption. In late 2015 the Probity Section of the Supreme Court began, for the first time, to investigate seriously allegations of illicit enrichment of public officials. The Supreme Court reported that, as of July 22, the Probity Section investigated 72 current and former public officials for evidence of illicit enrichment and submitted five cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal investigation. As of July 18, the Attorney General’s Office reported investigating 93 cases related to corruption, resulting in seven convictions.
Attorney General Douglas Melendez, elected by the legislature in January, initiated criminal investigations of several public officials for corruption during the year. On June 6, the police arrested Apopa mayor Elias Hernandez on gang-related charges of illicit association, making threats, and aggravated homicide. On August 17, the Attorney General’s Office executed search warrants on seven properties related to former president Mauricio Funes (2009-14) and opened a criminal corruption case against him. The government of Nicaragua granted Funes asylum on September 2. On August 22, police arrested former attorney general Luis Martinez and businessperson Enrique Rais on charges related to corruption. On October 30, former President Antonio “Tony” Saca (2004-09) was arrested on corruption-related charges, including embezzlement and money laundering, stemming from an alleged conspiracy to divert $18 million in government funds to private accounts. On November 5, a judge denied his bail.
Financial Disclosure: The illicit enrichment law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section of the Supreme Court. The declarations are not available to the public, and the law does not establish sanctions for noncompliance. On May 12, the Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting which cases to investigate: the age of the case (i.e., proximity to the statute of limitations), the relevance of the position, and the seriousness and notoriety of the alleged illicit enrichment.
Public Access to Information: The law provides for the right of access to government information, but authorities did not always effectively implement the law. The law establishes mechanisms to appeal denials of information and report noncompliance with other aspects of the law. As of July, the Institute for Access to Public Information had formally received 1,001 cases, 81 percent of which had been resolved. The law gives a narrow list of exceptions that outline the grounds for nondisclosure and provide for a reasonably short timeline for the relevant authority to respond, no processing fees, and administrative sanctions for noncompliance.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Although government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to these groups, officials at times were reluctant to discuss certain issues, such as extrajudicial killings and the PDDH. The government required domestic and international NGOs to register, and some domestic NGOs reported that the government made the registration process unnecessarily difficult.
On January 28, the PNC launched the Secretariat for Professional Responsibility, which internally investigates all allegations of police misconduct.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The principal human rights investigative and monitoring body is the autonomous PDDH, whose head is nominated by the Legislative Assembly for a three-year term. The PDDH regularly issued reports and press releases on prominent human rights cases. The PDDH generally enjoyed government cooperation and was considered generally effective, except in areas controlled by criminal groups and gangs.
The PDDH maintained a constructive dialogue with the President’s Office. The government publicly acknowledged receipt of PDDH reports, although in some cases it did not take action on PDDH recommendations, which are nonbinding.
On September 7, the deputy ombudsman stated the PDDH had inadequate resources to carry out the majority of its investigations.
The tenure of the ombudsman expired on August 8, by which time the Legislative Assembly was required to elect a new ombudsman. On September 22, the Legislative Assembly selected Raquel Caballero de Guevara as the new ombudswoman for a term of three years.
On October 26, anticipating the 25th anniversary of the peace accords, the PDDH created a consultative committee to define the role of the PDDH in the coming years. The committee was composed of civil society members representing legal, religious, environmental, economic, political, and health perspectives.