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El Salvador

Executive Summary

El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic with a democratically elected government. In February 2019 voters elected Nayib Bukele as president for a five-year term. The election was generally free and fair, according to international observers. Free and fair municipal and legislative elections took place in 2018.

The National Civilian Police, overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security. The Ministry of Defense is responsible for maintaining national security. Although the constitution separates public security and military functions, it allows the president to use the armed forces “in exceptional circumstances” to maintain internal peace and public security “when all other measures have been exhausted.” The military is responsible for securing international borders and conducting joint patrols with the civilian police. In November 2019 President Bukele signed a decree authorizing military involvement in police duties. The decree, in effect until December 31, authorizes the military under National Civilian Police control to identify areas with the highest incidence of crime to target peacekeeping operations; conduct joint patrols with police to prevent, deter, and apprehend members of organized crime and common crime networks; carry out searches of individuals, vehicles, and property; help persons in cases of accidents or emergencies; make arrests and hand over detainees to police; prevent illegal trafficking of goods and persons at unauthorized national borders; strengthen perimeter security at prisons and other detention centers and schools; and provide land, sea, and air support to police. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses. On February 9, the executive branch used security forces to attempt to interfere with the independence of the legislature.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression and the press; serious acts of government corruption; lack of consistent investigation and accountability for violence against women; and crimes involving violence by security forces against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals.

Impunity persisted despite government steps to dismiss and prosecute abusers in the security forces, executive branch, and justice system. In some cases authorities investigated and prosecuted persons accused of committing crimes and human rights abuses.

Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes. They committed killings and acts of extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence. They directed these acts against police, judicial authorities, the business community, journalists, women, and members of vulnerable populations.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, although the government at times did not respect this right. The law permits the executive branch to use the emergency broadcasting service to take control of all broadcast and cable networks temporarily to televise political programming.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Journalists from several digital and print media outlets publicly accused President Bukele, his administration, and his supporters of a pattern of harassment designed to constrain media. In public statements and in testimony to the Legislative Assembly, journalists claimed President Bukele and his cabinet officials bullied them on Twitter, threatened them with physical harm, launched unwarranted financial investigations into their taxes and funding sources, denied them access to press conferences, and surveilled them. President Bukele strongly denied threatening journalists and dismissed accusations he was stifling freedom of the press. President Bukele called public attention to the outlets’ funding sources, which he claimed carry a heavy political bias and had been mobilized by the opposition ahead of legislative elections scheduled to be held in February 2021.

Violence and Harassment: On April 15, the Inter American Press Association reported several journalists complaining that progovernment trolls harassed, discredited, and threatened journalists on Twitter.

As of April the Salvadoran Journalist Association (APES) had registered 54 violations of the exercise of journalism. Among these were restrictions to asking questions during press conferences related to the government handling of the pandemic, destruction of journalistic material, harassment against independent journalists and discrediting of media outlets by government officials. As of August 27, the PDDH had received 10 complaints of violence against journalists by government officials.

On September 14, the digital newspaper El Faro filed suit against the government, accusing the Finance Ministry of using aggressive auditing practices to punish the firm for its critical reporting. El Faro representatives claimed auditors were asking for more information than the law allows, including nonfinancial records, for use other than auditing purposes that could lead to a form of censorship.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government advertising accounted for a significant portion of media income. According to media reports, the Bukele administration punitively cancelled all government advertising in the newspaper El Diario de Hoy after it reported on the banning of some journalists from the president’s press conferences. According to APES, media practiced self-censorship, especially in reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking.

On October 5, the government began broadcasting a state-owned newscast on Channel 10. On October 19, the government launched the state-owned newspaper Diario El Salvador. Serafin Valencia of APES criticized the state-owned media outlets as “government propaganda disguised as journalism.”

Nongovernmental Impact: APES noted journalists who reported on gangs and narcotics trafficking were subject to kidnappings, threats, and intimidation. Observers reported that gangs also charged print media companies to distribute in their communities, costing media outlets as much as 20 percent of their revenues.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, except with respect to labor unions (see section 7.a.).

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although in many areas the government could not ensure freedom of movement due to criminal gang activity.

In-country Movement: The major gangs controlled access to their specific territories. Gang members did not allow persons living in another gang’s area to enter their territory, even when travelling via public transportation. Gangs forced persons to present government-issued identification cards (containing their addresses) to determine their residence. If gang members discovered that a person lived in a rival gang’s territory, that person risked being killed, beaten, or denied entry to the territory. Bus companies paid extortion fees to operate within gang territories, often paying numerous fees for the different areas in which they operated. The extortion costs were passed on to customers.

As of July the FGR had filed 463 cases charging an illegal limitation on the freedom of movement, a decrease from the 1,515 cases brought from January through October 2019. The FGR reported 81 convictions for such charges through July 13, compared with 50 through the same period in 2019.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated there were 454,000 additional internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to violence in 2019 and reported the causes of internal displacement included threats, extortion, and assassinations perpetrated by criminal gangs. The IDMC also reported 1,900 additional IDPs due to natural disasters in 2019.

On January 10, the NGO ARPAS, an association of community radio networks, reported that the Legislative Assembly approved the Special Law for the Comprehensive Care and Protection of Internally Displaced Persons. The law calls for the creation of a national system whose main function is to implement and evaluate the national policy towards IDPs.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and some assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although this was often difficult in gang-controlled neighborhoods.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future