Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed politically motivated killings. There were reports, however, of security force involvement in extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members. As of July 31, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) announced it was investigating 22 complaints against police officers, prison guards, and personnel of the Attorney General’s Office for such killings.
The case continued against nine police officers charged in September 2017 with aggravated homicide and concealment stemming from the killing of five persons. Three of the accused were members of the now decommissioned Police Reaction Group (GRP), and police claimed at the time of the events that the deaths were justified homicides.
On March 2, the Attorney General’s Office appealed the September 2017 acquittal of five police officers for aggravated homicide charges in the 2015 killing of a man at a farm in San Blas, San Jose Villanueva. The judge had ruled that the prosecutors failed to prove which of the five officers was specifically responsible for firing the fatal shot and likewise failed to prove conspiracy. On May 4, the Fourth Appellate Court of Appeals confirmed it would retry the case.
On February 23, police authorities in coordination with INTERPOL arrested Jaime Ernesto Bonilla Martinez, who lived in Texas, for participating in at least eight homicides as part of an alleged extermination group operating in San Miguel. The group, composed of civilians, some of whom were alleged rival gang members, and retired and active members of the military and police, was purportedly responsible for murder-for-hire and targeted killings of alleged gang members in San Miguel. Funding for the extermination group reportedly came from Salvadoran citizens living abroad.
As of October 25, alleged gang members had killed 21 police officers. On August 21, the Organized Crime Court convicted 61 MS-13 members of homicide, extortion, illicit trafficking, and conspiracy to kill police officers, among other crimes.
There were reports alleging that members of security and law enforcement were involved in unlawful disappearances. Since March 2017 law enforcement agencies had not released data on disappearances, citing a discrepancy between data collected by police and the Attorney General’s Office.
On March 7, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the armed forces were responsible for investigating the disappearance of two 17-year-old boys in Ilopango in 2014. According to the court, seven soldiers detained and searched them, tied their hands with their shoelaces, and took them to Colonia Santa Maria, which was controlled by a rival gang. The two youths missed school that afternoon and were not seen thereafter. The case was ongoing.
In May 2017 a Sonsonate court convicted five soldiers of forced disappearance committed in 2014 and sentenced them to eight years’ imprisonment. Their defense attorneys filed an appeal, and the case remained ongoing. In January the Constitutional Chamber found the military in contempt of their August 2017 order that the Ministry of Defense investigate and report on civilian deaths caused by the military.
On September 1 and in December 2017, the Constitutional Chamber issued two sentences in forced disappearance cases from 1982. The Constitutional Chamber determined that investigations should be carried out on the whereabouts of the victims and underlined the state’s responsibility in ensuring an unobstructed investigation. The chamber noted that the Ministry of Defense and the chief of the joint chiefs of staff of the armed forces were uncooperative in the investigation.
As of October the attorney general had opened investigations into 12 instances of forced disappearance during the 1980-92 civil war.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, but there were reports of violations. As of July 31, the PDDH received 18 complaints of torture or cruel or inhuman treatment by the National Civil Police (PNC), the armed forces, and other public officials.
On May 29, a court recommended that colonels Hector Solano Caceres and David Iglesias Montalvo, along with Lieutenant Colonel Ascencio Sermeno face charges for homicide, bribery, and conspiracy for ordering the torture of two men in 2016 in Apaneca. In 2017 six soldiers were convicted in the same case.
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 welfare. As of June 30, the PDDH reported that think tank Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development reported 38,849 inmates were being held in facilities designed for 18,051 inmates.
Convicted inmates and pretrial detainees were sometimes held in the same prison cells.
In June the Salvadoran Institute for Child Development (ISNA) reported 945 juveniles in detention, with 274 of those awaiting trial. Of those, 356 were held on homicide charges, 465 for extortion, 313 for drug-related crimes, and 143 for gang membership. As of July ISNA reported that three minors were killed by gang members while in detention, compared with nine in 2017. ISNA also reported that as of June, seven minors were victims of trafficking in persons, compared with 18 in 2017.
Gangs remained prevalent in prisons. As of September 2017, detention centers held 17,614 current or former gang members, or 46 percent of the prison population. So-called extraordinary measures were designed to interrupt gang communications and coordination between imprisoned leaders and gang members outside the prisons. Smuggling of weapons, drugs, and other contraband such as cell phones and cell phone SIM cards was reduced but remained a problem in the prisons, at times with complicity from prison officials.
Law enforcmement officials credited the extraordinary measures with a 45 percent reduction in homicides. The PDDH and human rights groups faulted the measures for lacking judicial oversight. On August 16, the Legislative Assembly formalized some elements of the extraordinary measures as part of a reformed penitentiary code, which now allows supervised family visits.
In many facilities provisions for sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature control, medical care, and lighting were inadequate, according to the PDDH. From August 2017 to May, the General Prison Directorate reported 2,440 cases of inmate malnutrition and the PDDH reported more than 500 cases of severe malnutrition in Izalco and Ciudad Barrios prisons. The PDDH noted that in 2017 a total of 64 inmates died, some of them due to unspecified causes.
In October the PNC reported overcrowding in police holding cells, with 5,500 detainees in cells designed for 1,500 persons. Those in pretrial detention were held alongside sick inmates.
Administration: The PDDH has authority to investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has authority over the protection of constitutional rights. The extraordinary measures granted broad authorities to wardens to order disciplinary actions, to include isolation and withholding family or religious visitations, without judicial oversight. Extraordinary measures ended in August when the Legislative Assembly reformed the penitentiary code.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits by independent human rights observers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media to low- and medium-security prisons. Inspections of high-security prisons were limited to government officials, the PDDH, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Early in the year, the government reinstated the ICRC’s access to all prisons. Church groups; the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex activists; the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions; and other groups visited prisons during the year. The PDDH reported that from May 2017 to April, it conducted 1,644 unannounced prison inspections.
Improvements: Due to the construction of new prisons completed during the year and redistribution of prisoners, overcrowding declined from 334 percent to 215 percent as of August.
Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, there were numerous complaints that the PNC and military forces arbitrarily arrested and detained persons. As of July 31, the PDDH received 31 complaints of arbitrary detention, a decrease from 86 complaints received in the same period in 2017. NGOs reported that the PNC arbitrarily arrested and detained groups of persons on suspicion of gang affiliation. According to these NGOs, the accused were ostracized by their communities upon their return.
The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed this provision.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The PNC, overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security, and 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 PNC. In 2016 President Sanchez Ceren renewed the decree authorizing military involvement in police duties, a presidential order in place since 1996.
The military’s “Zeus Command” comprised 3,100 soldiers in 10 task forces to support police in providing security. These soldiers were to operate only in support of the PNC and were not authorized to arrest or detain. Three hundred and twenty soldiers in the Volcano Task Force, launched in September 2017 as a temporary expansion of the military’s presence in San Salvador, continued to support the city’s police and installed checkpoints throughout the city and conducted random searches of public buses.
There were reports of impunity for security force involvement in crime and human rights abuses during the year. The PDDH is authorized to investigate (but not prosecute) human rights abuses and refers all cases involving human rights abuses to the Attorney General’s Office. Reports of abuse and police misconduct were most often from residents of the metropolitan area of San Salvador and mostly from men and young persons.
The Police Inspector General reported it received 831 complaints against police and dismissed 155 police officers due to misconduct and took disciplinary action against 555 police officers as of October 23.
On August 2, Deputy Police Director of Specialized Operative Areas Mauricio Arriaza stated that 10 police officers of the Specialized Police Tactical Unit (UTEP) were dismissed due to human rights abuses. UTEP was created on February 14 to replace the Specialized Reaction Force of El Salvador, the Special Operation Group, and the GRP. The GRP was disbanded in February following the disappearance of female GRP member Carla Ayala. As of November 5, the Ministry of Defense had not responded to requests to report the number of soldiers removed from its ranks due to alleged ties to gangs.
As of October 26, authorities reported alleged gang members had killed 22 police officers, three soldiers, and three prison guards.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The constitution requires a written warrant of arrest except in cases where an individual is caught in the act of committing a crime. Authorities apprehended persons with warrants based on evidence and issued by a judge. Police generally informed detainees promptly of charges against them.
The law permits release on bail for detainees who are unlikely to flee or whose release would not impede the investigation of the case. The bail system functioned adequately in most cases. The courts generally enforced a ruling that interrogation without the presence of counsel is coercive and that evidence obtained in such a manner is inadmissible. As a result, PNC authorities typically delayed questioning until a public defender or an attorney arrived. The constitution permits the PNC to hold suspects for 72 hours before presenting them to court. The law allows up to six months for investigation of serious crimes before requiring either a trial or dismissal of the case which may be extended by an appeals court. Many cases continued beyond the legally prescribed period.
Arbitrary Arrest: As of October 23, the PDDH reported 31 complaints of arbitrary detention or illegal detention, compared with 86 from January to August 2017.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a significant problem. As of October, 30 percent of the general prison population was in pretrial detention. Some persons remained in pretrial detention longer than the maximum legal sentences for their alleged crimes. In such circumstances detainees may request a Supreme Court review of their continued detention.
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the government did not always respect judicial independence, and the judiciary was burdened by inefficiency and corruption.
While the government generally respected court orders, some agencies ignored or minimally complied with orders, or sought to influence ongoing investigations. When ordered by the Constitutional Court on June 19 to release military records related to the El Mozote killings and serious civil war crimes, the Ministry of Defense responded it had already done so while denying investigators access to archival facilities at military bases, citing national security concerns. As of July 31, the Legislative Assembly had not complied with a 2015 ruling that it issue regulations to clarify certain sections of the political parties law regarding campaign contributions.
In a February 26 press conference, Minister of Defense David Munguia Payes criticized the attorney general’s charges against three military officers after they were acquitted of obstruction of justice in a torture case. On February 27, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions Agnes Callamard released a statement calling on Payes to respect the independence of the judiciary and reiterating her support for the attorney general. Media experts called Munguia’s stagecraft menacing and reminiscent of civil war-era propaganda employed by the military junta.
While implemented to expedite fair trials, virtual trials still involved delays of up to eight months, according to a July 22 newspaper report. Virtual trials often involved group hearings before a judge, with defendants unable to consult with their defense lawyers in real time. The penitentiary code reforms passed in August allow defense lawyers to attend a hearing without the defendant’s presence. Human rights groups questioned the constitutionality of the reform.
As of July 31, the PDDH received 31 complaints of lack of a fair, public trial.
Corruption in the judicial system contributed to a high level of impunity, undermining the rule of law and the public’s respect for the judiciary. As of August 31, the Supreme Court heard 57 cases against judges due to irregularities, 52 of which remained under review; removed two judges; suspended nine others; and brought formal charges against eight judges. Accusations against judges included collusion with criminal elements and sexual harassment.
In 2016, in response to a petition by victims, a judge issued an order to reopen the investigation into the 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which an estimated 800 persons were killed. The PDDH concluded that the Attorney General’s Office lacked initiative in investigating civil war crimes, The PDDH also cited the Attorney General Office’s lack of cooperation from the Ministry of Defense and the Office of the President (CAPRES). On August 16, a group of Argentine forensics specialists testified they recovered 282 pieces of evidence determined to be human remains, including 143 skulls, 136 of them belonging to children younger than 12 years old. They also recovered 245 bullet casings corresponding to the type used in automatic weapons used by the armed forces.
Women who were accused of intentionally terminating their pregnancies were charged with aggravated homicide, but a number asserted they had suffered miscarriages, stillbirths and other medical emergencies during childbirth. Legal experts pointed to serious flaws in the forensics collection and interpretation.
In December 2017 Teodora del Carmen Vasquez’ conviction on aggravated homicide charges was upheld by the same appeals judges who had earlier sentenced her to 30 years. The Supreme Court commuted her sentence on February 15, opining that the evidence and motive presented by the prosecution in the case was insufficient to support the charges.
During the first nine months of the year, the justice system released five women accused of aggravated homicide of their unborn or newborn children due to lack of evidence. Twenty-five other women remained in custody for infanticide.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although some trial court judges were subject to political and economic influence. By law juries hear only a narrow group of cases, such as environmental complaints. After the jury determines innocence or guilt, a panel of judges decides the sentence.
Defendants have the right to be present in court, question witnesses, and present witnesses and evidence. The constitution further provides for the presumption of innocence, the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges, the right to a trial without undue delay, protection from self-incrimination, the right to communicate with an attorney of choice, the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, freedom from coercion, the right to appeal, and government-provided legal counsel for the indigent.
According to press reports, plea deals occurred in approximately 20 percent of cases, with the accused turning state’s witness in order to prosecute others. Legal experts pointed to an overreliance on witness testimony in nearly all cases, as opposed to the use of forensics or other scientific evidence. The justice system lacked DNA analysis and other forensics capability. In criminal cases a judge may allow a private plaintiff to participate in trial proceedings (calling and cross-examining witnesses, providing evidence, etc.), assisting the prosecuting attorney in the trial procedure. Defendants have the right to free assistance of an interpreter. Authorities did not always respect these legal rights and protections. Although a jury’s verdict is final, a judge’s verdict is subject to appeal. Trials are public unless a judge seals a case.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
The law provides for access to the courts, enabling litigants to bring civil lawsuits seeking damages for, as well as cessation of, human rights violations. Domestic court orders generally were enforced. Most attorneys pursued criminal prosecution and later requested civil compensation.
On May 25, the Constitutional Chamber declared unconstitutional Article 49 of the Civil Service Law, ruling that it violated the double jeopardy prohibition because previously established facts were taken as an essential element for a more serious administrative sanction.
The constitution prohibits such actions; however, a January news report claimed the state intelligence service tracked several journalists and collected compromising information about their private lives. The newspaper submitted photographic and whistleblower evidence to support its claim.
In many neighborhoods armed groups and gangs targeted certain persons; and interfered with privacy, family, and home life. Efforts by authorities to remedy these situations were generally ineffective.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, and the criminal code’s definition of rape may apply to spousal rape, at the judge’s discretion. The law requires the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute rape cases whether or not the victim presses charges, and the law does not permit the victim to withdraw the criminal charge. The penalty for rape is generally imprisonment for six to 10 years. Laws against rape were not effectively enforced.
The law prohibits domestic violence and generally provides for sentences ranging from one to three years in prison, although some forms of domestic violence carry higher penalties. The law also permits restraining orders against offenders. Laws against domestic violence remained poorly enforced, and violence against women, including domestic violence, remained a widespread and serious problem. On July 31, the Salvadoran Organization of Women for Peace (ORMUSA) reported that in 2016 and 2017, only 5 percent of the 6,326 reported crimes against women went to trial. On July 4, police arrested a police commissioner for violating the terms of a restraining order protecting his spouse.
According to the World Health Organization, the rate of cases involving violence against women was 5,999 per 100,000 inhabitants and that 574 women were killed in 2015, 524 in 2016, and 469 in 2017.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and provides imprisonment for five to eight years. Courts may impose fines in addition where the perpetrator maintains a position of trust or authority over the victim. The law mandates that employers take measures against sexual harassment and create and implement preventive programs. The government, however, did not enforce sexual harassment laws effectively.
On September 24, media reported the sole female member of an elite police unit was reassigned to a high threat precinct in retaliation for taking gender-discrimination claims to internal affairs inspectors. She said her uniforms were discarded, her sleeping quarters moved, and a colleague threatened to kill her.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization. (For more information on maternal mortality and availability of contraception, see Appendix C.)
Discrimination: The constitution grants women and men the same legal rights, but women did not enjoy equal pay or employment opportunities. The law establishes sentences of one to three years in prison for public officials who deny a person’s civil rights based on gender and six months to two years for employers who discriminate against women in the workplace, but employees generally did not report such violations due to fear of employer reprisals.
On September 16, a labor union reported that a justice of the peace in Las Vueltas Chalatenango refused to promote a female clerk because she preferred a man have the position.
Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country and from their parents. The law requires parents to register a child within 15 days of birth or pay a $2.85 fine. Failure to register resulted in denial of school enrollment.
Education: Education is free, universal, compulsory through the ninth grade, and nominally free through high school. Rural areas, however, frequently did not provide required education to all eligible students due to a lack of resources and because rural parents often withdrew their children from school by the sixth grade, requiring them to work.
Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious and widespread problem. The law gives children the right to petition the government without parental consent. Penalties for breaking the law include the child being taken into protective custody and three to 26 years’ imprisonment, depending on the nature of the abuse.
On November 15, police arrested a woman in Juayua, Sonsonate, after she beat an 11-year-old child with a stick for losing a cell phone accessory. According to a 2016 National Health Survey, more than half of households punished their children physically and psychologically.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. The law bans child marriage to prevent child abusers from using legal technicalities to avoid imprisonment by marrying their victims.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Child sex trafficking is prohibited by law. Prison sentences for convicted traffickers stipulate imprisonment from six to 10 years. The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The law classifies statutory rape as sexual relations with anyone younger than age 18 and includes penalties of four to 13 years’ imprisonment for violations.
The law prohibits paying anyone younger than age 18 for sexual services. The law prohibits participating in, facilitating, or purchasing materials containing child pornography and provides for prison sentences of up to 16 years for violations. Despite these provisions, sexual exploitation of children remained a problem.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.
The Jewish community totaled approximately 150 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The National Council for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Disability (CONAIPD), composed of representatives from multiple government entities, is the governmental agency responsible for protecting disability rights, but lacks enforcement power. According to CONAIPD, the government did not effectively enforce legal requirements for access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. Few access ramps or provisions for the mobility of persons with disabilities existed.
According to CONAIPD, there is no mechanism to verify compliance with the law requiring businesses and nongovernment agencies to hire one person with disabilities for every 25 hires. CONAIPD reported employers frequently fired persons who acquired disabilities and would not consider persons with disabilities for work for which they qualified. Further, some academic institutions would not accept children with disabilities.
No formal system existed for filing a discrimination complaint involving a disability with the government.
Indigenous communities reported they faced racial discrimination and economic disadvantage. According to community leaders, gangs pushed out of urban centers by police mounted incursions and appropriated indigenous land. They also reported gang members threatened their children for crossing gang territorial lines artificially drawn across ancestral indigenous land, forcing some children to drop out of school or leave home.
According to the 2007 census, the most recent for which this data was available, there were 60 indigenous groups, and 0.4 percent of citizens identified as indigenous, mainly from the Nahua-Pipl, Lencas, Cacaopera (Kakwira) and Maya Chorti groups. A 2014 constitutional amendment recognizes the rights of indigenous people to maintain their cultural and ethnic identitiy, but no laws provide indigenous people rights to share in revenue from exploitation of natural resources on historically indigenous lands. The government did not demarcate any lands as belonging to indigenous communities. Because few possessed title to land, opportunities for bank loans and other forms of credit remained limited.
While the law provides for the preservation of languages and archeological sites, it does not include the right to be consulted regarding development and other projects envisioned on their land.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which also applies to discrimination in housing, employment, nationality, and access to government services. Gender identity and sexual orientation are included in the criminal code provisions covering hate crimes, along with race and political affiliation. NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against sexual minorities. Persons from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community stated that the PNC, and the Attorney General’s Office harassed transgender and gay individuals when they reported cases of violence against LGBTI persons, including by conducting strip searches.
As of July 31, the PDDH reported eight accusations made by the LGBTI community of five homicides, one unauthorized search, and one harassment complaint. The PDDH was unable to determine whether the incidents were bias-motivated. Activists also reported receiving death threats via social media; police generally failed to take action on these reports.
On April 16, the Ministry of Security and Justice led a formal signing ceremony for the Institutional Policy for the Protection of the LGBTI Community. A product of two years of roundtable dialogues, the policy instructs the security and migration sectors of government to consult with the Office of Secretariat for Social Inclusion to ensure LGBTI persons are treated in accordance with international standards in their interactions with the state. In November 2017 the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced guidelines stating individuals cannot be denied the right to vote because the photograph on their identification card does not match their physical appearance.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
Although the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of HIV/AIDS status, Entre Amigos, an LGBTI NGO, reported discrimination due to HIV was widespread. As of July 31, the PDDH reported four cases of discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS. This included use of pejorative language against an inmate by a prosecutor, denial of university access, lack of medical confidentiality in the prison system of an HIV-positive diagnosis and discriminatory treatment from other inmates, and discrimination by public-health caregivers to a child and her mother.