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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 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

b. Disappearance

Reports alleged that security and law enforcement officials were involved in unlawful disappearances. Law enforcement agencies had not released data on disappearances since 2017, citing a discrepancy between data collected by the PNC and the FGR. Media reported in March that the discrepancy continued.

According to media reports, the FGR recorded 542 disappearances between January and March, with an average of six missing persons cases per day. This marked a decrease from the same period in 2019 when the FGR tracked 829 cases, equivalent to nine disappearances daily. The PNC reported that 65 percent of those reported missing were later found alive and that there was a likelihood that many of the remaining 35 percent had emigrated. The FGR reported 724 cases of “deprivation of liberty” through July 13, compared with 2,234 cases from January through October 2019; however, this offense included both disappearances and missing persons.

On August 10, media reported that the PNC registered 728 missing persons cases in the first half of the year, compared with 1,295 reported during the same time period in 2019. Of the cases reported in the first six months, 56 percent were still missing as of September, 40 percent were found alive, and 4 percent were found deceased. The local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Servicio Social Pasionista reported that as of June there were 434 disappearances, compared with 652 in 2019.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices, but there were reports of violations. As of August 27, the PDDH had received 15 complaints of torture or cruel or inhuman treatment by the PNC and two by the armed forces, compared with 33 and nine complaints, respectively, as of August 2019. The PDDH also received 55 complaints of mistreatment and disproportionate use of force by the PNC, four by the armed forces and one by the PNC and armed forces together.

Reports of abuse and police misconduct came mostly from residents of metropolitan San Salvador and mainly from men and young persons. As of June, according to the PNC, 104 officers had been involved in crimes and offenses, resulting in 92 charges. Furthermore, as of September 14, the PNC received 90 complaints of general misconduct by police, including but not limited to torture or cruel or inhuman treatment; five of the 90 complaints were officially submitted to the FGR.

On May 6, in Zacatecoluca, La Paz Department, media reported on the case of a man who died while in provisional detention under police custody. Allegedly, the PNC told the family of the man, arrested on homicide and gang membership charges connected to the 2019 killing of a soldier, that he had died of COVID-19 and that he should be buried immediately and without opening the casket. Media reported that the family did not believe the cause of death and inspected the body at the grave, finding the man still handcuffed, with a bloodied face and broken teeth. The family believed he died after being tortured and took photographs of the body. The PNC maintained the man died of massive bleeding. The PDDH called for an investigation into the case. On May 12, the FGR exhumed the body for an autopsy but, as of September 16, had not made any arrests.

According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in March of sexual exploitation and abuse by Salvadoran peacekeepers deployed to the UN Mission in South Sudan, allegedly involving an exploitative relationship with an adult. As of September the United Nations was investigating the allegation.

Impunity was a problem in the PNC and armed forces. Media reported cases of the PNC abusing their authority during the nationwide stay-at-home order. The government repeatedly defied judicial order to allow expert witnesses access to inspect military archives to determine criminal responsibility for the 1981 El Mozote massacre. Factors contributing to impunity included politicization and general corruption. The FGR is responsible for investigating abuses. The government provided annual training to military units to dissuade any potential for gross abuses of human rights, such as the training provided to the Marine Infantry Battalion by the navy’s Legal Unit on the need to respect human rights.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports the state intelligence service tracked journalists or collected information regarding their private lives.

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 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

d. Freedom of Movement

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.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, and the law’s definition of rape may apply to spousal rape, at the judge’s discretion. The law requires the FGR 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 conviction of 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 for conviction 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. In 2018 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 January 31, the Specialized Court of Instruction for a Life Free of Violence and Discrimination against Women found the boyfriend of a journalist from the newspaper La Prensa Grafica guilty of femicide for her death and imposed the maximum prison sentence of 50 years. The National Coordinator of Femicides from the FGR stated the ruling sent a message that “in this country it will not be allowed to continue killing women because of their condition of being a woman.”

On April 3, ORMUSA reported a 70 percent increase in domestic violence cases during the nationwide stay-at-home order. According to the IDHUCA Human Rights Observatory Report, the FGR registered 158 cases of domestic violence between March 21 and May 13.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and establishes sentences if convicted of five to eight years’ imprisonment. Courts also may impose additional fines in cases in which the perpetrator held 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.

According to the 2019 Survey of Households and Multiple Purposes of the General Directorate of Statistics and Censuses, at least 889 women left their workplace due to sexual harassment from supervisors and coworkers, compared with approximately 1,340 cases in 2018.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and had access to the information and means to do so. Access to reproductive health services outside of the capital city was limited.

The law completely bans abortions. Civil society advocates expressed concern that the ban has led to the wrongful incarceration of women who suffered severe pregnancy complications, including miscarriages.

On September 20, the First Court of Penitentiary Surveillance approved the request for early parole for Cindy Erazo, who spent six years in prison for conviction in 2015 of aggravated homicide based on giving birth to a stillborn baby in 2014. Erazo was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but a successful appeal in 2016 reduced her sentence to 10 years. At the end of the year, 18 women remained in prison for similar crimes.

In 2016 the Institute for Women’s Development implemented the National Care System to improve the care, protection, and access to justice for victims of sexual and other types of violence. The specialized comprehensive care includes medical care, counseling, family planning, medical examinations, and treatment of sexually transmitted infections in victims of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The constitution grants women and men the same legal rights, but women did not receive equal pay or employment opportunities. The law establishes sentences of one to three years in prison for public officials convicted of denying a person’s civil rights based on gender and six months to two years for employers convicted of discriminating against women in the workplace, but employees generally did not report such violations due to fear of employer reprisals.

In July a female legislator filed a complaint with the FGR against the president of the Legislative Assembly, Mario Ponce, and ARENA legislator Mauricio Vargas for gender discrimination in the workplace and psychological and public harassment. The 11th Peace Court declared the lawsuit inadmissible because both Ponce and Vargas had legislative immunity.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join independent unions, to strike, and to bargain collectively, but violations were reported to the Ministry of Labor. The law also prohibits antiunion discrimination although it does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Military personnel, national police, judges, and high-level public officers may not form or join unions. The labor code does not cover public-sector workers and municipal workers, whose wages and terms of employment are regulated by the 1961 civil service law. Only citizens may serve on unions’ executive committees. The labor code also bars individuals from holding membership in more than one trade union.

Unions must meet complex requirements to register, including having a minimum membership of 35 individuals. If the Ministry of Labor denies registration, the law prohibits any attempt to organize for up to six months following the denial. Collective bargaining is obligatory only if the union represents the majority of workers.

The law contains cumbersome and complex procedures for conducting a legal strike. The law does not recognize the right to strike for public and municipal employees or for workers in essential services. The law does not specify which services meet this definition, and courts therefore apply this provision on a case-by-case basis. The law requires that 30 percent of all workers in an enterprise must support a strike for it to be legal and that 51 percent must support the strike before all workers are bound by the decision to strike. Unions may strike only to obtain or modify a collective bargaining agreement or to protect the common professional interests of the workers. Unions must engage in negotiation, mediation, and arbitration processes before striking, although many unions often skipped or expedited these steps. The law prohibits workers from appealing a government decision declaring a strike illegal.

In lieu of requiring employers to reinstate illegally dismissed workers, the law requires employers to pay those workers the equivalent of 30 days of their basic salary for each year of service. The law specifies 30 reasons for which an employer may terminate a worker’s contract without triggering any additional responsibilities, including consistent negligence, leaking private company information, or committing immoral acts while on duty. An employer may legally suspend workers, including due to an economic downturn or market conditions.

The government did not effectively enforce the laws on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. According to union representatives, the government inconsistently enforced labor rights for a wide range of workers. Unions reported that their members frequently faced violence or threats of violence and that viable legal recourse against such violence was unavailable. Gang activity made it difficult for workers, who continued to be harassed and exposed to violence, to exercise their union activities freely.

Unions functioned independently from the government and political parties, although many generally were aligned with the traditional political parties of ARENA and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. The elected leadership of the Social Security Institute Workers Union alleged that a group of dissident members aligned with the government seized control of the union in 2019 and gained government recognition by a manner contrary to the union’s by-laws. Workers at times engaged in strikes regardless of whether the strikes met legal requirements.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government generally did not effectively enforce such laws. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The Ministry of Labor did not report on forced labor. Children and adults were exposed to forced begging, domestic work, agricultural labor, construction, and street work. Adults from neighboring countries were forced to work in construction, domestic work, and other informal sector jobs, sometimes under threat of physical violence. Gangs subjected children to forced labor in illicit activities, including selling or transporting drugs and committing homicides (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution, labor laws, and state regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin (except in cases determined to protect local workers), social origin, gender, disability, language, or HIV-positive status. The government did not effectively enforce those laws and regulations, and penalties were not commensurate to laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected in the constitution or labor law, although the PDDH and the Ministry of Labor actively sought to protect workers against discrimination on those grounds.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to gender, disability, and sexual orientation or gender identity (see sections 6 and 7.e.). According to the Ministry of Labor, migrant workers have the same rights as citizens, but the ministry did not effectively protect their rights.

As of May the Ministry of Labor had not received complaints of disability discrimination but had received six complaints of gender-based discrimination. The law, reformed in 2018, prohibits the dismissal of women returning from maternity leave for up to six months.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The government sets the minimum wage, which varies by sector. All of the wage rates were above poverty income levels. The government enforced the minimum wage law more effectively in the formal sector than in the informal sector.

The law sets a maximum normal workweek of 44 hours–limited to no more than six days and to no more than eight hours per day–but allows overtime, which is to be paid at a rate of double the usual hourly wage. The law mandates that full-time employees receive pay for an eight-hour day of rest in addition to the 44-hour normal workweek. The law provides that employers must pay double time for work on designated annual holidays, a Christmas bonus based on the time of service of the employee, and 15 days of paid annual leave. The law prohibits compulsory overtime for all workers other than domestic employees, such as maids and gardeners, who are obligated to work on holidays if their employer makes this request. In such cases they are entitled to double pay. The government did not adequately enforce these laws, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for setting and enforcing occupational safety and health (OSH) standards, and the law establishes a tripartite committee to review these. The law requires employers to take steps to meet OSH requirements in the workplace, including providing proper equipment and training and a violence-free environment. Employers who violate labor laws may be penalized, but penalties were not commensurate with those for other similar crimes; some companies reportedly found it more cost-effective to pay the fines than to comply with the law. The law promotes occupational safety awareness, training, and worker participation in OSH matters. While the laws were appropriate for the main industries and the government trained its inspectors on these standards, it did not effectively enforce them.

The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations. Inspectors did not have the authority to initiate unannounced inspections or sanctions. Inspections were scheduled under a calendar set by the Inspections Directorate or to verify a complaint, and labor inspectors did not notify the company prior to their arrival. During the COVID-19 pandemic, labor inspectors made several unannounced inspections to verify employers were providing workers with personal protective equipment such as hand sanitizers and masks. As of September labor inspectors completed 17,512 inspections, compared with 33,636 inspections conducted in all of 2019. Allegations of corruption among labor inspectors continued. The Labor Ministry received complaints regarding failure to pay overtime, minimum wage violations, unpaid salaries, and cases of employers illegally withholding benefits (including social security and pension funds) from workers.

Reports of overtime and wage violations existed in several sectors. According to the Labor Ministry, employers in the agricultural sector routinely violated the laws requiring annual bonuses, vacation days, or rest days. Women in domestic service faced exploitation, mistreatment, verbal abuse, threats, sexual harassment, and generally poor work conditions. Workers in the construction industry and domestic service reportedly experienced violations of wage, hour, and safety laws. According to ORMUSA, civil society organizations, and media, certain apparel companies violated women’s rights through occupational health violations and unpaid overtime. There were reports of OSH violations in other sectors, including reports that a very large percentage of buildings did not meet safety standards set by law. The government proved ineffective in pursuing such violations.

In some cases the country’s high crime rate undermined acceptable conditions of work as well as workers’ psychological and physical health. Some workers, such as bus drivers, bill collectors, messengers, and teachers in high-risk areas, reported being subject to extortion and death threats by gang members. On May 25, the newspaper La Prensa Grafica reported extortion by gang members continued during the nationwide stay-at-home order. The FGR received 661 complaints of extortion from January 1 to May 14, compared with 899 complaints during the same period in 2019, and explained the decrease in complaints occurred because some victims chose to pay the extortion rather than file a complaint. On October 21, the newspaper Diario El Mundo reported gang members killed public transport employees to pressure transportation companies into paying extortion.

Through May 31, the Ministry of Labor reported 2,866 workplace accidents. These included 1,352 accidents in the services sector, 864 in the industrial sector, 310 in the commercial sector, 266 in the public sector, and 74 in the agricultural sector. The ministry did not report any deaths from workplace accidents.

Workers may legally remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, but authorities did not effectively enforce this law. On March 14, the Legislative Assembly unanimously approved Legislative Decree 593, which stated that workers could not be fired for being quarantined for COVID-19 or because they could not report to work due to immigration or health restrictions. President Bukele also mandated persons older than 60 and pregnant women to work from home.

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