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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.

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, at one-third above capacity as of August, was a serious threat to prisoners’ health and welfare. The prisons system had a capacity for 27,037 inmates, but, as of August 17, there were more than 36,000 inmates. For example, the PDDH reported that in one prison, 1,486 inmates were held in facilities designed for 280.

Convicted inmates and pretrial detainees were sometimes held in the same prison cells.

Gangs remained prevalent in prisons. After a sudden increase in gang violence in late April, President Bukele ordered a lockdown and imposed strict measures in the seven prisons where most imprisoned gang leaders and members were held. Prison authorities implemented the order, placing gang leaders in solitary confinement, mixing rival gang members together, conducting cell searches for contraband, and boarding up cells to prevent prisoners communicating among cells using visual signals. As of September approximately 55 percent (18,746 prisoners) of the prison population were active or former gang members.

According to the PDDH, many prisons had inadequate sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature control, medical care, and lighting. Inmates experienced gastrointestinal illnesses and skin problems due to poor water quality.

In August the PNC reported 51 percent overcrowding in police holding cells, with more than 4,000 detainees in cells designed for 1,500-1,800 individuals. This was up from 2,300-2,400 detainees held in similar facilities in 2019.

On March 11, President Bukele announced a quarantine plan that required anyone entering the country be placed in a government-run quarantine center for 30 days. Government officials began implementation immediately after President Bukele’s announcement and forced many who were already in transit to enter the quarantine centers. According to media reports, the government was not sufficiently prepared and faced high levels of overcrowding; one facility in particular held 700 persons in an area meant to house 400. Quarantined individuals posted photographs and videos on social media denouncing poor sanitary conditions, including dirty restrooms and a lack of personal hygiene supplies, as well as a lack of food, water, and medical attention.

Administration: The PDDH has authority to investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions. During the state of emergency, authorities did not allow prisoners and detainees to receive any visitors or to gather for religious observances.

Independent Monitoring: As of August, according to the PDDH, COVID-19 made it temporarily impossible to inspect detention centers or interview inmates due to the serious health risk. At times the prison system was entirely closed to visits, allowing only employees to enter. Professional and family visits, inspections of institutions, and visits by international organizations, NGOs, churches, and others were completely suspended.

Improvements: New construction and a redistribution of prisoners reduced overcrowding from 141 percent in September 2019 to 139 percent as of August.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, there were numerous complaints that the PNC and military forces carried out arbitrary arrests. NGOs reported that the PNC arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals on suspicion of gang affiliation.

The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed this provision.

On March 21, President Bukele issued a mandatory nationwide stay-at-home order for 30 days. Following this announcement, the PNC and armed forces began enforcement and placed those violating the order in containment centers for 30 days of quarantine. Some of those detained for violating the stay-at-home order were taken to police stations and held for more than 24 hours.

Apolonio Tobar, the ombudsman for human rights, reported that individuals in detention were not receiving their COVID-19 test results until weeks after being tested. According to media, this delay contributed to extended time in detention as individuals were forced to stay in the quarantine facilities longer than the mandated 30 days without a specific explanation from health officials regarding the reason for their continued quarantine or the date of their release.

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 generally apprehended persons with warrants based on evidence and issued by a judge, although this was frequently ignored when allegations of gang membership arose. 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; this period may be extended by an appeals court. Many cases continued beyond the legally prescribed period.

Arbitrary Arrest: As of August 27, the PDDH reported 22 complaints of arbitrary detention or illegal detention, compared with 66 from January to August 2019. Most of the complaints were related to alleged violations of the COVID-19 quarantine.

In March the NGO Cristosal presented a habeas corpus petition to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court on behalf of three women in Jiquilisco, Usulutan Department, who were arrested and taken into police custody after they went shopping for food and medication. On April 8, the court ordered the government to release the women, since shopping for food and medication was a permitted exception to the stay-at-home order and thus the arrests were illegal. On the same day, the Constitutional Chamber issued a resolution ordering the executive branch to stop illegal and arbitrary arrests and detentions. The Constitutional Chamber stated that any arrest or decision to take someone to a quarantine facility needed the legal framework of a legislative decree, not a presidential decree. The court stated that the decision to move someone into quarantine should be made by health officials only in cases where there are risks of being exposed to or spreading COVID-19.

In a follow-up order on April 15, the Constitutional Chamber ordered the executive branch to set up a registry of persons who had been detained and those who had been released, and mandated that the PDDH monitor the situation and send progress reports to the court every five days. President Bukele announced via Twitter that his administration did not recognize the court’s resolutions or the oversight role of the PDDH.

The Constitutional Chamber ruled in April that any military, police, or other security officials who committed abuses in applying COVID-19 containment policies, including strict enforcement of a stay-at-home order resulting in arbitrary arrests or detention, would be held personally responsible for their actions. The court warned that no one would be allowed to claim “due obedience” for complying with orders and that neither the military nor police were authorized to carry out discretionary or arbitrary arrests.

The Constitutional Chamber received 330 habeas corpus petitions in the two months after the government instituted the nationwide stay-at-home order. Prior to COVID-19, the Constitutional Chamber averaged approximately 400 petitions a year. Most of the complaints involved alleged violations of citizens’ freedom of movement, brought by individuals who were detained in containment centers for disobeying the stay-at-home order. On or about May 11, security forces stopped sending individuals to containment centers for circulating publicly and instead began sending them home. According to the IDHUCA Human Rights Observatory report, 16,756 persons were detained and released from the containment centers from March 21 to August 24.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a significant problem. As of August three-quarters of the general prison population had been convicted and one-quarter had yet to be tried. Some persons remained in pretrial detention longer than the maximum legal sentences for their alleged crimes. In such circumstances detainees were permitted to request a Supreme Court review of their continued detention.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses 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. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views.

In March several international and national nongovernmental human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Tutela Legal, and Cristosal, among others, questioned the government’s methods to contain the spread of COVID-19 and warned that these methods violated the rule of law and opened the door to arbitrary detentions and abuses of power by police. President Bukele criticized these groups through his Twitter account.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The principal human rights investigative and monitoring body is the autonomous PDDH, whose ombudsman is nominated by the Legislative Assembly for a three-year term. The PDDH regularly issued advisory opinions, reports, and press releases on prominent human rights cases. There was a tense relationship between the PDDH and the Bukele administration. The PDDH ombudsman, Jose Apolonio Tobar, said his institution received constant attacks, particularly from President Bukele, who stigmatized him as a defender of criminals. President Bukele publicly discredited the work of the PDDH ombudsman on several occasions. When the Legislative Assembly nominated Tobar as the PDDH ombudsman in October 2019, Tobar was facing three criminal cases for “fraud, bribery, and arbitrary acts” from his time as a civil court judge, and international organizations, NGOs, several legislators, the San Salvador mayor, and President Bukele criticized the nomination.

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

Children

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 small fine. Failure to register may result in denial of school enrollment.

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 conviction of breaking the law include losing custody of the child and three to 26 years’ imprisonment, depending on the nature of the abuse.

On February 29, the FGR arrested a teacher in Santiago de Maria, Usulutan Department, for sexual aggression against a 10-year-old girl.

On June 2, the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court overturned the November 2019 lower court decision that had eliminated criminal charges against Judge Eduardo Jaime Escalante Diaz for sexually touching a 10-year-old girl. The court ordered the trial court to proceed with a criminal trial for sexual assault.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. The law bans child marriage to prevent child abusers from avoiding imprisonment by marrying their underage victims. The law allows for marriage of a minor in cases of pregnancy.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Child sex trafficking is prohibited by law. Prison sentences for convicted traffickers stipulate imprisonment from 16 to 20 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 for conviction of four to 13 years’ imprisonment.

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 conviction of 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/reported-cases.html.

Section 7. Worker Rights

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.

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