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El Salvador

Executive Summary

El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic with a democratically elected government. In 2019 voters elected Nayib Bukele as president for a five-year term. The election was generally free and fair, according to international observers. Municipal and legislative elections took place on February 28 and were largely free and fair.

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. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture and 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 media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists and censorship; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious acts of government corruption; lack of consistent investigation and accountability for gender-based violence; significant barriers to accessing reproductive health; and crimes involving violence by security forces against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex individuals.

Impunity persisted 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. Impunity for official corruption remained endemic.

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

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 October 25, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) was investigating seven cases of extrajudicial killings, six attributed to the members of the National Civilian Police (PNC) and one to the armed forces.

On January 31, PNC officers arrested three men on charges of double homicide after they killed two supporters of opposition party Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) following a soccer match. The three perpetrators worked for the Ministry of Health. President Bukele tweeted that the attack was a plot hatched by his political rivals to damage his Nuevas Ideas party’s chances in the February 28 legislative and municipal elections, but there was no evidence of a plot.

On July 19, PNC officers in Guacotecti, Cabanas Department, killed two brothers suspected of being members of transnational gang MS-13. According to relatives, PNC officers arrived at the house to arrest the two brothers who had outstanding warrants, and the brothers fled with rifles when they saw the police officers. The victims’ father said his two sons previously received threats from police, claiming the PNC officers planned the shooting and told him, “We are going to kill your children.”

The First Justice of the Peace of Santa Tecla, La Libertad Department, ordered the provisional arrest of four soldiers for the aggravated homicide of a 30-year-old engineer on August 12. The soldiers from the Apolo Task Force claimed the victim attacked them with a firearm from his vehicle and that the soldiers returned fire. The Scientific Technical Police found no firearms or bullet casings in the vehicle, and the victim’s hands did not have traces of gunpowder.

On February 7, the First Trial Court of Santa Tecla convicted three PNC officers of aggravated homicide and sentenced each of them to 25 years in prison for the 2017 extrajudicial killings of three persons in San Jose Villanueva, La Libertad Department. The PNC officers claimed they received information that the three persons in the vehicle were armed gang members, but the prosecutor showed that the PNC officers intercepted the vehicle and shot the victims without confrontation.

b. Disappearance

Media reports alleged that security and law enforcement officials were involved in unlawful disappearances. According to reports, the PNC recorded 989 disappearances between January 1 and June 29, an increase from the same period in 2020 when the PNC tracked 728 cases. The PNC reported that 545 of those reported missing were later found alive and 51 found dead. Minister of Justice and Public Security Gustavo Villatoro explained that many disappeared persons were victims of homicide, as criminals hid the bodies of their victims to avoid charges of homicide.

On April 7, the Foundation for Studies for the Application of Law released a study stating that the illegal practice of disappearing a person was no longer exclusive to gangs and that police, soldiers, and extermination groups viewed unlawful disappearances as a low-cost, effective way of resolving conflicts. According to a Human Rights Observatory of the Central American University (OUDH) report published in September, extermination groups operated with police, military, and civilian members, simulating legal actions such as searches, raids, and police operations in addition to illegal actions such as arbitrary detentions and killings. The report also noted that between 2015 and 2020, the Attorney General’s Office identified approximately 15 extermination groups in the country.

On May 31, Minister of Justice and Public Security Gustavo Villatoro criticized families who posted photographs of their missing relatives on social media accounts and asked them instead to file a formal complaint with the PNC or the Attorney General’s Office. Villatoro accused the families of psychologically damaging their missing children who eventually are found and stated most persons leave their families because they want to leave their life partner or because they did not get enough attention at home.

On June 1, the daily newspaper El Diario de Hoy reported that the Attorney General’s Office stopped the regular practice of publishing the photographs and information of missing persons following the arrival of the new attorney general, Rodolfo Delgado, on May 1. The Attorney General’s Office recorded more missing persons (5,381) than homicides (2,940) during the first two years of the Bukele administration, with most of the victims disappeared in areas with a high presence of gangs.

The Attorney General’s Office reported 66 minors as missing in the first 10 months of the year, 15 boys and 51 girls. All cases were under investigation.

On December 1, the daily newspaper La Prensa Grafica reported the findings from a study by the OUDH showing that between June 2019 and June 2021, only four cases of missing persons ended in a conviction. This number represented well less than 1 percent of the total cases of missing persons initiated by the Prosecutor’s Office.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court is responsible for addressing these types of cases.

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 31, the PDDH reported 25 complaints of arbitrary detention or illegal detention, compared with 22 from January to August 2020.

According to media reports, on April 22, the Attorney General’s Office accused PNC officers Miguel Angel Hernandez, Luis Edgardo Chavez, Cesar Ernesto Menjivar, Milton Cesar Hernandez, Oscar Antonio Mancia, and Jose Leodan Menjivar of at least a dozen illegal acts, including arbitrarily detaining citizens.

On July 21, the Original Blue organization, a local NGO that seeks social transformation and supports vulnerable populations, reported that young persons in areas identified as having high presence of gangs were victims of arbitrary or illegal detentions by the PNC. The report included testimony from 12 individuals who said they were detained illegally.

On September 1, a vocal critic of President Bukele’s proposal to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender of El Salvador was arrested without a warrant and without explanation of the reason of his arrest. He was released the same day with no charges filed.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a significant problem. 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.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

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.

On April 12, gang members in Santa Tecla, La Libertad Department, beat a 77-year-old priest who tried to circumvent heavy traffic and accidentally entered a neighborhood with gang presence. When the priest slowed down to ask for directions, gang members surrounded his vehicle and demanded to know why he was in their neighborhood. The gang members then beat the priest and took photographs of his identity documents.

On August 25, gang members killed a 25-year-old man in Ciudad Delgado, San Salvador Department. The victim was helping change a tire on his friend’s vehicle when MS-13 gang members approached them to demand their identity documents, where they lived, and what they were doing in the neighborhood. When the gang members realized the victim and his friend resided in a different neighborhood, the gang members shot the victim, while the friend managed to escape.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials. Although the Supreme Court investigated corruption in the executive and judicial branches and referred some cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal indictment, corruption and impunity remained endemic.

Multiple officials in the executive branch were accused of engaging in corrupt acts. In many instances the government either ignored the actions or took steps to actively prevent prosecution of those officials unless the officials were political opponents or were members of previous administrations.

Corruption: On August 23, El Faro followed up on its September 2020 story accusing the Bukele administration of negotiating with senior gang leaders since 2019 to obtain electoral support and a reduction in homicides prior to this year’s legislative and municipal elections. Citing photographs and audio recordings, El Faro reported that former attorney general Raul Melara’s investigation found evidence that the Bukele administration negotiated with the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs and that the DGCP removed hard drives and hundreds of logbooks documenting the negotiations four days after the publication of the initial article.

On September 19, El Faro reported that the Attorney General’s Office under former attorney general Melara found evidence that Bureau of Prisons Director Osiris Luna embezzled $1.6 million worth of food between September and November 2020 from the Public Health Emergency Program, a government food program assisting families during the pandemic. There was also evidence that Luna then resold these goods to a merchant who was known to sell contraband.

According to media reports, President Bukele dismissed Minister of Justice and Public Security Eduardo Rogelio Rivas Polanco in March due to Rivas Polanco diverting public funds to a private account to finance his presidential candidacy in the 2024 elections.

On May 6, the Legislative Assembly approved the Law for the Use of Products for Medical Treatments in Exceptional Public Health Situations Caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic. The law includes provisions to shield vaccine manufacturers from liability and allows the government to bypass procurement and transparency regulations. According to the NGO Democracy, Transparency, and Justice Foundation, the new law seeks to retroactively protect government officials from misuse of public money for pandemic spending that occurred before the approval of the law.

On June 4, President Bukele announced the termination of the cooperation agreement with the OAS, bringing an end to the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES). The president claimed the termination was in response to the OAS announcing the hiring of former San Salvador mayor Ernesto Muyshondt as an advisor to the OAS. The president explained that Muyshondt faced criminal proceedings for negotiating with gangs for electoral support and therefore the government could not continue to work with an organization that hired a criminal as an advisor. Analysts and media reported that CICIES was investigating Bukele administration officials and speculated that the president used the Muyshondt issue as a pretense to terminate the CICIES agreement to stymie the investigations into his administration. In July, OAS representatives stated they offered Muyshondt an honorary contract but did not formally hire him and that the contract was never signed. Head of CICIES Ronalth Ochaeta said CICIES sent 12 cases of possible corruption from five government institutions to the Attorney General’s Office on April 7. As of September 13, the Attorney General’s Office had not revealed the details of those investigations.

Officials from the Attorney General’s Office raided the headquarters of opposition party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) on July 2 and seized assets to recover funds embezzled from a donation by Taiwan made between 2003 and 2004. Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado stated that former president Antonio Saca financed his electoral campaign with $10 million donated by Taiwan for reconstruction projects following two earthquakes in 2001.

On July 22, the PNC arrested five former government officials on charges of illicit enrichment for having received illegal side payments that exceeded their salaries authorized by law. All five served in the administration of former president Mauricio Funes, who remained under political asylum protection in Nicaragua to evade charges of illicit enrichment. Attorney General Delgado also issued arrest warrants for four more government officials, including former president Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who left the country in December 2020 and became a citizen of Nicaragua on July 30. Funes, Ceren, the five arrested officials, and the other former officials with arrest warrants all belonged to opposition party FMLN.

As of August 10, the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) failed to fulfill its legal obligation to publish the 2020 report on public entities. The report, approved in November 2020, evaluated the transparency performance of 98 government institutions and 60 municipalities and was expected to cover information related to purchases, contracts, or tenders made during the COVID-19 pandemic. After President Bukele appointed three commissioners to the IAIP, the institute decided in December 2020 to postpone publication of the report. As of August 20, the Ethics Tribunal reported that it had opened 170 administrative proceedings against 240 public officials. The Ethics Tribunal imposed sanctions on 19 cases and referred 18 cases to the Attorney General’s Office.

On September 8, the Legislative Assembly approved reforms to the criminal procedure code to remove the statute of limitations and apply the law retroactively to crimes of corruption.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups critical of the Bukele administration and Nuevas Ideas party were subjects of government investigations and surveillance. Government officials were not cooperative and responsive to their views.

On June 2, President Bukele gave a speech announcing the beginning of “the battle of the people against the ideological apparatus,” referring to civil society organizations and media as an “internal enemy” that controls the people’s way of thinking.

On July 30, the president summoned representatives from civil society organizations for a four-hour closed-door meeting at the Presidential House. The civil society organizations reported that the president agreed to reduce confrontational speeches attacking the press and civil society and made a commitment to not persecute journalists or others critical of the government. Observers noted the president has not kept his promise.

On November 12, the Ministry of Finance presented to the Attorney General’s Office evidence of alleged money laundering and tax evasion by a nongovernmental organization dedicated to economic and social development. The ministry claimed their audit showed the organization moved $50 million to a tax haven on a Caribbean island. Although the press announcement did not include the name of the organization, representatives of the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development later confirmed they were the subject of the audit. They said that they were innocent of the accusations and claimed the organization and other NGOs who were critical of the actions of the government had been persecuted.

In November several members of NGOs, civil society organizations and journalists received an alert on their cellphones from Apple saying they may have been the target of state-sponsored espionage. Among the recipients of the alert were members of the Institute of Human Rights of the Central American University, Cristosal, and the Democracy, Transparency and Justice Foundation as well as journalists from El Faro, La Prensa Grafica, El Diario de Hoy, Disruptiva Magazine, Gato Encerrado magazine, Diario El Mundo, and independent journalists.

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. The PDDH ombudsman, Jose Apolonio Tobar, requested access to monitor conditions in the prisons but had not been allowed to enter the prisons since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. In addition the budget approved by the Legislative Assembly for the PDDH in the coming year was again significantly cut.

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