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El Salvador

Executive Summary

El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic. Municipal and legislative elections held in 2015 were generally free and fair, although results were delayed due to slow transmission, tabulation, and vote count dissemination. Free and fair presidential elections took place in 2014.

Civilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over security forces.

The most significant human rights issues included alleged unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel, which the government prosecuted; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of government respect for judicial impartiality and independence; widespread government corruption; gang-member violence against women and girls as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals; and children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.

Impunity persisted despite government steps to dismiss and prosecute some officials in the security forces, the executive branch, and the justice system who committed abuses.

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

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the government did not respect judicial independence and impartiality, and the judiciary was burdened by inefficiency and corruption. The Solicitor’s Office, responsible for public defenders, the Attorney General’s Office, and the PDDH suffered from insufficient resources.

While the government generally respected court orders, some agencies, such as the Ministry of Defense, repeatedly failed to cooperate with investigations by the Attorney General’s Office and judges. The Legislative Assembly also did not always comply with Supreme Court rulings. As of October 30, 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.

Intimidation of judges, including Supreme Court members, continued to occur. Two legislators participated in demonstrations critical of judges, especially the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. Supreme Court justices increased their personal security as a result. On October 23, a member of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) political party threated to sue members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court for perceived abuse of power. On August 17, the Council of Ministries, a part of the executive branch, issued a public statement against the Constitutional Chamber that declared the 2017 budget unconstitutional. On May 11, an estimated 300 persons marched to the Supreme Court to protest against the Constitutional Court following an injunction that ended the use of segregated lanes of the Metropolitan Area Integrated Transportation System of San Salvador (SITRAMSS). Unlike with most protests, police officers did not set up barricades to stop them from moving to the main gate of the court; demonstrators reached the main gate and damaged it. El Mundo newspaper noted that despite verbal threats against the justices during the protest and damage to public property, the PNC did not intervene.

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 July 31, the Supreme Court heard 148 cases against judges due to irregularities, 117 of which remained under review; removed six judges; suspended 19 others; and brought formal charges against 28 judges. Accusations against judges included collusion with criminal elements and sexual harassment.

In July 2016 the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court struck down the 1993 Amnesty Law on the grounds that it violated citizens’ constitutional right to justice and the right to compensation for crimes against humanity and war crimes. The law provided blanket protection against criminal prosecution and civil penalties for crimes committed during the country’s civil war (1980-92), and the court’s ruling held that the Legislative Assembly did not have authority to grant an absolute amnesty. On July 19, the Constitutional Chamber held a follow-up hearing on the progress made by different sectors of the government to comply with the recommendations made by the court, such as issuing a law to guarantee a democratic transition that respects human rights and interagency coordination between the executive and the attorney general to improve judicial accountability for gross violations of human rights committed during the civil war. As of October 30, the Legislative Assembly had not debated or passed legislation pertaining to reparations or reconciliation, and the executive had not granted sufficient funds to the attorney general to prosecute civil war cases.

On August 21, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court published its August 18 ruling against enforcing an arrest warrant for 13 former members of the military accused of the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. The court noted that it had denied multiple extradition requests from Spain on the Jesuit case, and therefore it would not issue additional arrest warrants based on Spain’s Interpol Red Notice, as the arrests would not lead to extraditions. On April 6, the First Appellate Criminal Court of San Salvador upheld the 30-year sentence against former colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno for his role in the 1989 murders, and he was the sole individual in prison for the crimes. Lieutenant Yusshy Rene Mendoza Vallecillos was sentenced to 30 years for the murder of the priests’ housekeeper’s daughter in the original 1991 trial. Mendoza was not arrested along with Benavides and his whereabouts were unknown, although he was believed to be out of the country.

On June 2, the attorney general issued arrest warrants for three ex-guerrilla members of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) allegedly responsible for the 1981 deaths of two foreign citizens–Lieutenant Colonel David H. Pickett and an aviation technician, Private First Class Earnest G. Dawson Jr.–killed in Lolotique, San Miguel, after their helicopter was shot down. The warrants followed the February 14 reopening by the Attorney General’s Office of the investigation into their killing after a petition from the right-leaning NGO Victims of Terrorism in El Salvador Alliance. Two of the guerrilla members, Ferman Hernandez Arevalo (alias Porfirio) and Ceveriano Fuentes (alias Aparicio), served time in prison but were released after the passage of the 1993 Amnesty Law. A third former guerilla member suspected of involvement in the killing, Santos Guevara Portillo (alias Dominguez), was never arrested. As of August 30, the three defendants had not been arrested.

In September 2016, in response to a petition by the victims, a judge issued an order to reopen the investigation into the 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which an estimated 800 persons were killed during the military’s Operation Rescue. On March 29-30, Judge Guzman held hearings to inform 20 accused former military officials of the charges against them. Two of the accused were deceased, and 12 of the remaining 18 attended the hearing. Eleven other defendants had died since the case was initiated in 1991 by Tutela Legal, a human rights defense organization formerly housed in the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America. The hearings marked the first time the defendants were summoned before a judicial body to face accusations for crimes committed during the massacre. On June 9, the prosecution called on 11 witnesses to provide testimony in the trial regarding events that occurred between December 11 and 13, 1981. Witness testimony continued into September and October. On October 19, former general Juan Rafael Bustillo, the accused intellectual author of the massacre, appeared before the court to hear the charges against him. The Ministry of Defense did not provide information requested by the presiding judge or prosecution and claimed that all records of Operation Rescue had been destroyed or never existed, including the names of the soldiers who participated in the operation and their commanding officers. David Morales, representative of the victims, asked the attorney general to investigate the steps taken by the Ministry of Defense that led to their conclusion that it had no information on Operation Rescue. On October 25, the Technical Secretariat stated that between 2013 and 2017, the state paid $1.8 million in restitution to survivors and the families of victims of the El Mozote massacre, of which 1,651 were identified.

Civil society advocates expressed concern that pregnant women were falsely accused and experienced wrongful incarceration in cases where the woman may have suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth but was wrongfully charged with homicide under the law banning abortion in all cases. On December 15, San Salvador’s Second Court of Judgment denied the appeal of Teodora del Carmen Vasquez and upheld her 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide over what she claimed was a stillbirth.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

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. Although procedures call for juries to try certain crimes, including environmental pollution and certain misdemeanors, judges decided most cases. By law juries hear only a narrow group of cases, such as environmental complaints, to which the law does not assign judges. In these cases, 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 confront adverse witnesses and present one’s own witnesses and evidence, the right to appeal, and government-provided legal counsel for the indigent. The judiciary introduced trials by video conference and other technology-based solutions to courtrooms in an effort to combat trial backlogs and improve trial procedures.

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 if the defendant does not understand Spanish. 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.

As of August 31, the PDDH had received 16 complaints of coercion and 68 complaints of intimidation by the PNC, the armed forces, and other public officials during criminal investigations or trial procedures.

The Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s Executive Technical Unit provided witness protection services to victims and witnesses. Some judges denied anonymity to witnesses at trial, and gang intimidation and violence against witnesses contributed to a climate of impunity from criminal prosecution. According to PNC director Howard Cotto, as of August 30, there were 55 individuals under witness protection.

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.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. The NGO Social Initiative for Democracy stated that officials, particularly in the judicial system, often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Autonomous government institutions initiated several investigations into corruption. As of August 23, the Probity Section of the Supreme Court was investigating 517 current and former public officials for evidence of illicit enrichment and submitted 15 cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal indictment. The increase from 72 investigations initiated in 2016 was due in part to a staffing surge. As of August 30, the Attorney General’s Office reported that investigations were in progress in 130 cases related to corruption, with 11 convictions during the year.

As of August 23, the Ethics Tribunal reported that it had received 375 complaints against 476 public officials. The tribunal sanctioned 33 public officials and forwarded six cases to the attorney general.

On June 27, Attorney General Douglas Melendez confirmed that he was conducting an investigation into FMLN leader and Vice Minister for Investment and Funding for Development Jose Luis Merino. Merino’s position as vice minister granted him immunity from prosecution.

On April 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Sigfrido Reyes as an ambassador, at the recommendation of the president, while he retained his position as president of the export promotion agency (PROESA). Reyes was under investigation for illicit enrichment, and the ambassadorial appointment provided Reyes, a senior FMLN politician, with legal immunity.

On June 6, the Attorney General’s Office began an asset forfeiture process against nine properties (valued at $627,000) of late former president Francisco Flores.

On February 4, the attorney general indicted 17 individuals in the corruption case against former president Antonio Saca (2004-09). A court froze additional assets belonging to suspects in the Saca case, including 50 properties and 60 vehicles. On August 21, the attorney general further charged Saca with bribery.

On November 28, former president Mauricio Funes and his son, Diego Funes Canas, were found guilty of illicit enrichment. Funes was ordered to pay restitution and was found ineligible to hold public office for a 10-year period. Funes and his children were granted political asylum in Nicaragua in September 2016.

On January 13, the First Criminal Chamber of El Salvador revoked bail for former attorney general Luis Martinez, businessman Enrique Rais, and five other suspects facing trial on corruption-related charges including fraud and bribery. On October 4, Luis Martinez was indicted on additional charges of coverup and procedural fraud. Police received an order to recapture Enrique Rais and five associates, all of whom disappeared after a court hearing on January 9.

Financial Disclosure: The illicit enrichment law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section of the Supreme Court. The declarations are not available to the public unless requested by petition, and the law establishes fines for noncompliance that range from $11 to $571. Citizens groups petitioned the Probity Section to disclose 18 assets statements of public officers. The Probity Section had not complied due to a lack of response from banks. The full Supreme Court gave the Probity Section until August 29 to submit the requested information; as of November, the Probity Section had not submitted the information and repeated extension requests had been granted. In May 2016 the Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting investigable cases: the age of the case (i.e., proximity to the statute of limitations), the relevance of the position, and the seriousness and notoriety of the alleged illicit enrichment.

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

Women

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.

As of October the Office of the Inspector General reported five cases of alleged rape by police officers and six cases of sexual assault.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and provides imprisonment of up to five years if the victim is an adult and up to eight years if the victim is a minor. Courts may impose fines in addition to a prison term in cases where the perpetrator maintains a position of trust or authority over the victim. The law also mandates that employers take measures against sexual harassment, violence against women, and other workplace harassment. The law requires employers to create and implement preventive programs to address violence against women, sexual abuse, and other psychosocial risks. The government, however, did not enforce sexual harassment laws effectively.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods. Estimates on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence are available at: www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/monitoring/maternal-mortality-2015/en/ .

Discrimination: The constitution grants women and men the same legal rights, but women did not enjoy equal treatment. 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.

While the law prohibits discrimination based on gender, women suffered from cultural, economic, and societal discrimination. The law requires equal pay for equal work, but according to the 2016 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, the average wage paid to women for comparable work was 54 percent, down from 60 percent in 2015, of the compensation paid to men.

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 $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. For additional information, see Appendix C.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. On August 17, legislators approved a ban on child marriage to prevent child abusers from using legal technicalities to avoid imprisonment.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Child sex trafficking is prohibited by law. On March 29, the Legislative Assembly approved a reform to the penal code to increase prison sentences for convicted traffickers from four to eight years, to six to 10 years.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The law classifies statutory rape as sexual relations with anyone under the age of 18 and includes penalties of four to 13 years’ imprisonment for violations.

The law prohibits paying anyone under the age of 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 travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community totaled approximately 150 persons. There were no known 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 allocate sufficient resources to enforce prohibitions against discrimination effectively, particularly in education, employment, and transportation. 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 due to a lack of facilities and resources. No formal system existed for filing a discrimination complaint involving a disability with the government. The Ministry of Labor’s General Directorate for Labor Inspection imposed 403 fines on businesses between 2014 and 2017 for violations of the labor law that requires the hiring of persons with disabilities.

Indigenous People

According to the 2007 census, the most recent for which this data was available, 0.4 percent of citizens identified as indigenous. A 2014 constitutional amendment recognizes the rights of indigenous people, 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 extremely limited.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. On November 13, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced new guidelines to protect LGBTI persons from discrimination at election polls. Under the guidelines, individuals cannot be denied the right to vote because the photo on their identification card does not match their physical appearance or gender expression.

On August 30, the attorney general filed charges against eight Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members for the aggravated homicides of three transgender persons. The in-depth police investigation by a specialized unit produced credible evidence that the victims had been involved in gang-related extortion activities. On February 18, two of the victims arrived at a party in San Luis Talpa, La Paz Department, when perpetrators fired shots from a vehicle. Authorities reported that the gangs killed a third transgender victim on February 21 in Cuyultitan, in La Paz, in retaliation for her participation in the killings of the first two victims. In March the PNC assigned its High Visibility Crimes Unit to investigate the homicides of the three transgender women, and the Secretary for Social Inclusion met with activists to hear their concerns about LGBTI hate crimes. While the crimes themselves were later determined to be gang related, the government and the PDDH issued statements against hate crimes in response to concerns expressed immediately after the crimes by the LGBTI community.

A March 21 hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights focused on anti-LGBTI violence and hate crimes. One NGO told commissioners that at least 600 persons had experienced hate crimes based on their sexual orientation or gender identity since 2004. As of August 31, the PDDH had received six complaints for crimes against LGBTI persons.

NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons. Members of the LGBTI community stated that PNC and Attorney General’s Office personnel ridiculed them when they applied for identification cards or reported cases of violence against LGBTI persons. The NGO Association for Communication and Training of Transgender Women with HIV in El Salvador (COMCAVIS Trans) reported that, as of September, a total of 28 LGBTI persons were attacked or killed because of their sexual orientation.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Although the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of HIV/AIDS status, Entre Amigos, an LGBTI nongovernmental organization, reported that discrimination due to HIV was widespread. As of August 31, the PDDH reported one case of discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS. The Ministry of Labor reported one case of discrimination against an HIV-positive employee based on the illness in 2016.

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