El Salvador

Executive Summary

Since President Nayib Bukele took office on June 1, 2019, his administration has sought to attract foreign investment and has taken steps to reduce cumbersome bureaucracy and improve security conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic complicated implementation of reforms and dampened investment.

To respond to COVID-19, the Government of El Salvador (GOES) implemented several emergency measures, including travel restrictions beginning in February 2020 and a nationwide lockdown from March to June 2020. Unclear or conflicting wording among the numerous emergency decrees created uncertainty, complicated business operations, and increased the risks of inadvertent non-compliance. The discretionary application of emergency measures and severe penalties for non-compliance contributed to the uncertainty. Lockdown measures disrupted and limited business operations with even manufacturers of medical supplies and other essential products unable to receive formal permission to reopen. The Supreme Court found the GOES phased reopening decrees to be unconstitutional, mandating a complete nationwide reopening of the economy at the end of August 2020.

As a result of the lockdown and worldwide recession, El Salvador lost approximately 20 percent of formal jobs in 2020. El Salvador’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is forecasted to drop by 8.5 percent in 2020 according to the Central Bank, with recovery to pre-pandemic production in 2022.

Following the reopening, perceptions of the investment climate began to slowly recover. However, political gridlock and electoral uncertainty dampened business confidence. The victory of President Bukele’s New Ideas Party in the February 28 legislative and municipal elections should remove obstacles to governability during the remaining three years of Bukele’s presidential term. With a large majority of the seats in the Legislative Assembly, Bukele should be able to pass legislation and reforms. His administration has pledged to enact legislation to strengthen institutions and improve the regulatory environment to spur investment and create jobs. Policies and reforms, however, will take time to implement and show results.

Commonly cited challenges to doing business in El Salvador include the discretionary application of laws and regulations, lengthy and unpredictable permitting procedures, as well as customs delays. El Salvador has lagged its regional peers in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI). The sectors with the largest investment have historically been textiles and retail establishments, though investment in energy has increased in recent years.

The Bukele administration has proposed several large infrastructure projects, which could provide opportunities for U.S. investment. The GOES has established a technical working group to help prioritize investment projects and attract private sector participation. Project proposals include enhancing road connectivity and logistics, expanding airport capacity and improving access to water and energy, as well as sanitation. Having inherited a large public debt, the Bukele administration has begun pursuing Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to execute infrastructure projects. El Salvador awarded its first PPP project in October 2020 to expand the cargo terminal at the international airport. The contract award is pending legislative approval. It launched a second PPP to install highway lighting and video surveillance in January 2020 and extended the deadline to submit bids until March 15, 2021 due to COVID-19. With these two PPPs, the Bukele administration delivered on its commitment under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, which ends April 30, 2021.

As a small energy-dependent country with no Atlantic coast, El Salvador relies on trade. It is a member of the Central American Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) and the United States is El Salvador’s top trading partner. Proximity to the U.S. market is a competitive advantage for El Salvador. As most Salvadoran exports travel by land to Guatemalan and Honduran ports, regional integration is crucial for competitiveness. Although El Salvador officially joined the Customs Union established by Guatemala and Honduras in 2018, implementation has stalled. The Bukele administration announced in 2020 that it would prioritize bilateral trade facilitation with Guatemala.

The Bukele administration has taken initial steps to facilitate trade. In 2019, the government of El Salvador (GOES) relaunched the National Trade Facilitation Committee (NTFC), which produced the first jointly developed private-public action plan to reduce trade barriers. The plan contains 60 strategic measures focused on simplifying procedures, reducing trade costs, and improving connectivity and border infrastructure. In 2020, NTFC technical committees continued working to implement the action plan, as well as develop a national trade facilitation strategy. However, the NFTC has not presented progress on the action plan. The NFTC did not convene in 2020.

Table 1
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 104 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report “Ease of Doing Business” 2020 91 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings 
Global Innovation Index 2020 92 of 131 http://www.globalinnovationindex.org/content/page/data-analysis 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 3,380 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/factsheet.cfm 
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 4,000 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Toward Foreign Direct Investment

The GOES recognizes the benefits of attracting FDI. El Salvador does not have laws or practices that discriminate against foreign investors. The GOES does not screen or prohibit FDI. However, FDI levels still lag behind regional neighbors, except for Nicaragua. The Central Bank reported net FDI inflows of $232.95 million at the end of September 2020.

The Exports and Investment Promotion Agency of El Salvador (PROESA) supports investment in seven main sectors: textiles and apparel; business services; tourism; aeronautics; agro-industry; light manufacturing; and energy. PROESA provides information for potential investors about applicable laws, regulations, procedures, and available incentives for doing business in El Salvador. Websites: https://investelsalvador.com/  and http://www.proesa.gob.sv/investment/sector-opportunities .

The National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), El Salvador’s umbrella business chamber, serves as the primary private sector representative in dialogues with GOES ministries. http://www.anep.org.sv/ .

In 2019, the Bukele administration created the Secretariat of Commerce and Investment, a position within the President’s Office responsible for the formulation of trade and investment policies, as well as coordinating the Economic Cabinet. In addition, the Bukele administration created the Presidential Commission for Strategic Projects to lead the GOES major projects.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign citizens and private companies can freely establish businesses in El Salvador.

No single natural or legal person – whether national or foreign – can own more than 245 hectares (605 acres) of land. The Salvadoran Constitution stipulates there is no restriction on foreign ownership of rural land in El Salvador, unless Salvadoran nationals face restrictions in the corresponding country. Rural land to be used for industrial purposes is not subject to the reciprocity requirement.

The 1999 Investments Law grants equal treatment to foreign and domestic investors. With the exception of limitations imposed on micro businesses, which are defined as having 10 or fewer employees and yearly sales of $121,319.40 or less, foreign investors may freely establish any type of domestic business. Investors who begin operations with 10 or fewer employees must present plans to increase employment to the Ministry of Economy’s National Investment Office.

The Investment Law provides that extractive resources are the exclusive property of the state. The GOES may grant private concessions for resource extraction, though concessions are infrequently granted.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

El Salvador has been a World Trade Organization (WTO) member since 1995. The latest trade policy review performed by the WTO was published in 2016 (document: WT/TPR/S/344/Rev.1). https://docs.wto.org/dol2fe/Pages/FE_Search/FE_S_S006.aspx?Query=(@Symbol=%20wt/tpr/s/*)%20and%20((%20@Title=%20el%20salvador%20)%20or%20(@CountryConcerned=%20el%20salvador))&Language=ENGLISH&Context=FomerScriptedSearch&languageUIChanged=true# 

https://docs.wto.org/dol2fe/Pages/FE_Search/FE_S_S006.aspx?Query=(@Symbol=%20wt/tpr/s/*)%20and%20((%20@Title=%20el%20salvador%20)%20or%20(@CountryConcerned=%20el%20salvador))&Language=ENGLISH&Context=FomerScriptedSearch&languageUIChanged=true# 

The latest investment policy review performed by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was in 2010. http://unctad.org/en/Docs/diaepcb200920_en.pdf

Business Facilitation

El Salvador has various laws that promote and protect investments, as well as providing benefits to local and foreign investors. These include: the Investments Law, the International Services Law; the Free Trade Zones Law; the Tourism Law, the Renewable Energy Incentives Law; the Law on Public Private Partnerships; the Special Law for Streamlining Procedures for the Promotion of Construction Projects; and the Legal Stability Law for Investments.

Business Registration

Per the World Bank, registering a new business in El Salvador requires nine steps taking an average of 16.5 days. According to the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Report, El Salvador ranks 148 in the “Starting a Business” indicator. El Salvador launched an online business registration portal in 2017 designed as a one-stop shop for registering new companies. The online portal allows new businesses the ability to formalize registration within three days and conduct administrative operations online. The portal ( https://miempresa.gob.sv/ ) is available to all, though services are available only in Spanish.

The GOES’ Business Services Office (Oficina de Atención Empresarial) caters to entrepreneurs and investors. The office has two divisions: “Growing Your Business” (Crecemos Tu Empresa) and the National Investment Office (Dirección Nacional de Inversiones, DNI). “Growing Your Businesses” provides business advice, especially for micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises. The DNI administers investment incentives and facilitates business registration.

Contact information:

Business Services Office
Telephone: (503) 2590-5107
Address: Boulevard Del Hipódromo, Colonia San Benito, Century Tower, 7th Floor , San Salvador. Schedule: Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Crecemos Tu Empresa
E-mail: crecemostuempresa@minec.gob.sv
Website: http://www.minec.gob.sv/ 

The National Investment Office:

Stephanie Argueta de Rengifo , National Director of Investments, sargueta@minec.gob.sv;
Sandra Llirina Sagastume de Sandoval, Deputy Director of Special Investments , llirina.sagastume@minec.gob.sv Christel Schulz, Business Climate Deputy, cdearce@minec.gob.sv 
Laura Rosales de Valiente, Deputy Director of Investment Facilitation, lrosales@minec.gob.sv
Telephone: (503) 2590-5116/ (503) 2590-5264.

The Productive Development Fund (FONDEPRO) provides grants to small enterprises to strengthen competitiveness. Website: http://www.fondepro.gob.sv/ 

The National Commission for Micro and Small Businesses (CONAMYPE) supports micro and small businesses by providing training, technical assistance, financing, venture capital, and loan guarantee programs. CONAMYPE also provides assistance on market access and export promotion, marketing, business registration, and the promotion of business ventures led by women and youth. Website: https://www.conamype.gob.sv/ 

The Micro and Small Businesses Promotion Law defines a microenterprise as a natural or legal person with annual gross sales up to 482 minimum monthly wages, equivalent to $146,609.94 and up to ten workers. A small business is defined as a natural or legal person with annual gross sales between 482 minimum monthly wages ($146,609.94) and 4,817 minimum monthly wages ($1,465,186.89) and up to 50 employees. To facilitate credit to small businesses, Salvadoran law allows for inventories, receivables, intellectual property rights, consumables, or any good with economic value to be used as collateral for loans.

El Salvador provides equitable treatment for women and under-represented minorities. The GOES does not provide targeted assistance to under-represented minorities. CONAMYPE provides specialized counseling to female entrepreneurs and women-owned small businesses.

Outward Investment

While the government encourages Salvadoran investors to invest in El Salvador, it neither promotes nor restricts investment abroad.

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

El Salvador has bilateral investment treaties in force with Argentina, Belize, BLEU (Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union), Chile, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Republic of Korea, Morocco, the Netherlands, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and Uruguay. El Salvador is one of the five Central American Common Market countries, which have an investment treaty among themselves.

The CAFTA-DR entered into force in 2006, between the United States and El Salvador. CAFTA-DR’s investment chapter provides protection to most categories of investment, including enterprises, debt, concessions, contract, and intellectual property. Under this agreement, U.S. investors enjoy the right to establish, acquire, and operate investments in El Salvador on an equal footing with local investors. Among the rights afforded to U.S. investors are due process protections and the right to receive a fair market value for property in the event of expropriation. Investor rights are protected under CAFTA-DR by an effective, impartial procedure for dispute settlement that is transparent and open to the public.

El Salvador also has free trade agreements (FTAs) with Mexico, Chile, Panama, Colombia, and Taiwan. Although the GOES announced the cancellation of the Taiwan FTA in February 2019, the Supreme Court halted the cancellation in March 2019 and the FTA remains in force pending a Supreme Court ruling.

In January 2020, the South Korea -Central America FTA entered into effect. This FTA includes investment provisions. El Salvador’s FTAs with Mexico, Chile, Dominican Republic, and Panama also include investment provisions. El Salvador continues trade agreement negotiations with Canada, which will likely include investment provisions. The Salvadoran government signed a Partial Scope Agreement (PSA) with Cuba in 2011 and an additional Protocol to the PSA in October 2018. El Salvador and Bolivia signed a PSA in November 2018 that is pending ratification in the Legislative Assembly. A PSA with Ecuador entered into force in 2017.

El Salvador, along with Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, signed an Association Agreement with the European Union that establishes a Free Trade Area. The agreement entered into force with El Salvador in 2013. The United Kingdom-Central America Association Agreement entered into force in January 2021. The agreement ensures continuity of commercial ties following Brexit and provides a framework for cooperation and investment.

El Salvador does not have a bilateral taxation treaty with the United States. El Salvador has one tax agreement with Spain, in effect since 2008.

El Salvador is a signatory of the Central American Mutual Assistance and Technical Cooperation Agreement in Tax and Customs Matters in force since 2012. On October 2018, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly ratified the OECD Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters . The jurisdictions participating in the Convention can be found at:  www.oecd.org/ctp/exchange-of-tax-information/Status_of_convention.pdf

El Salvador became a member of the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes in 2011. The OECD published El Salvador’s Phase 1 peer review report, which demonstrates its commitment to international standards for tax transparency and exchange of information, in 2015. The Phase 2 peer review on implementation of the standards, published in 2016, concluded that El Salvador is “largely compliant.”

In November 2020, El Salvador eliminated the Security Special Contribution on Large Taxpayers (CESC). Enacted in 2015, the CESC levied a five-percent tax on companies whose net income exceeded $500,000 to finance security measures, including the GOES’ Plan Control Territorial (Territorial Control Plan).

In May 2019, the legislature also approved an Authentic Interpretation of the Income Tax Law to clarify that energy distributors may deduct energy losses from the income tax, as energy losses are an unavoidable cost of distribution.  Prior to the authentic interpretation, tax authorities repeatedly imposed back taxes, interest, and penalties for improper deductions. Companies successfully challenged most of the tax assessments , but incurred legal costs and increased financial exposure.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

The laws and regulations of El Salvador are relatively transparent and generally foster competition. Legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are transparent and consistent with international norms. However, the discretionary application of rules can complicate routine transactions, such as customs clearances and permitting applications. Regulatory agencies are often understaffed and inexperienced in dealing with complex issues. New foreign investors should review the regulatory environment carefully. In addition to applicable national laws and regulations, localities may impose permitting requirements on investors.

Companies note the GOES has enacted laws and regulations without following notice and comment procedures. The Regulatory Improvement Law, which entered into force in 2019, requires GOES agencies to publish online the list of laws and regulations they plan to approve, reform, or repeal each year. Institutions cannot adopt or modify regulations and laws not included in that list. The implementation of the law is gradual; the Regulatory Agenda is required for the executive branch since 2020, for the legislative and judicial branches, and autonomous entities in 2022, and municipalities in 2023. Prior to adopting or amending laws or regulations, the Simplified Administrative Procedures Law requires the GOES to perform a Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) based on a standardized methodology. Proposed legislation and regulations, as well as RIAs, must be made available for public comment. In practice, the Legislative Assembly does not publish draft legislation on its website and does not solicit comments on pending legislation. The GOES does not yet require the use of a centralized online portal to publish regulatory actions. The reforms have not been fully implemented. In 2020, only three GOES agencies drafted and published their regulatory agendas. GOES agencies performed only three RIAs prior to approving new legislation. Although the implications of the reforms are still not apparent, private sector stakeholders have expressed support for the measures.

El Salvador began implementing the Simplified Administrative Procedures Law in February 2019. This law seeks to streamline and consolidate administrative processes among GOES entities to facilitate investment. In 2016, El Salvador adopted the Electronic Signature Law to facilitate e-commerce and trade. Policies, procedures and needed infrastructure (data centers and specialized hardware and software) are in place for implementation, but work continues on licensing digital certification providers. El Salvador also enacted the Electronic Commerce Law, which entered into force in February 2021. The law establishes the framework for commercial and financial activities, contractual or not, carried out by electronic and digital means, introduces fair and equitable standards to protect consumers and providers, and sets processes to minimize risks arising from the use of new technologies. The law aims to support rapidly growing online businesses and financial technology (FinTech).

In 2018, El Salvador enacted the Law on the Elimination of Bureaucratic Barriers, which created a specialized tribunal to verify that regulations and procedures are implemented in compliance with the law and sanction public officials who impose administrative requirements not contemplated in the law. However, the law is pending implementation until the GOES appoints members of the tribunal.

The GOES controls the price of some goods and services, including electricity, liquid propane gas, gasoline, public transport fares, and medicines. The government also directly subsidizes water services and residential electricity rates.

The Superintendent of Electricity and Telecommunications (SIGET) oversees electricity rates, telecommunications, and distribution of electromagnetic frequencies. The Salvadoran government subsidizes residential consumers for electricity use of up to 105 kWh monthly. The electricity subsidy costs the government between $50 million to $64 million annually.

El Salvador’s public finances are relatively transparent. Budget documents, including the executive budget proposal, enacted budget, and end-of-year reports, as well as information on debt obligations are accessible to the public at: http://www.transparenciafiscal.gob.sv/ptf/es/PTF2-Index.html  An independent institution, the Court of Accounts, audits the financial statements, economic performance, cash flow statements, and budget execution of all GOES ministries and agencies. The results of these audits are publicly available online.

However, the GOES provided incomplete information about its execution of $8.1 billion, including extraordinary resources to tackle COVID-19. The GOES also has not disclosed expenditure information requested by the Assembly nor provided the Court of Accounts with unrestricted access to pandemic-related financial records and procurement documentation, as well as to the accounts of the Intelligence Agency.

International Regulatory Considerations

El Salvador belongs to the Central American Common Market and the Central American Integration System (SICA), organizations which are working on regional integration, (e.g., harmonization of tariffs and customs procedures). El Salvador commonly incorporates international standards, such as the Pan-American Standards Commission (Spanish acronym COPANT), into its regulatory system.

El Salvador is a member of the WTO, adheres to the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement), and has adopted the Code of Good Practice annexed to the TBT Agreement. El Salvador is also a signatory to the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) and has notified its Categories A, B, and C commitments. El Salvador has established a National Trade Facilitation Committee (NTFC) as required by the TFA, which was reactivated in July 2019 as it had not met since 2017.

El Salvador is a member of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development’s international network of transparent investment procedures: http://tramites.gob.sv . Investors can find information on administrative procedures applicable to investment and income-generating operations including the name and contact details for those in charge of procedures, required documents and conditions, costs, processing time, and legal bases for the procedures.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

El Salvador’s legal system is codified law. Commercial law is based on the Commercial Code and the corresponding Commercial and Civil Code of Procedures. There are specialized commercial courts that resolve disputes.

Although foreign investors may seek redress for commercial disputes through Salvadoran courts, many investors report the legal system to be slow, costly, and unproductive. Local investment and commercial dispute resolution proceedings routinely last many years. The judicial system is independent of the executive branch, but may be subject to manipulation by diverse interests. Final judgments are at times difficult to enforce. The Embassy recommends that potential investors carry out proper due diligence by hiring competent local legal counsel.

In February 2021, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declined to review a 2019 civil judgement against a foreign bank on grounds that the case had no constitutional merits. The civil ruling that ordered the bank to pay substantial compensation caused widespread concern in the private sector due to perceived irregularities. .

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Miempresa is the Ministry of Economy’s website for new businesses in El Salvador. At Miempresa, investors can register new companies with the Ministry of Labor (MOL), Social Security Institute, pension fund administrators, and certain municipalities; request a tax identification number/card; and perform certain administrative functions. Website: https://www.miempresa.gob.sv/ 

The country’s eRegulations site provides information on procedures, costs, entities, and regulations involved in setting up a new business in El Salvador. Website: http://tramites.gob.sv/ 

The Exports and Investment Promoting Agency of El Salvador (PROESA) is responsible for attracting domestic and foreign private investment, promoting exports of goods and services, evaluating and monitoring the business climate, and driving investment and export policies. PROESA provides technical assistance to investors interested in starting operations in El Salvador, regardless of the size of the investment or number of employees. Website: http://www.proesa.gob.sv/ 

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

The Office of the Superintendent of Competition reviews transactions for competition concerns. The OECD and the Inter-American Development Bank note the Superintendent employs enforcement standards that are consistent with global best practices and has appropriate authority to enforce the Competition Law effectively. Superintendent decisions may be appealed directly to the Supreme Court, the country´s highest court. Website: http://www.sc.gob.sv/home/ 

Expropriation and Compensation

The Constitution allows the government to expropriate private property for reasons of public utility or social interest. Indemnification can take place either before or after the fact. There are no recent cases of expropriation. In 1980, a rural/agricultural land reform established that no single natural or legal person could own more than 245 hectares (605 acres) of land, and the government expropriated the land of some large landholders. In 1980, private banks were nationalized, but were subsequently returned to private ownership in 1989-90. A 2003 amendment to the Electricity Law requires energy-generating companies to obtain government approval before removing fixed capital from the country.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

El Salvador is a member state to the ICSID Convention. ICSID is included in a number of El Salvador’s investment treaties as the forum available to foreign investors.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

In 2016, ICSID ruled in favor of El Salvador on a case brought by an international mining company that sought to force government acceptance of a gold-mining project.  Following the ruling, El Salvador banned the exploration and extraction of metal mining in the country.

The rights of investors from CAFTA-DR countries are protected under the trade agreement’s dispute settlement procedures. There have been no successful claims by U.S. investors under CAFTA-DR. There are currently no pending claims by U.S. investors.

For foreign investors from a country without a trade agreement with El Salvador, amended Article 15 of the 1999 Investment Law limits access to international dispute resolution and may obligate them to use national courts. Submissions to national dispute panels and panel hearings are open to the public. Interested third parties have the opportunity to be heard.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

A 2002 law allows private sector organizations to establish arbitration centers to resolve commercial disputes, including those involving foreign investors. In 2009, El Salvador modified its arbitration law to allow parties to appeal a ruling to the Salvadoran courts. Investors have complained that the modification dilutes the efficacy of arbitration as an alternative method of resolving disputes. Arbitrations takes place at the Arbitration and Mediation Center, a branch of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of El Salvador. Website: http://www.mediacionyarbitraje.com.sv/ 

El Salvador is a signatory to the convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention) and the Inter-American Convention on International Commercial Arbitration (Panama Convention). Local courts recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards and judgments, but the process can be lengthy and difficult.

Bankruptcy Regulations

The Commercial Code, the Commercial Code of Procedures, and the Banking Law contain sections that deal with the process for declaring bankruptcy. There is no separate bankruptcy law or court. According to data collected by the 2020 World Bank’s Doing Business report, resolving insolvency in El Salvador takes 3.5 years on average and costs 12 percent of the debtor’s estate, with the most likely outcome being that the company will be sold piecemeal. The average recovery rate is 32.4 percent. Globally, El Salvador ranks 92 out of 190 on Ease of Resolving Insolvency. Website: http://www.doingbusiness.org/content/dam/doingBusiness/country/e/el-salvador/SLV.pdf

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

The International Services Law, approved in 2007, established service parks and centers with incentives similar to those received by El Salvador’s free trade zones. Service park developers are exempted from income tax for 15 years, municipal taxes for ten years, and real estate transfer taxes. Service park administrators are exempted from income tax for 15 years and municipal taxes for ten years.

Firms located in the service parks/service centers may receive the following permanent incentives:

Tariff exemption for the import of capital goods, machinery, equipment, tools, supplies, accessories, furniture, and other goods needed for the development of the service activities;

Full exemption from income tax and municipal taxes on company assets.

Service firms operating under the existing Free Trade Zone Law are also eligible for the incentives, though firms providing services to the Salvadoran market cannot receive the incentives. Eligible services include: international distribution, logistical international operations, call centers, information technology, research and development, marine vessels repair and maintenance, aircraft repair and maintenance, entrepreneurial processes (e.g., business process outsourcing), hospital-medical services, international financial services, container repair and maintenance, technology equipment repair, elderly and convalescent care, telemedicine, cinematography postproduction services, including subtitling and translation, and specialized services for aircraft (e.g., supply of beverages and prepared food, laundry services and management of inventory).

The Tourism Law establishes tax incentives for those who invest a minimum of $25,000 in tourism-related projects in El Salvador, including: value-added tax exemption for the acquisition of real estate; import tariffs waiver for construction materials, goods, equipment (subject to limitation); and, a ten-year income tax waiver. The investor also benefits from a five-year exemption from land acquisition taxes and a 50 percent reduction of municipal taxes. To take advantage of these incentives, the enterprise must contribute five percent of its profits during the exemption period to a government-administered Tourism Promotion Fund. More information about tax incentives for tourism, please visit: http://www.mitur.gob.sv/ii-aspectos-legales-en-beneficio-de-la-inversion-contemplados-en-la-ley-de-turismo/ 

The Renewable Energy Incentives Law promotes investment projects that use renewable energy sources. In 2015, the Legislative Assembly approved amendments to encourage the use of renewable energy sources and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. These reforms extended the incentives to power generation using renewable energy sources, such as hydro, geothermal, wind, solar, marine, biogas and biomass. The incentives include a 10-year exemption from customs duties on the importation of machinery, equipment, materials, and supplies used for the construction and expansion of substations, transmission or sub-transmission lines. Revenues directly derived from renewable power generation enjoy full income tax exemptions for a period of five years in case of projects above 10 MW and 10 years for smaller projects. The Law also provides a tax exemption on income derived directly from the sale of certified emission reductions (CERs) under the Mechanism for Clean Development of the Kyoto Protocol, or carbon markets (CDM).

El Salvador does not issue guarantees or directly co-finance foreign direct investment projects. However, El Salvador has a Public-Private Partnerships Law that allows private investment in the development of infrastructure projects, including in areas of health, education, and security. Under the second MCC Compact, El Salvador launched international tenders for two Public-Private Partnerships projects. In October 2020, the GOES awarded the first-ever PPP project to design, expand, construct, and operate expanded cargo operations of El Salvador’s primary international airport.  The estimated $57 million contract award is pending Legislative Assembly approval. A second PPP tender was released in January 2020 for the design, financing, installation, equipment, operation and maintenance of a public lighting and video surveillance systems on approximately 143 kilometers of roads in San Salvador, La Libertad and La Paz departments.  The estimated investment for the project is $17 million.  Due to COVID-19, the deadline for the submission of bids was extended to March 15, 2021. El Salvador has also undertaken pre-feasibility studies on other potential PPP projects, including a second airport in eastern El Salvador, a toll road concession to connect its biggest port (Acajutla) to the La Hachadura border with Guatemala, and improvements of four border crossings (La Hachadura, Anguiatu, El Poy and El Amarillo) and three intermediate customs facilities (Metalio, Santa Ana and San Bartolo). The GOES has planned a total of 16 PPPs.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

The 1998 Free Trade Zone Law is designed to attract investment in a wide range of activities, although the vast majority of the businesses in free trade zones are textile plants. A Salvadoran partner is not needed to operate in a free trade zone, and some textile operations are completely foreign-owned.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

There are 17 free trade zones in El Salvador. They host 202 companies in sectors including textiles, distribution, call centers, business process outsourcing, agribusiness, agriculture, electronics, and metallurgy. Owned primarily by Salvadoran, U.S., Taiwanese, and Korean investors, free trade zone firms employ more than 73,000 people. The point of contact is the Chamber of Textile, Apparel and Free Trade Zones of El Salvador (CAMTEX) at: https://www.camtex.com.sv/site/ .

The 1998 law established rules for free trade zones and bonded areas. The free trade zones are outside the nation’s customs jurisdiction while the bonded areas are within its jurisdiction, but subject to special treatment. Local and foreign companies can establish themselves in a free trade zone to produce goods or services for export or to provide services linked to international trade. The regulations for the bonded areas are similar.

Qualifying firms located in the free trade zones and bonded areas may enjoy the following benefits:

Exemption from all duties and taxes on imports of raw materials and the machinery and equipment needed to produce for export;

Exemption from taxes for fuels and lubricants used for producing exports if they not domestically produced;

Exemption from income tax, municipal taxes on company assets and property for either 15 years (if the company is located in the metropolitan area of San Salvador) or 20 years (if the company is located outside of the metropolitan area of San Salvador);

Exemption from taxes on certain real estate transfers, e.g., the acquisition of goods to be employed in the authorized activity; and

Exemption from value-added tax on goods and services sourced locally to be employed in the authorized activity, including goods that are not incorporated into the final product, security and transportation services, as well as construction services and materials.

Companies in the free trade zones are also allowed to sell goods or services in the Salvadoran market if they pay applicable taxes on the proportion sold locally. Additional rules apply to textile and apparel products.

Regulations allow a WTO-complaint “drawback” to refund custom duties paid on imported inputs and intermediate goods exclusively used in the production of goods exported outside of the Central American region. Regulations also included the creation of a Business Production Promotion Committee with the participation of the private and public sector to work on policies to strengthen the export sector, and the creation of an Export and Import Center.

All import and export procedures are handled by the Import and Export Center (Centro de Trámites de Importaciones y Exportaciones – CIEX El Salvador). More information about the procedures can be found at: http://www.ciexelsalvador.gob.sv/registroSIMP/ 

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

El Salvador’s Investment Law does not require investors to meet export targets, transfer technology, incorporate a specific percentage of local content, turn over source code or provide access to surveillance, or fulfill other performance criteria. Business-related data may be freely transferred outside of El Salvador.

Labor laws require that 90 percent of the workforce in plants and in clerical positions be Salvadoran citizens. Nationality restrictions are relaxed for professional and technical jobs.

Foreign investors and domestic firms are eligible for the same incentives. Exports of goods and services are exempt from value-added tax.

A new Immigration Law, enacted in May 2019, introduces the investment, business, or commercial representation visa for foreign nationals of countries with a visa requirement who want to conduct temporary business-related activities in El Salvador. This visa can be issued for a single entry or multiple entries with a duration of up to two years. Eligible nationals can enter El Salvador for business purposes without a visa for up to 90 days, extendable once for an additional 90 days, for a total maximum stay of 180 days.  The law institutes the Frequent Traveler Card for foreign nationals who frequently visit El Salvador for business. This card can be issued for up to three years and allows multiple entries for stays of up to 90 days per entry.

Investors who plan to live and work in El Salvador for an extended period need to obtain temporary residency, which may be renewed periodically. Under Article 11 of the Investment Law, foreigners with investments totaling more than $1 million may obtain Investor’s Residency status, which allows them to work and remain in the country. This residency may be requested within 30 days of registering the investment. It allows residency for the investor and family members for a period of two years and may be extended thereafter.

It is customary for companies to hire local attorneys to manage the process of obtaining residency. The American Chamber of Commerce in El Salvador can also provide information regarding the process. Website: http://amchamsal.com/ 

The International Services Law establishes tax benefits for businesses that invest at least $150,000 during the first year of operations, including working capital and fixed assets, hire at least 10 permanent employees, and have at least a one-year contract. For hospital/medical services , the minimum capital investment must be $10 million, if surgical services are provided, or a minimum of $3 million, if surgical services are not provided. Hospitals or clinics must be located outside of major metropolitan areas, and medical services must be provided only to patients with insurance.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Private property, both non-real estate and real estate, is recognized and protected in El Salvador. Mortgages and real property liens exist. Companies that plan to buy property are advised to hire competent local legal counsel to guide them on the property’s title prior to purchase.

Per the Constitution, no single natural or legal person–whether national or foreign–can own more than 245 hectares (605 acres) of land. Reciprocity applies to the ownership of rural land, i.e., El Salvador does not restrict the ownership of rural land by foreigners, unless Salvadoran citizens are restricted in the corresponding states. The restriction on rural land does not apply if used for industrial purposes.

Real property can be transferred without government authorization. For title transfer to be valid regarding third parties, however, it needs to be properly registered. Laws regarding rental property tend to favor the interests of tenants. For instance, tenants may remain on property after their lease expires, provided they continue to pay rent. Likewise, the law limits the permissible rent and makes eviction processes extremely difficult.

Squatters occupying private property in “good faith” can eventually acquire title. If the owner of the property is unknown, squatters can acquire title after 20 years of good faith possession through a judicial procedure; if the owner is known, squatters can acquire title after 30 years.

Squatters may never acquire title to public land, although municipalities often grant the right of use to the squatter.

Zoning is regulated by municipal rules. Municipalities have broad power regarding property use within their jurisdiction. Zoning maps, if they exist, are generally not available to the public.

The perceived ineffectiveness of the judicial system discourages investments in real estate and makes execution of real estate guarantees difficult. Securitization of real estate guarantees or titles is legally permissible but does not occur frequently in practice.

El Salvador ranks 79th of 190 economies on the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report in the Ease of Registering Property category. According to the report, registering a property takes an average of six steps over a period of 31 days, and costs 3.8 percent of the reported property value.

Intellectual Property Rights

El Salvador’s intellectual property rights (IPR) legal framework is strong. El Salvador revised several laws to comply with CAFTA-DR’s provisions on IPR, such as extending the copyright term to 70 years. The Intellectual Property Promotion and Protection Law (1993, revised in 2005), Law of Trademarks and Other Distinctive Signs (2002, revised in 2005), and Penal Code establish the legal framework to protect IPR. Investors can register trademarks, patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property with the National Registry Center’s Intellectual Property Office. In 2008, the government enacted test data exclusivity regulations for pharmaceuticals (for five years) and agrochemicals (for 10 years) and ratified an international agreement extending protection to satellite signals.

El Salvador’s enforcement of IPR protections falls short of its written policies. Salvadoran authorities have limited resources to dedicate to enforcement of IPR laws. The National Civil Police (PNC) has an Intellectual Property Section with three investigators, while the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) has 13 prosecutors in its Private Property division that also has responsibility for other property crimes including cases of extortion. According to ASPI, the PNC section coordinates well with other government and private entities. Nevertheless, the PNC admits that a lack of resources and expertise (e.g., regarding information technology) hinders its effectiveness in combatting IPR crimes.

The National Directorate of Medicines (DNM) has 42 products registered for data protection, including five in 2019. The DNM protects the confidentiality of relevant test data and the list of such protected medications is available on the DNM website: https: https://www.medicamentos.gob.sv/index.php/es/servicios-m/informes/unidad-de-registro-y-visado/listado-de-productos-farmaceuticos-con-proteccion-de-datos-de-prueba .

The Salvadoran Intellectual Property Association (ASPI – Asociacion Salvadoreña de Propiedad Intelectual) notes that piracy is common in El Salvador because the police focus on investigating criminal networks rather than points of sale. Trade in counterfeit medicines and pirated software is common.

In 2020, the PNC arrested five individuals for copyright and trademark infringement. The PNC also conducted five inspections and ten raids, where it seized pirated optical media discs (CDs and DVDs) and fake products, including , footwear, belts and buckles. . Customs officials have identified some counterfeit products arriving directly from China through the Salvadoran seaport of Acajutla. In 2020, Customs officials seized 36 shipments based on the presumption of containing counterfeit products. These shipments primarily involved toys (e.g. Disney, Mattel and Nickelodeon), clothing and handbags (e.g. Cartier, Puma, Nike, and Tommy Hilfiger), mobile phone accessories (e.g. Huawei, iPhone, and Samsung), and accessories for vehicles (e.g. Toyota, Honda and Hyundai).Contraband and counterfeit products, especially cigarettes, liquor, toothpaste, and cooking oil, remain widespread. According to the GOES and private sector contacts, most unlicensed or counterfeit products are imported to El Salvador. The Distributors Association of El Salvador (ADES) estimated in 2019 that the annual cost of illicit trade in El Salvador amounts to $1 billion. . Most contraband cigarettes come in from China, Panama, South Korea, and Paraguay and undercut legitimately-imported cigarettes, which are subject to a 39 percent tariff. According to ADES, most contraband cigarettes are smuggled in by gangs, with the complicity of Salvadoran authorities.

The national Intellectual Property Registry has 22 registered geographical indications for El Salvador. In 2018, the GOES registered four geographical indications involving Denominations of Origin for “Jocote Barón Rojo San Lorenzo” (a sour fruit), “Pupusa de Olocuilta” (a variant of El Salvador’s traditional food), “Camarones de la Bahía de Jiquilisco” (shrimp from the Jiquilisco Bay), and “Loroco San Lorenzo” (flower used in Salvadoran cuisine). Existing geographic indications include “Balsamo de El Salvador” (balm for medical, cosmetic, and gastronomic uses – since 1935), “Café Ilamatepec” (coffee – since 2010), and “Chaparro” (Salvadoran hard liquor- since 2016).

El Salvador is not listed in the U.S. Trade Representative’s Special 301 Report or its Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy. There are no IP-related laws pending.

El Salvador is a signatory of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works; the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property; the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Producers of Phonograms Against Unauthorized Duplication; the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty; the WIPO Performance and Phonograms Treaty; the Rome Convention for the Protection of Performers, Phonogram Producers, and Broadcasting Organizations; and the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances (2012), which grants performing artists certain economic rights (such as rights over broadcast, reproduction, and distribution) of live and recorded works.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/details.jsp?country_code=SV 

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The Superintendent of the Financial System ( https://www.ssf.gob.sv/ ) supervises individual and consolidated activities of banks and non-bank financial intermediaries, financial conglomerates, stock market participants, insurance companies, and pension fund administrators. Foreign investors may obtain credit in the local financial market under the same conditions as local investors. Interest rates are determined by market forces, with the interest rate for credit cards and loans capped at 1.6 times the weighted average effective rate established by the Central Bank. The maximum interest rate varies according to the loan amount and type of loan (consumption, credit cards, mortgages, home repair/remodeling, business, and microcredits).

In January 2019, El Salvador eliminated a Financial Transactions Tax (FTT), which was enacted in 2014 and greatly opposed by banks.

The 1994 Securities Market Law established the present framework for the Salvadoran securities exchange. Stocks, government and private bonds, and other financial instruments are traded on the exchange, which is regulated by the Superintendent of the Financial System.

Foreigners may buy stocks, bonds, and other instruments sold on the exchange and may have their own securities listed, once approved by the Superintendent. Companies interested in listing must first register with the National Registry Center’s Registry of Commerce. In 2020, the exchange traded $5.8 billon, with average daily volumes between $10 million and $24 million. Government-regulated private pension funds, Salvadoran insurance companies, and local banks are the largest buyers on the Salvadoran securities exchange. For more information, visit: https://www.bolsadevalores.com.sv/ 

Money and Banking System

All but two of the major banks operating in El Salvador are regional banks owned by foreign financial institutions. Given the high level of informality, measuring the penetration of financial services is difficult; however, it remains relatively low between 30 percent- according to the Salvadoran Banking Association (ABANSA) – and 35 percent- reported by the Superintendence of the Financial System (SSF). The banking system is sound and generally well-managed and supervised. El Salvador’s Central Bank is responsible for regulating the banking system, monitoring compliance of liquidity reserve requirements, and managing the payment systems. No bank has lost its correspondent banking relationship in recent years. There are no correspondent banking relationships known to be in jeopardy.

The banking system’s total assets as of December 2020 were $20.4 billion. Under Salvadoran banking law, there is no difference in regulations between foreign and domestic banks and foreign banks can offer all the same services as domestic banks.

The Cooperative Banks and Savings and Credit Associations Law regulates the organization, operation, and activities of financial institutions such as cooperative banks, credit unions, savings and credit associations, , and other microfinance institutions. The Money Laundering Law requires financial institutions to report suspicious transactions to the Attorney General. Despite having regulatory scheme in place to supervise the filing of reports by cooperative banks and savings and credit associations, these entities rarely file suspicious activity reports.

The Insurance Companies Law regulates the operation of both local and foreign insurance firms. Foreign firms, including U.S., Colombian, Dominican, Honduran, Panamanian, Mexican, and Spanish companies, have invested in Salvadoran insurers.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange Policies

There are no restrictions on transferring investment-related funds out of the country. Foreign businesses can freely remit or reinvest profits, repatriate capital, and bring in capital for additional investment. The 1999 Investment Law allows unrestricted remittance of royalties and fees from the use of foreign patents, trademarks, technical assistance, and other services. Tax reforms introduced in 2011, however, levy a five percent tax on national or foreign shareholders’ profits. Moreover, shareholders domiciled in a state, country or territory that is considered a tax haven or has low or no taxes, are subject to a tax of twenty-five percent.

The Monetary Integration Law dollarized El Salvador in 2001. The U.S. dollar accounts for nearly all currency in circulation and can be used in all transactions. Salvadoran banks, in accordance with the law, must keep all accounts in U.S. dollars. Dollarization is supported by remittances – almost all from workers in the United States – that totaled $5.91 billion in 2020.

Remittance Policies

There are no restrictions placed on investment remittances. The Caribbean Financial Action Task Force’s Ninth Follow-Up report on El Salvador ( https://www.cfatf-gafic.org/index.php/member-countries/el-salvador ) noted that El Salvador has strengthened its remittances regimen, prohibiting anonymous accounts and limiting suspicious transactions. In 2015, the Legislature approved reforms to the Law of Supervision and Regulation of the Financial System so that any entity sending or receiving systematic or substantial amounts of money by any means, at the national and international level, falls under the jurisdiction of the Superintendence of the Financial System.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

El Salvador does not have a sovereign wealth fund.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

El Salvador has successfully liberalized many sectors, though it maintains state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in energy production, water supply and sanitation, ports and airports, and the national lottery (see chart below).

SOE 2021 Budgeted Revenue Number of Employees
National Lottery $ 50,974,850 147
State-run Electricity Company (CEL) $ 250,180,895 831
Water Authority (ANDA) $ 231,991,560 4,291
Port & Airport Administrator (CEPA) $ 117,556,539 2,537

Although the GOES privatized energy distribution in 1999, it maintains significant energy production facilities through state-owned Rio Lempa Executive Hydroelectric Commission (CEL), a significant producer of hydroelectric and geothermal energy. The primary water service provider is the National Water and Sewer Administration (ANDA), which provides services to 97 percent of urban areas and 78 percent of rural areas in El Salvador. As an umbrella institution, ANDA defines policies, regulates, and provides services. The Autonomous Executive Port Commission (CEPA) operates both the seaports and the airports. CEL, ANDA, and CEPA Board Chairs hold Minister-level rank and report directly to the President.

The Law on Public Administration Procurement and Contracting (LACAP) covers all procurement of goods and services by all Salvadoran public institutions, including the municipalities. Exceptions to LACAP include: procurement and contracting financed with funds coming from other countries (bilateral agreements) or international bodies; agreements between state institutions; and the contracting of personal services by public institutions under the provisions of the Law on Salaries, Contracts and Day Work. Additionally, LACAP allows government agencies to use the auction system of the Salvadoran Goods and Services Market (BOLPROS) for procurement. Although BOLPROS is intended for use in purchasing standardized goods (e.g., office supplies, cleaning products, and basic grains), the GOES uses BOLPROS to procure a variety of goods and services, including high-value technology equipment and sensitive security equipment. As of September 2020, public procurement using BOLPROS totaled $86.7 million. The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) also support government agencies in the procurement of a wide range of infrastructure projects. The GOES has created a dedicated procurement website to publish tenders by government institutions ( https://www.comprasal.gob.sv/comprasal_web/ ).

In August 2020, President Bukele signed an executive order allowing the submission of bids for contractual services via email and eliminating bidders’ obligation to register online with the public procurement system (Comprasal), as well as lifting the responsibility of procurement officers to keep a record of companies and individuals who receive tender documents. Civil society organizations challenged the order, claiming it violates transparency standards and facilitates the manipulation of procurement information. The order is pending review in the Supreme Court of Justice.

Alba Petroleos is a joint venture between a consortium of mayors from the FMLN party and a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA. As majority PDVSA owned, Alba Petroleos has been subject to Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions since January 2019. Alba Petroleos operates a diminishing number of gasoline service stations and businesses in other industries, including energy production, food production, medicines, micro-lending, supermarkets, and bus transportation. Alba Petroleos has been surrounded by allegations of mismanagement, corruption and money laundering. Critics charged that the conglomerate received preferential treatment during FMLN governments and that its commercial practices, including financial reporting, are non-transparent. In May 2019, the Attorney General’s Office initiated an investigation against Alba Petroleos and its affiliates for money laundering. Alba Petroleos’ assets are frozen by court order and some of its gasoline service stations are being managed by the National Council for Asset Administration (CONAB).

Privatization Program

El Salvador is not engaged in a privatization program and has not announced plans to privatize.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

The private sector in El Salvador, including several prominent U.S. companies, has embraced the concept of responsible business conduct (RBC). Many companies donated to COVID-19 relief efforts in 2020. Several local foundations promote RBC practices, entrepreneurial values, and philanthropic initiatives. El Salvador is also a member of international institutions such as Forum Empresa (an alliance of RBC institutions in the Western Hemisphere), AccountAbility (UK), and the InterAmerican Corporate Social Responsibility Network. Businesses have created RBC programs to provide education and training, transportation, lunch programs, and childcare. In addition, RBC programs have included inclusive hiring practices and assistance to communities in areas such as health, education, senior housing, and HIV/AIDS awareness. Organizations monitoring RBC are able to work freely.

Following a reorganization under the Bukele administration, the Legal Secretariat is responsible for developing strategies and actions to promote transparency and accountability of government agencies, as well as fostering citizen participation in government. The watchdog organization Transparency International is represented in-country by the Salvadoran Foundation for Development (FUNDE).

El Salvador does not waive or weaken labor laws, consumer protection, or environmental regulations to attract foreign investment. El Salvador’s ability to effectively and fairly enforce domestic laws is limited by a lack of resources. El Salvador does not allow metal mining activity.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices ( https://www.state.gov/reports-bureau-of-democracy-human-rights-and-labor/country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/);

Trafficking in Persons Report ( https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/);

Guidance on Implementing the “UN Guiding Principles” for Transactions Linked to Foreign Government End-Users for Products or Services with Surveillance Capabilities ( https://www.state.gov/key-topics-bureau-of-democracy-human-rights-and-labor/due-diligence-guidance/) and;

North Korea Sanctions & Enforcement Actions Advisory ( https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/126/dprk_supplychain_advisory_07232018.pdf ).

Department of Labor

Findings on the Worst forms of Child Labor Report ( https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  );

List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor ( https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods );

Sweat & Toil: Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking Around the World ( https://www.dol.gov/general/apps/ilab ) and;

Comply Chain ( https://www.dol.gov/ilab/complychain/ ).

9. Corruption

U.S. companies operating in El Salvador are subject to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).

Corruption can be a challenge to investment in El Salvador. El Salvador ranks 104 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index. While El Salvador has laws, regulations, and penalties to combat corruption, their effectiveness is at times questionable. Soliciting, offering, or accepting a bribe is a criminal act in El Salvador. The Attorney General’s Anticorruption and Anti-Impunity Unit handles allegations of public corruption. The Constitution establishes a Court of Accounts that is charged with investigating public officials and entities and, when necessary, passing such cases to the Attorney General for prosecution. Executive-branch employees are subject to a code of ethics, including administrative enforcement mechanisms, and the government established an Ethics Tribunal in 2006.

In September 2019, El Salvador signed an agreement with the Organization of American States (OAS) for the establishment of the International Commission Against Impunity and Corruption (CICIES), which was followed by an agreement to determine CICIES objectives and competences. The CICIES will run for four years as an independent entity outside the GOES and underneath the OAS. The OAS has signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with the Attorney General’s Office, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Ministry of Justice and Public Security codifying the role of the CICIES with each entity. CICIES will assist in instituting policies to combat corruption and impunity, support investigations conducted by the Attorney General‘s Office and the National Civil Police, and capacity building to strengthen institutions actively involved in the fight against corruption.

In April 2020, CICIES announced the deployment of a team of 30 multidisciplinary professionals to audit and implement a follow-up mechanism on the use of funds devoted to fight the pandemic. In November 2020, the Attorney General’s Office launched a series of investigations into COVID-19 contracts and expenditures based on the preliminary results of CICIES audits. The Attorney General’s Office is currently investigating at least 17 government agencies for alleged procurement fraud and misuse of public funds.On March 25,2021, CICIES submitted to the GOES a proposal to amend a several laws to prevent corruption and strengthen transparency and accountability, as well as to create crime typologies.

Corruption scandals at the federal, legislative, and municipal levels are commonplace and there have been credible allegations of judicial corruption. Three of the past four presidents have been indicted for corruption, a former Attorney General is in prison on corruption-related charges, a former president of the Legislative Assembly, who also served as president of the investment promotion agency during the prior administration, faces charges for embezzlement, fraud and money laundering, and the former Minister of Defense during two FMLN governments is under arrest for providing illicit benefits to gangs in exchange for reducing homicides (an agreement known as the 2012-2014 Truce). The law provides criminal penalties for corruption, but implementation is generally perceived as ineffective. In 2017, a civil court found former president Mauricio Funes guilty of illicit enrichment and ordered him to repay over $200,000. Additionally, Funes faces criminal charges for embezzlement and money laundering. In 2020, the Attorney General formally filed charges against Funes and other public officials for allegedly misappropriating $45 million in public funds in connection with a procurement fraud involving the Chaparral Hydroelectric Dam . Although there are several pending arrest warrants against Funes, he has fled to Nicaragua and cannot be extradited because he was granted Nicaraguan citizenship. In 2018, former president Elias Antonio (Tony) Saca pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $300 million in public funds. The court sentenced him to 10 years in prison and ordered him to repay $260 million.

The NGO Social Initiative for Democracy stated that officials, particularly in the judicial system, often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Long-standing government practices in El Salvador, including cash payments to officials, shielded budgetary accounts, and diversion of government funds, facilitate corruption and impede accountability.  For example, the accepted practice of ensuring party loyalty through off-the-books cash payments to public officials (i.e., sobresueldos) persisted across five presidential administrations. However, President Bukele eliminated these cash payments to public officials and the “reserved spending account,” nominally for state intelligence funding. At his direction, in July 2019, the Court of Accounts began auditing reserve spending of the Sanchez Ceren administration.

El Salvador has an active, free press that reports on corruption. In 2015, the Probity Section of the Supreme Court began investigating allegations of illicit enrichment of public officials. In 2017, Supreme Court Justices ordered its Probity Section to audit legislators and their alternates. In 2019, in observance of the Constitution, the Supreme Court instructed the Probity Section to focus its investigations only on public officials who left office within ten years. In July 2020, the Supreme Court issued regulations to standardize the procedures to examine asset declarations of public officials and carry out illicit enrichment investigations, as well as to set clear rules for decision-making. The enacted regulations seek to avoid discretion and enhance transparency on corruption-related investigations. The illicit enrichment law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section. The declarations are not available to the public, and the law only sanctions noncompliance with fines of up to $500.

In 2011, El Salvador approved the Law on Access to Public Information. The law provides for the right of access to government information, but authorities have not always effectively implemented the law. The law gives a narrow list of exceptions that outline the grounds for nondisclosure and provide for a reasonably short timeline for the relevant authority to respond, no processing fees, and administrative sanctions for non-compliance. In 2020, in response to press reports about irregular purchases using COVID-19 funds, several government agencies declared pandemic-related procurements and financial records to be reserved (i.e., confidential) information. Transparency advocates raised concerns about shielding information to avoid citizen oversight of public funds.

In 2011, El Salvador joined the Open Government Partnership. The Open Government Partnership promotes government commitments made jointly with civil society on transparency, accountability, citizen participation and use of new technologies ( http://www.opengovpartnership.org/country/el-salvador ).

UN Anticorruption Convention, OECD Convention on Combating Bribery

El Salvador is not a signatory to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. El Salvador is a signatory to the UN Anticorruption Convention and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Convention against Corruption.

Resources to Report Corruption

The following government agency or agencies are responsible for combating corruption:

Doctor Jose Nestor Castaneda Soto, President of the Court of Government Ethics
Court of Government Ethics (Tribunal de Etica Gubernamental)
87 Avenida Sur, No.7, Colonia Escalón, San Salvador (503) 2565-9403
(503) 2565-9403
Email: n.castaneda@teg.gob.sv 
http://www.teg.gob.sv/ 

Licenciado Raúl Ernesto Melara Morán
Fiscalia General de La Republica (Attorney General’s Office)
Edificio Farmavida, Calle Cortéz Blanco
Boulevard y Colonia Santa Elena
(503) 2593-7400
(503) 2593-7172
Email: xvpocasangre@fgr.gob.sv
http://www.fiscalia.gob.sv/ 

Chief Justice
Oscar Armando Pineda Navas
Avenida Juan Pablo II y 17 Avenida Norte
Centro de Gobierno
(503) 2271-8743
Email: conchita.presidenciacsj@gmail.com 
http://www.csj.gob.sv 

Contact at “watchdog” organization (international, regional, local, or nongovernmental organization operating in the country/economy that monitors corruption, such as Transparency International):

Roberto Rubio-Fabián
Executive Director
National Development Foundation (Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo – FUNDE)
Calle Arturo Ambrogi #411, entre 103 y 105 Avenida Norte, Colonia Escalón, San Salvador (503) 2209-5300
(503) 2209-5300
Email: direccion@funde.org 

Resources to request government information

Access to Public Information Institute (IAIP for its initials in Spanish)
Ricardo Gómez Guerrero
Commissioner President of the IAIP
Prolongación Ave. Alberto Masferrer y
Calle al Volcán, Edif. Oca Chang # 88
(503) 2205-3800
Email: gomez@iaip.gob.sv
https://www.iaip.gob.sv/ 

10. Political and Security Environment

El Salvador’s 12-year civil war ended in 1992. Since then, there has been no political violence aimed at foreign investors.

In September 2020, the State Department adjusted the U.S. travel advisory for El Salvador from Level 2 (Exercise Increased Caution) to Level 3 (Reconsider Travel), due to COVID-19 Level 4 (Very High) Travel Health Notice issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).   The travel advisory also warns U.S citizens of high rates of crime and violence. . Most serious crimes in El Salvador are never solved. El Salvador lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases and to deter crime.  For more information, visit: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/ElSalvador.html

El Salvador has thousands of known gang members from several gangs including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street (M18). Gang members engage in violence or use deadly force if resisted. These “maras” concentrate on extortion, violent street crime, car-jacking, narcotics and arms trafficking, and murder for hire. Extortion is a common crime in El Salvador. U.S. citizens who visit El Salvador for extended periods are at higher risk for extortion demands. Bus companies and distributors often must pay extortion fees to operate within gang territories, and these costs are passed on to customers. The World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Index reported that costs due to organized crime for businesses in El Salvador are the highest among 141 countries.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

In 2020, El Salvador had a labor force of just over three million, according to the Ministry of Economy. Informal employment accounts for approximately 75 percent of the economy. While Salvadoran labor is regarded as hard-working, general education and professional skill levels are low. According to many large employers, there is a lack of middle management-level talent, which sometimes results in the need to bring in managers from abroad. Employers do not report labor-related difficulties in incorporating technology into their workplaces.

The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join independent unions, to strike, and to bargain collectively. 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. Workers who are representatives of the employer or in “positions of trust” also may not serve on a union’s board of directors. Only Salvadoran 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 (MOL) 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 interpret 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. They must also engage in negotiation, mediation, and arbitration processes before striking, although many unions often skip or expedite these steps. The law prohibits workers from appealing a government decision declaring a strike illegal.

The government did not effectively enforce the laws on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Penalties remained insufficient to deter violations. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. According to union representatives, the government inconsistently enforced labor rights for public workers, maquiladora/textile workers, food manufacturing workers, subcontracted workers in the construction industry, security guards, informal-sector workers, and migrant workers.

Unions functioned independently from the government and political parties, although many generally were aligned with the traditional political parties of ARENA and the FMLN. Workers at times engaged in strikes regardless of whether the strikes met legal requirements.

Employers are free to hire union or non-union labor. Closed shops are illegal. Labor laws are generally in accordance with internationally-recognized standards, but are not enforced consistently by government authorities. Although El Salvador has improved labor rights since the CAFTA-DR entered into force and the law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, there remains room for better implementation and enforcement.

The MOL is responsible for enforcing the law. The government proved more effective in enforcing the minimum wage law in the formal sector than in the informal sector. Unions reported the ministry failed to enforce the law for subcontracted workers hired for public reconstruction contracts. The government provided its inspectors updated training in both occupational safety and labor standards and conducted thousands of inspections in 2019.

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. The law states that domestic employees are obligated to work on holidays if their employer makes this request, but they are entitled to double pay in these instances. The government does not adequately enforce these laws.

There is no national minimum wage; the minimum wage is determined by sector. In 2018, a minimum wage increase went into effect that included increases of nearly 40 percent for apparel assembly workers and more than 100 percent for workers in coffee and sugar harvesting. All of these wage rates were above poverty income levels.

On March 14, 2020, 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.

Responding to COVID-19 pandemic and to legalize telework, El Salvador adopted the Telework Regulation Law on March 20, 2020. The law is applicable in both private and public sectors and requires a written agreement between employer and employee outlining the terms and conditions of the arrangement, including working hours, responsibilities, workload, performance evaluations, reporting and monitoring, and duration of the arrangement, among others. Legislation prescribes that employers are responsible for providing the equipment, tools, and programs necessary to perform duties remotely. Employers are subject to the obligations contained in labor laws, while workers are entitled to the same rights as staff working at the employer’s premises, including benefits and freedom of association. According to the Exports and Investment Promotion Agency of El Salvador (PROESA), the implementation of the Telework Bill enabled El Salvador to save around 20,000 jobs that otherwise could have been lost to the pandemic, especially in the call center sector.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $27,022.64 2019 $27,023 https://data.worldank.org/country/el-salvador 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 $22,183.96 2019 $3,380 BEA data available at
https://apps.bea.gov/international/
factsheet/factsheet.cfm?Area=209 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 N.A. 2019 $26.0 BEA data available at
http://bea.gov/international/direct_
investment_multinational_companies_
comprehensive_data.htm 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2019 37% 2019 126%

* Central Bank, El Salvador. In 2018, the Central Bank released GDP estimates using the new national accounts system from 2008 and using 2005 as the base year.

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data (2019)*
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 10,113 100% Total Outward 4.4 100%
Panama 3,304 32.7% Guatemala 2.57 64.3%
United States 2,184 21.6% Honduras 1.32 33%
Spain 1,087 10.7% Costa Rica 0.48 12%
Colombia 819 8.1% Nicaragua 0.07 1.8%
Mexico 764 7.6%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

*Coordinated Direct Investment Survey, International Monetary Fund 

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.

14. Contact for More Information

Michael L. Benton
Deputy Economic Counselor
U.S. Embassy San Salvador
Address: Final Blvd. Santa Elena, Antiguo Cuscatlán, La Libertad, El Salvador
Phone: + (503) 2501-2999
Email: bentonML2@state.gov 
Website: http://sansalvador.usembassy.gov/index.html
To reach the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service (FCS) Office, please email: Office.Sansalvador@trade.gov 

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