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El Salvador

Executive Summary

El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic with a democratically elected government. In February 2019 voters elected Nayib Bukele as president for a five-year term. The election was generally free and fair, according to international observers. Free and fair municipal and legislative elections took place in 2018.

The National Civilian Police, overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security. The Ministry of Defense is responsible for maintaining national security. Although the constitution separates public security and military functions, it allows the president to use the armed forces “in exceptional circumstances” to maintain internal peace and public security “when all other measures have been exhausted.” The military is responsible for securing international borders and conducting joint patrols with the civilian police. In November 2019 President Bukele signed a decree authorizing military involvement in police duties. The decree, in effect until December 31, authorizes the military under National Civilian Police control to identify areas with the highest incidence of crime to target peacekeeping operations; conduct joint patrols with police to prevent, deter, and apprehend members of organized crime and common crime networks; carry out searches of individuals, vehicles, and property; help persons in cases of accidents or emergencies; make arrests and hand over detainees to police; prevent illegal trafficking of goods and persons at unauthorized national borders; strengthen perimeter security at prisons and other detention centers and schools; and provide land, sea, and air support to police. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses. On February 9, the executive branch used security forces to attempt to interfere with the independence of the legislature.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression and the press; serious acts of government corruption; lack of consistent investigation and accountability for violence against women; and crimes involving violence by security forces against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals.

Impunity persisted despite government steps to dismiss and prosecute abusers in the security forces, executive branch, and justice system. In some cases authorities investigated and prosecuted persons accused of committing crimes and human rights abuses.

Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes. They committed killings and acts of extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence. They directed these acts against police, judicial authorities, the business community, journalists, women, and members of vulnerable populations.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, although the government at times did not respect this right. The law permits the executive branch to use the emergency broadcasting service to take control of all broadcast and cable networks temporarily to televise political programming.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Journalists from several digital and print media outlets publicly accused President Bukele, his administration, and his supporters of a pattern of harassment designed to constrain media. In public statements and in testimony to the Legislative Assembly, journalists claimed President Bukele and his cabinet officials bullied them on Twitter, threatened them with physical harm, launched unwarranted financial investigations into their taxes and funding sources, denied them access to press conferences, and surveilled them. President Bukele strongly denied threatening journalists and dismissed accusations he was stifling freedom of the press. President Bukele called public attention to the outlets’ funding sources, which he claimed carry a heavy political bias and had been mobilized by the opposition ahead of legislative elections scheduled to be held in February 2021.

Violence and Harassment: On April 15, the Inter American Press Association reported several journalists complaining that progovernment trolls harassed, discredited, and threatened journalists on Twitter.

As of April the Salvadoran Journalist Association (APES) had registered 54 violations of the exercise of journalism. Among these were restrictions to asking questions during press conferences related to the government handling of the pandemic, destruction of journalistic material, harassment against independent journalists and discrediting of media outlets by government officials. As of August 27, the PDDH had received 10 complaints of violence against journalists by government officials.

On September 14, the digital newspaper El Faro filed suit against the government, accusing the Finance Ministry of using aggressive auditing practices to punish the firm for its critical reporting. El Faro representatives claimed auditors were asking for more information than the law allows, including nonfinancial records, for use other than auditing purposes that could lead to a form of censorship.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government advertising accounted for a significant portion of media income. According to media reports, the Bukele administration punitively cancelled all government advertising in the newspaper El Diario de Hoy after it reported on the banning of some journalists from the president’s press conferences. According to APES, media practiced self-censorship, especially in reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking.

On October 5, the government began broadcasting a state-owned newscast on Channel 10. On October 19, the government launched the state-owned newspaper Diario El Salvador. Serafin Valencia of APES criticized the state-owned media outlets as “government propaganda disguised as journalism.”

Nongovernmental Impact: APES noted journalists who reported on gangs and narcotics trafficking were subject to kidnappings, threats, and intimidation. Observers reported that gangs also charged print media companies to distribute in their communities, costing media outlets as much as 20 percent of their revenues.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, except with respect to labor unions (see section 7.a.).

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although in many areas the government could not ensure freedom of movement due to criminal gang activity.

In-country Movement: The major gangs controlled access to their specific territories. Gang members did not allow persons living in another gang’s area to enter their territory, even when travelling via public transportation. Gangs forced persons to present government-issued identification cards (containing their addresses) to determine their residence. If gang members discovered that a person lived in a rival gang’s territory, that person risked being killed, beaten, or denied entry to the territory. Bus companies paid extortion fees to operate within gang territories, often paying numerous fees for the different areas in which they operated. The extortion costs were passed on to customers.

As of July the FGR had filed 463 cases charging an illegal limitation on the freedom of movement, a decrease from the 1,515 cases brought from January through October 2019. The FGR reported 81 convictions for such charges through July 13, compared with 50 through the same period in 2019.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated there were 454,000 additional internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to violence in 2019 and reported the causes of internal displacement included threats, extortion, and assassinations perpetrated by criminal gangs. The IDMC also reported 1,900 additional IDPs due to natural disasters in 2019.

On January 10, the NGO ARPAS, an association of community radio networks, reported that the Legislative Assembly approved the Special Law for the Comprehensive Care and Protection of Internally Displaced Persons. The law calls for the creation of a national system whose main function is to implement and evaluate the national policy towards IDPs.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and some assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although this was often difficult in gang-controlled neighborhoods.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials. Although the Supreme Court investigated corruption in the executive and judicial branches and referred some cases to the FGR for possible criminal indictment, corruption and impunity remained endemic. Courts issued inconsistent rulings and failed, in particular, to address secret discretionary accounts within the government.

Corruption in the judicial system contributed to the high level of impunity, undermining the rule of law and the public’s respect for the judiciary. As of June 30, the Supreme Court had received complaints against 46 judges due to irregularities (41 of which remained under review) and had punished one judge. Accusations against judges included collusion with criminal elements and sexual harassment.

Corruption: On September 3, El Faro accused the Bukele administration of negotiating with senior gang leaders since 2019 to obtain electoral support and a reduction in homicides prior to the February 2021 legislative and municipal elections. On September 4, the attorney general announced an investigation into El Faro’s allegations. On June 23, the FGR arrested former defense minister David Victoriano Munguia Payes and issued an arrest warrant for former president Mauricio Funes, for their alleged roles in similar negotiations associated with the 2012-14 truce with the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs.

In June, July, and August, local press reported on irregular government purchases of food, personal protective equipment, and other supplies to combat the COVID-19 pandemic that allegedly involved inflated prices, agreements with companies linked to government officials, and purchases from companies with no past experience selling the purchased products or similar products. These transactions included the purchase of $1.1 million of protective masks for allegedly inflated prices from companies associated with the newly appointed finance minister, Jose Alejandro Zelaya, and the head of the Salvadoran Environmental Fund, Jorge Alejandro (“Koky”) Aguilar Zarco; the purchase of $12 million in medical supplies from Javi Performance Parts, a Spanish automobile parts company that last filed required financial reports in 2012, and $3.5 million in medical supplies from Lasca Design LLC, a Florida-based ceramics company, neither of which have any apparent experience manufacturing or selling medical supplies.

President Bukele fired Aguilar Zarco shortly after his reported transactions became public, and as of October 19, Aguilar Zarco was the only administration official to lose his job because of pandemic-related corruption allegations. On June 26, the attorney general confirmed he had opened criminal investigations of several senior Bukele administration officials based on newspaper reports of corruption. As of October 19, the attorney general had not publicly filed charges against any of those officials.

As of June 30, the Supreme Court’s Probity Section had opened 47 illicit enrichment investigations against public officers and forwarded two cases to the FGR for potential prosecution.

On August 14, two former defense ministers, David Victoriano Munguia Payes and Jose Atilio Benitez Parada, and the former president of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), Gustavo Lopez Davidson, were arrested on various embezzlement-related charges associated with a two-million-dollar weapons transaction in 2012. The FGR also filed charges against and issued arrest warrants for several other defendants, including former president Mauricio Funes.

As of August the Ethics Tribunal reported that it had opened 355 administrative proceedings against public officials between September 2019 and August 31. One complaint against a Supreme Court magistrate ended with the judge removed from the bench. As of September 3, the FGR had filed claims against three judges for committing crimes involving corruption or for violating public administration laws.

Financial Disclosure: The illicit enrichment law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section of the Supreme Court. The law establishes modest fines for noncompliance. The declarations were not available to the public unless requested by petition. The Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting investigable cases: age of the case (that is, proximity to the statute of limitations), relevance of the official’s position, and seriousness and notoriety of the alleged illicit enrichment.

On July 6, local investigative magazine Factum reported that the Supreme Court Probity Section had identified $1.4 million in unjustified funds in the accounts of Walter Araujo, an outspoken Bukele supporter, legislative candidate for the political party Nuevas Ideas and former Supreme Electoral Court magistrate. As of September 14, the Supreme Court judges had not yet voted on whether to send Araujo to trial for illicit enrichment.

The law requires public officers to present asset certification reports no later than 60 days after taking a position. In September the Supreme Court Probity Section reported that 112 public officers had failed to present their assets certifications in the 10 previous years and two public officers from the current administration had failed to present their assets certification in the last year.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, and the law’s definition of rape may apply to spousal rape, at the judge’s discretion. The law requires the FGR to prosecute rape cases whether or not the victim presses charges, and the law does not permit the victim to withdraw the criminal charge. The penalty for conviction of rape is generally imprisonment for six to 10 years. Laws against rape were not effectively enforced.

The law prohibits domestic violence and generally provides for sentences for conviction ranging from one to three years in prison, although some forms of domestic violence carry higher penalties. The law also permits restraining orders against offenders. Laws against domestic violence remained poorly enforced, and violence against women, including domestic violence, remained a widespread and serious problem. In 2018 the Salvadoran Organization of Women for Peace (ORMUSA) reported that in 2016 and 2017, only 5 percent of the 6,326 reported crimes against women went to trial.

On January 31, the Specialized Court of Instruction for a Life Free of Violence and Discrimination against Women found the boyfriend of a journalist from the newspaper La Prensa Grafica guilty of femicide for her death and imposed the maximum prison sentence of 50 years. The National Coordinator of Femicides from the FGR stated the ruling sent a message that “in this country it will not be allowed to continue killing women because of their condition of being a woman.”

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

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and establishes sentences if convicted of five to eight years’ imprisonment. Courts also may impose additional fines in cases in which the perpetrator held a position of trust or authority over the victim. The law mandates that employers take measures against sexual harassment and create and implement preventive programs. The government, however, did not enforce sexual harassment laws effectively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country and from their parents. The law requires parents to register a child within 15 days of birth or pay a small fine. Failure to register may result in denial of school enrollment.

Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious and widespread problem. The law gives children the right to petition the government without parental consent. Penalties for conviction of breaking the law include losing custody of the child and three to 26 years’ imprisonment, depending on the nature of the abuse.

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

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

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

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

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

The law prohibits paying anyone younger than age 18 for sexual services. The law prohibits participating in, facilitating, or purchasing materials containing child pornography and provides for prison sentences of up to 16 years for conviction of violations. Despite these provisions, sexual exploitation of children remained a problem.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The Jewish community totaled approximately 150 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

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

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 it lacks enforcement power. According to a CONAIPD representative, 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.

CONAIPD stated there was 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.

No formal system existed for filing a discrimination complaint involving a disability with the government.

On March 6, the newspaper El Diario de Hoy reported that the FGR charged two PNC officers with the crime of torture based on a video showing the two officers beating a person with disabilities. Although the video was filmed in 2017, it was widely circulated on social media on March 4, and President Bukele and the PNC director immediately denounced the violent act through Twitter.

Indigenous communities reported they faced racial discrimination and economic disadvantage. According to community leaders, gangs pushed out of urban centers by police mounted incursions into and appropriated indigenous land. Indigenous persons also reported gang members threatened indigenous children for crossing gang territorial lines artificially drawn across ancestral indigenous land, forcing some children to drop out of school or leave home.

According to the 2007 census (the most recent), there were 60 indigenous groups, making up 0.4 percent of citizens, mainly from the Nahua-Pipl, Lencas, Cacaopera (Kakwira), and Maya Chorti groups. The constitution recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain their cultural and ethnic identity. The law, however, does not include the right to be consulted regarding development and other projects envisioned on indigenous land, nor does it provide indigenous peoples the right 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 indigenous persons possessed title to land, opportunities for bank loans and other forms of credit remained limited.

The law provides for the preservation of languages and archeological sites. The municipalities of Cacaopera and Yucuaiquin, in the eastern part of the country, have special laws to recognize their indigenous cultural heritage.

On July 28, the First Sentencing Court of San Salvador found three PNC officers guilty of the aggravated homicide in January 2019 of Camila Diaz Cordova, a transgender woman, and sentenced each officer to 20 years in prison. These were reportedly the first convictions for the homicide of a transgender person. While the Prosecutor’s Office initially accused the officers of committing a “hate crime,” the Fifth Peace Court decided on March 11 that there was insufficient evidence to establish a hate crime had occurred.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) activists reported to the FGR that they received death threats on social media. Police generally failed to act on these reports. NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons. Persons from the LGBTI community stated the PNC and the FGR harassed transgender and gay individuals who reported cases of violence against LGBTI persons, including by conducting unnecessary and invasive strip searches.

The Bukele administration eliminated five presidential secretariats created under the previous administration, including the Secretariat of Inclusion. The Secretariat of Inclusion focused on issues affecting the LGBTI community and supported LGBTI persons through a telephone line. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs assumed some of the functions of the Secretariat of Inclusion, but the telephone line for support to LGBTI persons was deactivated and replaced by information on pregnancy and childcare support.

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which applies to discrimination in housing, employment, nationality, and access to government services. Gender identity and sexual orientation are included in the law covering hate crimes, along with race and political affiliation.

Supreme Electoral Tribunal guidelines from 2017 state individuals may not be denied the right to vote because the photograph on their identification card does not match their physical appearance. Nonetheless, media documented cases of transgender persons who faced harassment while voting in the presidential elections because their name and photograph on their national identification document did not match their expression of gender identity.

Although the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of HIV/AIDS status, Entre Amigos, an LGBTI NGO, reported HIV-related discrimination was widespread. As of August 31, the PDDH reported one alleged case of discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS that purportedly took place at a public health workers union in La Union Department.

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