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El Salvador

Executive Summary

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

The National Civilian Police, overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security. The Ministry of Defense is responsible for maintaining national security. Although the constitution separates public security and military functions, it allows the president to use the armed forces “in exceptional circumstances” to maintain internal peace and public security “when all other measures have been exhausted.” The military is responsible for securing international borders and conducting joint patrols with the civilian police. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists and censorship; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious acts of government corruption; lack of consistent investigation and accountability for gender-based violence; significant barriers to accessing reproductive health; and crimes involving violence by security forces against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex individuals.

Impunity persisted in the security forces, executive branch, and justice system. In some cases authorities investigated and prosecuted persons accused of committing crimes and human rights abuses. Impunity for official corruption remained endemic.

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

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed politically motivated killings. There were reports, however, of security force involvement in extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members. As of October 25, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) was investigating seven cases of extrajudicial killings, six attributed to the members of the National Civilian Police (PNC) and one to the armed forces.

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

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated there were 114,000 new instances of internal forced displacement due to violence during 2020 and reported the causes included threats, extortion, and assassinations perpetrated by criminal gangs. The IDMC also reported 17,000 additional internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020.

More than 30 families that lived in Panchimalco, San Salvador Department, abandoned their homes on May 25 after receiving threats from gang members. The families, some of whom had lived in Panchimalco for more than 40 years, feared their lives would be in danger after the gang threatened to hold the village responsible for the disappearance of a gang member.

Comprehensive, up-to-date data on internal displacement was not available, but the NGO Cristosal counted 200 persons displaced between January and June. As of August 31, the PDDH reported 53 cases of forced internal displacement. Beatriz Campos, a PDDH attorney, said 90 percent of forced internal displacement cases were caused by gangs in their community and the other 10 percent due to PNC harassment of youth in high-risk communities.

Although the government passed new IDP legislation in January 2020, authorities had yet to take substantial action to fund or implement the law. The government failed to allocate sufficient funding to the Unit of Attention to Victims of Internal Forced Displacement, the entity tasked with the implementation of the law. According to the Due Process of Law Foundation, implementation of the law was further hindered by the lack of clear implementing regulations and available records of IDPs in the country.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The principal human rights investigative and monitoring body is the autonomous PDDH, whose ombudsman is nominated by the Legislative Assembly for a three-year term. The PDDH regularly issued advisory opinions, reports, and press releases on prominent human rights cases. The PDDH ombudsman, Jose Apolonio Tobar, requested access to monitor conditions in the prisons but had not been allowed to enter the prisons since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. In addition the budget approved by the Legislative Assembly for the PDDH in the coming year was again significantly cut.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

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 Attorney General’s Office to prosecute rape cases whether or not the victim presses charges, and the law does not permit the victim to withdraw the criminal charge. The penalty for 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.

According to a newly published survey, the first of its kind carried out by the General Directorate of Statistics and Census (DIGESTYC), six of 10 women older than age 15 suffered some type of sexual violence in their life. The data was collected in 2019 but not disclosed until March due to difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Sixty-three percent of women ages 15 to 19 and 72 percent of women ages 30 to 34 reported having suffered sexual violence.

Between January and April, the Attorney General’s Office received 441 complaints of domestic violence, which encompasses domestic violence toward any member of the family, including children. Observers noted this number likely did not capture most domestic violence cases, particularly those perpetrated against women. On November 3, several women’s organizations discussed in a forum the 2019 National Data System on Violence against Women of the Ministry of Justice and DIGESTYC, which showed that 68 percent of women older than 15 years suffered sexual violence, but only 5.3 percent sought help. The organizations attributed this low reporting number to women’s distrust of state institutions.

On January 15, the Specialized Sentencing Court for a Life Free of Violence for Women sentenced David Eliseo Diaz Ramirez to 35 years in prison for femicide. Diaz Ramirez and several gang members killed a woman in Tutunichapa, San Salvador Department, in 2019 because she refused to have sex with them.

On May 8, the PNC found more than a dozen bodies, most of them girls and women, buried in the house of former police officer Hugo Ernesto Chavez Osorio, who was arrested on May 6 for the murders of two women. According to the PNC investigation, Chavez Osorio raped his victims and then killed them before burying their bodies in his house.

The Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) reported that the Ministry of Health registered 6,938 pregnant girls or adolescents in the first six months of the year, including 156 girls ages 10 and 11 who were raped and became pregnant. During the first half of the year, the number of pregnancies among girls between the ages of 10-14 increased 9 percent as compared to the same period in 2020. ORMUSA attributed this to several causes, including a lack of government policy for preventing pregnancies in girls and adolescents, a lack of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education, and an increase in sexual violence. According to the Feminist Collective, families did not report the rapes to the PNC and the Attorney General’s Office because the rapist was commonly a relative of the victim and the families considered it an embarrassment.

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.

On March 11, the Second Sentencing Court sentenced Jose Misael Maldonado Palacios, a corporal of the Third Infantry Brigade of the San Miguel Armed Forces, to six years in prison for improper sexual conduct against two employees. The Specialized Attention Unit for Crimes related to Children, Adolescents, and Women stated that in March 2020, Maldonado Palacios offered to pay two women in exchange for sexual acts inside the barracks.

On March 19, the Attorney General’s Office announced the arrest of Salvador Alcides Villegas, general manager of the Council of Mayors of Usulutan. Villegas was formally accused of sexual harassment of three women, including touching and improper sexual expressions. The victims told the authorities that Villegas touched their legs, breasts, and buttocks.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

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

In March the Inter-American Court of Human Rights concluded that the government violated the right to personal freedom, life, health, and justice of Manuela, a woman sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2008 for the aggravated homicide of her unborn child. Manuela died from cancer in 2010 after not receiving timely and appropriate treatment in prison.

On June 2, the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion in El Salvador reported that at least 17 women were in prison on charges of having an abortion after suffering out-of-hospital obstetric emergencies. One of the women, Sara Rogel, received early parole, and the Second Court of Penitentiary Surveillance in Cojutepeque, Cuscatlan Department, released her from prison on June 7. Rogel suffered an obstetric emergency in 2012 when she slipped while washing clothes and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide for allegedly having an abortion. The court commuted Rogel’s sentence to 10 years in January, and Rogel received early parole after the Attorney General’s Office declined to appeal the decision.

The government-run Institute for Women’s Development implements the National Care System which aims 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 and services were generally available throughout the country.

ORMUSA reported that the closure of Ciudad Mujer health centers throughout the country since June 2019, shortly after President Bukele became president, had created a barrier to women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons receiving timely health services. Following the closure of the centers, women and LGBTQI+ persons were subjected to long delays to see doctors, and the doctors were not specialized in the field of reproductive health and health issues specific to the LGBTQI+ community, as were the doctors in the Ciudad Mujer health centers.

Discrimination: The constitution grants women and men the same legal status in family, religious, personal status, and nationality laws. There were no reports of discrimination in marriage, divorce, child custody, education, and judicial processes. The law also provides equal rights for men and women in the areas of property rights, inheritance, employment, access to credit, business ownership, and housing. 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.

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

Police and gangs continue to commit acts of violence against LGBTQI+ individuals. These actions were tolerated by the government, and perpetrators were rarely prosecuted.

On February 20, the Attorney General’s Office announced three MS-13 gang members were convicted of homicide for the 2017 murders of two transgender women in San Luis Talpa, La Paz Department, and each was sentenced to more than 60 years in prison. The Prosecutor’s Office handled the case as a quarrel between gangs and not as a crime related to gender identity of the victims, and as a result the Prosecutor’s Office did not categorize the homicides as hate crimes.

On April 25, Zashy del Cid, a transgender woman, died in San Miguel after she was shot in the back while walking down the street. As of June 5, police had made no arrests. A report by Association Communicating and Training Trans Women in El Salvador (COMCAVIS Trans) found that gangs were responsible for nearly two-thirds of the violence against the LGBTQI+ community.

LGBTQI+ activists reported to the Attorney General’s Office 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 LGBTQI+ persons. Persons from the LGBTQI+ community stated the PNC and officials from the Attorney General’s Office harassed transgender and gay individuals who reported cases of violence against LGBTQI+ persons, including by conducting unnecessary and invasive strip searches.

In 2020 the Bukele administration eliminated five presidential secretariats created under the previous administration, including the Secretariat of Inclusion. The responsibilities of the secretariat moved to the Gender and Diversity Office in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, which has no authority to influence policy and insufficient support to implement programs. It did not provide any significant public services.

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. Despite the existence of these laws, the government has not taken enforcement actions against violators.

As of August 31, the PDDH reported seven alleged cases of discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons. The PDDH confirmed on February 14 that they opened an investigation into the possible discrimination against an army officer who complained of being discharged due to his sexual orientation. On January 31, the Lieutenant Cristian Adalberto Castro Grijalva was discharged from the army for “public or private conduct that is notoriously immoral or contrary to good customs or public order.” Castro Grijalva said his sexual orientation was not a secret and that it never affected his performance.

Supreme Electoral Tribunal guidelines 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 municipal elections during the year because their name and photograph on their national identification document did not match their expression of gender identity.

COMCAVIS Trans reported that the LGBTQI+ community faced discrimination when obtaining health care. Lesbian women said their gynecologists only focused on HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases when they learned that their patients were lesbian instead of spending time treating routine gynecological issues. According to COMCAVIS Trans, transgender persons also faced discrimination from medical staff when they insisted on calling patients by their legal name instead of their chosen names.

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