El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic. On February 3, 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 (PNC), overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security, and 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 PNC. In 2016 then president Sanchez Ceren renewed the decree authorizing military involvement in police duties, a presidential order in place since 1996. Civilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: allegations of unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture by security forces; arbitrary arrest and detention by the PNC; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; widespread government corruption; violence against women and girls that was inconsistently addressed by authorities; security force violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals; and children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.
Impunity persisted despite government steps to dismiss and prosecute abusers in the security forces, executive branch, and justice system.
Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of murder, extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence directed against police, judicial authorities, the business community, journalists, women, and members of vulnerable populations. In some cases authorities investigated and prosecuted persons accused of committing crimes and human rights abuses.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
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 over all broadcast and cable networks temporarily to televise political programming.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Allegations continued that the government retaliated against members of the press for criticizing certain policies. On September 6, President Bukele’s press and communications staff banned journalists of digital newspapers El Faro and Factum Magazine from a press conference in which President Bukele announced the launch of the Salvadoran Commission Against Corruption and Impunity (CICIES). The Bukele administration stated that journalists from both outlets had acted improperly in past press conferences, including shouting questions at speakers and behaving disrespectfully toward staff. On September 11, Factum Magazine journalist Rodrigo Baires was denied entry to a press conference at the same location. The refusals to admit journalists to presidential press conferences drew widespread criticism and concern regarding freedom of expression and freedom of the press, including by the United Nations, Organization of American States (OAS), and Committee to Protect Journalism. Following the criticism, a Factum Magazine reporter was allowed to attend and ask questions at a September 12 presidential press conference.
Violence and Harassment: On July 3, the Salvadoran Journalist Association (APES) reported on the rise of cyber intimidation and attacks against journalists. APES specifically criticized President Bukele for seeking to intimidate journalists Mariana Belloso and Roxana Sandoval. After they criticized the Bukele administration, accounts on social media associated with Bukele supporters targeted Belloso and Sandoval with insults, intimidation, threats, and attempts to discredit their work.
As of August 22, the PDDH had received six complaints of violence against journalists by government officials. APES reported 77 cases of aggressions against journalists during the year, an increase of 18 percent over the 65 cases reported in 2018.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government advertising accounted for a significant portion of press advertising income. According to media reports, the Bukele administration cancelled all government advertising in the newspaper El Diario de Hoy after it reported on the banning of journalists from El Faro and Factum Magazine from President Bukele’s press conferences. According to APES, media practiced self-censorship, especially in reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking.
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.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
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.).
c. Freedom of Religion
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 guarantee freedom of movement due to criminal gang activity.
In-country Movement: The major gangs (MS-13 and two factions of 18th Street) controlled their own territory. 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 not allowed to enter 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 October 22, the Attorney General’s Office had filed 1,515 new cases charging an illegal limitation on the freedom of movement, an increase from the 920 new cases brought in the same period 2018. The Attorney General’s Office reported 50 convictions for such charges through October 22, compared with 13 through October 22, 2018.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, including an established system for providing protection to refugees. Between January 1 and August 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received 10 asylum petitions, compared with 31 refugee/asylum claims in 2018.