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.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for 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, impunity remained endemic, with courts issuing inconsistent rulings and failing, in particular, to address secret discretionary accounts within the government.
On September 6, President Bukele launched CICIES to combat corruption and impunity. Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill and OAS Strategic Counsel Luis Porto signed a Letter of Intent to create the commission. The letter stated that the parties would sign a formal agreement within three months. The letter focused on strengthening the judiciary and Attorney General’s Office and creating a special anticorruption unit under the PNC. The letter promised that CICIES and the OAS would coordinate with local judicial institutions in creating guidelines for selecting cases. In Bukele’s announcement, he noted that CICIES would be financed with assistance from the OAS and other international organizations. As of October 29, there was an anticipated cost of $15 million and OAS was asking for funding, but no other details had been confirmed. In November the OAS reported that CICIES had established a headquarters in the country.
Corruption: In January the Supreme Court issued an order limiting its Probity Section investigations of public officials to those who had left public office within the last 10 years. On May 6, Factum Magazine published an article underlining that, due to this decision, 79 cases were due to expire on May 31. According to Factum, in four of these, the Probity Section had already completed the investigation, and it required only a decision from the Supreme Court. The four investigations involved former Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) legislator Sigfrido Reyes; GANA legislator Guillermo Gallegos (regarding actions taken in 2006-09); former vice president Oscar Ortiz, when he served as FMLN legislator in 1994 and 1997; and also of Ortiz when he served as Santa Tecla mayor in 2006 and 2009. As of June 30, the Supreme Court’s Probity Section had opened six illicit enrichment cases against public officers.
On June 20, the Attorney General’s Office filed a corruption complaint against Rafael Hernan Contreras, former chief of the Court of Accounts, one of the six agencies that oversees corruption investigations and cases. According to the attorney general, Contreras issued a false document that certified former president Antonio Saca, serving 10 years in prison for misappropriating more than $300 million, had managed funds effectively during his presidency. Saca still faced charges for bribing a judicial official for access to information. Six other officials from the Saca administration also received prison sentences in September 2018 for misappropriating public funds while in government.
In December 2018 a judge sentenced former attorney general Luis Martinez (2012-15) to five years in prison and ordered him to pay $125,000 in restitution on corruption-related charges of purposely and unlawfully disclosing recordings obtained in a wiretap investigation. In 2016 Martinez was fined $8,000 by the Government Ethics Tribunal for inappropriately accepting gifts from businessman Enrique Rais. Martinez faced a number of pending corruption charges, including allegations he took bribes from former president Mauricio Funes, who received citizenship from Nicaragua in July after fleeing corruption charges in El Salvador.
The Attorney General’s Office reportedly investigated past misuse of a presidential discretionary fund, established in 1989 and used by six presidents, to fund the national intelligence service. The fund, totaling one billion dollars since the accounts’ inception, had never been audited by the Court of Accounts. Former presidents Saca and Funes allegedly misappropriated more than $650 million from this fund during their terms in office.
As of September 16, the Ethics Tribunal reported that between September 2018 and August 21, it had opened 438 administrative proceedings against 426 public officials. During that same period, the tribunal imposed fines against 41 sitting and former public officials. As of September 3, the Attorney General’s Office 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 fines for noncompliance that range from $11 to $571. The declarations were not available to the public unless requested by petition. The Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting investigable cases: the 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.
The law requires public officers to present asset certification reports no later than 60 days after taking a new position. In August the Supreme Court Probity Section reported that 8,974 public officers had failed to present their assets certifications in the 10 previous years. This included 16 legislators who took office in May 2018 and who had failed to present their assets reports by June 30, 2019.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Although government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to these groups, officials expressed reluctance to discuss certain issues, such as extrajudicial killings and IDPs, with the PDDH.
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 generally enjoyed government cooperation and was considered generally effective except on problems relating to criminal groups and gangs.
The PDDH maintained a constructive dialogue with the Office of the President. The government publicly acknowledged receipt of reports, although in some cases it did not act on recommendations, which are nonbinding. The PDDH faced threats, including two robberies at its headquarters targeting computers containing personally identifiable information.
On October 16, the Legislative Assembly nominated a new PDDH ombudsman who was facing three criminal cases for “fraud, bribery, and arbitrary acts,” as well as a Court of Accounts case from his time as a civil court judge. International organizations, NGOs, several legislators, the San Salvador mayor, and President Bukele criticized the nomination.