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.
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.
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.
As of August the PDDH reported 148 complaints of forced displacement, 28 of which arose from the same incident. Nearly all of the complaints were from gang-controlled territories, with 84 cases from San Salvador, although in three cases, the complaint alleged the PNC caused the displacement. As of October 2018, the government acknowledged that 1.1 percent of the general population (approximately 68,060 persons) was internally displaced. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated there were 71,500 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and reported the causes of internal displacement included abuse, extortion, discrimination, and threats.
As of October 24, the Legislative Assembly had failed to pass court-ordered legislation addressing internal displacement by no later than January 2019. In July 2018 the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the government violated the constitution by not recognizing forced displacement or providing sufficient aid to IDPs. The court also called on the government to retake control of gang territories, develop protection protocols for victims, and uphold international standards for protecting victims.
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.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, and the criminal code’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 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 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 July 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 April 24, a woman died in Guazapa after being beaten by her husband days earlier. The Attorney General’s Office charged her husband with femicide. According to the woman’s children, her husband had been previously deported from the United States after being implicated in a similar case of violence against women.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and establishes sentences of five to eight years’ imprisonment. Courts may impose fines in addition 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 April 4, following an abbreviated trial, the Third Sentence Tribunal of San Salvador sentenced a PNC chief inspector to three years in prison following his conviction for sexual assault, sexual harassment, and threats of violence against three female subordinates.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
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 who deny a person’s civil rights based on gender and six months to two years for employers who discriminate against women in the workplace, but employees generally did not report such violations due to fear of employer reprisals.
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 $2.85 fine. Failure to register can 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 breaking the law include losing custody of the child and three to 26 years’ imprisonment, depending on the nature of the abuse. As of August the PNC had received 2,081 child abuse complaints.
On February 19, Judge Jaime Escalante was charged with the crime of sexual aggression against a 10-year-old female child. On March 4, the Legislative Assembly voted to remove his immunity from criminal prosecution. On October 31, the Criminal Chamber determined that Escalante’s actions did not constitute a felony but rather a misdemeanor, because the encounter happened quickly and in a crowded place. The attorney general appealed the decision and asked the Criminal Chamber to overturn the ruling, admit all evidence, and send Escalante to trial.
According to a 2016 National Health Survey, more than half of households punished their children physically and psychologically.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. The law bans child marriage to prevent child abusers from using legal technicalities to avoid 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 six to 10 years.
The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The law classifies statutory rape as sexual relations with anyone younger than 18 and includes penalties of four to 13 years’ imprisonment for violations.
The law prohibits paying anyone younger than 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 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 CONAIPD, 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.
According to CONAIPD, there is 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.
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. They also reported gang members threatened their 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. A 2014 constitutional amendment 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 rights 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 individuals 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. During the year the municipalities of Cacaopera and Yucuaiquin, in the eastern part of the country, approved special laws to recognize their indigenous cultural heritage.
The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which also applies to discrimination in housing, employment, nationality, and access to government services. Gender identity and sexual orientation are included in the criminal code provisions covering hate crimes, along with race and political affiliation. NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against sexual minorities. Persons from the LGBTI community stated that the PNC and the Attorney General’s Office harassed transgender and gay individuals when they reported cases of violence against LGBTI persons, including by conducting unnecessary and invasive strip searches.
On January 31, a transsexual woman, Camila Diaz Cordova, identified in her national identification card as Nelson Arquimides Diaz Cordova, was allegedly killed by three police officers with the National Civil Police’s 911 System in San Salvador. In July, at an initial hearing in the Fifth Peace Court, the Prosecutor’s Office accused the officers of committing a “hate crime.”
As of August 22, the PDDH reported four accusations by the LGBTI community of homicides, one complaint of torture, four complaints of violations to human integrity, one complaint each of physical abuse and harassment. The PDDH was unable to determine whether the incidents were bias motivated. Activists also reported receiving death threats on social media. Police generally failed to act on these reports. The PDDH reported it was processing a case against security personnel at a prison in Sensuntepeque, Cabanas Department, for deprivation of liberty and inhuman treatment of transsexual prisoners based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Media reported killings of LGBTI community members in October and November. On October 27, Anahy Rivas, a 27-year-old transwoman, was killed after being assaulted and dragged behind a car. Jade Diaz, a transwoman who disappeared on November 6, was assaulted prior to her killing. Her body was found submerged in a river. On November 16, Manuel Pineda, known as Victoria, was beaten to death and her body left naked in the street in Francisco Menendez, Ahuachapan Department. Uncensored photographs of the body were circulated on social media.
In 2017 the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced guidelines stating individuals cannot 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 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 union in La Union Department.