El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic. Municipal and legislative elections held in March were generally free and fair, according to international observers, although slow tabulation contributed to reporting delays. Free and fair presidential elections took place in 2014.
Civilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over security forces.
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; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of government respect for judicial independence; widespread government corruption; violence against women and girls that was infrequently addressed by the authorities, as well as security force violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals; and children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.
Impunity persisted despite government steps to dismiss and prosecute some in the security forces, executive branch, and justice system who committed abuses.
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.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
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 July 31, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) announced it was investigating 22 complaints against police officers, prison guards, and personnel of the Attorney General’s Office for such killings.
The case continued against nine police officers charged in September 2017 with aggravated homicide and concealment stemming from the killing of five persons. Three of the accused were members of the now decommissioned Police Reaction Group (GRP), and police claimed at the time of the events that the deaths were justified homicides.
On March 2, the Attorney General’s Office appealed the September 2017 acquittal of five police officers for aggravated homicide charges in the 2015 killing of a man at a farm in San Blas, San Jose Villanueva. The judge had ruled that the prosecutors failed to prove which of the five officers was specifically responsible for firing the fatal shot and likewise failed to prove conspiracy. On May 4, the Fourth Appellate Court of Appeals confirmed it would retry the case.
On February 23, police authorities in coordination with INTERPOL arrested Jaime Ernesto Bonilla Martinez, who lived in Texas, for participating in at least eight homicides as part of an alleged extermination group operating in San Miguel. The group, composed of civilians, some of whom were alleged rival gang members, and retired and active members of the military and police, was purportedly responsible for murder-for-hire and targeted killings of alleged gang members in San Miguel. Funding for the extermination group reportedly came from Salvadoran citizens living abroad.
As of October 25, alleged gang members had killed 21 police officers. On August 21, the Organized Crime Court convicted 61 MS-13 members of homicide, extortion, illicit trafficking, and conspiracy to kill police officers, among other crimes.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, but there were reports of violations. As of July 31, the PDDH received 18 complaints of torture or cruel or inhuman treatment by the National Civil Police (PNC), the armed forces, and other public officials.
On May 29, a court recommended that colonels Hector Solano Caceres and David Iglesias Montalvo, along with Lieutenant Colonel Ascencio Sermeno face charges for homicide, bribery, and conspiracy for ordering the torture of two men in 2016 in Apaneca. In 2017 six soldiers were convicted in the same case.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and gang activities.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding remained a serious threat to prisoners’ health and welfare. As of June 30, the PDDH reported that think tank Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development reported 38,849 inmates were being held in facilities designed for 18,051 inmates.
Convicted inmates and pretrial detainees were sometimes held in the same prison cells.
In June the Salvadoran Institute for Child Development (ISNA) reported 945 juveniles in detention, with 274 of those awaiting trial. Of those, 356 were held on homicide charges, 465 for extortion, 313 for drug-related crimes, and 143 for gang membership. As of July ISNA reported that three minors were killed by gang members while in detention, compared with nine in 2017. ISNA also reported that as of June, seven minors were victims of trafficking in persons, compared with 18 in 2017.
Gangs remained prevalent in prisons. As of September 2017, detention centers held 17,614 current or former gang members, or 46 percent of the prison population. So-called extraordinary measures were designed to interrupt gang communications and coordination between imprisoned leaders and gang members outside the prisons. Smuggling of weapons, drugs, and other contraband such as cell phones and cell phone SIM cards was reduced but remained a problem in the prisons, at times with complicity from prison officials.
Law enforcmement officials credited the extraordinary measures with a 45 percent reduction in homicides. The PDDH and human rights groups faulted the measures for lacking judicial oversight. On August 16, the Legislative Assembly formalized some elements of the extraordinary measures as part of a reformed penitentiary code, which now allows supervised family visits.
In many facilities provisions for sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature control, medical care, and lighting were inadequate, according to the PDDH. From August 2017 to May, the General Prison Directorate reported 2,440 cases of inmate malnutrition and the PDDH reported more than 500 cases of severe malnutrition in Izalco and Ciudad Barrios prisons. The PDDH noted that in 2017 a total of 64 inmates died, some of them due to unspecified causes.
In October the PNC reported overcrowding in police holding cells, with 5,500 detainees in cells designed for 1,500 persons. Those in pretrial detention were held alongside sick inmates.
Administration: The PDDH has authority to investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has authority over the protection of constitutional rights. The extraordinary measures granted broad authorities to wardens to order disciplinary actions, to include isolation and withholding family or religious visitations, without judicial oversight. Extraordinary measures ended in August when the Legislative Assembly reformed the penitentiary code.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits by independent human rights observers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media to low- and medium-security prisons. Inspections of high-security prisons were limited to government officials, the PDDH, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Early in the year, the government reinstated the ICRC’s access to all prisons. Church groups; the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex activists; the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions; and other groups visited prisons during the year. The PDDH reported that from May 2017 to April, it conducted 1,644 unannounced prison inspections.
Improvements: Due to the construction of new prisons completed during the year and redistribution of prisoners, overcrowding declined from 334 percent to 215 percent as of August.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected 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 Freedom: There continued to be allegations that the government retaliated against members of the press for criticizing its policies. There were reports the Ministry of Labor conducted arbitrary labor inspections and financial audits of news organizations.
Both the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) parties steered funding, including public funds, to journalists in exchange for positive coverage. The online news outlet El Faro reported during the year that former president Antonio Saca funneled $665,000 (currency is the U.S. dollar) to media contacts in exchange for positive coverage from 2004 until 2009, while former president Mauricio Funes continued the practice of using a secret fund to corrupt journalists from 2009 through 2014.
Violence and Harassment: On May 22, the Salvadoran Journalist Association (APES) reported that former youth secretary Carlos Aleman threatened El Faro journalist Gabriel Labrador after he published a report that accused Aleman of benefiting from illegal salary increases during the Saca administration. APES also reported that journalist Milagro Vallecillos received a call asking him where he would like a body disposed after he criticized the police investigation into the killing of journalist Karla Turcios.
In relation to reporting on the March 4 municipal and legislative assembly elections, APES recorded 15 complaints against civil servants, mayors, unions, and gang members. The incidents included three verbal threats, two physical assaults, one property damage claim, and three suspicious incidents. On March 19, online news outlet Diario 1 journalist Miguel Lemus was physically attacked by members of the San Salvador city employees’ union.
Minister of Defense Munguia reportedly visited media offices unannounced and accompanied by armed soldiers.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government advertising accounted for a significant portion of press advertising income. According to APES, media practiced self-censorship, especially in reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking.
Nongovernmental Impact: APES noted journalists reporting 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.
The International Telecommunication Union reported 31 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The most recent municipal and legislative elections occurred on March 4, with the final election results released by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on March 20 and April 4, respectively. The election reports published by the Organization of American States and the EU electoral mission noted that the elections generally met international standards.
While the law prohibits public officials from campaigning in elections, this provision lacked consistent enforcement.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.