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El Salvador

Executive Summary

On June 1, 2019, President Nayib Bukele assumed office. His administration immediately pledged to eliminate cumbersome bureaucracy and improve security conditions to attract investment and create jobs. Early accomplishments included increased dialogue with the private sector and reduced homicide rates, which increased business confidence. El Salvador and the United States signed a Growth in the Americas memorandum of understanding in January 2020 to promote private investment. The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately complicated implementation of reforms and dampened investment.

Commonly cited challenges to doing business in El Salvador include the discretionary application of laws and regulations, lengthy and unpredictable permitting procedures, as well as customs delays. In recent years, El Salvador has lagged its regional peers in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI). The sectors with the largest investment have historically been textiles and retail establishments, though investment in energy has increased in recent years.

The Bukele administration has proposed several large infrastructure projects, which could provide opportunities for U.S. investment. Project proposals include enhancing road connectivity and logistics, expanding airport capacity and improving access to water and energy, as well as sanitation. Having inherited a large public debt from the previous administration, the Bukele administration has begun pursuing Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to execute infrastructure projects. El Salvador launched its first PPP in September 2019 to expand the cargo terminal at the international airport. It launched a second PPP to install highway lighting and video surveillance in January 2020. With these two PPPs, the Bukele administration delivered on its commitment under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, which is due to close in September 2020. More information about the MCC Compact is available at https://www.mcc.gov/where-we-work/program/el-salvador-investment-compact.

As a small energy-dependent country with no Atlantic coast, El Salvador relies on free trade. It is a member of the Central American Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) and the United States is El Salvador’s top trading partner. Proximity to the U.S. market is a competitive advantage for El Salvador. As most Salvadoran exports travel by land to Guatemalan and Honduran ports, regional integration is crucial for competitiveness. Although El Salvador officially joined the Customs Union established by Guatemala and Honduras in 2018, the Bukele administration announced in January 2020 that it would prioritize bilateral trade facilitation with Guatemala.

The Bukele administration has taken initial steps to facilitate trade – a major priority of the textile, retail, and other U.S. companies invested in El Salvador. In July 2019, the government of El Salvador (GOES) relaunched the National Trade Facilitation Committee (NTFC), which had not met since its creation in 2017. The NTFC produced the first jointly developed private-public action plan to reduce trade barriers. The plan contains 60 strategic measures focused on simplifying procedures, reducing trade costs, and improving connectivity and border infrastructure. Companies are hopeful the plan would help reduce costs and make El Salvador more attractive for further investment.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 113 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/
research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report “Ease of Doing Business” 2019 91 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2019 108 of 129 http://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
content/page/data-analysis
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2017 3,037 http://apps.bea.gov/
international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2017 3,820 http://data.worldbank.org/
indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

The laws and regulations of El Salvador are relatively transparent and generally foster competition. Legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are transparent and consistent with international norms. However, the discretionary application of rules can complicate routine transactions, such as customs clearances and permitting applications. Regulatory agencies are often understaffed and inexperienced in dealing with complex issues. New foreign investors should review the regulatory environment carefully. In addition to applicable national laws and regulations, localities may impose permitting requirements on investors.

Companies have noted that the GOES has enacted laws and regulations without following required notice and comment procedures. The Regulatory Improvement Law, which entered into force, in April 2019, requires government agencies to publish online the list of laws and regulations they plan to approve, reform, or repeal each year. Institutions cannot adopt or modify regulations and laws not included in that list. Prior to adopting or amending laws or regulations, the Simplified Administrative Procedures Law requires the GOES to perform a Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) based on a standardized methodology. Proposed legislation and regulations, as well as RIAs, must be made available for public comment. In practice, the Legislative Assembly does not publish draft legislation on its website and does not solicit comments on pending legislation. The GOES does not yet require the use of a centralized online portal to publish regulatory actions. The implications of the reforms are still not apparent, as the reforms have not been fully implemented. However, private sector stakeholders have expressed support for the measures.

El Salvador began implementing the Simplified Administrative Procedures Law in February 2019. This law seeks to streamline and consolidate administrative processes among GOES entities to facilitate investment. In 2016, El Salvador adopted the Electronic Signature Law to facilitate e-commerce and trade but is still working on the design, policies and procedures for implementation, as well as construction of data centers and acquisition of hardware and software.

In 2018, El Salvador enacted the Law on the Elimination of Bureaucratic Barriers, which created a specialized tribunal to verify that regulations and procedures are implemented in compliance with the law and sanction public officials who impose administrative requirements not contemplated in the law. However, the law is pending implementation until members of the tribunal are appointed.

The GOES controls the price of some goods and services, including electricity, liquid propane gas, gasoline, public transport fares, and medicines. The government also directly subsidizes water services and residential electricity rates.

The Superintendent of Electricity and Telecommunications (SIGET) oversees electricity rates, telecommunications, and distribution of electromagnetic frequencies. The Salvadoran government subsidizes residential consumers for electricity use of up to 100 kWh monthly. The electricity subsidy costs the government between $50 million to $64 million annually.

El Salvador’s public finances are relatively transparent. Budget documents, including the executive budget proposal, enacted budget, and end-of-year reports, as well as information on debt obligations are accessible to the public at: http://www.transparenciafiscal.gob.sv/ptf/es/PTF2-Index.html  An independent institution, the Court of Accounts, audits the financial statements, economic performance, cash flow statements, and budget execution of all GOES ministries and agencies. The results of these audits are publicly available online. However, the Office of the President does not provide detailed information of the budget of the Intelligence Agency (OIE) and does not subject the OIE to audits.

International Regulatory Considerations

El Salvador belongs to the Central American Common Market and the Central American Integration System (SICA), organizations which are working on regional integration, (e.g., harmonization of tariffs and customs procedures). El Salvador commonly incorporates international standards, such as the Pan-American Standards Commission (Spanish acronym COPANT), into its regulatory system.

El Salvador is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), adheres to the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement), and has adopted the Code of Good Practice annexed to the TBT Agreement. El Salvador is also a signatory to the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) and has notified its Categories A, B, and C commitments. El Salvador has established a National Trade Facilitation Committee (NTFC) as required by the TFA, which was reactivated in July 2019 as it had not met since 2017.

El Salvador is a member of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development’s international network of transparent investment procedures: http://tramites.gob.sv . Investors can find information on administrative procedures applicable to investment and income-generating operations including the name and contact details for those in charge of procedures, required documents and conditions, costs, processing time, and legal bases for the procedures.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

El Salvador’s legal system is codified law. Commercial law is based on the Commercial Code and the corresponding Commercial and Civil Code of Procedures. There are specialized commercial courts that resolve disputes.

Although foreign investors may seek redress for commercial disputes through Salvadoran courts, many investors report the legal system to be slow, costly, and unproductive. Local investment and commercial dispute resolution proceedings routinely last many years. The judicial system is independent of the executive branch, but may be subject to manipulation by diverse interests. Final judgments are at times difficult to enforce. The Embassy recommends that potential investors carry out proper due diligence by hiring competent local legal counsel.

A substantial ruling against a foreign bank in 2019 caused widespread concern in the private sector due to perceived irregularities. The case is pending consideration by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Miempresa is the Ministry of Economy’s website for new businesses in El Salvador. At Miempresa, investors can register new companies with the Ministry of Labor (MOL), Social Security Institute, pension fund administrators, and certain municipalities; request a tax identification number/card; and perform certain administrative functions. Website: https://www.miempresa.gob.sv/ 

The country’s eRegulations site provides information on procedures, costs, entities, and regulations involved in setting up a new business in El Salvador. Website: http://tramites.gob.sv/ 

The Exports and Investment Promoting Agency of El Salvador (PROESA) is responsible for attracting domestic and foreign private investment, promoting exports of goods and services, evaluating and monitoring the business climate, and driving investment and export policies. PROESA provides direct technical assistance to investors interested in starting up operations in El Salvador, regardless of the size of the investment or number of employees. Website: http://www.proesa.gob.sv/ 

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

The Office of the Superintendent of Competition reviews transactions for competition concerns. The OECD and the Inter-American Development Bank have indicated that the Superintendent employs enforcement standards that are consistent with global best practices and has appropriate authority to enforce the Competition Law effectively. Superintendent decisions may be appealed directly to the Supreme Court, the country´s highest court. Website: http://www.sc.gob.sv/home/ 

Expropriation and Compensation

The Constitution allows the government to expropriate private property for reasons of public utility or social interest. Indemnification can take place either before or after the fact. There are no recent cases of expropriation. In 1980, a rural/agricultural land reform established that no single natural or legal person could own more than 245 hectares (605 acres) of land, and the government expropriated the land of some large landholders. In 1980, private banks were nationalized, but were subsequently returned to private ownership in 1989-90. A 2003 amendment to the Electricity Law requires energy generating companies to obtain government approval before removing fixed capital from the country.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

El Salvador is a member state to the ICSID Convention. ICSID is included in a number of El Salvador’s investment treaties as the forum available to foreign investors.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

In 2016, ICSID ruled in favor of El Salvador on a case brought by an international mining company that sought to force government acceptance of a gold-mining project.  Following the ruling, El Salvador banned the exploration and extraction of metal mining in the country.

The rights of investors from CAFTA-DR countries are protected under the trade agreement’s dispute settlement procedures. There have been no successful claims by U.S. investors under CAFTA-DR. There are currently no pending claims by U.S. investors.

For foreign investors from a country without a trade agreement with El Salvador, amended Article 15 of the 1999 Investment Law limits access to international dispute resolution and may obligate them to use national courts. Submissions to national dispute panels and panel hearings are open to the public. Interested third parties have the opportunity to be heard.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

A 2002 law allows private sector organizations to establish arbitration centers for the resolution of commercial disputes, including those involving foreign investors. In 2009, El Salvador modified its arbitration law to allow parties to appeal a ruling to the Salvadoran courts. Investors have complained that the modification dilutes the efficacy of arbitration as an alternative method of resolving disputes. Arbitrations takes place at the Arbitration and Mediation Center, a branch of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of El Salvador. Website: http://www.mediacionyarbitraje.com.sv/ 

El Salvador is a signatory to the convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention) and the Inter-American Convention on International Commercial Arbitration (The Panama Convention). Local courts recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards and court judgments, but the process can be lengthy and difficult.

Bankruptcy Regulations

The Commercial Code, the Commercial Code of Procedures, and the Banking Law all contain sections that deal with the process for declaring bankruptcy. However, there is no separate bankruptcy law or court. According to data collected by the 2020 World Bank’s Doing Business report, resolving insolvency in El Salvador takes 3.5 years on average and costs 12 percent of the debtor’s estate, with the most likely outcome being that the company will be sold piecemeal. The average recovery rate is 32.5 percent. Globally, El Salvador ranks 89 out of 190 on Ease of Resolving Insolvency. Website: http://www.doingbusiness.org/~/media/WBG/DoingBusiness/Documents/Profiles/Country/SLV.pdf 

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Private property, both non-real estate and real estate, is recognized and protected in El Salvador. Mortgages and real property liens exist. Companies that plan to buy land or other real estate are advised to hire competent local legal counsel to guide them on the property’s title prior to purchase.

Per the Constitution, no single natural or legal person–whether national or foreign–can own more than 245 hectares (605 acres) of land. Reciprocity applies to the ownership of rural land, i.e., El Salvador does not restrict the ownership of rural land by foreigners, unless Salvadoran citizens are restricted in the corresponding states. The restriction on rural land does not apply if used for industrial purposes.

Real property can be transferred without government authorization. For title transfer to be valid regarding third parties, however, it needs to be properly registered. Laws regarding rental property tend to favor the interests of tenants. For instance, tenants may remain on property after their lease expires, provided they continue to pay rent. Likewise, the law limits the permissible rent and makes eviction processes extremely difficult.

Squatters occupying private property in “good faith” can eventually acquire title. If the owner of the property is unknown, squatters can acquire title after 20 years of good faith possession through a judicial procedure; if the owner is known, squatters can acquire title after 30 years.

Squatters may never acquire title to public land, although municipalities often grant the right of use to the squatter.

Zoning is regulated by municipal rules. Municipalities have broad power regarding the use of property within their jurisdiction. Zoning maps, if they exist, are generally not available to the public.

The perceived ineffectiveness of the judicial system discourages investments in real estate and makes execution of real estate guarantees difficult. Securitization of real estate guarantees or titles is legally permissible but does not occur frequently in practice.

El Salvador ranks 79th of 190 economies on the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report in the Ease of Registering Property category. According to the collected data, registering a property takes an average of six steps over a period of 31 days, and costs 3.8 percent of the reported value of the property.

Intellectual Property Rights

El Salvador’s intellectual property rights (IPR) legal framework is strong. El Salvador revised several laws to comply with CAFTA-DR’s provisions on IPR, such as extending the copyright term to 70 years. The Intellectual Property Promotion and Protection Law (1993, revised in 2005), Law of Trademarks and Other Distinctive Signs (2002, revised in 2005), and Penal Code establish the legal framework to protect IPR. Investors can register trademarks, patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property with the National Registry Center’s Intellectual Property Office. In 2008, the government enacted test data exclusivity regulations for pharmaceuticals (for five years) and agrochemicals (for 10 years) and ratified an international agreement extending protection to satellite signals.

El Salvador’s enforcement of IPR protections falls short of its written policies. Salvadoran authorities have limited resources to dedicate to enforcement of IPR laws. The National Civil Police (PNC) has an Intellectual Property Section with seven investigators, while the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) has 13 prosecutors in its Private Property division that also has responsibility for other property crimes including cases of extortion. According to ASPI, the PNC section coordinates well with other government and private entities. Nevertheless, the PNC admits that a lack of resources and expertise (e.g., regarding information technology) hinders its effectiveness in combatting IPR crimes.

The National Directorate of Medicines (NDM) has 60 products registered for data protection , including 13 in 2018 and four in 2019. The NDM protects the confidentiality of relevant test data and the list of such protected medications is available at the NDM’s website: https: https://www.medicamentos.gob.sv/index.php/es/servicios-m/informes/unidad-de-registro-y-visado/listado-de-productos-farmaceuticos-con-proteccion-de-datos-de-prueba 

The Salvadoran Intellectual Property Association (ASPI – Asociacion Salvadoreña de Propiedad Intelectual) notes that piracy is common in El Salvador because the police focus on investigating criminal networks rather than points of sale. Trade in counterfeit medicines and pirated software is common.

In 2019, the PNC arrested 29 individuals for copyright and trademark infringement. In 2019, the PNC also conducted 49 inspections and 25 raids, where it seized pirated optical media discs (CDs and DVDs) and fake products, including clothing, cosmetics, footwear, toys, parts for sewing machines, and mobile phones. Additionally, in an operation at El Salvador’s central market, the PNC and DNM confiscated tens of thousands of packages of counterfeit pharmaceuticals in violation of IPR laws. Customs officials have identified some counterfeit products arriving directly from China through the Salvadoran seaport of Acajutla.

Contraband and counterfeit products, especially cigarettes, liquor, toothpaste and cooking oil, remain widespread. According to the GOES and private sector contacts, most unlicensed or counterfeit products are imported to El Salvador. The Distributors Association of El Salvador (ADES) estimated in 2017 that around 50 percent of the liquor consumed in El Salvador is smuggled. Most contraband cigarettes come in from China, Panama, and Paraguay and undercut legitimately-imported cigarettes, which are subject to a 39 percent tariff. According to ADES, most contraband cigarettes are smuggled in by gangs, with the complicity of Salvadoran authorities. A 2017 study by CID Gallup Latin America, noting the link between contraband cigarettes and gang finances, estimated that 32 percent of the 940 million cigarettes consumed annually in El Salvador are contraband. Gallup estimated that the GOES lost USD $15 million in tax revenue due to cigarette smuggling in 2014.

The national Intellectual Property Registry has 22 registered geographical indications for El Salvador. In 2018, the GOES registered four new geographic indications involving Denominations of Origin for “Jocote Barón Rojo San Lorenzo” (a sour fruit), “Pupusa de Olocuilta” (a variant of El Salvador’s traditional food), “Camarones de la Bahía de Jiquilisco” (shrimp from the Jiquilisco Bay), and “Loroco San Lorenzo” (flower used in Salvadoran cuisine). Existing geographic indications include “Balsamo de El Salvador” (balm for medical, cosmetic, and gastronomic uses – since 1935), “Café Ilamatepec” (coffee – since 2010), and “Chaparro” (Salvadoran hard liquor- since 2016).

El Salvador is not listed in the United States Trade Representative (USTR) Special 301 Report or the Notorious Markets List.. There are no IPR-related laws pending.

El Salvador is a signatory of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works; the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property; the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Producers of Phonograms Against Unauthorized Duplication; the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty; the WIPO Performance and Phonograms Treaty; the Rome Convention for the Protection of Performers, Phonogram Producers, and Broadcasting Organizations; and the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances (2012), which grants performing artists certain economic rights (such as rights over broadcast, reproduction, and distribution) of live and recorded works.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/details.jsp?country_code=SV 

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