El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic. Municipal and legislative elections held in 2015 were generally free and fair, although results were delayed due to slow transmission, tabulation, and vote count dissemination. Free and fair presidential elections took place in 2014.
Civilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over security forces.
The most significant human rights issues included alleged unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel, which the government prosecuted; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of government respect for judicial impartiality and independence; widespread government corruption; gang-member violence against women and girls as well as 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 officials in the security forces, the executive branch, and the justice system who committed abuses.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
During the year there were no verified reports that the government or its agents committed politically motivated killings. There were reports, however, of security force involvement in unlawful killings. As of August 31, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) announced that it was investigating 13 complaints against police and four against the armed forces for unlawful killings. As of September 7, the PDDH announced it had received at least 20 complaints of alleged unlawful killings committed by 40 security or military officials. According to the National Civil Police (PNC), as of October 6, state security forces killed 337 gang members during armed confrontations, compared with 603 in 2016. As of September 30, gang members had killed two police officers and one soldier during armed confrontations and another 37 police and 25 members of the military in targeted assassinations. As of August, the Internal Affairs Unit of the PNC reported that 38 PNC officers faced charges of homicide: 17 for aggravated homicide, one for femicide, 17 for homicide, and three for attempted homicide.
On August 29, the Attorney General’s Office confirmed it was investigating four Special Reaction Force (FES) police officers who were arrested on August 24 following the August 22 publication by Factum magazine of allegations that FES officers were involved in the unlawful killing of three persons, two sexual assaults, and at least one act of extortion. On August 25, the officers were released because the 72-hour holding period had expired. They were put on administrative leave but returned to active duty on September 12.
On September 11, the PNC confirmed the arrest of nine police officers charged with aggravated homicide and concealment stemming from the alleged cover-up of the killing of five persons in Villas de Zaragoza in February 2016. Three of the accused were members of the Police Reaction Group (GRP), and police claimed at the time of the events that the deaths were justified homicides. As of October 13, five of the accused remained in custody, and one sub inspector was released on bail and was awaiting trial. On July 14, the Attorney General’s Office reported that it conducted a re-enactment of the shooting in conjunction with the PNC’s Internal Affairs Unit. Laboratory results were pending.
On September 22, five police officers were acquitted of aggravated homicide charges in the 2015 killing of a man at a farm in San Blas, San Jose Villanueva. The judge 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. The presiding judge redacted the names of the accused, but on August 30, the Attorney General’s Office confirmed that all were members of the elite GRP. The acquittal took place a day after the son-in-law of the primary witness in the case was killed, which led the attorney general to offer to relocate the family, but the Witness Protection Program could provide the services only to four of the 12 family members. As of October, a police investigation by the PNC Internal Affairs Unit continued.
On August 15, the Attorney General’s Office reported that it was awaiting laboratory results on ballistics from weapons used by soldiers in the 2015 Los Pajales case, which involved the close-range killing of four unarmed gang members.
On July 14, the Attorney General’s Office reported that the Internal Affairs Unit was investigating the 2015 killing of four alleged gang members at the La Paz Farm in Cojutepeque, Cuscatlan. On October 11, the PNC submitted their findings to the Attorney General’s Office for evaluation.
On June 20, as a result of a two-year criminal investigation, four police officers, 10 soldiers, and two former members of the military were arrested for their participation in at least eight homicides as part of an alleged extermination group operating in San Miguel. The group was purportedly responsible for murder-for-hire and targeted killings of alleged gang members in San Miguel and was composed of civilians, some of whom were alleged rival gang members, and retired and active members of the military and police. The June detentions followed the arrest of five police officers and five civilians for their participation in the San Miguel extermination group in 2016. Funding for the extermination group reportedly came from citizens living abroad. As of October 13, a preliminary evidentiary hearing was pending.
As of October the Office of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Public Security and Justice had received five complaints of extrajudicial killings against police. On July 26, the Public Opinion Institute of the University of Central America (IUDOP) reported that, while six of 10 citizens believed that authorities should respect rule of law, 40 percent approved of the use of torture for dealing with gang members, 35 percent approved of extrajudicial executions, and 17 percent approved of social cleansing.
There were reports alleging that members of the armed forces have been involved in unlawful disappearances. In July 2016 the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and the criminal court in the municipality of Armenia, in the department of Sonsonate, ruled there was sufficient evidence to proceed with the case in which three men went missing after six soldiers arrested them in 2014 in Armenia. In November 2016, the trial chamber acquitted the defendants due to a lack of evidence that the accused forced or restrained the victims. Immediately after the acquittal, the PDDH began an investigation into the acquittal. On January 16, following an appeal by the NGOs Legal Studies Foundation and the Salvadoran Association for Human Rights, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court held that the Armenia case amounted to forced disappearance, and the PNC’s Central Investigations Division took ownership of the case. On April 20, following pressure from civil society, the Attorney General’s Office reopened the case against the six soldiers. On May 15, the Sonsonate trial court convicted five soldiers of forced disappearance and sentenced them to eight years’ imprisonment. Defense attorneys for the convicted soldiers filed an appeal with the Appellate Court for the Western District. On August 15, the Supreme Court ordered the military to provide its report on the civilian deaths to the Attorney General’s Office, but as of October 30, it had not been sent.
On September 27, President Sanchez Ceren launched the National Commission for the Search of Adults Disappeared in the Context of the Armed Conflict to find persons who were disappeared during the civil war and reunite them with their families or return their remains. The commission is to be headed by three commissioners and housed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Two of the commissioners are to be appointed by civil society and one by the president. The commission’s budget will not fall under the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it has not been earmarked from another part of the national budget. The ministry estimated that for its first year, the commission requires a budget of $250,000, which the commissioners will be responsible for raising.
As of August 30, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Association for the Search for Missing Children (Pro-Busqueda) received 10 new complaints regarding children who disappeared during the 1980-92 civil war. Pro-Busqueda also reported that it was investigating 979 open cases, had solved 435 cases, and determined that, in 17 percent of solved cases, the child had died. According to Pro-Busqueda, between 20,000 to 30,000 children were adopted during the civil war, many of whom were forcibly disappeared.
As of August, according to the Office of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Public Security and Justice, one complaint of forced disappearance was filed against the PNC. As of September 7, the attorney general had opened investigations into 12 instances of forced disappearance during the 1980-92 civil war.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, but there were multiple reports of violations. The PDDH received 29 complaints of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment by the PNC, the armed forces, and other public officials. The PNC reported that, as of August, some 20 complaints had been filed against police officials for torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. As of October the Ministry of Public Security and Justice’s Office of the Inspector General reported 29 complaints against police officers for alleged cruel treatment.
NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against sexual minorities. Persons from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community stated that the agencies in charge of processing identification documents, the PNC, and the Attorney General’s Office harassed transgender and gay individuals when they applied for identification cards or reported cases of violence against LGBTI persons. The LGBTI community reported authorities harassed LGBTI persons by conducting strip searches and questioning their gender in a degrading manner. The government responded to these claims primarily through a PDDH report on hate crimes against the LGBTI community that publicized cases of violence and discrimination against sexual minorities and specifically mentioned three killings of transgender women in February, although their murders were tied to gang activity.
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 lives. As of June 30, the think tank Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES) reported 38,386 inmates were being held in facilities designed for 11,478 inmates. This is an increase in capacity from 9,732 inmates in 2016.
As of September 21, the prison population included 25,849 convicted inmates and 12,851 inmates in pretrial detention. Convicted inmates and pretrial detainees were sometimes held in the same prisons and cells. The Salvadoran Institute for Child Development (ISNA) also reported that, as of July, there were 1,155 convicted juveniles incarcerated in its facilities, 211 of whom were awaiting trial. Among those in ISNA facilities, 320 were incarcerated on homicide charges, 254 on extortion charges, 156 on drug-related charges, and 143 were incarcerated for belonging to a criminal association or gang. The ISNA reported that 4 percent of minors spent more than 72 hours in initial detention. As of July the ISNA reported that two adolescents had been killed in juvenile detention facilities, allegedly by fellow gang members.
In many facilities, provisions for sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature control, medical care, and lighting were inadequate. On July 3, the PDDH published a report on the so-called extraordinary measures implemented in prisons since April 2016, some of which allegedly led to abuse of the right to life and the right to health of inmates. The extraordinary measures affected 14,213 inmates housed in seven prisons: Izalco, Izalcon III, Quezaltepeque, Chalatenango, Ciudad Barrios, Gotera, and Zacatecoluca penitentiaries. These measures included preventing communication between inmate gang leaders and members outside of prison, suspending all private communication and contact with inmates’ families, limiting inmates’ access to lawyers, and detaining and isolating known gang leaders in higher security prisons. Inmates were also potentially restricted to their overcrowded prison cells for most hours of the day, allowing diseases to spread more easily. The PDDH report highlighted that tuberculosis cases increased by 400 percent in the prisons system after the implementation of the extraordinary measures. The Prisons Directorate reported that, as of August, there were 892 prisoners infected with tuberculosis, and 19 had died of the disease. The PDDH mediated 2,000 cases related to prison conditions and noted that in 2016 a total of 47 inmates died, some of them due to unspecified reasons.
On August 22, Vice Minister of Health Julio Robles Ticas announced the creation of an interinstitutional committee for combating infectious and contagious diseases inside prisons and police detention cells. This followed an August 18 statement by Security Minister Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde that there were tuberculosis outbreaks at the Izalco, La Esperanza (known as Mariona), Sonsonate, and San Vicente prisons, mostly due to overcrowding. In September the PNC reported that due to prison overcrowding, there were 5,527 detainees in small detention centers at police stations, which had a combined capacity of 2,102 persons. In pretrial detention, there was no separation of sick and healthy detainees. In May 2016 the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the systematic violation of basic human rights by prison overcrowding, citing the government for violating prisoners’ right to health, and ordered periodic visits by the Ministry of Health. The court ordered prison authorities to build new prisons and to remodel others to shelter inmates humanely and the judicial system to review the inmate rosters with the aim of reducing the number of prisoners.
Gang presence in prisons remained high. As of September 21, detention center facilities held 17,614 inmates who were current or former gang members, approximately 46 percent of the total prison population. Despite the extraordinary measures, prisoners conducted criminal activities from their cells, at times with the complicity of prison guards and officials. Smuggling of weapons, drugs, and other contraband such as cell phones and cell phone SIM cards was a major problem in the prisons.
On May 29, Prisons Director Rodil Hernandez was arrested for the alleged mismanagement of two million dollars during the 2012-13 gang truce. Hernandez allegedly used funds from prison commissary shops to fund bonuses, overtime, and vacations; give loans to prison employees; and pay the salary of gang-truce mediator Raul Mijango, which was supposed to come from the Ministry of Defense. On August 29, Hernandez, among others, was acquitted on the grounds that the prosecution failed to prove individual responsibility for the alleged crimes. On October 5, the attorney general appealed.
As of September 21, prison authorities removed 11 guards from duty for carrying illegal objects. The Prisons Directorate reported that no data was collected on the exact number of guards sanctioned over the year for misconduct or complaints regarding human rights violations. As of August, the PDDH had received three complaints of human rights violations by prison personnel.
There was no information available regarding abuse of persons with disabilities in prisons, although the government’s National Council for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Disabilities (CONAIPD) previously reported isolated incidents, including sexual abuse.
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. Under the extraordinary measures implemented in April 2016 and renewed in February until April 2018, inmates in the affected prisons were under restrictive conditions and could not receive visitors, including religious observance visitors such as priests.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits by independent human rights observers, NGOs, and the media, except to those prisons covered by the extraordinary measures. The PDDH continued to monitor all prisons. Church groups, the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America, LGBTI activists, and other groups visited prisons during the year. After the implementation of the extraordinary measures, which restricted monitoring of the prisons subject to the measures, the International Committee for the Red Cross suspended all prison visits until visitation was restored in the prisons subject to the extraordinary measures.
Improvements: In February prison Izalco II opened with the aim of relieving overcrowding in the prisons covered under the extraordinary measures. As of August a total of 2,017 inmates were housed in the new facility after being transferred from other prisons. On October 4, a new detention facility in Zacatecoluca was inaugurated with a capacity of 1,008 minimum-security general population inmates. On November 27, the new La Esperanza Detention Center opened in Ayutuxtepeque, in the department of San Salvador, housing 275 inmates with short prison terms transferred from other prisons. According to the Prisons Directorate, the facility was built to house 3,000 minimum security prisoners.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, there were numerous complaints that the PNC and military forces arbitrarily arrested and detained persons. As of August the PDDH had received 86 complaints of arbitrary detention by police, the military, or other government officials. NGOs reported that the PNC arbitrarily arrested and detained groups of persons on suspicion of gang affiliation. According to these NGOs, the accused were ostracized by their communities upon their return.
The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his/her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed this provision.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The 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.” In 2016 President Sanchez Ceren renewed the decree authorizing military involvement in police duties through the end of the 2017, a presidential order that has been in place since 1996.
The three quick-reaction military battalions created in 2015 to support PNC operations, and whose troops have arrest and detention authority, continued to operate. The military is responsible for securing international borders and conducting joint patrols with the PNC. On September 18, the government launched the Volcano Task Force, intended to temporarily expand the military’s presence in San Salvador by transferring 320 members of the armed forces already assigned to support police functions to the capital city’s police precinct and installing military lookouts in multiple points throughout the city. Military vehicles, including tanks, were deployed throughout residential areas around San Salvador. There was an increase in security checkpoints and random searches of public buses.
There were reports of impunity involving the security forces during the year. Inadequate training, failure to implement the administrative police career law, arbitrary promotions, insufficient government funding, failure to enforce evidentiary rules effectively, and instances of corruption and other crimes limited the PNC’s effectiveness. The PDDH is authorized to investigate (but not prosecute) human rights abuses and refers all cases involving human rights abuses to the Attorney General’s Office.
On July 3, a PDDH report stated that the number of complaints against police and soldiers increased during the months of April and May 2016, immediately following the implementation of the extraordinary measures. Most of these allegations were for extralegal executions, threats, mistreatment, torture, illegal detention, and intimidation. According to the NGO Passionist Social Service Observatory (SSPAS), a Catholic organization that operates primarily as a human rights observer, the number of police and military personnel accused of homicide increased from 49 police officers and 10 soldiers in 2014 to 357 police officers and 72 military personnel in 2016. The IUDOP characterized the homicide events as police negligence. On July 26, the IUDOP reported that 88 percent of citizens did not report direct abuse by police officers. Reports of abuse and police misconduct were more often from residents of the metropolitan area of San Salvador and mostly from men and young persons. The attorney general reported that the number of police officers accused of homicide had increased over the previous three years. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 500 police officers were charged with homicide.
As of October, the Office of the Inspector General received 29 complaints of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment–199 for physical abuse, 100 for illegal searches, 11 for violence against women (including rape and sexual abuse), and five for extrajudicial killing. The Inspector General’s Office referred 18 of the cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal charges and nine to the Internal Affairs Unit of the PNC.
On August 31, the PDDH released its annual findings on the status of human rights, which stated that it received 363 complaints of human rights violations by public officials, 331 of which were reportedly committed by the PNC and the military.
In response to an alleged rise in extrajudicial killings, in 2016 the PNC launched a newly organized internal investigative office, the Secretariat for Professional Responsibility. The body was composed of an Internal Affairs Unit to investigate criminal complaints against police officers, a Disciplinary Unit to investigate administrative violations, and a Control Unit to enforce internal affairs procedures and support investigations as required.
As of September 11, according to PNC director Howard Cotto, 559 members of the PNC had been arrested for crimes including membership in extermination groups. As of October, the Office of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Public Security and Justice reported that the disciplinary board had sanctioned 753 police officers, 136 of whom were dismissed. On May 5, the Minister of Defense reported that between 2010 and 2017, the army removed 660 soldiers from its ranks due to alleged ties to gang members.
The Inspector General and the Ministry of Defense Human Rights Office reported that most PNC officers, police academy cadets, and all military personnel had received human rights awareness training, including training by the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women, the Human Rights Institute of the University of Central America, and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights.
Police officers, soldiers, and their families faced security threats as targets of gang homicides and kidnappings. As of October 30, a total of 39 police officers, 37 of whom were off duty, and 26 soldiers had been killed. Prisons Director Marco Tulio Lima announced that, as of October 12, three prison guards had been killed. An increased perception of danger to the police coincided with increased public support for police officers. According to a September Prensa Grafica poll, 56 percent of citizens had a positive opinion of the PNC. In February the IUDOP reported that support for the police had increased over the previous year, with 63 percent of the public agreeing that police were more effective compared with the previous year.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The constitution requires a written warrant of arrest except in cases where an individual is caught in the act of committing a crime. Authorities apprehended persons with warrants based on evidence and issued by a duly authorized official. Police generally informed detainees promptly of charges against them.
The law permits release on bail for detainees who are unlikely to flee or whose release would not impede the investigation of the case. The bail system functioned adequately in most cases. The courts generally enforced a ruling that interrogation without the presence of counsel is coercive and that evidence obtained in such a manner is inadmissible. As a result, PNC authorities typically delayed questioning until a public defender or an attorney arrived. Detainees normally had access to counsel of their choice or to an attorney provided by the state. The constitution permits the PNC to hold suspects for 72 hours before presenting them to court, after which the judge may order detention for an additional 72 hours to determine if an investigation is warranted. The law allows up to six months for investigation of serious crimes before requiring either a trial or dismissal of the case. In exceptionally complicated cases, the prosecutor may ask an appeals court to extend the deadline for three or six months, depending on the seriousness of the crime. Many cases continued beyond the legally prescribed period.
Arbitrary Arrest: As of August 31, the PDDH reported 86 complaints of arbitrary detention or illegal detention during the year, compared with 62 in all of 2016.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a significant problem. As of June 30, 33 percent of the general prison population was in pretrial detention. Lengthy legal procedures, large numbers of detainees, judicial inefficiency, corruption, and staff shortages caused trial delays. Because it could take several years for a case to come to trial, some persons remained in pretrial detention longer than the maximum legal sentences for their alleged crimes. In such circumstances, detainees may request a Supreme Court review of their continued detention.
On January 9, two police officers detained Daniel Aleman for carrying one pound of marijuana. None of the 30 witnesses to the arrest saw the marijuana, and his defense attorney noted that the arrest was based solely on the accusations of the two police officers. On March 16, the PDDH determined that the police illegally detained Aleman by fraudulently placing illegal drugs on him in order to file charges against him. On May 16, the Ilopango Court of Instruction voided the drugs case against Aleman. He remained under investigation in a separate extortion case.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the government did not respect judicial independence and impartiality, and the judiciary was burdened by inefficiency and corruption. The Solicitor’s Office, responsible for public defenders, the Attorney General’s Office, and the PDDH suffered from insufficient resources.
While the government generally respected court orders, some agencies, such as the Ministry of Defense, repeatedly failed to cooperate with investigations by the Attorney General’s Office and judges. The Legislative Assembly also did not always comply with Supreme Court rulings. As of October 30, the Legislative Assembly had not complied with a 2015 ruling that it issue regulations to clarify certain sections of the Political Parties Law regarding campaign contributions.
Intimidation of judges, including Supreme Court members, continued to occur. Two legislators participated in demonstrations critical of judges, especially the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. Supreme Court justices increased their personal security as a result. On October 23, a member of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) political party threated to sue members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court for perceived abuse of power. On August 17, the Council of Ministries, a part of the executive branch, issued a public statement against the Constitutional Chamber that declared the 2017 budget unconstitutional. On May 11, an estimated 300 persons marched to the Supreme Court to protest against the Constitutional Court following an injunction that ended the use of segregated lanes of the Metropolitan Area Integrated Transportation System of San Salvador (SITRAMSS). Unlike with most protests, police officers did not set up barricades to stop them from moving to the main gate of the court; demonstrators reached the main gate and damaged it. El Mundo newspaper noted that despite verbal threats against the justices during the protest and damage to public property, the PNC did not intervene.
Corruption in the judicial system contributed to a high level of impunity, undermining the rule of law and the public’s respect for the judiciary. As of July 31, the Supreme Court heard 148 cases against judges due to irregularities, 117 of which remained under review; removed six judges; suspended 19 others; and brought formal charges against 28 judges. Accusations against judges included collusion with criminal elements and sexual harassment.
In July 2016 the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court struck down the 1993 Amnesty Law on the grounds that it violated citizens’ constitutional right to justice and the right to compensation for crimes against humanity and war crimes. The law provided blanket protection against criminal prosecution and civil penalties for crimes committed during the country’s civil war (1980-92), and the court’s ruling held that the Legislative Assembly did not have authority to grant an absolute amnesty. On July 19, the Constitutional Chamber held a follow-up hearing on the progress made by different sectors of the government to comply with the recommendations made by the court, such as issuing a law to guarantee a democratic transition that respects human rights and interagency coordination between the executive and the attorney general to improve judicial accountability for gross violations of human rights committed during the civil war. As of October 30, the Legislative Assembly had not debated or passed legislation pertaining to reparations or reconciliation, and the executive had not granted sufficient funds to the attorney general to prosecute civil war cases.
On August 21, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court published its August 18 ruling against enforcing an arrest warrant for 13 former members of the military accused of the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. The court noted that it had denied multiple extradition requests from Spain on the Jesuit case, and therefore it would not issue additional arrest warrants based on Spain’s Interpol Red Notice, as the arrests would not lead to extraditions. On April 6, the First Appellate Criminal Court of San Salvador upheld the 30-year sentence against former colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno for his role in the 1989 murders, and he was the sole individual in prison for the crimes. Lieutenant Yusshy Rene Mendoza Vallecillos was sentenced to 30 years for the murder of the priests’ housekeeper’s daughter in the original 1991 trial. Mendoza was not arrested along with Benavides and his whereabouts were unknown, although he was believed to be out of the country.
On June 2, the attorney general issued arrest warrants for three ex-guerrilla members of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) allegedly responsible for the 1981 deaths of two foreign citizens–Lieutenant Colonel David H. Pickett and an aviation technician, Private First Class Earnest G. Dawson Jr.–killed in Lolotique, San Miguel, after their helicopter was shot down. The warrants followed the February 14 reopening by the Attorney General’s Office of the investigation into their killing after a petition from the right-leaning NGO Victims of Terrorism in El Salvador Alliance. Two of the guerrilla members, Ferman Hernandez Arevalo (alias Porfirio) and Ceveriano Fuentes (alias Aparicio), served time in prison but were released after the passage of the 1993 Amnesty Law. A third former guerilla member suspected of involvement in the killing, Santos Guevara Portillo (alias Dominguez), was never arrested. As of August 30, the three defendants had not been arrested.
In September 2016, in response to a petition by the victims, a judge issued an order to reopen the investigation into the 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which an estimated 800 persons were killed during the military’s Operation Rescue. On March 29-30, Judge Guzman held hearings to inform 20 accused former military officials of the charges against them. Two of the accused were deceased, and 12 of the remaining 18 attended the hearing. Eleven other defendants had died since the case was initiated in 1991 by Tutela Legal, a human rights defense organization formerly housed in the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America. The hearings marked the first time the defendants were summoned before a judicial body to face accusations for crimes committed during the massacre. On June 9, the prosecution called on 11 witnesses to provide testimony in the trial regarding events that occurred between December 11 and 13, 1981. Witness testimony continued into September and October. On October 19, former general Juan Rafael Bustillo, the accused intellectual author of the massacre, appeared before the court to hear the charges against him. The Ministry of Defense did not provide information requested by the presiding judge or prosecution and claimed that all records of Operation Rescue had been destroyed or never existed, including the names of the soldiers who participated in the operation and their commanding officers. David Morales, representative of the victims, asked the attorney general to investigate the steps taken by the Ministry of Defense that led to their conclusion that it had no information on Operation Rescue. On October 25, the Technical Secretariat stated that between 2013 and 2017, the state paid $1.8 million in restitution to survivors and the families of victims of the El Mozote massacre, of which 1,651 were identified.
Civil society advocates expressed concern that pregnant women were falsely accused and experienced wrongful incarceration in cases where the woman may have suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth but was wrongfully charged with homicide under the law banning abortion in all cases. On December 15, San Salvador’s Second Court of Judgment denied the appeal of Teodora del Carmen Vasquez and upheld her 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide over what she claimed was a stillbirth.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although some trial court judges were subject to political and economic influence. Although procedures call for juries to try certain crimes, including environmental pollution and certain misdemeanors, judges decided most cases. By law juries hear only a narrow group of cases, such as environmental complaints, to which the law does not assign judges. In these cases, after the jury determines innocence or guilt, a panel of judges decides the sentence.
Defendants have the right to be present in court, question witnesses, and present witnesses and evidence. The constitution further provides for the presumption of innocence, the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges, the right to a trial without undue delay, protection from self-incrimination, the right to communicate with an attorney of choice, the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, freedom from coercion, the right to confront adverse witnesses and present one’s own witnesses and evidence, the right to appeal, and government-provided legal counsel for the indigent. The judiciary introduced trials by video conference and other technology-based solutions to courtrooms in an effort to combat trial backlogs and improve trial procedures.
In criminal cases a judge may allow a private plaintiff to participate in trial proceedings (calling and cross-examining witnesses, providing evidence, etc.), assisting the prosecuting attorney in the trial procedure. Defendants have the right to free assistance of an interpreter if the defendant does not understand Spanish. Authorities did not always respect these legal rights and protections. Although a jury’s verdict is final, a judge’s verdict is subject to appeal. Trials are public unless a judge seals a case.
As of August 31, the PDDH had received 16 complaints of coercion and 68 complaints of intimidation by the PNC, the armed forces, and other public officials during criminal investigations or trial procedures.
The Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s Executive Technical Unit provided witness protection services to victims and witnesses. Some judges denied anonymity to witnesses at trial, and gang intimidation and violence against witnesses contributed to a climate of impunity from criminal prosecution. According to PNC director Howard Cotto, as of August 30, there were 55 individuals under witness protection.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
The law provides for access to the courts, enabling litigants to bring civil lawsuits seeking damages for, as well as cessation of, human rights violations. Domestic court orders generally were enforced. Most attorneys pursued criminal prosecution and later requested civil compensation.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
On July 5, the president of FUSADES stated that according to experts, unknown persons had illegally wiretapped the foundation’s telephone lines.
In many neighborhoods, armed groups and gangs targeted certain persons, interfered with privacy, family, and home life, and created a climate of fear. Efforts by authorities to remedy these situations were generally ineffective.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. The NGO Social Initiative for Democracy stated that officials, particularly in the judicial system, often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: Autonomous government institutions initiated several investigations into corruption. As of August 23, the Probity Section of the Supreme Court was investigating 517 current and former public officials for evidence of illicit enrichment and submitted 15 cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal indictment. The increase from 72 investigations initiated in 2016 was due in part to a staffing surge. As of August 30, the Attorney General’s Office reported that investigations were in progress in 130 cases related to corruption, with 11 convictions during the year.
As of August 23, the Ethics Tribunal reported that it had received 375 complaints against 476 public officials. The tribunal sanctioned 33 public officials and forwarded six cases to the attorney general.
On June 27, Attorney General Douglas Melendez confirmed that he was conducting an investigation into FMLN leader and Vice Minister for Investment and Funding for Development Jose Luis Merino. Merino’s position as vice minister granted him immunity from prosecution.
On April 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Sigfrido Reyes as an ambassador, at the recommendation of the president, while he retained his position as president of the export promotion agency (PROESA). Reyes was under investigation for illicit enrichment, and the ambassadorial appointment provided Reyes, a senior FMLN politician, with legal immunity.
On June 6, the Attorney General’s Office began an asset forfeiture process against nine properties (valued at $627,000) of late former president Francisco Flores.
On February 4, the attorney general indicted 17 individuals in the corruption case against former president Antonio Saca (2004-09). A court froze additional assets belonging to suspects in the Saca case, including 50 properties and 60 vehicles. On August 21, the attorney general further charged Saca with bribery.
On November 28, former president Mauricio Funes and his son, Diego Funes Canas, were found guilty of illicit enrichment. Funes was ordered to pay restitution and was found ineligible to hold public office for a 10-year period. Funes and his children were granted political asylum in Nicaragua in September 2016.
On January 13, the First Criminal Chamber of El Salvador revoked bail for former attorney general Luis Martinez, businessman Enrique Rais, and five other suspects facing trial on corruption-related charges including fraud and bribery. On October 4, Luis Martinez was indicted on additional charges of coverup and procedural fraud. Police received an order to recapture Enrique Rais and five associates, all of whom disappeared after a court hearing on January 9.
Financial Disclosure: The illicit enrichment law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section of the Supreme Court. The declarations are not available to the public unless requested by petition, and the law establishes fines for noncompliance that range from $11 to $571. Citizens groups petitioned the Probity Section to disclose 18 assets statements of public officers. The Probity Section had not complied due to a lack of response from banks. The full Supreme Court gave the Probity Section until August 29 to submit the requested information; as of November, the Probity Section had not submitted the information and repeated extension requests had been granted. In May 2016 the Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting investigable cases: the age of the case (i.e., proximity to the statute of limitations), the relevance of the position, and the seriousness and notoriety of the alleged illicit enrichment.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations 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, with the PDDH.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The principal human rights investigative and monitoring body was the autonomous PDDH, whose head is nominated by the Legislative Assembly for a three-year term. The PDDH regularly issued 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 President’s Office. The government publicly acknowledged receipt of PDDH reports, although in some cases it did not take action on PDDH recommendations, which are nonbinding.