Note: This report was updated 4/12/17; see Appendix F: Errata for more information.
El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic. Municipal and legislative elections held in March 2015 were generally free and fair. Election results were delayed, however, due to problems with the transmission, tabulation, and public dissemination of the vote count under the management of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Free and fair presidential elections took place in 2014.
Civilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over security forces.
The principal human rights problems stemmed from widespread extortion and other crime in poor communities throughout the country. They included widespread corruption; weak rule of law, which contributed to high levels of impunity and government abuse, including unlawful killings by security forces, discrimination, and delay and lack of compliance with court rulings; and violence against women and girls (including by gangs), gender discrimination, and commercial sexual exploitation of women and children. According to a 2016 CID Gallup poll, more than one in five families claim to have been victims of violent crimes.
Other human rights problems included harsh and potentially life-threatening prison conditions; lengthy pretrial detention; restrictions on freedom of speech and press; trafficking in persons; migrant smuggling, including of unaccompanied children; and discrimination against persons with disabilities and persons with HIV/AIDS. There was also widespread discrimination and some violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.
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 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights. Some restrictions, however, occurred throughout the year. 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.
Freedom of Speech: The constitution provides that all persons may freely express and disseminate their thoughts and that the exercise of this right is not subject to government censorship. Nevertheless, there were allegations that the government retaliated against individuals for criticizing government policy.
Credible sources indicated that the director of a transparency NGO, whose board of directors was composed of government officials, was removed from his position because he publicly criticized the government for what he viewed as “excessive and discretionary use” of classified information and because he demanded the government disclose “politically sensitive” information, such as financial data related to former president Funes’ trips.
Violence and Harassment: On February 16, police arrested four suspects, including the communications director for the San Salvador mayor’s office, in connection with a 2015 cyberattack against the website of the newspaper La Prensa Grafica.
On August 9, Minister of Defense Munguia Payes held a press conference, accompanied by other armed forces high commanders, to criticize “irresponsible” reporting by La Prensa Grafica following an article that cited irregularities in the Ministry of Defense’s account of lost firearms. On August 15, the vice president of the local chapter of the Inter-American Press Association alleged that the press conference was an attempt by Munguia Payes to intimidate the press and prevent media scrutiny of the Ministry of Defense. Munguia Payes was also accused of attempting to intimidate legislators when he attended a December 6 plenary session in the Legislative Assembly on lifting the immunity of a general accused of arms trafficking with three uniformed military officers; legislators ultimately lifted the immunity for General Jose Atilio Benitez.
ARENA Legislator Ricardo Velasquez forcefully grabbed a camera operator in an effort to move him from a Legislative Assembly entrance while verbally threatening the media on September 29, 2016. The legislator also filed a complaint against the camera operator’s company for obstructing freedom of transit, which the Salvadoran Journalist Association (ANEP) labeled an “abuse of power” by the legislator.
On November 29, La Prensa Grafica journalist Cristian Melendez denounced threats that he received via Twitter from an account named “Sociedad Civil,” suggesting that people “kill him” or “break his fingers if you see him on the street.” He believed he received the threats in retaliation for his article alleging corruption involving San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele La Prensa Grafica had also published reports linking Bukele to a trolling case and cyberattacks against the newspaper.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government advertising accounted for a significant portion of press advertising income, although exact data was not publicly available. Newspaper editors and radio directors occasionally discouraged journalists from reporting on topics the owners or publishers might not view favorably. According to the Salvadoran Association of Journalists (APES), the media practiced self-censorship, especially in its reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking.
In May the government censored a commercial advertisement that depicted various ways of living–including gay relationships, religious options, and public breastfeeding–and contained the tagline, “good is bad.”
Journalist contacts reported experiencing threats from persons they believed to be government officials after reporting on the topic of violence in the country. They said these experiences diminished journalists’ willingness to report on the security situation.
In December 2015 the PNC chief of police investigations, Joaquin Hernandez, filed a complaint against El Diario de Hoy newspaper after it published maps depicting areas that were controlled by gangs, citing law classifying gangs as terrorist organizations and charging the editor with advocating terrorism and inciting crimes, violations punishable by up to four years in prison. While the charges were not prosecuted, free press advocates cited the incident as an attempt to compel self-censorship by journalists.
Nongovernmental Impact: APES noted journalists reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking were subject to threats and intimidation, which led to self-censorship.
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. Internet access was available in public places throughout the country. The International Telecommunication Union reported 27 percent of the population used the internet during the year.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
After the July 9 Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court decision declaring alternate legislators unconstitutional, Constitutional Chamber judges faced increased difficulty in conducting outreach programs due to FMLN-organized protests. On August 13, protesters blocked Justice Florentin Melendez from reaching a venue to speak about constitutional rights to rural communities. As a result, on August 19, Justice Melendez announced that the Constitutional Chamber had decided to suspend its academic outreach program, “Know Your Constitution.” On December 5, Melendez reported that constitutional justices had received death threats from protesters, whose signs included slogans such as, “death to the four constitutional judges.” On December 8, the Attorney General stated that he was investigating the death threats against constitutional justices.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, although there were occasions where the government used intimidation tactics to discourage assembly. On June 29, well-known LGBTI activist Bessy Rios was the single demonstrator in front of the President’s Office, protesting a proposed increase in electricity prices, when the riot police arrested her, leaving bruises and scrapes on her body.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
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 provide freedom of movement for any persons, due to the strength of criminal gang activity.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, but it was unable to facilitate services in many of the ungoverned neighborhoods most in need.
In-country Movement: Each gang had its own controlled territory. Gang members did not allow persons living in another gang’s controlled area to enter their territory, even when travelling in public transportation. Gangs forced persons to present identification cards (that contain their addresses) to determine where they lived. If gang members discovered that a person lived in a rival gang’s territory, that person might be 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 paying customers.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS
According to the most recent poll conducted in December 2014 by IUDOP-UCA, 4.6 percent of surveyed citizens reported being internally displaced due to violence and the threat of violence and 8 percent reported having tried to migrate to another country for the same reasons. In 2015 the NGO International Rescue Committee estimated that the number of displaced individuals was approximately 324,000, or 5.2 percent of the country’s population.
In August the Civil Society Roundtable against Forced Displacement recorded cases of 623 displaced persons between August 2014 and December 2015 and an additional 396 displacements through August 2016; it determined that at least 86 percent of the displacements resulted from gang activity. Because these were documented cases from a group of NGOs with limited reach, actual displacement was likely much higher. Ministry of Education data showed that approximately 3,000 students dropped out of public schools in 2015 explicitly because of gang threats. Separate ministry data demonstrated that 15,511 students dropped out of all levels of public and private schools in 2015 because of crime and another 32,637 students left because they changed residence. NGOs suggested that changes in residence were often the result of forced displacement because of gang activity.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. As of June 20, the government had granted refugee status to 10 individuals.
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 were held on March 1, 2015. The release of final election results by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) electoral authorities was delayed until March 27, 2015, due to problems with the transmission, tabulation, and public dissemination of the vote count. International and domestic electoral observers participated in the election and counting process. The election report published by the Organization of American States electoral mission noted that, while the votes were being tabulated, “inconsistencies were discovered in a large number of records, due to erroneous data and information input by many voting centers.”
In April 2015 the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ordered a vote-by-vote recount for the 24 legislators elected in the municipality of San Salvador, the country’s largest constituency. The results of the recount did not alter any of the election results.
During the elections, as in the 2014 presidential elections, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the FMLN political parties accused each other of fraud, including reports of double voting and voter intimidation.
On June 22, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional Article 195 of the electoral code, which prohibited police and soldiers from voting in polling stations where they provide security.
The law prohibits public officials from campaigning in elections, although this provision was not always enforced.
Participation of Women and Minorities: In 2013 the Legislative Assembly approved a law stipulating 30 percent of all candidates in municipal, legislative, and city council elections must be women. The law took effect during the March 2015 municipal and Legislative Assembly elections. There were 18 women in the 84-member Legislative Assembly, five women on the 15-member Supreme Court, and three women in the 13-member cabinet.
On October 18, newspapers reported that the TSE had taken action to advise a political party that its recent elections did not comply with the minimum quota and that it may need to substitute a woman for a man to comply with the law.
No members of the Supreme Court, the legislature, or other government entities identified themselves as members of an ethnic minority or indigenous community, and there were no political party positions or legislative seats designated for ethnic minorities.
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. In late 2015 the Probity Section of the Supreme Court began, for the first time, to investigate seriously allegations of illicit enrichment of public officials. The Supreme Court reported that, as of July 22, the Probity Section investigated 72 current and former public officials for evidence of illicit enrichment and submitted five cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal investigation. As of July 18, the Attorney General’s Office reported investigating 93 cases related to corruption, resulting in seven convictions.
Attorney General Douglas Melendez, elected by the legislature in January, initiated criminal investigations of several public officials for corruption during the year. On June 6, the police arrested Apopa mayor Elias Hernandez on gang-related charges of illicit association, making threats, and aggravated homicide. On August 17, the Attorney General’s Office executed search warrants on seven properties related to former president Mauricio Funes (2009-14) and opened a criminal corruption case against him. The government of Nicaragua granted Funes asylum on September 2. On August 22, police arrested former attorney general Luis Martinez and businessperson Enrique Rais on charges related to corruption. On October 30, former President Antonio “Tony” Saca (2004-09) was arrested on corruption-related charges, including embezzlement and money laundering, stemming from an alleged conspiracy to divert $18 million in government funds to private accounts. On November 5, a judge denied his bail.
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, and the law does not establish sanctions for noncompliance. On May 12, the Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting which cases to investigate: 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.
Public Access to Information: The law provides for the right of access to government information, but authorities did not always effectively implement the law. The law establishes mechanisms to appeal denials of information and report noncompliance with other aspects of the law. As of July, the Institute for Access to Public Information had formally received 1,001 cases, 81 percent of which had been resolved. The law gives a narrow list of exceptions that outline the grounds for nondisclosure and provide for a reasonably short timeline for the relevant authority to respond, no processing fees, and administrative sanctions for noncompliance.