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:
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.