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El Salvador

Executive Summary

El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic with a democratically elected government. In 2019 voters elected Nayib Bukele as president for a five-year term. The election was generally free and fair, according to international observers. Municipal and legislative elections took place on February 28 and were largely free and fair.

The National Civilian Police, overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security. 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.” The military is responsible for securing international borders and conducting joint patrols with the civilian police. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists and censorship; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious acts of government corruption; lack of consistent investigation and accountability for gender-based violence; significant barriers to accessing reproductive health; and crimes involving violence by security forces against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex individuals.

Impunity persisted in the security forces, executive branch, and justice system. In some cases authorities investigated and prosecuted persons accused of committing crimes and human rights abuses. Impunity for official corruption remained endemic.

Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes. They committed killings and acts of extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence. They directed these acts against police, judicial authorities, the business community, journalists, women, and members of vulnerable populations.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed politically motivated killings. There were reports, however, of security force involvement in extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members. As of October 25, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) was investigating seven cases of extrajudicial killings, six attributed to the members of the National Civilian Police (PNC) and one to the armed forces.

On January 31, PNC officers arrested three men on charges of double homicide after they killed two supporters of opposition party Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) following a soccer match. The three perpetrators worked for the Ministry of Health. President Bukele tweeted that the attack was a plot hatched by his political rivals to damage his Nuevas Ideas party’s chances in the February 28 legislative and municipal elections, but there was no evidence of a plot.

On July 19, PNC officers in Guacotecti, Cabanas Department, killed two brothers suspected of being members of transnational gang MS-13. According to relatives, PNC officers arrived at the house to arrest the two brothers who had outstanding warrants, and the brothers fled with rifles when they saw the police officers. The victims’ father said his two sons previously received threats from police, claiming the PNC officers planned the shooting and told him, “We are going to kill your children.”

The First Justice of the Peace of Santa Tecla, La Libertad Department, ordered the provisional arrest of four soldiers for the aggravated homicide of a 30-year-old engineer on August 12. The soldiers from the Apolo Task Force claimed the victim attacked them with a firearm from his vehicle and that the soldiers returned fire. The Scientific Technical Police found no firearms or bullet casings in the vehicle, and the victim’s hands did not have traces of gunpowder.

On February 7, the First Trial Court of Santa Tecla convicted three PNC officers of aggravated homicide and sentenced each of them to 25 years in prison for the 2017 extrajudicial killings of three persons in San Jose Villanueva, La Libertad Department. The PNC officers claimed they received information that the three persons in the vehicle were armed gang members, but the prosecutor showed that the PNC officers intercepted the vehicle and shot the victims without confrontation.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices, but there were reports of violations. As of August 31, the PDDH had received 13 complaints of torture or cruel or inhuman treatment by the PNC and one by the armed forces, compared with 15 and two complaints, respectively, as of August 2020. The PDDH also received 62 complaints of mistreatment and disproportionate use of force by the PNC and seven by the armed forces, compared with 55 and four complaints, respectively, as of August 2020.

As of September the PNC registered a total of 95 accusations against police officers involved in crimes and offenses. Of the 95 accusations, 38 concerned homicides committed by police officers. The PNC received 296 complaints of general misconduct in the same period, including but not limited to torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading acts of punishment. Three of the 296 complaints were referred to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution, while the 293 unresolved cases remained under investigation by the PNC.

On March 12, the Attorney General’s Office issued arrest warrants for four PNC officers for the torture of a minor and a woman in 2017 in Sensuntepeque, Cabanas Department. According to a video widely circulated on social media, PNC officers Cristian Neftali Franco Vasquez, Elvis Alirio Montenegro Beltran, Omar Alexander Pineda Chevez, and Mario Enrique Perez Chavez beat the minor to force him to reveal the hiding location of drugs and weapons. One of the officers fired a warning shot when a woman who witnessed the beating began to complain.

On April 30, El Diario de Hoy reported that an armed forces officer was arrested for shooting Rene Alfredo Lainez Andasol in the face in Victoria, Cabanas Department. The Attorney General’s Office accused the soldier of attempted homicide.

On June 23, the Sentencing Court of Cojutepeque, Cuscatlan Department, sentenced PNC officer Juan Carlos Portillo Velasquez to 12 years in prison for the aggravated rape of an adolescent in 2018. According to the Attorney General’s Office, Portillo Velasquez abused his position by ordering a 17-year-old girl to enter her home and remove her clothes under the guise of checking for gang-related tattoos. His partner caught him in the act of rape and informed his supervisors.

According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were no new allegations against El Salvadoran peacekeepers brought in the year. The most recent allegation was submitted in March 2020 concerning sexual exploitation and abuse by Salvadoran peacekeepers deployed to the UN Mission in South Sudan, allegedly involving an exploitative relationship with an adult. As of October the United Nations had found the allegation of sexual exploitation or abuse to be unsubstantiated but found evidence of fraternization and repatriated the perpetrator.

Impunity was a problem in the PNC and armed forces. Factors contributing to impunity included politicization and general corruption. The Attorney General’s Office investigates whether security force killings were justifiable and pursues prosecutions, and the PDDH investigates complaints of such killings. The government provided annual training to military units to dissuade any potential for gross abuses of human rights, such as the training provided to the Marine Infantry Battalion by the navy’s Legal Unit on the need to respect human rights. The government repeatedly defied a June 2020 judicial order to allow expert witnesses access to inspect military archives to determine criminal responsibility for the 1981 El Mozote massacre.

Previous government efforts to counter impunity were also eliminated. In June President Bukele ended the cooperative agreement with the Organization of American States to back the International Organization Against Impunity in El Salvador. Civil society organizations condemned this action and characterized it as a step backwards in the fight against impunity and corruption in the country. The government pursued actions against members of other parties governing in past administrations and judges who had served a long time in a so-called effort to “clean house” of influence of officials appointed under previous administrations. Civil society organizations criticized many of these actions as politically motivated.

Impunity in the executive branch also remained a problem. From January through September, the Attorney General’s Office reported that it processed 150 cases of embezzlement, illicit negotiations, illicit enrichment, and bribery perpetrated by government employees. Of these cases, only seven resulted in convictions.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and gang activity.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a serious threat to prisoners’ health and welfare. The prison system had a capacity for 30,864 inmates, but as of April 19, held more than 36,500 inmates. Director of Penal Centers Osiris Luna reported that the General Directorate of Penal Centers (DGCP) reduced the overcrowding of prisons from 50 percent to 12 percent and stated one of the objectives of the government’s Territorial Control Plan was to reduce the number of prisons from 23 to 10. Police holding facilities were equally crowded. In May the director of the National Civilian Police stated that there were approximately 5,000 persons in police holding cells, including prosecuted and convicted individuals who could not be transferred to the overcrowded prisons. Convicted inmates and pretrial detainees were sometimes held in the same prison cells.

Gangs remained prevalent in prisons. As of April the DGCP reported approximately 51 percent (18,652 prisoners) of the prison population were active or former gang members.

According to the PDDH, many prisons had inadequate sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature control, medical care, and lighting. Inmates experienced gastrointestinal illnesses and skin problems due to poor water quality.

According to the DGCP, 94 inmates died between January 2020 and February 2021. PDDH deputy attorney Beatriz Campos said most of the deaths were due to chronic diseases, including kidney failure, respiratory diseases, and HIV. Campos said the DGCP received nine to 15 complaints daily, with 90 percent related to inquiries about health.

Administration: The PDDH has authority to investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions. The government suspended visits to prisons in March 2020, which continued as of November. According to February 14 media reports, relatives of inmates had not communicated with inmates in a year. Despite an article of the PDDH law that allows the PDDH to have free and immediate access to prisons to inspect and guarantee the human rights of the inmates, the DGCP denied entry to PDDH staff in March. On August 12, the DGCP again denied the PDDH access to prisons despite the Second Peace Court authorizing the PDDH entry to visit three former government officials in prison after receiving complaints from the officials’ relatives on their state of health.

On June 17, La Prensa Grafica reported that relatives of an inmate who died inside Mariona Prison in San Salvador Department on June 7 learned of the death through Facebook. Prison Directorate personnel failed to inform the family of the deceased in a timely manner.

Independent Monitoring: The prison system was closed to visits during the year, allowing only employees to enter. Professional and family visits, inspections of institutions, and visits by international organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), churches, and others were suspended, although there were reports of sporadic entries granted based on personal connections with prison officials to members of the clergy and nonprofits.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but there were times the government limited these freedoms (see section 7.a.).

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

On September 5, La Prensa Grafica reported that PNC officers using professional equipment took photographs of persons protesting the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice’s ruling allowing for the re-election of the president.

On September 15, thousands of protesters marched against the Supreme Court ruling allowing the re-election of the president, the dismissal of justices older than age 60, bitcoin adoption as legal tender in the country, and other recent actions by the government. Some of the marchers included Legislative Assembly staff and judges. On September 17, 75 employees of the Legislative Assembly were arbitrarily dismissed. The union representing Legislative Assembly staff members said the employees who attended the September 15 protests were among those fired. The dismissed staff members had worked in the communications, radio, and television units as well as the Access to Public Information Office. The Legislative Assembly used police to escort the dismissed employees out of their workplace.

On September 26, some judges claimed that they were transferred to preside in remote courts in retaliation for their participation in the September 15 protest.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, although many nongovernmental organizations that were critical of the government or whose activities did not align with government policies faced threats or restrictions during the year (see section 5).

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

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 ensure freedom of movement due to criminal gang activity.

In-country Movement: The major gangs controlled access to their specific territories. Gang members did not allow persons living in another gang’s area to enter their territory, even when travelling via public transportation. Gangs forced persons to present government-issued identification cards (containing their addresses) to determine their residence. If gang members discovered that a person lived in a rival gang’s territory, that person risked being killed, beaten, or denied entry to 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 customers.

On April 12, gang members in Santa Tecla, La Libertad Department, beat a 77-year-old priest who tried to circumvent heavy traffic and accidentally entered a neighborhood with gang presence. When the priest slowed down to ask for directions, gang members surrounded his vehicle and demanded to know why he was in their neighborhood. The gang members then beat the priest and took photographs of his identity documents.

On August 25, gang members killed a 25-year-old man in Ciudad Delgado, San Salvador Department. The victim was helping change a tire on his friend’s vehicle when MS-13 gang members approached them to demand their identity documents, where they lived, and what they were doing in the neighborhood. When the gang members realized the victim and his friend resided in a different neighborhood, the gang members shot the victim, while the friend managed to escape.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated there were 114,000 new instances of internal forced displacement due to violence during 2020 and reported the causes included threats, extortion, and assassinations perpetrated by criminal gangs. The IDMC also reported 17,000 additional internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020.

More than 30 families that lived in Panchimalco, San Salvador Department, abandoned their homes on May 25 after receiving threats from gang members. The families, some of whom had lived in Panchimalco for more than 40 years, feared their lives would be in danger after the gang threatened to hold the village responsible for the disappearance of a gang member.

Comprehensive, up-to-date data on internal displacement was not available, but the NGO Cristosal counted 200 persons displaced between January and June. As of August 31, the PDDH reported 53 cases of forced internal displacement. Beatriz Campos, a PDDH attorney, said 90 percent of forced internal displacement cases were caused by gangs in their community and the other 10 percent due to PNC harassment of youth in high-risk communities.

Although the government passed new IDP legislation in January 2020, authorities had yet to take substantial action to fund or implement the law. The government failed to allocate sufficient funding to the Unit of Attention to Victims of Internal Forced Displacement, the entity tasked with the implementation of the law. According to the Due Process of Law Foundation, implementation of the law was further hindered by the lack of clear implementing regulations and available records of IDPs in the country.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, and the law’s definition of rape may apply to spousal rape, at the judge’s discretion. The law requires the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute rape cases whether or not the victim presses charges, and the law does not permit the victim to withdraw the criminal charge. The penalty for conviction of rape is generally imprisonment for six to 10 years. Laws against rape were not effectively enforced.

The law prohibits domestic violence and generally provides for sentences for conviction ranging from one to three years in prison, although some forms of domestic violence carry higher penalties. The law also permits restraining orders against offenders. Laws against domestic violence remained poorly enforced, and violence against women, including domestic violence, remained a widespread and serious problem.

According to a newly published survey, the first of its kind carried out by the General Directorate of Statistics and Census (DIGESTYC), six of 10 women older than age 15 suffered some type of sexual violence in their life. The data was collected in 2019 but not disclosed until March due to difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Sixty-three percent of women ages 15 to 19 and 72 percent of women ages 30 to 34 reported having suffered sexual violence.

Between January and April, the Attorney General’s Office received 441 complaints of domestic violence, which encompasses domestic violence toward any member of the family, including children. Observers noted this number likely did not capture most domestic violence cases, particularly those perpetrated against women. On November 3, several women’s organizations discussed in a forum the 2019 National Data System on Violence against Women of the Ministry of Justice and DIGESTYC, which showed that 68 percent of women older than 15 years suffered sexual violence, but only 5.3 percent sought help. The organizations attributed this low reporting number to women’s distrust of state institutions.

On January 15, the Specialized Sentencing Court for a Life Free of Violence for Women sentenced David Eliseo Diaz Ramirez to 35 years in prison for femicide. Diaz Ramirez and several gang members killed a woman in Tutunichapa, San Salvador Department, in 2019 because she refused to have sex with them.

On May 8, the PNC found more than a dozen bodies, most of them girls and women, buried in the house of former police officer Hugo Ernesto Chavez Osorio, who was arrested on May 6 for the murders of two women. According to the PNC investigation, Chavez Osorio raped his victims and then killed them before burying their bodies in his house.

The Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) reported that the Ministry of Health registered 6,938 pregnant girls or adolescents in the first six months of the year, including 156 girls ages 10 and 11 who were raped and became pregnant. During the first half of the year, the number of pregnancies among girls between the ages of 10-14 increased 9 percent as compared to the same period in 2020. ORMUSA attributed this to several causes, including a lack of government policy for preventing pregnancies in girls and adolescents, a lack of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education, and an increase in sexual violence. According to the Feminist Collective, families did not report the rapes to the PNC and the Attorney General’s Office because the rapist was commonly a relative of the victim and the families considered it an embarrassment.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and establishes sentences if convicted of five to eight years’ imprisonment. Courts also may impose additional fines in cases in which the perpetrator held a position of trust or authority over the victim. The law mandates that employers take measures against sexual harassment and create and implement preventive programs. The government, however, did not enforce sexual harassment laws effectively.

On March 11, the Second Sentencing Court sentenced Jose Misael Maldonado Palacios, a corporal of the Third Infantry Brigade of the San Miguel Armed Forces, to six years in prison for improper sexual conduct against two employees. The Specialized Attention Unit for Crimes related to Children, Adolescents, and Women stated that in March 2020, Maldonado Palacios offered to pay two women in exchange for sexual acts inside the barracks.

On March 19, the Attorney General’s Office announced the arrest of Salvador Alcides Villegas, general manager of the Council of Mayors of Usulutan. Villegas was formally accused of sexual harassment of three women, including touching and improper sexual expressions. The victims told the authorities that Villegas touched their legs, breasts, and buttocks.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

The law bans abortion. Civil society advocates expressed concern that the ban led to the wrongful incarceration of women who suffered severe pregnancy complications, including miscarriages.

In March the Inter-American Court of Human Rights concluded that the government violated the right to personal freedom, life, health, and justice of Manuela, a woman sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2008 for the aggravated homicide of her unborn child. Manuela died from cancer in 2010 after not receiving timely and appropriate treatment in prison.

On June 2, the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion in El Salvador reported that at least 17 women were in prison on charges of having an abortion after suffering out-of-hospital obstetric emergencies. One of the women, Sara Rogel, received early parole, and the Second Court of Penitentiary Surveillance in Cojutepeque, Cuscatlan Department, released her from prison on June 7. Rogel suffered an obstetric emergency in 2012 when she slipped while washing clothes and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide for allegedly having an abortion. The court commuted Rogel’s sentence to 10 years in January, and Rogel received early parole after the Attorney General’s Office declined to appeal the decision.

The government-run Institute for Women’s Development implements the National Care System which aims to improve the care, protection, and access to justice for victims of sexual and other types of violence. The specialized comprehensive care includes medical care, counseling, family planning, medical examinations, and treatment of sexually transmitted infections in victims of sexual violence and services were generally available throughout the country.

ORMUSA reported that the closure of Ciudad Mujer health centers throughout the country since June 2019, shortly after President Bukele became president, had created a barrier to women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons receiving timely health services. Following the closure of the centers, women and LGBTQI+ persons were subjected to long delays to see doctors, and the doctors were not specialized in the field of reproductive health and health issues specific to the LGBTQI+ community, as were the doctors in the Ciudad Mujer health centers.

Discrimination: The constitution grants women and men the same legal status in family, religious, personal status, and nationality laws. There were no reports of discrimination in marriage, divorce, child custody, education, and judicial processes. The law also provides equal rights for men and women in the areas of property rights, inheritance, employment, access to credit, business ownership, and housing. The law establishes sentences of one to three years in prison for public officials convicted of denying a person’s civil rights based on gender and six months to two years for employers convicted of discriminating against women in the workplace, but employees generally did not report such violations due to fear of employer reprisals.

Persons with Disabilities

Persons with disabilities do not have access to education, health services, public buildings, or transportation on an equal basis with others.

The percentage of children with disabilities enrolled in the public school system is very low. The Ministry of Education’s last reported statistics in 2018 indicated only 1,158 students with disabilities were enrolled in high schools across the country, representing fewer than 0.01 percent of all secondary students. Disability advocates said that this low percentage was due to the lack of ramps and other accommodations for students with disabilities. The government provided very little support for schools to include accommodations, and there were few teachers trained to teach students with disabilities.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, but the government did not enforce these laws. The National Council for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Disability (CONAIPD), composed of representatives from multiple government entities, is the governmental agency responsible for protecting disability rights, but it lacked enforcement power. According to a CONAIPD representative, the government did not effectively enforce legal requirements for access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. Few access ramps or provisions for the mobility of persons with disabilities existed.

CONAIPD stated there was no mechanism to verify compliance with the law requiring businesses and nongovernment agencies to hire one person with disabilities for every 25 hires. CONAIPD reported employers frequently fired persons who acquired disabilities and would not consider persons with disabilities for work for which they qualified. In addition some academic institutions did not accept children with disabilities.

No formal system existed for filing with the government a discrimination complaint involving a disability.

On May 24, Elba Chacon, coordinator of the human rights program at the Network of Survivors and Persons with Disabilities Foundation, asked the government to update the statistics on persons with disabilities. CONAIPD last carried out the National Survey of in Persons with Disabilities 2015. Chacon said the government did not have updated statistics on access to government services and resources for persons with disabilities.

Organizations of persons with disabilities protested outside the Ministry of Finance on August 30 to demand the government comply with the Special Law on the Inclusion Persons with Disabilities of that was implemented in January. The law includes plans to create a new CONAIPD with greater autonomy to hear complaints and impose sanctions for noncompliance with the law; however, the ministry did not allocate a budget to carry out the law.

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