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 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary was burdened by inefficiency and corruption, and the Solicitor’s Office (responsible for public defenders) of the Attorney General’s Office and the PDDH suffered from insufficient resources. As of July 18, the Attorney General’s Office reported that it had initiated 14,162 cases and obtained 3,268 convictions.
As of August, the Office of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Public Security and Justice reported 15 cases of violations of access to justice committed by police officers, and one police officer was accused of obstructing due process.
On July 13, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court struck down the 1993 Amnesty Law on the grounds that it violated citizens’ constitutional right of access 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. Nevertheless, the court held that the law continues to be enforced for those crimes committed during the civil war years that do not constitute serious human rights abuses. The ruling declaring the Amnesty Law unconstitutional empowered parties to request judges to reopen cases related to civil war era crimes and for individuals to petition the attorney general to open new cases.
On August 25, the Supreme Court denied the extradition to Spain of former colonel Guillermo Benavides for the 1989 murder of four Jesuit priests. The court ordered Benavides to remain in prison to await a hearing before the Fourth Instruction Court of San Salvador to determine whether he would be held criminally responsible for the murders as a result of the Amnesty Law ruling. On September 30, 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. On October 17, the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America filed five complaints with the Attorney General’s Office on behalf of victims of torture, forced disappearances, and murder from 1975 to 1989, allegedly by agents of the state. On October 20, Armando Duran filed a complaint against former Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) commanders, including the sitting president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, for their alleged participation in a kidnapping in 1987. On November 15, the Constitutional Court ordered a lower court judge to determine how to investigate and prosecute the 1982 “El Calabozo” massacre, in which approximately 200 persons were killed.
Substantial 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. Between January 1 and June 30, the Supreme Court heard 201 cases against judges due to irregularities, removed four judges, suspended 10 others, and brought formal charges against 63 judges.
The Legislative Assembly did not always comply with Supreme Court rulings. As of September 8, the Legislative Assembly had not complied with a ruling from the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber that mandated the Legislative Assembly renominate magistrates on the Court of Accounts (a transparency oversight body) by July 29 because those nominated by the legislature had political party affiliations in contravention of legal standards. On September 6, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court admitted a complaint against the Legislative Assembly for failing to nominate members to the National Judicial Council after a delay of more than a year. The council is responsible for selecting judicial candidates.
Between January and June 20, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s Executive Technical Unit (UTE), which provides witness protection services, provided protection to 682 victims, 821 witnesses, and 457 victim/witnesses. The unit also provided household protection for 55 persons. In 2015 the unit provided protection to 4,218 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.
The law provides for the right to a fair public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although some trial court judges were subject to political and economic influence. Although procedures called 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 to judges. After the jury’s determination of innocence or guilt, a panel of judges decides the sentence in such cases.
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, access for defendants and their attorneys to government-held evidence relevant to their cases, and government-provided legal counsel for the indigent. 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 interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through the appeals process 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. The law extends these rights to all citizens.
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.
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.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, and the criminal code’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. Cases may be dropped for lack of evidence if the victim refuses to provide it. The penalty for rape is generally six to 10 years’ imprisonment, but the law provides for a maximum sentence of 20 years for raping certain classes of victims, including children and persons with disabilities.
Incidents of rape continued to be underreported for several reasons, including societal and cultural pressures on victims, fear of reprisal, ineffective and unsupportive responses by authorities to victims, fear of publicity, and a perception among victims that cases were unlikely to be prosecuted. Laws against rape were not effectively enforced.
Rape and other sexual crimes against women were widespread. On February 26, the PDDH criticized the Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s UTE general director Mauricio Rodriquez, for failing to provide adequate security to seven female witnesses and victims of sex trafficking, one of whom was sexually assaulted by a security guard in a shelter supervised by the UTE. Although the victim filed a complaint, the security guard was not sanctioned or removed.
The Attorney General’s Office reported that, as of July 18, 658 women had been victims of sexual-related crimes and 63 defendants had been convicted for sexual-related crimes against women. As of March 9, the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women (ISDEMU) reported 385 cases of rape against women.
ISDEMU provided health and psychological assistance to women who were victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, mistreatment, sexual harassment, labor harassment, trafficking in persons, commercial sexual exploitation, or alien smuggling.
Violence against women, including domestic violence, was a widespread and serious problem. A large portion of the population considered domestic violence socially acceptable; as with rape, its incidence was underreported. The law prohibits domestic violence and generally provides for sentences 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 were not well enforced, and cases were not effectively prosecuted. The law prohibits mediation in domestic violence disputes.
Between January and July 2016, ISDEMU reported 21 cases of femicide, 458 cases of physical abuse, 385 cases of sexual violence, and 2,259 cases of psychological abuse. ISDEMU reported 3,070 cases of domestic violence against women during the same period. In June ISDEMU issued its 2015 annual report on violence against women and reported that 230 died due to violence in the first six months of 2015, compared with 294 during the same period in 2014 and 217 in 2013.
ISDEMU coordinated with the judicial and executive branches and civil society groups to conduct public awareness campaigns against domestic violence and sexual abuse. The PDDH, the Attorney General’s Office, the Supreme Court, the Public Defender’s Office, and the PNC collaborated with NGOs and other organizations to combat violence against women through education, increased enforcement of the law, and programs for victims. The Secretariat of Social Inclusion, through ISDEMU, defined policies, programs, and projects on domestic violence and continued to maintain one shared telephone hotline and two separate shelters for victims of domestic abuse and child victims of commercial sexual exploitation. The government’s efforts to combat domestic violence were minimally effective.
Women’s rights NGOs claimed that many violent crimes against women occurred within the context of gang structures, where women were “corralled” and “disposed of at the whims of male gang members.”
On March 3, women’s rights activist for the NGO Hablame de Respeto (“Speak to me about respect”) Aida Pineda was found dead, shot 11 times in front of her house in Milagrosa, San Miguel. Colleagues of Pineda contended that her killing was a femicide and that she was targeted for being a “powerful woman” who challenged the control of the Barrio 18 gang’s repressive behavior toward women.
As of August, the Office of the Inspector General reported 40 cases of alleged violations of police officers against women due to their gender.
In an effort to sensitize the judicial system to gender-based violent crimes, the Legislative Assembly approved the creation of specialized courts for violence against women. The San Salvador courts began operations on June 1, while the San Miguel and Santa Ana courts were scheduled to start in 2017.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and provides imprisonment of up to five years if the victim is an adult and up to eight years if the victim is a minor. Courts may impose fines in addition to a prison term in cases where the perpetrator is in a position of trust or authority over the victim. The law also mandates that employers take measures to avoid sexual harassment, violence against women, and other workplace harassment problems. The law requires employers to create and implement preventive programs to address violence against women, sexual abuse, and other psychosocial risks. The government, however, did not enforce sexual harassment laws effectively. Since underreporting by victims of sexual harassment appeared to be widespread, it was difficult to estimate the extent of the problem.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of having children; manage their reproductive health; and have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Access to reproductive health services outside of the capital city San Salvador, however, was limited.
Civil society advocates expressed concern that the country’s complete abortion ban had led to the wrongful incarceration of women who suffered severe pregnancy complications, including miscarriages. Between 1999 and 2011, 17 women (referred to as “Las 17”) were charged for having an abortion and convicted of homicide following obstetric emergencies and were sentenced to up to 40 years in prison. A petition was filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that highlighted violations of due process and of women’s rights. Amnesty International and the UN Development Program claimed the women had miscarriages, while the Legal Medicine Institute argued that the women committed infanticide through abortion. In December 2014 one of “Las 17,” Mirna Isabel Rodriguez, “Mima,” was released after serving her prison sentence before her pardon could be finalized. On May 20, San Salvador’s Third Tribunal Sentencing Court ruled there was not enough evidence to prove charges against a second member of the group, Maria Teresa Rivera, for aggravated homicide after having a miscarriage in 2011. On October 24, an appellate court did not admit a case against a third member, Santos Elizabeth Gamez Herrera. The Legislative Assembly was reviewing the remaining 14 cases. During the year the NGO Colectiva Feminista reported that two more women presented their cases, which included similarities with those of the “Las 17” women.
Discrimination: The constitution grants women and men the same legal rights but women did not enjoy equal treatment. The law establishes sentences of one to three years in prison for public officials who deny a person’s civil rights based on gender and six months to two years for employers who discriminate against women in the workplace, but employees generally did not report such violations due to fear of employer reprisals.
Although pregnancy testing as a condition for employment is illegal, some businesses allegedly required female job applicants to present pregnancy test results, and some businesses illegally fired pregnant workers.
The law prohibits discrimination based on gender; nevertheless, women suffered from cultural, economic, and societal discrimination. The law requires equal pay for equal work, but according to the 2015 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, the average wage paid to women for comparable work was 60 percent of compensation paid to men. Men often received priority in job placement and promotions, and women did not receive equal treatment in traditionally male-dominated sectors, such as agriculture and business. Training was generally available for women only in low- and middle-wage occupations where women already held most positions, such as teaching, nursing, apparel assembly, home industry, and small business.
Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country and from one’s parents. The law requires parents to register a child within 15 days of birth or pay a $2.85 fine. While firm statistics were unavailable, many births were not registered. Failure to register resulted in denial of school enrollment.
Education: Education is free, universal, and compulsory through the ninth grade and nominally free through high school. Rural areas, however, frequently did not provide required education to all eligible students due to a lack of resources and because rural parents often withdrew their children from school by the sixth grade to allow them to work.
Child Abuse: Child abuse was a serious and widespread problem. Incidents of abuse continued to be underreported for a number of reasons, including societal and cultural pressures on victims, fear of reprisal against victims, ineffective and unsupportive responses by authorities toward victims, fear of publicity, and a perception among victims that cases were unlikely to be prosecuted. During the year an appellate judge issued a report noting serious deficiencies in technical criteria for determining whether minors are victims of child abuse.
The Salvadoran Institute for the Comprehensive Development of Children and Adolescents (ISNA), an autonomous government entity, defined policies, programs, and projects on child abuse; maintained a shelter for child victims of abuse and female child victims of commercial sexual exploitation; and conducted a violence awareness campaign to combat child abuse. From January to May, ISNA reported providing psychological assistance to 131 children for physical and psychological abuse and 134 for sexual violence.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18, although the law authorizes marriage from the age of 14 if both the boy and girl have reached puberty, if the girl is pregnant, or if the couple has a child.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Sexual exploitation of children, including girls and boys in prostitution, remained a problem. Child sex trafficking is prohibited by law, which prescribes penalties of 10 to 14 years’ imprisonment for trafficking crimes. An offense committed against a child is treated as an aggravating circumstance, and the penalty increases by one-third, but the government did not effectively enforce these laws.
The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The law classifies statutory rape as sexual relations with anyone under the age of 18 and includes penalties of four to 13 years’ imprisonment.
The law prohibits paying anyone under the age of 18 for sexual services. The Secretariat of Social Inclusion, through ISDEMU, continued to maintain one shared telephone hotline for child victims of commercial sexual exploitation and victims of domestic abuse. The law prohibits participating in, facilitating, or purchasing materials containing child pornography and provides for prison sentences of up to 16 years for violations.
Displaced Children: Surveys indicated the primary motivations for migration were family reunification, a lack of economic and educational opportunity in the country, and fear of violence.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.
The Jewish community totaled approximately 150 persons. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, and the provision of other state services. The National Council for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Disability (CONAIPD), composed of representatives from multiple government entities, is the government agency responsible for protecting disability rights, but it lacked enforcement power. According to CONAIPD, the government did not allocate sufficient resources to enforce prohibitions against discrimination effectively, particularly in education, employment, and transportation. The government did not effectively enforce legal requirements for access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. There were almost no access ramps or provisions for the mobility of persons with disabilities. Children with disabilities generally attended primary school, but attendance at higher levels was more dependent on their parents’ financial resources.
According to CONAIPD, only 5 percent of businesses and nongovernment agencies fulfilled the legal requirement of hiring one person with disabilities for every 25 hires. There was no information available regarding abuse in educational or mental health facilities, although CONAIPD previously reported isolated incidents, including sexual abuse, in those facilities.
CONAIPD reported employers frequently fired persons who acquired disabilities and would not consider persons with disabilities for work for which they qualified. Some schools would not accept children with disabilities due to a lack of facilities and resources. There was no formal system for filing a discrimination complaint involving a disability with the government.
Due to their use of sign language, several young deaf individuals were confused with gang members (who also used signs to communicate) by police officers and soldiers and suffered mistreatment.
On May 25, CONAIPD and the Cooperative Transport Association Ciudad Delgado launched 10 bus units with platform access for persons with disabilities.
Several public and private organizations, including the Telethon Foundation for Disabled Rehabilitation and the National Institute for Comprehensive Rehabilitation (ISRI), promoted the rights of persons with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Foundation, in cooperation with ISRI, continued to operate a treatment center for persons with disabilities. CONAIPD reported that the government provided minimal funding for ISRI.
A 2014 constitutional amendment recognizes the rights of indigenous people, but no laws provide indigenous people rights to share in revenue from exploitation of natural resources on historically indigenous lands. The government did not demarcate any lands as belonging to indigenous communities. Because few possessed title to land, opportunities for bank loans and other forms of credit were extremely limited.
During the year the municipalities of Conchagua and Santo Domingo de Guzman, which have relatively higher populations of Nahuat speakers, approved regulations to improve the living conditions for women, persons with disabilities, and older indigenous individuals in the towns and made reference to their historic lands.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Although the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, discrimination against LGBTI persons was widespread, including in employment and access to health care. In May the PDDH conducted a survey of transgender individuals and reported that 52 percent had suffered death threats or violence, of which 23.7 percent had reported the incidents.
NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons. Members of the LGBTI community stated that PNC and Attorney General’s Office personnel ridiculed them when they applied for identification cards or reported cases of violence against LGBTI persons. The NGO Space for Lesbian Women for Diversity claimed that, as of November, the Attorney General’s Office had not prosecuted any cases of killings and other violent acts or of possible human rights violations committed by public officials against LGBTI persons. The Secretariat for Social Inclusion reported that 11 LGBTI persons were killed during the year because of their sexual orientation. The PDDH reported that since 2009 a total of 18 LGBTI persons were killed because of their sexual orientation.
Wilber Leonel Flores Lopez, a former soldier, was charged with attempted murder of a transgender individual on April 9. Flores was arrested on August 23. On August 26, an initial hearing was held in the First Court of Peace of Santa Ana, where the testimony of the victim, medical reports, and other forensic evidence were analyzed. The judge, however, did not order prison detention for Flores. The trial was pending, and prosecutors appealed the judge’s decision not to jail Flores.
On May 30, the newspaper La Prensa Grafica reported that police had uncovered the body of a transgender woman who had been beaten and strangled to death. An autopsy report by the Forensic Science Institute showed that the victim’s body was mutilated and showed indications that the victim was sexually violated. The PNC did not declare a motive for the killing. LGBTI NGOs alleged the victim was targeted due to her transgender identity and that authorities refused to investigate the crime from that angle.
On August 10, the Attorney General’s Office pressed assault charges against five officers involved in the assault in January 2015 of Alex Pena, a transgender man and municipal police officer. On October 6, police officers Melvin Neftali, Hernandez Alvarado, and Francisco Balmore Hernandez were convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for assault. The other officers were acquitted. On October 6, the government reported on the convictions using Pena’s female birth name.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
Although the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of HIV/AIDS status, Entre Amigos, a LGBTI NGO, reported that discrimination due to HIV was widespread. Lack of public information and medical resources, fear of reprisal, fear of ostracism, and mild penalties incommensurate with the seriousness of the discrimination remained problems in confronting discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS or in assisting persons suffering from HIV/AIDS. As of June 30, the PDDH reported four cases of discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS. As of October, the Ministry of Labor had reported one case of discrimination against an HIV-positive employee based on the illness.