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El Salvador

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

Trial Procedures

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, economic, or other corrupting influences. By law juries hear only a narrow group of cases, such as environmental complaints. In those cases after the jury determines innocence or guilt, a panel of judges decides the sentence.

Defendants have the right to be present in court (except in virtual trials; see below), 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 (seldom observed), 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 appeal, 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 assistance of an interpreter. 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.

While implemented in 2015 to expedite fair trials, virtual trials still involved delays. The law allows for virtual trials for gang membership charges to proceed without the defendants present, although with defense counsel participating. The law requires judicial and prison authorities to provide a video copy of the virtual trial to the defendants within 72 hours so they may exercise their right to defense.

Virtual trials often involved group hearings before a judge, with defendants unable to consult with their defense lawyers in real time. The law allows defense lawyers to attend a hearing without the defendant’s presence. Human rights groups questioned the constitutionality of the reform.

Legal experts pointed to an overreliance on witness testimony, as opposed to the use of forensics or other scientific evidence. The justice system lacked DNA analysis and other forensic capabilities.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, although the government at times did not respect this right. The law permits the executive branch to use the emergency broadcasting service to take control of all broadcast and cable networks temporarily to televise political programming.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Journalists from several digital and print media outlets publicly accused President Bukele, his administration, and his supporters of a pattern of harassment designed to constrain media. In public statements and in testimony to the Legislative Assembly, journalists claimed President Bukele and his cabinet officials bullied them on Twitter, threatened them with physical harm, launched unwarranted financial investigations into their taxes and funding sources, denied them access to press conferences, and surveilled them. President Bukele strongly denied threatening journalists and dismissed accusations he was stifling freedom of the press. President Bukele called public attention to the outlets’ funding sources, which he claimed carry a heavy political bias and had been mobilized by the opposition ahead of legislative elections scheduled to be held in February 2021.

Violence and Harassment: On April 15, the Inter American Press Association reported several journalists complaining that progovernment trolls harassed, discredited, and threatened journalists on Twitter.

As of April the Salvadoran Journalist Association (APES) had registered 54 violations of the exercise of journalism. Among these were restrictions to asking questions during press conferences related to the government handling of the pandemic, destruction of journalistic material, harassment against independent journalists and discrediting of media outlets by government officials. As of August 27, the PDDH had received 10 complaints of violence against journalists by government officials.

On September 14, the digital newspaper El Faro filed suit against the government, accusing the Finance Ministry of using aggressive auditing practices to punish the firm for its critical reporting. El Faro representatives claimed auditors were asking for more information than the law allows, including nonfinancial records, for use other than auditing purposes that could lead to a form of censorship.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government advertising accounted for a significant portion of media income. According to media reports, the Bukele administration punitively cancelled all government advertising in the newspaper El Diario de Hoy after it reported on the banning of some journalists from the president’s press conferences. According to APES, media practiced self-censorship, especially in reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking.

On October 5, the government began broadcasting a state-owned newscast on Channel 10. On October 19, the government launched the state-owned newspaper Diario El Salvador. Serafin Valencia of APES criticized the state-owned media outlets as “government propaganda disguised as journalism.”

Nongovernmental Impact: APES noted journalists who reported on gangs and narcotics trafficking were subject to kidnappings, threats, and intimidation. Observers reported that gangs also charged print media companies to distribute in their communities, costing media outlets as much as 20 percent of their revenues.

Internet Freedom

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.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, except with respect to labor unions (see section 7.a.).

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

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.

As of July the FGR had filed 463 cases charging an illegal limitation on the freedom of movement, a decrease from the 1,515 cases brought from January through October 2019. The FGR reported 81 convictions for such charges through July 13, compared with 50 through the same period in 2019.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated there were 454,000 additional internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to violence in 2019 and reported the causes of internal displacement included threats, extortion, and assassinations perpetrated by criminal gangs. The IDMC also reported 1,900 additional IDPs due to natural disasters in 2019.

On January 10, the NGO ARPAS, an association of community radio networks, reported that the Legislative Assembly approved the Special Law for the Comprehensive Care and Protection of Internally Displaced Persons. The law calls for the creation of a national system whose main function is to implement and evaluate the national policy towards IDPs.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and some assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although this was often difficult in gang-controlled neighborhoods.

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.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials. Although the Supreme Court investigated corruption in the executive and judicial branches and referred some cases to the FGR for possible criminal indictment, corruption and impunity remained endemic. Courts issued inconsistent rulings and failed, in particular, to address secret discretionary accounts within the government.

Corruption in the judicial system contributed to the high level of impunity, undermining the rule of law and the public’s respect for the judiciary. As of June 30, the Supreme Court had received complaints against 46 judges due to irregularities (41 of which remained under review) and had punished one judge. Accusations against judges included collusion with criminal elements and sexual harassment.

Corruption: On September 3, El Faro accused the Bukele administration of negotiating with senior gang leaders since 2019 to obtain electoral support and a reduction in homicides prior to the February 2021 legislative and municipal elections. On September 4, the attorney general announced an investigation into El Faro’s allegations. On June 23, the FGR arrested former defense minister David Victoriano Munguia Payes and issued an arrest warrant for former president Mauricio Funes, for their alleged roles in similar negotiations associated with the 2012-14 truce with the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs.

In June, July, and August, local press reported on irregular government purchases of food, personal protective equipment, and other supplies to combat the COVID-19 pandemic that allegedly involved inflated prices, agreements with companies linked to government officials, and purchases from companies with no past experience selling the purchased products or similar products. These transactions included the purchase of $1.1 million of protective masks for allegedly inflated prices from companies associated with the newly appointed finance minister, Jose Alejandro Zelaya, and the head of the Salvadoran Environmental Fund, Jorge Alejandro (“Koky”) Aguilar Zarco; the purchase of $12 million in medical supplies from Javi Performance Parts, a Spanish automobile parts company that last filed required financial reports in 2012, and $3.5 million in medical supplies from Lasca Design LLC, a Florida-based ceramics company, neither of which have any apparent experience manufacturing or selling medical supplies.

President Bukele fired Aguilar Zarco shortly after his reported transactions became public, and as of October 19, Aguilar Zarco was the only administration official to lose his job because of pandemic-related corruption allegations. On June 26, the attorney general confirmed he had opened criminal investigations of several senior Bukele administration officials based on newspaper reports of corruption. As of October 19, the attorney general had not publicly filed charges against any of those officials.

As of June 30, the Supreme Court’s Probity Section had opened 47 illicit enrichment investigations against public officers and forwarded two cases to the FGR for potential prosecution.

On August 14, two former defense ministers, David Victoriano Munguia Payes and Jose Atilio Benitez Parada, and the former president of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), Gustavo Lopez Davidson, were arrested on various embezzlement-related charges associated with a two-million-dollar weapons transaction in 2012. The FGR also filed charges against and issued arrest warrants for several other defendants, including former president Mauricio Funes.

As of August the Ethics Tribunal reported that it had opened 355 administrative proceedings against public officials between September 2019 and August 31. One complaint against a Supreme Court magistrate ended with the judge removed from the bench. As of September 3, the FGR had filed claims against three judges for committing crimes involving corruption or for violating public administration laws.

Financial Disclosure: The illicit enrichment law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section of the Supreme Court. The law establishes modest fines for noncompliance. The declarations were not available to the public unless requested by petition. The Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting investigable cases: age of the case (that is, proximity to the statute of limitations), relevance of the official’s position, and seriousness and notoriety of the alleged illicit enrichment.

On July 6, local investigative magazine Factum reported that the Supreme Court Probity Section had identified $1.4 million in unjustified funds in the accounts of Walter Araujo, an outspoken Bukele supporter, legislative candidate for the political party Nuevas Ideas and former Supreme Electoral Court magistrate. As of September 14, the Supreme Court judges had not yet voted on whether to send Araujo to trial for illicit enrichment.

The law requires public officers to present asset certification reports no later than 60 days after taking a position. In September the Supreme Court Probity Section reported that 112 public officers had failed to present their assets certifications in the 10 previous years and two public officers from the current administration had failed to present their assets certification in the last year.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

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 FGR 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. In 2018 the Salvadoran Organization of Women for Peace (ORMUSA) reported that in 2016 and 2017, only 5 percent of the 6,326 reported crimes against women went to trial.

On January 31, the Specialized Court of Instruction for a Life Free of Violence and Discrimination against Women found the boyfriend of a journalist from the newspaper La Prensa Grafica guilty of femicide for her death and imposed the maximum prison sentence of 50 years. The National Coordinator of Femicides from the FGR stated the ruling sent a message that “in this country it will not be allowed to continue killing women because of their condition of being a woman.”

On April 3, ORMUSA reported a 70 percent increase in domestic violence cases during the nationwide stay-at-home order. According to the IDHUCA Human Rights Observatory Report, the FGR registered 158 cases of domestic violence between March 21 and May 13.

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.

According to the 2019 Survey of Households and Multiple Purposes of the General Directorate of Statistics and Censuses, at least 889 women left their workplace due to sexual harassment from supervisors and coworkers, compared with approximately 1,340 cases in 2018.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and had access to the information and means to do so. Access to reproductive health services outside of the capital city was limited.

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

On September 20, the First Court of Penitentiary Surveillance approved the request for early parole for Cindy Erazo, who spent six years in prison for conviction in 2015 of aggravated homicide based on giving birth to a stillborn baby in 2014. Erazo was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but a successful appeal in 2016 reduced her sentence to 10 years. At the end of the year, 18 women remained in prison for similar crimes.

In 2016 the Institute for Women’s Development implemented the National Care System 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.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The constitution grants women and men the same legal rights, but women did not receive equal pay or employment opportunities. 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.

In July a female legislator filed a complaint with the FGR against the president of the Legislative Assembly, Mario Ponce, and ARENA legislator Mauricio Vargas for gender discrimination in the workplace and psychological and public harassment. The 11th Peace Court declared the lawsuit inadmissible because both Ponce and Vargas had legislative immunity.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country and from their parents. The law requires parents to register a child within 15 days of birth or pay a small fine. Failure to register may result in denial of school enrollment.

Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious and widespread problem. The law gives children the right to petition the government without parental consent. Penalties for conviction of breaking the law include losing custody of the child and three to 26 years’ imprisonment, depending on the nature of the abuse.

On February 29, the FGR arrested a teacher in Santiago de Maria, Usulutan Department, for sexual aggression against a 10-year-old girl.

On June 2, the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court overturned the November 2019 lower court decision that had eliminated criminal charges against Judge Eduardo Jaime Escalante Diaz for sexually touching a 10-year-old girl. The court ordered the trial court to proceed with a criminal trial for sexual assault.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. The law bans child marriage to prevent child abusers from avoiding imprisonment by marrying their underage victims. The law allows for marriage of a minor in cases of pregnancy.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Child sex trafficking is prohibited by law. Prison sentences for convicted traffickers stipulate imprisonment from 16 to 20 years.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The law classifies statutory rape as sexual relations with anyone younger than age 18 and includes penalties for conviction of four to 13 years’ imprisonment.

The law prohibits paying anyone younger than age 18 for sexual services. The law prohibits participating in, facilitating, or purchasing materials containing child pornography and provides for prison sentences of up to 16 years for conviction of violations. Despite these provisions, sexual exploitation of children remained a problem.

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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

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