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.