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El Salvador

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

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 July 31, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) announced it was investigating 22 complaints against police officers, prison guards, and personnel of the Attorney General’s Office for such killings.

The case continued against nine police officers charged in September 2017 with aggravated homicide and concealment stemming from the killing of five persons. Three of the accused were members of the now decommissioned Police Reaction Group (GRP), and police claimed at the time of the events that the deaths were justified homicides.

On March 2, the Attorney General’s Office appealed the September 2017 acquittal of five police officers for aggravated homicide charges in the 2015 killing of a man at a farm in San Blas, San Jose Villanueva. The judge had ruled that the prosecutors failed to prove which of the five officers was specifically responsible for firing the fatal shot and likewise failed to prove conspiracy. On May 4, the Fourth Appellate Court of Appeals confirmed it would retry the case.

On February 23, police authorities in coordination with INTERPOL arrested Jaime Ernesto Bonilla Martinez, who lived in Texas, for participating in at least eight homicides as part of an alleged extermination group operating in San Miguel. The group, composed of civilians, some of whom were alleged rival gang members, and retired and active members of the military and police, was purportedly responsible for murder-for-hire and targeted killings of alleged gang members in San Miguel. Funding for the extermination group reportedly came from Salvadoran citizens living abroad.

As of October 25, alleged gang members had killed 21 police officers. On August 21, the Organized Crime Court convicted 61 MS-13 members of homicide, extortion, illicit trafficking, and conspiracy to kill police officers, among other crimes.

b. Disappearance

There were reports alleging that members of security and law enforcement were involved in unlawful disappearances. Since March 2017 law enforcement agencies had not released data on disappearances, citing a discrepancy between data collected by police and the Attorney General’s Office.

On March 7, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the armed forces were responsible for investigating the disappearance of two 17-year-old boys in Ilopango in 2014. According to the court, seven soldiers detained and searched them, tied their hands with their shoelaces, and took them to Colonia Santa Maria, which was controlled by a rival gang. The two youths missed school that afternoon and were not seen thereafter. The case was ongoing.

In May 2017 a Sonsonate court convicted five soldiers of forced disappearance committed in 2014 and sentenced them to eight years’ imprisonment. Their defense attorneys filed an appeal, and the case remained ongoing. In January the Constitutional Chamber found the military in contempt of their August 2017 order that the Ministry of Defense investigate and report on civilian deaths caused by the military.

On September 1 and in December 2017, the Constitutional Chamber issued two sentences in forced disappearance cases from 1982. The Constitutional Chamber determined that investigations should be carried out on the whereabouts of the victims and underlined the state’s responsibility in ensuring an unobstructed investigation. The chamber noted that the Ministry of Defense and the chief of the joint chiefs of staff of the armed forces were uncooperative in the investigation.

As of October the attorney general had opened investigations into 12 instances of forced disappearance during the 1980-92 civil war.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the government did not always respect judicial independence, and the judiciary was burdened by inefficiency and corruption.

While the government generally respected court orders, some agencies ignored or minimally complied with orders, or sought to influence ongoing investigations. When ordered by the Constitutional Court on June 19 to release military records related to the El Mozote killings and serious civil war crimes, the Ministry of Defense responded it had already done so while denying investigators access to archival facilities at military bases, citing national security concerns. As of July 31, the Legislative Assembly had not complied with a 2015 ruling that it issue regulations to clarify certain sections of the political parties law regarding campaign contributions.

In a February 26 press conference, Minister of Defense David Munguia Payes criticized the attorney general’s charges against three military officers after they were acquitted of obstruction of justice in a torture case. On February 27, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions Agnes Callamard released a statement calling on Payes to respect the independence of the judiciary and reiterating her support for the attorney general. Media experts called Munguia’s stagecraft menacing and reminiscent of civil war-era propaganda employed by the military junta.

While implemented to expedite fair trials, virtual trials still involved delays of up to eight months, according to a July 22 newspaper report. Virtual trials often involved group hearings before a judge, with defendants unable to consult with their defense lawyers in real time. The penitentiary code reforms passed in August allow defense lawyers to attend a hearing without the defendant’s presence. Human rights groups questioned the constitutionality of the reform.

As of July 31, the PDDH received 31 complaints of lack of a fair, public trial.

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. As of August 31, the Supreme Court heard 57 cases against judges due to irregularities, 52 of which remained under review; removed two judges; suspended nine others; and brought formal charges against eight judges. Accusations against judges included collusion with criminal elements and sexual harassment.

In 2016, in response to a petition by victims, a judge issued an order to reopen the investigation into the 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which an estimated 800 persons were killed. The PDDH concluded that the Attorney General’s Office lacked initiative in investigating civil war crimes, The PDDH also cited the Attorney General Office’s lack of cooperation from the Ministry of Defense and the Office of the President (CAPRES). On August 16, a group of Argentine forensics specialists testified they recovered 282 pieces of evidence determined to be human remains, including 143 skulls, 136 of them belonging to children younger than 12 years old. They also recovered 245 bullet casings corresponding to the type used in automatic weapons used by the armed forces.

Women who were accused of intentionally terminating their pregnancies were charged with aggravated homicide, but a number asserted they had suffered miscarriages, stillbirths and other medical emergencies during childbirth. Legal experts pointed to serious flaws in the forensics collection and interpretation.

In December 2017 Teodora del Carmen Vasquez’ conviction on aggravated homicide charges was upheld by the same appeals judges who had earlier sentenced her to 30 years. The Supreme Court commuted her sentence on February 15, opining that the evidence and motive presented by the prosecution in the case was insufficient to support the charges.

During the first nine months of the year, the justice system released five women accused of aggravated homicide of their unborn or newborn children due to lack of evidence. Twenty-five other women remained in custody for infanticide.

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 and economic influence. By law juries hear only a narrow group of cases, such as environmental complaints. After the jury determines innocence or guilt, a panel of judges decides the sentence.

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 appeal, and government-provided legal counsel for the indigent.

According to press reports, plea deals occurred in approximately 20 percent of cases, with the accused turning state’s witness in order to prosecute others. Legal experts pointed to an overreliance on witness testimony in nearly all cases, as opposed to the use of forensics or other scientific evidence. The justice system lacked DNA analysis and other forensics capability. 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.

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.

On May 25, the Constitutional Chamber declared unconstitutional Article 49 of the Civil Service Law, ruling that it violated the double jeopardy prohibition because previously established facts were taken as an essential element for a more serious administrative sanction.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent municipal and legislative elections occurred on March 4, with the final election results released by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on March 20 and April 4, respectively. The election reports published by the Organization of American States and the EU electoral mission noted that the elections generally met international standards.

While the law prohibits public officials from campaigning in elections, this provision lacked consistent enforcement.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. While the Supreme Court investigated corruption in the executive and judicial branches, referring cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal indictment, impunity remained endemic, with courts issuing inconsistent rulings and failing to address secret discretionary accounts within the government, for example in CAPRES.

Corruption: On September 12, a judge sentenced former president Antonio Saca to 10 years in prison. He originally faced up to 30 years in prison before seeking a plea deal. As part of his plea agreement, Saca detailed how he used a network of public officials and advisers to launder money into his ARENA political party, banks, media outlets, publicity companies, fronts, and other activities. Saca testified that weak institutions such as the Court of Accounts were ineffectual in conducting audits, with transparency mechanisms failing to detect fraud. While Saca’s defense offered to return $15 million, the court found him fully liable and ordered him to repay $260 million and surrender his bank accounts and six companies managing 86 radio stations to the asset forfeiture program.

The attorney general investigated corruption pertaining to a discretionary fund within CAPRES in existence for more than 25 years and used by six presidents since 1989. It was originally created to provide resources for the national intelligence budget and CAPRES. The funds, totaling more than one billion dollars since its inception, had never been audited by the Court of Accounts. Both former presidents Saca and Funes were accused of embezzling more than $650 million from public funds. President Sanchez Ceren’s discretionary account was reportedly $147 million, while former presidents Saca and Funes controlled $301 million and $351, million respectively.

On June 19, the Attorney General’s Office initiated an asset forfeiture claim against 24 properties owned by Funes, cabinet members, public officers, and his relatives. Properties included sugarcane plantations, beach houses, and homes.

As of July 31, the Ethics Tribunal reported it had received 190 complaints against 273 public officials. The tribunal sanctioned 20 public officials and forwarded six cases to the attorney general. The attorney general issued 28 arrest warrants on June 6, targeting individuals linked to more than $300 million allegedly embezzled by former president Funes from 2009 through 2014. Despite Constitutional Chamber restrictions on transferring funds without legislative approval, Funes allegedly had misdirected funding for personal gain since 2010. In July the attorney general accused Funes of using $215,000 in public funds to acquire 91 military-grade weapons through the Ministry of Defense for his personal use.

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 fines for noncompliance that range from $11 to $571. The declarations were not available to the public unless requested by petition. In 2016 the Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting investigable cases: the age of the case (i.e., proximity to the statute of limitations), relevance of the position, and seriousness and notoriety of the alleged illicit enrichment.

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