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:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
During the year there were no verified reports that the government or its agents committed politically motivated killings. There were reports, however, of security force involvement in unlawful killings. As of October the attorney general was investigating 53 possible cases of extrajudicial killings. One took place in 2013, none in 2014, 11 in 2015, and 41 in 2016. The Attorney General’s Office also announced the formation of a Special Group Against Impunity, dedicated to investigating this type of crime. As of March the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) had received 12 complaints of alleged unlawful killings committed by security, military, and other public officials and found substantial evidence in two cases. In September the PDDH stated that it was aware of approximately 50 cases involving potential extrajudicial killings. From January to July, the Office of the Inspector General of the National Civilian Police (PNC) reported that 12 PNC officers faced charges of homicide. All but one of the alleged homicides were committed while the accused officers were on duty.
On April 25, the PDDH found indications that the PNC and the armed forces had committed extrajudicial killings during the March 2015 San Blas case (involving the killing of seven alleged gang members and one other person) and the August 2015 Pajales case (which involved the close-range killing of four unarmed gang members). The PDDH criticized the PNC and the armed forces for issuing a press release portraying the killings as the product of clashes with gang members. The PDDH also noted weak internal controls in the PNC and the armed forces and regretted the lack of interagency collaboration in the investigations. On July 9, the attorney general ordered the arrest of seven police officers accused of committing extrajudicial killings in the San Blas case on charges of homicide and obstruction of justice. Seven officers were charged in the Pajales case, although there was no confirmation arrests were made.
On July 9, the Attorney General’s Office ordered the arrest of five police officers and five civilians for their participation in at least eight homicides as part of an alleged extermination group operating in San Miguel; on July 13, a judge ordered preventive detention of the accused. Eleven additional defendants fled from justice, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Funding for the extermination group reportedly came from Salvadorans living abroad.
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Cristosal compared PNC data that showed 366 armed confrontations through July 2016, during which 350 suspected gang members died. A total of 359 suspected gang members were killed in 676 armed confrontations in 2015, and 83 were killed in 256 confrontations in 2014. The mortality rate of suspected gang members in confrontations with police during the first six months of the year was 109 percent higher (i.e., more than double) that the 2015 mortality rate, which was itself 41 percent higher than in 2014. On October 4, the digital newspaper El Faro cited a Brazilian expert who analyzed PNC data and concluded that the data demonstrated a pattern of abuse of lethal force by police authorities.
As of August, the Office of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Public Security and Justice had received two complaints of extrajudicial killings against police members and two complaints for violations to the right of life.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances, abductions, or kidnappings. As of September, the NGO Association for the Search for Missing Children (Pro-Busqueda) received five new complaints regarding children who disappeared during the 1980-92 civil war. Pro-Busqueda reported in August that it was investigating 960 open cases, had solved 425 cases, and determined that in 15 percent of solved cases the child had died.
According to the PNC inspector general, eight complaints of forced disappearances were filed against the PNC between January and August.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, but there were multiple reports of violations. The PDDH received 21 complaints of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment by the PNC, armed forces, and other public officials.
As of August, the Office of the Inspector General reported 31 complaints against police officers for alleged cruel treatment. The NGOs Foundation of Studies for the Application of the Law, and Passionist Social Service, as well as other civil society institutions reported that poor male youths were sometimes targeted by the PNC and armed forces because they fit the stereotype of gang members. Other credible sources indicated that youths suspected to have knowledge of gang activity were mistreated by law enforcement personnel.
NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against sexual minorities. Persons from the LGBTI community stated that the agencies in charge of processing identification documents, the PNC, and the Attorney General’s Office harassed transgender and gay individuals when they applied for identification cards or reported cases of violence against LGBTI persons. The LGBTI community reported authorities harassed LGBTI persons by conducting strip searches and questioning their gender in a degrading manner. The government responded to these abuses primarily through PDDH reports that publicized specific cases of violence and discrimination against sexual minorities.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and gang activities.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding remained a serious threat to prisoners’ health and lives. As of August 15, the prison directorate reported 34,938 inmates were being held in correctional facilities with a designed capacity of 10,035 inmates. As of July 11, the minister of security noted that his office had moved 1,600 inmates from pretrial detention into the regular prison system. The Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES) estimated that, as of June 30, prison overcrowding was 346 percent. The prison population included 24,675 inmates with convictions and 10,263 inmates in pretrial detention. In many facilities, provisions for sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature control, medical care, and lighting were inadequate. On November 14, the PDDH published a report on deteriorating prison conditions, observed during fact-finding missions between April and July. The report highlights worsening conditions since the April implementation of extraordinary measures, including decreased access to medical care while infectious diseases increased, lack of sanitation facilities for the number of inmates, inmates sleeping on the floor without blankets, and inmates lacking space to sleep because of extreme overcrowding.
Men and women had separate accommodations within the prisons. A separate women’s prison in Ilopango was generally clean and allowed inmates to move freely within and inmates’ children under the age of five to stay with their mothers.
Due to prison overcrowding, police authorities held some pretrial detainees in small detention centers at police stations, which had a combined capacity of 2,102 persons. FUSADES reported in February that authorities held approximately 83 percent of these pretrial detainees in detention centers longer than the 72 hours legally permitted before presenting them to a court, some for up to two years. Similarly, due to the lack of holding cells, authorities often held pretrial detainees in regular prisons with violent criminals.
On March 16, the Legislative Assembly approved temporary provisions to allow parole for inmates considered low-level threats and with prison sentences of less than eight years (291 inmates).
On May 27, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the systematic violation of basic human rights by prison overcrowding, citing the government for violating prisoners’ right to health, and ordered periodic visits by the Ministry of Health. The court ordered prison authorities to build new prisons and to remodel others to shelter inmates humanely and the judicial system to review the inmate rosters with an aim of reducing the number of prisoners. Authorities closed one prison during the year, and another was under construction.
In November 2015 the Public Opinion Institute of the University of Central America (IUDOP-UCA) released the findings of its 2009-15 study on the penitentiary and prison system. The report estimated that 9 percent of the prison population was ill, including with highly communicable diseases such as tuberculosis. In August the General Directorate of Prisons (DGCP) began addressing tuberculosis within the prison system by creating mobile tuberculosis treatment teams and separate holding cells for infected inmates.
Prisoners conducted criminal activities from their cells, at times with the complicity of prison guards. Smuggling of weapons, drugs, and other contraband such as cell phones and cell-phone SIM cards was a major problem in the prisons. On April 1, the Legislative Assembly unanimously approved “extraordinary security measures” to prevent gang members from orchestrating crimes from within the prison system. These measures included preventing communication between inmate gang leaders and their members outside prison, suspending all private communication and contact with their families and limiting access to their lawyers, and detaining and isolating known gang leaders in higher security prisons. The measures also subjected the inmates in prisons designated for convicted gang members to isolation and restriction to their cells for 24 hours per day. According to the PDDH, prison authorities modified some of the measures in July and August and allowed prisoners up to one hour outside of their cells. The extraordinary measures affected 13,162 inmates housed in seven prisons: Izalco, Quezaltepeque, Chalatenango, Ciudad Barrios, Gotera, and Zacatecoluca penitentiaries, as well as one sector of Ilopango penitentiary. In response, approximately 200 relatives of imprisoned gang members organized a march on June 29 to demand the government reinstate family visits and file a complaint with the PDDH. On November 18, the government launched additional extraordinary measures in response to an increase in homicides of police officers and soldiers by gang members. These measures included moving gang members considered responsible for attacks against police officers to higher-security prisons and increasing their isolation.
Gang activities in prisons and juvenile holding facilities remained a serious problem. As of August 15, detention center facilities held 16,215 inmates who were current or former gang members. On October 22, the Prison Directorate ordered 235 inmates moved to different prisons in an effort to break up gang “cliques” within prisons. As of May, the Salvadoran Institute for Child Development (ISNA) reported that two adolescents died in juvenile detention facilities. ISNA also reported that there were 418 juveniles convicted and 230 juveniles awaiting trial.
According to news reports, 25 prisoners were killed within prisons between January and August, including 11 prisoners killed in the Gotera Penitentiary by fellow inmates. As of August, the Prison Directorate had reported only 11 homicides within prisons.
As of September 6, prison authorities removed two guards from duty for carrying illegal objects and sanctioned 29 guards for misconduct. Prison authorities received 17 complaints of human rights violations allegedly committed by prison personnel.
There was no information available regarding abuse of persons with disabilities in prisons, although the government’s National Council for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Disability (CONAIPD) previously reported isolated incidents, including sexual abuse.
Administration: The IUDOP-UCA report noted that, between 2009 and 2015, parole board staffing decreased by 48 percent. In 2015 the prison system had 69 technical employees (including attorneys, sociologists, social workers, and psychologists) to provide services to more than 31,000 inmates. The PDDH has authority to investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has authority regarding the protection of constitutional rights.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison-monitoring visits by independent human rights observers, NGOs, and the media, except to those prisons covered by the extraordinary measures. The PDDH continued to monitor all prisons. Church groups, the Central American University’s Human Rights Institute, LGBTI activists, and other groups visited prisons during the year. After the implementation of the extraordinary measures, which restricted monitoring of the prisons subject to the measures, the International Committee for the Red Cross suspended all prison visits until visitation was restored in the prisons subject to the extraordinary measures.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, there were numerous complaints that the PNC and military forces arbitrarily arrested and detained persons. As of August, the Office of the Inspector General had received 45 complaints against police officers for alleged violations of freedom of movement. NGOs reported that the PNC had arbitrarily arrested and detained groups of persons on suspicion of gang affiliation. According to these NGOs, the accused were ostracized by their communities upon their return, even when they were not affiliated with gangs.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The PNC, overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security, and the Ministry of Defense has responsibility 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.” President Sanchez Ceren renewed the decree authorizing military involvement in police duties through the end of the year.
The three quick reaction military battalions that were created in 2015 to support PNC operations and whose troops have arrest and detention authority continued to operate. The military is responsible for securing the international border and conducting joint patrols with the PNC.
On April 20, the government announced the launch of the Fast Reaction Force (FERES), a joint operation consisting of two 200-officer police units supported by 250 Special Forces military soldiers. Battalion soldiers are legally able under citizen’s arrest authority to detain persons they believe have committed criminal acts.
In response to an alleged rise in extrajudicial killings, the PNC in January launched a newly organized internal investigative office, the Secretariat for Professional Responsibility. The body is composed of a Complaints Office, a Disciplinary Office, and the Inspector General’s Office.
From January to August, the Inspector General’s Office received 492 complaints of human rights violations–31 for inhuman and cruel treatment, 181 for physical abuse, 117 for personal security, 40 for violence against women (including rape and sexual abuse), 15 for failure to provide access to justice, two for extrajudicial killing, and two for deprivation of life. The Inspector General’s Office referred three of the cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal charges.
In June the PDDH released its annual findings on the status of human rights. The report stated that, between June 2015 and May 2016, the PDDH received 1,883 complaints of human rights violations, 1,284 of which were reportedly committed by the PNC and the military.
Inadequate training, lack of enforcement of the administrative police career law, arbitrary promotions, insufficient government funding, failure to enforce evidentiary rules effectively, and instances of corruption and criminality limited the PNC’s effectiveness. The PDDH has the authority to investigate (but not prosecute) human rights abuses and refers all cases it deems to involve human rights abuse to the Attorney General’s Office.
In May PNC director Howard Cotto stated that since January 80 police officers had been arrested for illicit activities, such as extortion, theft, and murder for hire. In June the Inspector General’s Office reported that it sanctioned 781 officers in response to complaints filed during the year and in prior years. These sanctions included 84 arrests and 165 officers suspended without pay. As of July 18, the Attorney General’s Office reported that it had filed charges against 587 police officers and 14 judges for unspecified crimes. The office also reported that it successfully convicted 15 police officers for criminal activities.
The Inspector General’s Office and the Ministry of Defense Human Rights Office reported most PNC officers, police academy cadets, and all military personnel had received human rights awareness training, including training by the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women, the Human Rights Institute of the University of Central America, and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights. The Inspector General’s Office reported that 633 police officers received human rights training in the past year. The Ministry of Defense Human Rights Office reported that 6,097 soldiers received human rights training during the year.
On May 29, the PNC revised its guidelines on the use of force to improve accountability of police personnel. The guidelines specifically outline situations that permit the use of force, proportionality of force for various confrontational situations, and internal investigation procedures for alleged misconduct.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The constitution requires a written warrant of arrest except in cases where an individual is in the act of committing a crime. Authorities apprehended persons with warrants based on evidence and issued by a duly authorized official. Police generally informed detainees promptly of charges against them.
The law permits release on bail for detainees who are unlikely to flee or whose release would not impede the investigation of the case. The bail system functioned adequately in most cases. The courts generally enforced a ruling that interrogation without the presence of counsel is coercive and that evidence obtained in such a manner is inadmissible. As a result, PNC authorities typically delayed questioning until a public defender or an attorney arrived. Detainees normally had access to counsel of their choice or to an attorney provided by the state. The constitution permits the PNC to hold suspects for 72 hours before presenting them to court, after which the judge may order detention for an additional 72 hours to determine if an investigation is warranted. The law allows up to six months for investigation of serious crimes before requiring either a trial or dismissal of the case. In exceptionally complicated cases, the prosecutor may ask an appeals court to extend the deadline for three or six months, depending on the seriousness of the crime. Many cases continued beyond the legally prescribed period.
Arbitrary Arrest: As of November 8, the PDDH reported 62 complaints of arbitrary detention or illegal detention during the year.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a significant problem. As of June 30, 29 percent of the general prison population was in pretrial detention. Lengthy legal procedures, large numbers of detainees, judicial inefficiency, corruption, and staff shortages caused trial delays. Because it could take several years for a case to come to trial, some persons remained in pretrial detention longer than the maximum legal sentences for their alleged crimes. In such circumstances, detainees may request a Supreme Court review of their continued detention.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The constitution grants detainees the right to a prompt judicial determination on the legality of their detention, and persons arrested or detained may obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. In some cases persons were not promptly released and/or did not receive compensation for unlawful detention.
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.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
In many neighborhoods, armed groups and gangs targeted certain persons, interfered with privacy, family, and home life, and created a climate of fear that the authorities were not capable of restoring to normal.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Although government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to these groups, officials at times were reluctant to discuss certain issues, such as extrajudicial killings and the PDDH. The government required domestic and international NGOs to register, and some domestic NGOs reported that the government made the registration process unnecessarily difficult.
On January 28, the PNC launched the Secretariat for Professional Responsibility, which internally investigates all allegations of police misconduct.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The principal human rights investigative and monitoring body is the autonomous PDDH, whose head is nominated by the Legislative Assembly for a three-year term. The PDDH regularly issued reports and press releases on prominent human rights cases. The PDDH generally enjoyed government cooperation and was considered generally effective, except in areas controlled by criminal groups and gangs.
The PDDH maintained a constructive dialogue with the President’s Office. The government publicly acknowledged receipt of PDDH reports, although in some cases it did not take action on PDDH recommendations, which are nonbinding.
On September 7, the deputy ombudsman stated the PDDH had inadequate resources to carry out the majority of its investigations.
The tenure of the ombudsman expired on August 8, by which time the Legislative Assembly was required to elect a new ombudsman. On September 22, the Legislative Assembly selected Raquel Caballero de Guevara as the new ombudswoman for a term of three years.
On October 26, anticipating the 25th anniversary of the peace accords, the PDDH created a consultative committee to define the role of the PDDH in the coming years. The committee was composed of civil society members representing legal, religious, environmental, economic, political, and health perspectives.