Executive Summary

The government of El Salvador (GOES) has been generally perceived as ineffective in improving its investment climate. Political polarization, cumbersome bureaucracy and regulations, an ineffective judicial system, and widespread violence and extortion have all contributed to this perception. The GOES has taken some measures to improve the business climate, with very limited results thus far. Presidential elections in February 2019 may impede further progress.

In February 2018, El Salvador adopted the Simplified Administrative Procedures Law, which seeks to streamline and consolidate administrative processes among GOES entities to facilitate investment. In 2016, El Salvador adopted the Electronic Signature Law to facilitate e-commerce and trade. El Salvador has not yet implemented these laws.

In recent years, El Salvador has lagged behind the region in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), in both absolute terms and as a proportion of GDP. The Salvadoran Central Reserve Bank (“Central Bank”) estimated net FDI inflows of less than USD 436.1 million between January and September 2017.

In September 2015, El Salvador’s second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact entered into force. The USD 277 million Compact (plus USD 88.2 million from GOES counterpart funding) is to improve El Salvador’s investment climate by improving its productivity and competitiveness in international markets. The five-year compact focuses on investments in the institutional capital of El Salvador (e.g. regulatory reform and Public-Private Partnerships) to enhance the investment climate, human capital to improve the quality of education and better match students’ skills with the demands of firms engaged in international trade, and physical capital to reduce transportation and logistics costs.

For Fiscal Year 2018, the U.S. Congress has made available up to USD 615 million for the United States to implement its Strategy for Central America, including support to the Alliance for Prosperity Plan and other regional priorities.

El Salvador is engaged in negotiations to join a Northern Triangle Customs Union with Guatemala and Honduras. The fourth round of negotiations was held in April 2018. El Salvador aims to join the Customs Union in 2018, subject to approval by Guatemala and Honduras. To join the Customs Union, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly must approve both the membership terms and the legislative revisions necessary to implement the Customs Union.

In February 2018, El Salvador along with Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica signed an FTA with South Korea that is pending ratification in the Legislative Assembly. El Salvador is in the process of negotiating FTAs with Canada and Peru. El Salvador ratified a Partial Scope Agreement with Ecuador in 2017 and is negotiating a similar agreement with Trinidad and Tobago, Belize, and Bolivia, as well as updating its existing Partial Scope Agreement with Venezuela.

Table 1

Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2017 112 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/
World Bank’s Doing Business Report “Ease of Doing Business” 2017 73 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2017 103 of 127 http://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
U.S. FDI in partner country (M USD, stock positions) 2016 USD 2,668 http://www.bea.gov/
World Bank GNI per capita 2016 USD 3,920 http://data.worldbank.org/

Policies Toward Foreign Direct Investment

The GOES recognizes that attracting FDI is crucial to improving the economy. El Salvador does not have laws or practices that discriminate against foreign investors. The GOES does not screen or prohibit FDI. However, FDI levels are still paltry and lag far behind regional neighbors. The Central Bank reported net FDI inflows at USD 436.1 million in the first three quarters of 2017.

The Exports and Investment Promotion Agency of El Salvador (PROESA) supports investment in nine main sectors: textiles and apparel; business services; tourism; aeronautics; agro-industry; medical devices; footwear manufacturing; logistic and infrastructure networks; and healthcare services. PROESA provides information for potential investors about applicable laws, regulations, procedures, and available incentives for doing business in El Salvador. Website: http://www.proesa.gob.sv/investment/sector-opportunities .

The National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), El Salvador’s umbrella business/private sector organization, has established an ongoing dialogue with relevant GOES ministries. Website: http://www.anep.org.sv/ .

As part of a March 2018 reorganization, the GOES created the post of Commissioner for Investment and appointed the former Economy Minister to the position. The Vice President previously covered this portfolio.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign citizens and private companies can freely establish businesses in El Salvador.

No single natural or legal person – whether national or foreign – can own more than 245 hectares (605 acres) of land. Per the Salvadoran Constitution, there is no restriction on the ownership of rural land by foreigners in El Salvador, unless Salvadoran nationals face restrictions in the corresponding country. If the rural land will be used for industrial purposes, however, the reciprocity requirement does not apply. Foreigners may engage in commercial fishing anywhere in Salvadoran waters provided they obtain a license from the Center for the Development of Fishing and Aquaculture (CENDEPESCA), a government entity.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

El Salvador has been a World Trade Organization (WTO) member since 1995. The latest trade policy review performed by the WTO was published in 2016 (document: WT/TPR/S/226/Rev.1). Website: World Trade Organization Documents .

The latest investment policy review performed by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was in 2010. Website: http://unctad.org/en/Docs/diaepcb200920_en.pdf .

Business Facilitation

El Salvador has various laws that promote and protect investments, as well as providing benefits to local and foreign investors. These include: the Investments Law, the International Services Law; the Free Trade Zones Law; the Tourism Law, the Renewable Energy Incentives Law; the Law on Public Private Partnerships; the Special Law for Streamlining Procedures for the Promotion of Construction Projects; and the Legal Stability Law for Investments.

The 1999 Investments Law grants equal treatment to foreign and domestic investors. With the exception of limitations imposed on micro businesses, which are defined as having 10 or fewer employees and yearly sales of USD 121,319.40 or less, foreign investors may freely establish any type of domestic businesses. Investors who begin operations with 10 or fewer employees must present plans to increase employment to the Ministry of Economy’s National Investment Office. The Investment Law provides that any mined resource is the exclusive property of the state. The government may, however, grant private concessions for resource extraction, but there have been no new permits issued in recent years.

Per the Salvadoran constitution, there are no special restrictions on ownership of rural land by citizens of other countries, unless Salvadoran citizens are restricted in their rural land ownership in those countries. If rural land will be used for industrial purposes, the reciprocity requirement is lifted.

Business Registration

Per the World Bank, nine steps taking an average of 16.5 days are necessary to register a new business in El Salvador. According to the World Bank’s 2018 Doing Business Report, El Salvador ranks 140 in the “Starting a Business” indicator. El Salvador launched an online business registration portal in August 2017 designed to give entrepreneurs a one-stop shop for registering new companies. Specifically, the online business registration website allows new business entrepreneurs the ability to formalize registration within three days and maintain administrative operations all through the online platform. The portal (https://miempresa.gob.sv/ ) is available to all, though services are available only in Spanish.

The GOES’ Business Services Office (Oficina de Atencion Empresarial) caters to entrepreneurs and investors. The office has two components: “Growing Your Business” (Crecemos Tu Empresa) and the National Investment Office (Direccion Nacional de Inversiones, DNI). “Growing Your Businesses” provides business and investment advice, especially for micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises. The DNI administers investment incentives and facilitates business registration.

Contact information:

Business Services Office
Telephone: (503) 2590-9000
Address: 3 calle Poniente, entre la 71 y 73 avenida Norte, N.° 3729, edificio Bel Air, colonia Escalon, San Salvador. Schedule: Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Crecemos Tu Empresa
E-mail: crecemostuempresa@minec.gob.sv
Website: www.minec.gob.sv/crecemostuempresa 

The National Investment Office:

Luisa Valiente, National Director of Investments, lvaliente@minec.gob.sv;
Roberto Salguero, Deputy Director of Administration, rsalguero@minec.gob.sv
Special Investments; Christel Schulz, Business Climate Deputy, cdearce@minec.gob.sv
Monica Aguirre, Deputy Director of Investment Facilitation, maguirre@minec.gob.sv.
Telephone: (503) 2590-5806.

The Directorate for Coordination of Productive Policies at the Ministry of Economy focuses on five areas: Productive Development, Capacity Building, Trade Facilitation, Taxation, and Export Promotion. Website: http://www.minec.gob.sv/fomento/ .

The Productive Development Fund (FONDEPRO) provides grants to small enterprises to strengthen competitiveness. Website: http://www.fondepro.gob.sv/ .

The National Commission for Micro and Small Businesses (CONAMYPE) supports micro and small businesses by providing training, technical assistance, financing, venture capital, and loan guarantee programs. CONAMYPE also provides assistance on market access and export promotion, marketing, business registration, and the promotion of business ventures led by women and youth. Website: https://www.conamype.gob.sv/ .

The Micro and Small Businesses Promotion Law defines a microenterprise as a natural or legal person with annual gross sales up to 482 minimum monthly wages, equivalent to USD 121,319.40 and up to ten workers. A small business is defined as a natural or legal person with annual gross sales between 482 minimum monthly wages (USD 121,319.40) and 4,817 minimum monthly wages (USD 1,212,438.90) and up to 50 employees. To facilitate credit to small businesses, Salvadoran law allows for inventories, receivables, intellectual property rights, consumables, or any good with economic value to be used as collateral for loans.

El Salvador provides equitable treatment for women and under-represented minorities. The GOES does not provide targeted assistance to under-represented minorities. CONAMYPE provides specialized counseling to female entrepreneurs and women-owned small businesses.

Outward Investment

While the government encourages Salvadoran investors to invest in El Salvador, it does not promote nor restrict investment abroad.

El Salvador has bilateral investment treaties in force with Argentina, Belize, BLEU (Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union), Chile, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Republic of Korea, Morocco, the Netherlands, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan Province of China, United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

The CAFTA-DR entered into force in March 2006, between the United States and El Salvador. CAFTA-DR’s investment chapter provides protection to most categories of investment, including enterprises, debt, concessions, contract, and intellectual property. Under this agreement, U.S. investors enjoy the right to establish, acquire, and operate investments in El Salvador on an equal footing with local investors. Among the rights afforded to U.S. investors are due process protection and the right to receive a fair market value for property in the event of an expropriation. Investor rights are protected under CAFTA-DR by an effective, impartial procedure for dispute settlement that is fully transparent and open to the public.

El Salvador also has free trade agreements (FTAs) with Mexico, Chile, Panama, Colombia, and Taiwan. In 2017, El Salvador signed an FTA with South Korea, which also includes investment provisions. This FTA is pending ratification in the Legislative Assembly. El Salvador’s FTAs with Mexico, Chile, and Panama also include investment provisions. El Salvador is also negotiating trade agreements with Canada and Peru that are expected to contain investment provisions. The Salvadoran government signed a Partial Scope Agreement (PSA) with Cuba in 2011, concluded negotiations on a PSA with Trinidad and Tobago in 2014 and with Ecuador in 2016. The PSA agreement with Ecuador entered into force in 2017. El Salvador is also negotiating PSAs with Belize and Bolivia, as well as updating its existing PSA with Venezuela.

El Salvador, along with Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, signed an Association Agreement with the European Union that establishes a Free Trade Area. The agreement, which entered into force with El Salvador in 2013, includes a provision for Central American countries to receive access to a wider range of EU development aid. El Salvador is one of the five Central American Common Market countries, which have an investment treaty among themselves.

El Salvador does not have a bilateral taxation treaty with the United States.

In 2015, El Salvador signed the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters . El Salvador was the 8th Latin American country and the 3rd member of the Central American Common Market – after Costa Rica and Guatemala – to join the Convention.

El Salvador became a member of the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes in 2011. El Salvador’s Phase 1 peer review report, which demonstrates its commitment to the international standard for tax transparency and exchange of information, was published in March 2015. The 86 jurisdictions participating in the Convention can be found at: www.oecd.org/ctp/exchange-of-tax-information/Status_of_convention.pdf .

Transparency of the Regulatory System

The laws and regulations of El Salvador are relatively transparent and generally foster competition. The GOES publishes some of its draft laws and regulations for public comments online, especially those that affect the financial sector. However, the GOES does not regularly make draft bills or regulations available for public comment. National regulations are most relevant for foreign businesses, though localities have permitting authority that may be necessary for foreign investors.

The GOES controls the price of some goods and services, including electricity, liquid propane gas, gasoline, fares on public transport, and medicines. The government also directly subsidizes water services and residential electricity rates. Regulatory agencies are often understaffed and inexperienced in dealing with complex issues. New foreign investors should review the regulatory environment carefully.

The Superintendent of Electricity and Telecommunications (SIGET) oversees electricity rates, telecommunications, and distribution of electromagnetic frequencies. In 2003, the government amended the 1996 Electricity Law with the intention of reducing volatility in the wholesale market and thereby stabilizing retail electricity prices and encouraging new investment. The reforms allowed SIGET to develop a cost-based pricing model for the electricity sector, which it introduced to the marketplace in 2011. The new system requires the adoption of additional long-term contracts that should alleviate various market distortions. The Salvadoran government subsidizes consumers using up to 99 kWh monthly. The electricity subsidy costs the government between USD 50 million to USD 100 million annually. Energy sector companies have warned that ever-changing subsidies and the government’s inability to pay the subsidies in a timely manner have eroded the financial stability of the power sector and discouraged needed investment in new generation capacity.

International Regulatory Considerations

El Salvador belongs to the Central American Common Market and the Central American Integration System (SICA), organizations which are working on regional integration, (e.g., harmonization of tariffs and customs procedures). El Salvador commonly incorporates international standards such as the Pan-American Standards Commission (Spanish acronym COPANT), into its regulatory system.

El Salvador is a member of the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to the Trade (TBT Agreement) and has adopted the Code of Good Practice annexed to the TBT Agreement. El Salvador is also a signatory to the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) and has fully notified in Category A commitments. El Salvador has established a National Trade Facilitation Committee as required by the TFA.

There are opportunities to provide comments when the government forms committees to discuss proposed laws, and when regulations are being developed at government agencies. Companies have complained, however, that laws have passed without following required notice and comment procedures, i.e., not in accordance with CAFTA-DR and WTO regulations.

El Salvador is a member of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development’s international network of transparent investment procedures: http://tramites.gob.sv . Foreign and national investors can find detailed information on administrative procedures applicable to investment and income-generating operations including the number of steps, name and contact details of the entities and persons in charge of procedures, required documents and conditions, costs, processing time, and legal bases justifying the procedures. Accounting systems are generally consistent with international norms.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

El Salvador’s commercial law is based on the Commercial Code and the corresponding Commercial and Civil Code of Procedures. There are specialized commercial courts that resolves these disputes. All documents and payments can be submitted electronically to the Commerce Registry.

Local investment and commercial dispute resolution proceedings in El Salvador routinely last many years. The Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES), an internationally-recognized think-tank and research entity, characterizes domestic courts as being unwilling to enforce arbitration awards and instead opting to politicize conflicts between the government and the investors.

Foreign investors may seek redress for commercial disputes through local domestic courts but some investors have found the slow-moving legal system to be costly and unproductive. The handling of some cases has demonstrated that the legal system may be subject to manipulation by diverse interests, and final judgments are at time difficult to enforce. The Embassy recommends that any person thinking of investing in El Salvador carry out proper due diligence by hiring competent local legal counsel. In recent years, there have been several U.S. firms tied up in litigation associated with their investments. Local investment and commercial dispute resolution proceedings in El Salvador routinely last many years.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Miempresa is the Ministry of Economy’s website for new businesses in El Salvador. At Miempresa, investors can register new companies with the Ministry of Labor, Social Security Institute, pension fund administrators, and certain municipalities; request a tax identification number/card; and perform certain administrative functions. Website: https://www.miempresa.gob.sv/ .

The country’s eRegulations site provides information on procedures, costs, entities, and regulations involved in setting up a new business in El Salvador. Website: http://tramites.gob.sv/ .

The Exports and Investment Promoting Agency of El Salvador (PROESA) was created to attract domestic and foreign private investment, promote exports of goods and services produced in the country, evaluate and monitor the business climate and drive investment and export policies. PROESA provides direct technical assistance to investors interested in starting up operations in El Salvador, regardless of the size of the investment or number of employees. Website: http://www.proesa.gob.sv/ .

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

The Competition Law entered into force in 2006 and established the Office of the Superintendent of Competition. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Office employs enforcement standards that are consistent with global best practices and has appropriate authority to enforce the law effectively. Appeals of decisions made by the Office of the Superintendent of Competition are made directly to the Supreme Court, the country´s highest court. Website: http://www.sc.gob.sv/home/ .

Expropriation and Compensation

The Constitution allows the government to expropriate private property for reasons of public utility or social interest, and indemnification can take place either before or after the fact. There are no recent cases of expropriation. In 1980, a rural/agricultural land reform established that no single natural or legal person could own more than 245 hectares (605 acres) of land, and the government expropriated the land of some large landholders. In 1980, private banks were nationalized, but were subsequently returned to private ownership. A 2003 amendment to the Electricity Law requires energy generating companies to obtain government approval before removing fixed capital from the country, which is intended to prevent energy supply disruptions.

Dispute Settlement

Amended Article 15 of the 1999 Investment Law limits a foreign investor’s access to international dispute resolution and may obligate them to use national courts, if the foreigner comes from a country without a pre-existing trade agreement with El Salvador. The rights of investors from CAFTA-DR countries are protected under the trade agreement’s dispute settlement procedures. There have been no successful claims by U.S. investors under CAFTA-DR. There are currently no pending claims by U.S. investors.

Submissions to national dispute panels and panel hearings are open to the public, and interested third parties have the opportunity to be heard. In 2002, the government approved a law that allowed private sector organizations to establish arbitration centers for the resolution of commercial disputes, including those involving foreign investors. Local courts recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards and court judgments.

El Salvador approved the Mediation, Conciliation and Arbitration Law in 2002. However, in 2009, El Salvador modified its arbitration law to allow parties to arbitration disputes the ability to appeal a ruling to the Salvadoran courts. Investors have complained that the modification dilutes the fundamental efficacy of arbitration as an alternative method of resolving disputes. According to the Law, arbitration takes place at the Arbitration and Mediation Center, a branch of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of El Salvador. Website: http://www.mediacionyarbitraje.com.sv/ .

In 2016, the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) ruled in favor of El Salvador on a case brought by an international mining company that challenged the government’s failure sought to force government acceptance of a gold-mining project. The ruling served to galvanize the country’s anti-mining movement, which led to the approval of a bill banning the exploration and extraction of metal mining in the country.

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

El Salvador is a member state to the ICSID Convention. ICSID is included in a number of El Salvador’s investment treaties as the forum available to foreign investors. Within the domestic legal framework it is also mentioned in the Investment Law, with the limitations mentioned above regarding the change to the Arbitration Law in 2009.

El Salvador is a signatory to the convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention) and the Inter-American Convention on International Commercial Arbitration (The Panama Convention).

Bankruptcy Regulations

The Commercial Code, the Commercial Code of Procedures, and the Banking Law all contain sections that deal with the process for declaring bankruptcy. However, there is no separate bankruptcy law or court. According to data collected by the 2018 World Bank’s Doing Business report, resolving insolvency in El Salvador takes 3.5 years on average and costs 12 percent of the debtor’s estate, with the most likely outcome being that the company will be sold piecemeal. The average recovery rate is 32.6 cents per U.S. dollar. El Salvador scores 2 out of 3 points on the commencement of proceedings index, 4 out of 6 points on the management of debtor’s assets index, 0 out of 3 points on the reorganization proceedings index, and 3 out of 4 points on the creditor participation index. El Salvador’s total score on the strength of insolvency framework index is 9 out of 16. Globally, El Salvador ranks 84 out of 190 on Ease of Resolving Insolvency. Website:

http://www.doingbusiness.org/~/media/WBG/DoingBusiness/Documents/Profiles/Country/SLV.pdf .

Investment Incentives

The International Services Law, approved in 2007, established service parks and centers with incentives similar to those received by El Salvador’s free trade zones. Service park developers are exempted from income tax for 15 years, municipal taxes for ten years, and real estate transfer taxes. Service park administrators are exempted from income tax for 15 years and municipal taxes for ten years.

Firms located in the service parks/service centers may receive the following permanent benefits:

  • Tariff exemption for the import of capital goods, machinery, equipment, tools, supplies, accessories, furniture and other goods needed for the development of the service activities (goods and services, i.e., food and beverages, tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, rental fees, home equipment and furniture, cleaning articles, luxury goods, transportation vehicles, and hotel services are not exempted from taxation);
  • Full and indefinite exemption from income tax and municipal taxes on company assets;
  • Service firms operating under the existing Free Trade Zone Law are also covered. However, if the services are provided to the Salvadoran market, they cannot receive the benefits of the International Services Law.

The following services are covered under the International Services Law: international distribution, logistical international operations, call centers, information technology, research and development, marine vessels repair and maintenance, aircraft repair and maintenance, entrepreneurial processes (e.g., business process outsourcing), hospital-medical services, international financial services, container repair and maintenance, technology equipment repair, elderly and convalescent care, telemedicine, and cinematography postproduction services.

The Tourism Law establishes fiscal incentives for those who invest a minimum of USD 25,000 in tourism-related projects in El Salvador, including: value-added tax exemption for the acquisition of real state; import tariffs waiver for construction materials, goods, equipment (subject to limitation); and, a ten-year income tax waiver. The investor also benefits from a five-year exemption from land acquisition taxes and a 50 percent break in municipal taxes. To take advantage of these incentives, the enterprise must contribute five percent of its profits during the exemption period to a government-administered Tourism Promotion Fund.

The Renewable Energy Incentives Law promotes investment projects that use renewable energy sources. In October 2015, the Legislative Assembly approved amendments to the Law to encourage the use of renewable energy sources and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. These reforms extended the benefits and tax for new investments in projects to install power generation plants and for projects expansion, using renewable energy sources, such as hydro, geothermal, wind, solar, marine, biogas and biomass. The incentives include full exemption, during the first 10 years, from customs duties on the importation of machinery, equipment, materials, and supplies used for the construction and expansion of substations, transmission or sub-transmission lines. Revenues directly derived from power generation based on renewable sources enjoy full exemption from income tax for a period of five years in case of projects above 10 MW and 10 years for smaller projects. The Law also provides an exemption from payment of any type of income tax derived directly from the sale of certified emission reductions (CERs) under the Mechanism for Clean Development of the Kyoto Protocol, or carbon markets (CDM).

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

The 1998 Free Trade Zone Law is designed to attract investment in a wide range of activities, although the vast majority of the businesses in export processing zones are textile plants. A Salvadoran partner is not needed to operate in a foreign trade zone, and some textile operations are completely foreign-owned.

The 1998 law established rules for export processing zones and bonded areas. The foreign trade zones are outside the nation’s customs jurisdiction while the bonded areas are within its jurisdiction, but subject to special treatment. Local and foreign companies can establish themselves in a foreign trade zone to produce goods or services for export or to provide services linked to international trade. The regulations for the bonded areas are similar.

Qualifying firms located in the foreign trade zones and bonded areas may enjoy the following benefits:

  • Exemption from all duties and taxes on imports of raw materials and the machinery and equipment needed to produce for export;
  • Exemption from taxes for fuels and lubricants used for producing exports if they not domestically produced;
  • Exemption from income tax, municipal taxes on company assets and property; the exemptions are for 15 years if the company is located in the metropolitan area of San Salvador and for 20 years if the company is located outside of the metropolitan area of San Salvador;
  • Exemption from taxes on certain real estate transfers, e.g., for the acquisition of goods to be employed in the authorized activity.

Companies in the foreign trade zones are also allowed to sell goods or services in the Salvadoran market if they pay applicable taxes for the proportion sold locally. Additional rules apply to textile and apparel products.

Under the 1990 Export Reactivation Law, firms were able to apply for tax rebates (“drawbacks”) of six percent of the FOB value of manufactured or processed exports shipped outside the Central American Common Market area, but the benefit was eliminated in 2011. Later in 2011, however, the GOES approved regulations to support producers. The regulations include a new form of “drawback,” approved by the WTO, which consists of a refund of custom duties paid on imported inputs and intermediate goods exclusively used in the production of goods exported outside of the Central American region. The regulations also included the creation of a Business Production Promotion Committee with the participation of the private and public sector to work on policies to strengthen the export sector, and the creation of an Export and Import Center.

February 2013 reforms to the country’s Free Trade Zone Law eliminated permanent tax exemptions based on export performance, and instead grant tax credits based on the number of employees and level of investment in order to comply with WTO rules.

All import and export procedures are handled by the Import and Export Center (Centro de Tramites de Importaciones y Exportaciones – CIEX El Salvador). More information about the procedures can be found at: http://www.ciexelsalvador.gob.sv/registroSIMP/ .

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

El Salvador’s Investment Law does not require investors to meet export targets, transfer technology, incorporate a specific percentage of local content, or fulfill other performance criteria. Current labor laws, however, require that 90 percent of the workforce in plants and in clerical positions be comprised of Salvadoran citizens. These restrictions regarding nationality and percentages are more lax for professional and technical jobs.

Foreign investors and domestic firms are eligible for the same incentives. Exports of goods and services are exempt from value-added tax.

Investors who plan to live and work in El Salvador for an extended period need to obtain temporary residency, which may be renewed periodically. Under Article 11 of the Investment Law, foreigners with investments totaling more than USD 1 million have the right to obtain an Investor’s Residency status, which allows them to work and remain in the country. This type of residency may be requested within 30 days after the investment has been registered. The residency status covers the investor and their family for a period of one year, and may be extended annually.

It is customary for companies to employ local lawyers to manage the process of obtaining residency. The American Chamber of Commerce in El Salvador can also provide information regarding the process. Website: http://www.amchamsal.com/?lang=en .

The International Services Law establishes benefits for businesses that invest at least USD 150,000 during the first year of operations, including working capital and fixed assets, hire no fewer than 10 permanent employees, and have at least a one-year contract. For hospital/medical services, the minimum investment in fixed assets must be USD 10 million, if surgical services are provided, or a minimum of USD 3 million, if surgical services are not provided. Hospitals or clinics must be located outside of major metropolitan areas, and medical service must also be provided only to patients with insurance.

El Salvador’s Investment Law does not require investors to incorporate a specific percentage of local content, to turn over source code or provide access to surveillance, or to fulfill other performance criteria.

Real Property

Private property, both non-real estate and real estate, is recognized and protected in El Salvador. Mortgages and real property liens exist. Companies that plan to buy land or other real estate are advised to hire competent local legal counsel to guide them on the property’s title prior to purchase.

No single natural or legal person–whether national or foreign–can own more than 245 hectares (605 acres) of land. Per the Constitution, a principle of reciprocity is applied regarding the ownership of rural land, i.e., there are no restrictions on the ownership of rural land by foreigners in El Salvador, unless this restriction is applied to Salvadoran nationals in the corresponding states. If the rural land is to be used for industrial purposes, however, the reciprocity requirement is lifted.

Real property can be transferred without government authorization. For title transfer to be valid regarding third parties, however, it needs to be properly registered. Real estate lease law tends to heavily protect the interests of tenants, e.g., the law allows tenants to remain on property after their lease expires, provided they continue to pay rent. Likewise, the law limits the amount of rent that can be charged and makes eviction processes extremely difficult.

Squatters occupying private property in good faith can eventually acquire title. If the owner of the property is unknown, squatters can acquire title after 20 years of good faith possession through a judicial procedure; if the owner is known, squatters can acquire title after 30 years.

Squatters may never acquire title to public land, although municipalities often grant the right of use to the squatter.

Zoning is regulated by municipal rules. Municipalities have broad power regarding the use of property within their jurisdiction. Zoning maps, if they exist, are generally not available to the public.

The perceived ineffectiveness of the judicial system discourages investments in real estate and makes execution of real estate guarantees difficult. While the real property lease law provides extensive protection to tenants, landowners’ interests often go unprotected. Securitization of real estate guarantees or titles is legally permissible but does not occur frequently in practice.

In April 2012, the Legislative Assembly passed a constitutional reform recognizing the existence and the rights of indigenous peoples. However, there are no provisions for traditional use of lands or for indigenous peoples to share in revenue from exploitation of natural resources, as the government does not specifically demarcate any lands as belonging to indigenous communities.

According to the latest agricultural census (2007-2008), agricultural land in El Salvador totals 2,283,444.48 acres, of which 1,695,653.4 acres are owned and not rented out (74 percent), 478,127.32 acres are rented (21 percent), and 109,665.48 acres (5 percent) are not clearly defined. Website: http://www.censos.gob.sv/ .

El Salvador ranks 69th of 190 economies on the World Bank’s Doing Business 2018 report in the Ease of Registering Property category. According to the collected data, registering a property takes an average of five steps over a period of 31 days, and costs 3.8 percent of the reported value of the property.

Intellectual Property Rights

El Salvador’s legal structure is strong, as El Salvador revised several laws to comply with CAFTA-DR’s provisions on intellectual property rights (IPR). The Intellectual Property Promotion and Protection Law (1993, revised in 2005), Law of Trademarks and Other Distinctive Signs (2002, revised in 2005), and Penal Code establish the legal framework to protect IPR. Investors can register trademarks, patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property with the National Registry Center’s Intellectual Property Office. Reforms extended the copyright term from 50 to 70 years. In 2008, the government enacted test data exclusivity regulations for pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals, which are protected for five and 10 years respectively, and ratified an international agreement extending protection to satellite signals.

The National Directorate of Medicines (NDM) has registered 63 products for data protection since 2008, including seven in 2016 and three in 2017. The NDM protects the confidentiality of relevant test data and the list of such protected medications is available at the NDM’s website: http://www.medicamentos.gob.sv/index.php/es/servicios-m/informes/unidad-de-registro-y-visado/listado-de-productos-farmaceuticos-con-proteccion-de-datos-de-prueba .

El Salvador’s enforcement of IPR protections falls short of its written policies. Salvadoran authorities have limited resources to dedicate to IPR issues and enforcement of existing laws. The Salvadoran Intellectual Property Association (Asociacion Salvadorena de Propiedad Intelectual, ASPI) notes that piracy is common in El Salvador because the police focus on investigating criminal networks rather than points of sale. The contraband and piracy of medicines and software also remain a problem, as well as the purchase of drugs online, whereby unlicensed or counterfeit products are imported to El Salvador.

The National Civil Police (PNC) has an Intellectual Property Section with seven investigators, while the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) has 13 prosecutors in its Private Property division that also has responsibility for other property crimes including cases of extortion. According to ASPI, the PNC section coordinates well with other government and private entities. Nevertheless, the PNC admits that a lack of resources and expertise (e.g., regarding information technology) hinders its effectiveness in combatting IPR crimes. Most PNC operations focused on copyright infringement, and there were only 28 arrests in 2017. During the year, the police seized a total of 5,780 pirated optical media discs (CDs and DVDs). The police also seized tens of thousands of counterfeit products, including 114,660 fake Disney toys (“Cars”), and purported Disney, Marvel, and Nickelodeon toothbrushes (9,000) and backpacks (4,860). Other commonly counterfeited brands included Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Levis, Polo Ralph Lauren, Sony, Dell, HP, Converse, Puma, and Hello Kitty.

Contraband and counterfeit products, especially cigarettes, liquor, toothpaste and cooking oil, remain widespread. The Distributors Association of El Salvador (ADES) estimates that around 50 percent of the liquor consumed in El Salvador is smuggled. Most contraband cigarettes come in from China, Panama, and Paraguay and undercut legitimately-imported cigarettes, which are subject to a 39 percent tariff. According to ADES, most contraband cigarettes are smuggled in by gangs, with the complicity of Salvadoran authorities. A February 2017 study by CID Gallup Latin America, noting the link between contraband cigarettes and gang finances, estimated that 32 percent of the 940 million cigarettes consumed annually in El Salvador are contraband. Gallup estimated that, during 2014, the GOES lost USD 15 million in tax revenue due to cigarette smuggling.

According to GOES officials, most of the presumably counterfeit products are imported from other countries. While the country of origin is often impossible to ascertain, many products, including cigarettes, come from China via Panama and Belize. To a lesser extent, Customs officials have identified some products arriving directly from China through the Salvadoran seaport of Acajutla. In 2017, Customs officials seized 25 shipments based on the presumption of containing fake products. These shipments primarily involved clothing (e.g., Levi’s, John Deere and Polo Ralph Lauren), footwear (e.g., Adidas and VANS), cosmetics (e.g., Avon) and reproductions of purportedly “officially licensed” products (e.g., Spiderman, Disney, Real Madrid, and Barcelona F.C.).

The national Intellectual Property Registry has 11 registered geographical indications for El Salvador (in 2017 seven new geographic indications were registered and six of these new Denominations of Origin involve regional varieties of coffee, Alotepec, Cacahuatique, Tecapa Chinameca, Apaneca-Ilamatepec and Balsamo Quezaltepeque). Additionally El Salvador has registered “Balsamo de El Salvador” (balm for medical, cosmetic, and gastronomic uses – registered since 1935), “Cafe Ilamatepec” (coffee – registered in 2010), “Chaparro” (Salvadoran hard liquor- registered in December 2016), and “Pupusa de Arroz de Olocuilta” (traditional food – registered in March 2018). “Jocote Baron Rojo” is in the process of registration.

El Salvador is not listed in the notorious market report nor Special 301 list. There are no IP-related laws pending.

El Salvador is a signatory of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works; the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property; the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Producers of Phonograms Against Unauthorized Duplication; the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty; the WIPO Performance and Phonograms Treaty; the Rome Convention for the Protection of Performers, Phonogram Producers, and Broadcasting Organizations; and the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances (2012), which grants performing artists certain economic rights (such as rights over broadcast, reproduction, and distribution) of live and recorded works.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/details.jsp?country_code=SV .

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The Superintendent of the Financial System supervises individual and consolidated activities of banks and non-bank financial intermediaries, financial conglomerates, stock market participants, insurance companies, and pension fund administrators. Foreign investors may obtain credit in the local financial market under the same conditions as local investors. Interest rates are determined by market forces. According to legislation, the maximum interest rate for credit cards and loans is 1.6 times the weighted average effective rate established by the Central Bank. There are different maximum interest rates according to the different market segments and amounts (consumption, credit cards, mortgages, home repair/remodeling, business, and microcredits).

In 2014, the Legislative Assembly approved the Financial Transactions Tax Law. The law assesses a 0.25 percent tax on many financial transactions such as electronic, check or wire transfers and payments exceeding USD 1,000; loan or disbursements; and transactions between entities of the financial system. There are also several exemptions from the tax, such as end-use credit card payments; social security, pensions, and insurance payments; transactions made by the state, NGOs, diplomats, or international organizations; and stock exchange primary market operations. The 0.25 percent withholding tax is designed to capture some revenue from the informal sector and expand the tax base. The taxes withheld are credited against any obligation due to the tax authorities within a two-year period of the withholding date.

The 1994 Securities Market Law established the present framework for the Salvadoran securities exchange. Stocks, government and private bonds, and other financial instruments are traded on the exchange, which is regulated by the Superintendent of the Financial System.

Foreigners may buy stocks, bonds, and other instruments sold on the exchange and may have their own securities listed, once approved by the Superintendent. Companies interested in listing must first register with the National Registry Center’s Registry of Commerce. In 2017, the exchange averaged daily trading volumes between USD 10 million and USD 13 million. Government-regulated private pension funds, Salvadoran insurance companies, and local banks are the largest buyers on the Salvadoran securities exchange.

Money and Banking System

Many of the major banks operating in El Salvador are regional banks owned by foreign financial institutions. The penetration of financial services is relatively low with only 35 percent of Salvadorans holding bank accounts. The banking system is sound and generally well-managed and supervised. El Salvador’s Central Bank is responsible for regulating the banking system, monitoring compliance of liquidity reserve requirements, and managing the payment systems.

The banking system’s total assets as of January 2018 totaled USD 17.09 billion. Under Salvadoran banking law, there is no difference in regulations between foreign and domestic banks and foreign banks can offer all the same services as domestic banks. Banking sector contacts confirm that implementation of blockchain technologies would be permitted under Salvadoran law, though there are no plans to implement the technology.

The Non-Bank Financial Intermediaries Law regulates the organization, operation, and activities of financial institutions such as cooperative savings associations, nongovernmental organizations, and other microfinance institutions. The Money Laundering Law requires financial institutions to report suspicious transactions to the Attorney General and the Superintendent of the Financial System.

The Insurance Companies Law regulates the operation of both local and foreign insurance firms. Foreign firms, including U.S., Colombian, Canadian, and Spanish companies, have invested in Salvadoran insurers.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange Policies

There are no restrictions on transferring investment-related funds out of the country. Foreign businesses can freely remit or reinvest profits, repatriate capital, and bring in capital for additional investment. The 1999 Investment Law allows unrestricted remittance of royalties and fees from the use of foreign patents, trademarks, technical assistance, and other services. Tax reforms introduced in 2011, however, levy a five percent tax on national or foreign shareholders’ profits. Moreover, shareholders domiciled in a state, country or territory that is considered a tax haven or has low or no taxes, will be subject to a tax of twenty-five percent.

The Monetary Integration Law dollarized El Salvador in 2001. The U.S. dollar accounts for nearly all currency in circulation and can be used in all transactions. Salvadoran banks, in accordance with the law, must keep all accounts in dollars. Dollarization is supported by family remittances – almost all from workers in the United States – that totaled USD 5.02 billion in 2017.

Remittance Policies

There are no restrictions placed on investment remittances. The Caribbean Financial Action Task Force report on monitoring remittances, https://www.cfatf-gafic.org/member-countries/el-salvador , was generally positive and noted that El Salvador has strengthened its remittances regimen, prohibiting anonymous accounts and limiting suspicious transactions. In July 2015, the Legislature approved reforms to the Law of Supervision and Regulation of the Financial System so that any entity sending or receiving systematic or substantial amounts of money by any means, at the national and international level, falls under the jurisdiction of the Superintendence of the Financial System.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

El Salvador does not have a sovereign wealth fund.

El Salvador has successfully liberalized many sectors where the government previously exerted monopoly control, effectively limiting most forms of direct competition from state-owned enterprises. El Salvador maintains state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in energy production, water supply and sanitation, ports and airports, and the national lottery.

While energy distribution was privatized in 1999, the Salvadoran Government maintains significant energy production facilities through state-owned Rio Lempa Executive Hydroelectric Commission (CEL), a significant producer of hydroelectric and geothermal energy. The primary water service provider is the National Water and Sewer Administration (ANDA), which provides services to 96 percent of urban areas and 76 percent of rural areas in El Salvador. As an umbrella institution, ANDA defines policies, regulates and provides services. The Autonomous Executive Port Commission (CEPA) operates both the seaports and the airports. CEL, ANDA, and CEPA Board Chairs hold Minister-level rank and report directly to the President.

The Law on Public Administration Procurement and Contracting (LACAP) covers all procurement of goods and services by all Salvadoran public institutions, including the municipalities. Exceptions to LACAP include: procurement and contracting financed with funds coming from other countries (bilateral agreements) or international bodies; agreements between state institutions; and the contracting of personal services by public institutions under the provisions of the Law on Salaries, Contracts and Day Work. The government has a website where tenders by government institutions are published. Website: https://www.comprasal.gob.sv/comprasal_web/ .

Alba Petroleos is a joint-venture between a consortium of mayors from the ruling FMLN party and a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA. Alba Petroleos operates dozens of gasoline service stations across the country and has expanded into a number of other industries, including energy production, food production, medicines, micro-lending, supermarket, and bus transportation. Because of its official relationship with the FMLN, critics have charged that the conglomerate receives preferential treatment from the government. Critics have also alleged that Alba Petroleos’ commercial practices, including financial reporting, are non-transparent. The company’s high dependence on the cash flow from the oil credit line with PDVSA combined with a politically-driven business model and poor financial management appears to be driving Alba Petroleos towards insolvency.

Privatization Program

El Salvador is not engaged in a privatization program and has not announced plans to privatize.

El Salvador has successfully liberalized many sectors where the government previously exerted monopoly control, effectively limiting most forms of direct competition from state-owned enterprises. El Salvador maintains state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in energy production, water supply and sanitation, ports and airports, and the national lottery.

While energy distribution was privatized in 1999, the Salvadoran Government maintains significant energy production facilities through state-owned Rio Lempa Executive Hydroelectric Commission (CEL), a significant producer of hydroelectric and geothermal energy. The primary water service provider is the National Water and Sewer Administration (ANDA), which provides services to 96 percent of urban areas and 76 percent of rural areas in El Salvador. As an umbrella institution, ANDA defines policies, regulates and provides services. The Autonomous Executive Port Commission (CEPA) operates both the seaports and the airports. CEL, ANDA, and CEPA Board Chairs hold Minister-level rank and report directly to the President.

The Law on Public Administration Procurement and Contracting (LACAP) covers all procurement of goods and services by all Salvadoran public institutions, including the municipalities. Exceptions to LACAP include: procurement and contracting financed with funds coming from other countries (bilateral agreements) or international bodies; agreements between state institutions; and the contracting of personal services by public institutions under the provisions of the Law on Salaries, Contracts and Day Work. The government has a website where tenders by government institutions are published. Website: https://www.comprasal.gob.sv/comprasal_web/ .

Alba Petroleos is a joint-venture between a consortium of mayors from the ruling FMLN party and a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA. Alba Petroleos operates dozens of gasoline service stations across the country and has expanded into a number of other industries, including energy production, food production, medicines, micro-lending, supermarket, and bus transportation. Because of its official relationship with the FMLN, critics have charged that the conglomerate receives preferential treatment from the government. Critics have also alleged that Alba Petroleos’ commercial practices, including financial reporting, are non-transparent. The company’s high dependence on the cash flow from the oil credit line with PDVSA combined with a politically-driven business model and poor financial management appears to be driving Alba Petroleos towards insolvency.

Privatization Program

El Salvador is not engaged in a privatization program and has not announced plans to privatize.

U.S. companies operating in El Salvador are subject to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Corruption can be a challenge to investment in El Salvador. El Salvador ranks 112 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions 2017 Index. The think-tank FUSADES reported that corruption was cited as the third largest obstacle for business in El Salvador, according to its Business Dynamics Survey conducted in the third quarter of 2017. El Salvador has laws, regulations and penalties to combat corruption, but their effectiveness is questionable. Soliciting, offering, or accepting a bribe is a criminal act in El Salvador. The Attorney General’s Anticorruption and Complex Crimes Unit handles allegations of corruption against public officials. The Constitution establishes a Court of Accounts that is charged with investigating public officials and entities and, when necessary, passing such cases to the Attorney General for prosecution. Executive-branch employees are subject to a code of ethics, including administrative enforcement mechanisms, and the government established an Ethics Tribunal in 2006.

In 2011, El Salvador approved the Law on Access to Public Information and joined the Open Government Partnership, becoming one of the first countries to do so. The Open Government Partnership promotes government commitments made jointly with civil society on transparency, accountability, citizen participation and use of new technologies.

Corruption scandals at the federal, legislative, and municipal levels are commonplace and there have been credible allegations of judicial corruption. The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the implementation is generally perceived as ineffective. The NGO Social Initiative for Democracy stated that officials, particularly in the judicial system, often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Long-standing government practices in El Salvador, including cash payments to officials, shielded budgetary accounts, and diversion of government funds, make corruption easy and accountability difficult. For example, the accepted practice of ensuring party loyalty through off-the-books cash payments to public officials has persisted across five presidential administrations. The Attorney General’s Office has expressed frustration over the lack of transparency within the government as it pursues illicit enrichment cases against current and former officials. El Salvador has an active, free press that reports on corruption. In 2015, the Probity Section of the Supreme Court began, for the first time, to investigate seriously allegations of illicit enrichment of public officials. In May 2017, Supreme Court Justices ordered its Probity Section to audit 290 legislators and their alternates for the terms 2012-2015, and 2009-2012. As of April 2018, the Supreme Court Probity Section had found irregularities in 72 assets declarations of current and ex public officers, though it has yet to issue determinations in the majority of these cases. In 2017, the Attorney General’s Office investigated 3,773 corruption-related crimes and filed charges in 1,711 cases. There were 64 convictions in 2017 for corruption-related crimes.

In August 2016, the Attorney General’s Office opened a criminal corruption case against former president Mauricio Funes (2009-14), currently a fugitive in Nicaragua, and prosecuted the former attorney general and a prominent businessman linked to several administrations under charges related to corruption. In November 2017, a civil court found Funes guilty of illicit enrichment, ordered him to repay the State over USD 200,000, and barred him from public office for 10 years. In October 2017, the Attorney General’s Office brought embezzlement, misappropriation, and money laundering charges against former president Elias Antonio (Tony) Saca (2004-2009).

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. In May 2016, 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.

The law provides for the right of access to government information, but authorities have not always effectively implemented the law. As of April 13, 2018, the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) reported that government agencies received 19,125 access to public information requests, and resolved 46,441 proceeding from different years. In March 2018, the IAIP issued a formal report grading the responsiveness of government entities to requests for information; government institutions received a failing grade of six or lower (http://elmundo.sv/35-instituciones-del-estado-reprueban-el-acceso-a-informacion/ ). 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.

UN Anticorruption Convention, OECD Convention on Combating Bribery

El Salvador is not a signatory to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. El Salvador is a signatory to the UN Anticorruption Convention and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Convention against Corruption.

Resources to Report Corruption

Contact at government agency or agencies are responsible for combating corruption:

Doctor Jose Nestor Castaneda Soto, President of the Court of Government Ethics
Court of Government Ethics (Tribunal de Etica Gubernamental)
Calle Los Espliegos #30, Colonia San Francisco, San Salvador
(503) 2565-9404
Email: n.castaneda@teg.gob.sv

Licenciado Douglas Arquimidez Melendez Ruiz
Fiscalia General de La Republica (Attorney General’s Office)
Edificio Farmavida, Calle Cortez Blanco
Boulevard y Colonia Santa Elena
(503) 2523-7000
(503) 2593-7172
Email: geovany.polanco@fgr.gob.sv

Chief Justice
Oscar Armando Pineda Navas
Avenida Juan Pablo II y 17 Avenida Norte
Centro de Gobierno
(503) 2271-8743
Email: conchita.presidenciacsj@gmail.com

Contact at “watchdog” organization (international, regional, local or nongovernmental organization operating in the country/economy that monitors corruption, such as Transparency International):

Roberto Rubio-Fabian
Executive Director
National Development Foundation (Fundacion Nacional para el Desarrollo – FUNDE)
Fundacion Nacional para el Desarrollo, Calle Arturo Ambrogi #411, entre 103 y 105 Avenida Norte, Colonia Escalon,
San Salvador
(503) 2209-5300
Email: direccion@funde.org

Resources to request government information

Access to Public Information Institute (IAIP for its initials in Spanish)
Carlos Adolfo Ortega Umana
Commissioner President of the IAIP
Prolongacion Ave. Alberto Masferrer y
Calle al Volcan, Edif. Oca Chang # 88
(503) 2517-2080
Email: cortega@iaip.gob.sv

El Salvador’s 12-year civil war ended in 1992 upon the signing of peace accords. Since then, there has been no political violence aimed at foreign investors, their businesses, or their property.

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government has generally respected these rights, although in many areas, the government cannot ensure freedom of movement, due to the strength of criminal gang activity.

Each gang has its own defined territory and will restrict entry. Gang members often do not allow persons living in another gang’s controlled area to enter their territory, even when travelling in public transportation or for commercial deliveries. Gangs frequently force people to present identification cards (that contain their addresses) to determine where they live. If gang members discover that a person lives in a rival gang’s territory, that person might be killed, beaten, or not allowed to enter the territory. Bus companies and distributors often must pay extortion fees to operate within gang territories, and these costs are passed on to paying customers.

A GOES Central Bank report released in 2016, estimated that violence cost El Salvador USD 4 billion or 16 percent of its GDP in 2014. The study put extortion fees paid by businesses at USD 756 million. Another estimate, by the Institute for Economics and Peace, calculated the true cost of Salvadoran violence in 2016 represented 13.8 percent of GDP, being the second highest in Latin America, only after Honduras, and the 12th highest in the world. The World Economic Forum’s 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Index reported that costs due to organized crime for Salvadoran businesses are the highest among 137 countries. The World Economic Forum also cites crime and theft as the most problematic factor for doing business in El Salvador. In March 2017, the World Bank estimated that companies in El Salvador allocated 3.4 percent of their revenues to security and crime prevention, the highest in Central America.

In 2016, El Salvador had a labor force of approximately 2.93 million, according to the Ministry of Economy. While Salvadoran labor is regarded as hard-working, general education and professional skill levels are low. According to many large employers, there is a lack of middle management-level talent, which sometimes results in the need to bring in managers from abroad. Employers do not report labor-related difficulties in incorporating technology into their workplaces.

The Salvadoran Constitution guarantees the right of employees in the private sector to organize into associations and unions. In practice, unions are independent of the government and employers. Unions may strike only to obtain or modify a collective bargaining agreement or to protect professional rights. They must also engage in negotiation, mediation, and arbitration processes before striking, although many groups skip or go through these steps quickly. Employers are free to hire union or non-union labor. Closed shops are illegal. Labor laws are generally in accordance with internationally-recognized standards, but are not enforced consistently by government authorities. Although El Salvador has improved labor rights since the CAFTA-DR entered into force in 2006 and the passage of the 2014 Special Trafficking in Persons Law, there is still room for better implementation.

The current administration has committed to promote labor rights and has linked labor rights to its efforts to increase economic productivity and boost employment. Challenges include a need to elaborate policies protecting the right to unionize in order to meet international best practices, improving regulations guaranteeing the right to a safe workplace, and adequate government resources to conduct inspections. Workplace discrimination, related specifically to disability and gender, remain a significant issue. According to labor unions, government sources, and the private sector, the Ministry of Labor (MOL) has serious budget constraints, which affect its ability to thoroughly inspect for labor violations.

While workers have the right to strike, the law contains cumbersome and complex registration procedures for conducting a legal strike. The law does not recognize the right to strike for public and municipal employees or for workers in essential services, which include those services where disruption would jeopardize or endanger life, security, health, or normal conditions of existence for some or all of the population. The law does not specify which services meet this definition, and courts apply this provision on a case-by-case basis. The law places several other restrictions on the right to strike, including the requirement that 30 percent of all workers in an enterprise must support a strike for it to be legal and that 51 percent must support the strike before all workers are bound by the decision to strike. In addition, unions may strike only to obtain or modify a collective bargaining agreement or to protect the common professional interests of the workers. They must also engage in negotiation, mediation, and arbitration processes before striking, although many groups often skip or go through these steps quickly. The law prohibits workers from appealing a government decision declaring a strike illegal.

The government does not effectively enforce the laws on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining in all cases. Resources to conduct inspections were inadequate, and remedies remained ineffective. Penalties for employers who disrupt the right of a union to exist were generally not sufficient to deter violations. The Ministry of Labor lacks sufficient resources to enforce the law fully. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. According to union representatives, the government did not consistently enforce labor rights for public workers, maquila/textile workers, subcontractors in the construction industry, security guards, informal sector workers, or migrant workers. In 2017, the Ministry of Labor received one claim of violation of the freedom of association, 40 complaints of discrimination against unionists, and 174 complaints of dismissals of labor union leaders or promoters.

El Salvador’s Labor Law mandates that the minimum wage must be proposed by the National Minimum Wage Council. In January 2017, El Salvador raised the minimum wage in four sectors: commercial/industrial, textiles, seasonal harvesting, and agriculture. Increases ranged by sector from 19 to 105 percent, which raised concerns about the country’s competitiveness. The minimum wage increase applied to 28 percent of 2.75 million Salvadoran workers, or roughly 770,000 who work in the formal economy. Private sector trade associations complained that the wage determination process was politicized, and one trade association has challenged the increase as unconstitutional (Supreme Court decision is still pending). Only about 28 percent of Salvadorans work in the formal sector, triggering private sector criticism that the minimum wage increase constitutes another barrier to formalization and is likely to suppress the increased tax revenue from higher participation in the formal economy.

Overseas Private Investment Cooperation (OPIC) has an agreement with El Salvador that requires governmental approval of all insurance applications. In December 2017, OPIC announced its Northern Triangle initiative to leverage USD 1 billion in private investment in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras over the next two years. Currently, OPIC is supporting six projects in El Salvador.

El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar, so full inconvertibility insurance is unnecessary. El Salvador is a member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA).

There are 17 free trade zones operating in El Salvador. They host 242 companies in sectors including textiles, distribution, call centers, business process outsourcing, agribusiness, agriculture, electronics, and metallurgy. Owned primarily by Salvadoran, U.S., Taiwanese, and Korean investors, the firms employ more than 82,000 people. Section 5, above, on Performance Requirements and Incentives, outlines the incentives available to investors in these zones.

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy

Host Country Statistical Source* USG or International Statistical Source USG or International Source of Data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (M USD) 2016 USD 23,910 2016 USD 26,800 https://data.worldbank.org/
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical Source* USG or International Statistical Source USG or International Source of Data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country (M USD, stock positions) 2016 USD 2,470.32 2016 USD 2,684 BEA data available at
Host country’s FDI in the United States (M USD, stock positions) 2016 N/A 2016 N/A BEA data available at
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2016 10.33% 2016 11.16% N/A

* Central Bank, El Salvador. On March 23, the Central Bank released the new GDP figures using the new national accounts system from 2008 and using 2005 as the base year.
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI

Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 9,197 100% Total Outward 2 100%
United States 2,517 27.37% Costa Rica 1 43%
Panama 2,354 25.60% Guatemala 1 32%
Spain 896 9.74% Mexico 0 17%
Mexico 885 9.62% Honduras 0 12%
Colombia 798 8.68% Nicaragua 0 8%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment

Data not available.

Michael L. Benton
Deputy Economic Counselor
U.S. Embassy San Salvador
Address: Final Blvd. Santa Elena, Antiguo Cuscatlan, La Libertad, El Salvador
Phone: + (503) 2501-2999
Email: bentonML2@state.gov
Website: https://sv.usembassy.gov/

To reach the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service (FCS) Office, please email: san.salvador@trade.gov.

2018 Investment Climate Statements: El Salvador
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