EL SALVADOR: Tier 2

The Government of El Salvador does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore El Salvador remained on Tier 2. These efforts included a significant increase in new prosecutions and an increase in forced labor investigations. The government coordinated with NGOs to provide assistance to the majority of identified victims. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government identified and assisted significantly fewer victims than the previous year. Only two of the 23 child victims identified received care at the government’s shelter. The government did not implement procedures to identify potential trafficking victims among children apprehended for illicit gang-related activity, and it decreased its anti-trafficking training for officials. The government did not initiate any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials for involvement in human trafficking or report progress on investigations from previous years.

Increase specialized services for trafficking victims, including shelters and access to services for adults, boys, and LGBTQI+ victims. • Develop and implement procedures to proactively identify victims among vulnerable groups—including individuals in commercial sex, children apprehended for illicit gang-related activities, and irregular migrants returning to El Salvador—and refer them to service providers for assistance. • Increase and institutionalize anti-trafficking training for police, prosecutors, and judges, with a focus on applying trauma-informed, victim-centered procedures. • Strengthen efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers, including complicit officials, and obtain restitution for victims. • Provide reintegration services to support victims’ long-term wellbeing and extend witness protection services beyond the duration of a trial, particularly for victims who testify against members of organized criminal groups. • Amend the 2014 anti-trafficking law to include a definition of human trafficking consistent with international law. • Develop and allocate resources toward a new national action plan to combat trafficking. • Develop a case management system to improve data collection, sharing, security, and analysis related to trafficking cases. • Expand prevention measures, including through raising awareness of fraudulent recruitment for employment in El Salvador and abroad and enforcing laws against illegal labor practices that facilitate trafficking.

The government maintained law enforcement efforts. The 2014 Special Law Against Trafficking in Persons criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of 10 to 14 years’ imprisonment; these penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law, the law considered the use of force, fraud, or coercion as an aggravating factor rather than an essential element of the crime; the penalties increased to 16 to 20 years’ imprisonment for trafficking offenses involving these factors. The law defined trafficking broadly to include fraudulent adoption without the purpose of exploitation. The government also prosecuted trafficking crimes under other parts of its penal code.

Police investigated 30 suspected trafficking cases (16 for sex trafficking, five for forced labor, and nine undetermined) in 2020, compared with 80 cases investigated in 2019 and 74 in 2018. Despite an overall decline in investigations, this marked an increase in the number of forced labor cases investigated compared with previous years. At least one case, which included the arrest of 10 suspects in November 2020, involved gang-related child sex trafficking crimes; however, authorities failed to adequately investigate whether one of the suspects—who was a child at the time of the alleged crimes—may have been a victim compelled to commit unlawful acts. In 2020, authorities initiated prosecution of 39 sex trafficking cases involving 31 suspects and convicted 12 traffickers, compared with nine traffickers prosecuted and 12 convicted in 2019 and nine cases prosecuted and seven traffickers convicted in 2018. Authorities did not initiate any labor trafficking prosecutions during the year. The government did not report sentences for convicted traffickers. Authorities arrested several officials and convicted one for smuggling crimes that may have increased migrants’ vulnerability to trafficking. However, the government did not report any new investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offences nor progress in investigations from previous years. Corruption and complicity, including within law enforcement, the prison system, and local government, remained significant obstacles to anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts.

The government had 25 active staff members in its specialized anti-trafficking police unit and 15 specialized prosecutors in its anti-trafficking prosecution unit. Both units lacked sufficient human and material resources to effectively investigate and prosecute all cases, and the absence of an electronic case-management system limited efforts to collect, share, and analyze law enforcement information. However, the government relocated the specialized anti-trafficking prosecution unit to a building that included improved spaces for conducting interviews, including a child-friendly space for young victims and witnesses. The specialized prosecution unit initially suspended investigations and court proceedings for three months in response to the pandemic, then later adapted its efforts to continue investigations by phone. The government directed most anti-trafficking police to focus on pandemic mitigation efforts rather than identifying and investigating suspected cases of trafficking.

Observers noted the attorney general’s office frequently assigned different prosecutors to handle different phases of a single criminal case, which hampered its ability to prosecute cases in an efficient and cohesive manner and provide consistency to victims. Experts noted some police used harsh questioning during victim interviews, leading to re-traumatization. Observers reported judges did not have an adequate understanding of trafficking laws or sufficient expertise in the evidentiary processes for trafficking cases, including the use of non-testimonial evidence to corroborate victim testimony. The government did not provide sufficient training for law enforcement or criminal justice officials, relying primarily on donors to fund trainings. The anti-trafficking prosecution unit suspended all scheduled trainings due to the pandemic and fewer than half of the members of the specialized police unit had been trained in basic aspects of human trafficking. The government reported unspecified law enforcement cooperation with Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and the United States.

The government decreased victim identification and protection efforts. The government identified 37 victims, including 23 children and 14 adults, compared with 124 victims identified in 2019 and 53 victims identified in 2018. Authorities identified 26 of the victims via calls to the police 911 emergency division. The attorney general’s office provided psychological care to 27 victims and collaborated with NGOs to provide financial assistance for lodging, food, basic necessities, and job placement to 36 victims; in comparison, the government provided assistance to 111 victims in 2019 and 50 victims in 2018. The government maintained one trafficking victims’ shelter, which had the capacity to house 12 girls between the ages of 12 and 18, and provided services to two residents in 2020. The government repatriated two victims to Guatemala, and an international organization facilitated the repatriation of two victims to Costa Rica.

The government’s 2018 Inter-Institutional Action Protocol for the Immediate Comprehensive Care of Trafficking Victims outlined the roles and responsibilities of government agencies in responding to trafficking victims. Immigration agents had a manual to guide identification of possible trafficking victims in border regions. However, the government lacked formal procedures to identify trafficking victims among most vulnerable groups, including individuals in commercial sex and children apprehended for gang-related activity. The government provided victim identification training to officials responsible for receiving returned migrants and held a session on basic trafficking concepts for employees and residents of the government’s shelter, while an international organization conducted a virtual training for 335 front-line law enforcement officials in border regions on identifying and investigating suspected trafficking. Local experts reported police, immigration agents, and other first responders lacked sufficient training to properly identify, interact with, and protect victims, who were often mistaken for criminals and may have been punished for crimes their traffickers compelled them to commit. The Directorate General for Migration and Foreigners relocated its two-person anti-trafficking unit to the migrant reception center to improve its ability to identify potential trafficking victims among returned migrants and refer them to service providers, some of whom were co-located in the reception center. The center closed temporarily in 2020 due to the pandemic and reopened in January 2021. In December 2020, the Ministry of Labor (MOL) conducted a series of inspections in bars, nightclubs, and restaurants in San Salvador to identify child trafficking victims. These efforts were not effective in identifying any victims, and the ministry failed to coordinate with law enforcement or social service agencies, despite the potential for encountering child crime victims. Unlike last year, labor inspectors did not receive training on human trafficking. Also in December 2020, police and immigration officials encountered five Cuban citizens they suspected to be trafficking victims. Officials did not follow appropriate procedures to investigate the case or refer the individuals to protective services, and the subsequent whereabouts of the potential victims remained unknown.

The government provided limited assistance to victims. The government shelter had a budget of $167,375 and provided residents with education and recreation, psycho-social care, and protective materials to prevent COVID-19 transmission. There were no trafficking shelters that accepted adults, boys, or LGBTQI+ persons of any age or gender, and access to government services for these groups was nearly nonexistent. The government offered few long-term support or reintegration services to trafficking victims, leaving them at risk of re-trafficking. Judges did not order any convicted traffickers to pay restitution to victims in 2020. The government provided witness protection and support to identified victims—including disguising victims’ identities in court and allowing victims to provide testimony by deposition or via teleconference—but such protection measures were only available through the duration of a trial. Observers reported instances of victim information being leaked from judiciary systems, undermining victims’ privacy and putting their safety at risk.

Due to a lack of formal identification procedures, particularly among children apprehended for gang-related criminal activity, authorities may have detained or jailed some unidentified victims for unlawful acts their traffickers compelled them to commit. The 2014 trafficking law provided foreign victims the right to seek residency status, which would allow them to work legally. A 2019 immigration law granted foreign victims the right to obtain residency—with multiple entry and exit permission and the ability to work—for an initial period of up to two years with the option to extend; no foreign victims received residency benefits during the year.

The government decreased prevention efforts. The national anti-trafficking council, led by the Ministry of Public Security and Justice, coordinated anti-trafficking efforts among 12 government institutions. However, the country’s national anti-trafficking action plan ended during the previous reporting period, and the council did not draft a new plan as required by law. The council did not produce or share information on its legally required annual report on anti-trafficking efforts for 2020. The government coordinated with civil society organizations to conduct awareness campaigns for children and young adults, but it did not provide funding for these efforts.

Neither the Labor Code nor the Penal Code specified fines or punishment for fraudulent recruitment of workers. The MOL managed the majority of El Salvador’s H-2A visa recruitment process and maintained its website, which included information on Salvadorean workers’ rights and warnings against fraudulent recruitment tactics. The MOL did not make similar statements against fraudulent recruitment practices for domestic employment. The Labor Code prohibits withholding pay, but the government did not effectively enforce this provision. In February 2020, the supreme court issued a decision requiring within 12 months the establishment and implementation of a minimum wage for domestic workers through executive decree; the government did not issue such a decree during the reporting period. Local experts reported the National Registry of Natural Persons closed temporarily as a result of the pandemic, creating difficulties for registering births, and the government’s imposition of a fee for birth certificates after 90 days posed a financial barrier to some individuals for obtaining documentation for their children, increasing their vulnerability to human trafficking. Salvadoran law criminalized sex tourism and prescribed penalties of four to 10 years’ imprisonment, but authorities did not report any investigations or prosecutions of sex tourism crimes. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in El Salvador, and traffickers exploit victims from El Salvador abroad. Traffickers exploit adults and children in sex trafficking within the country; children without parents, adolescent girls, and LGBTQI+ persons, especially transgender persons, are at particular risk. NGOs reported sex trafficking occurred in the tourism industry. Traffickers often exploit victims within their own communities or homes, sometimes their own children or other family members. Traffickers exploit Salvadoran adults and children in forced labor in agriculture, domestic service, begging, and the textile industry. Traffickers exploit adults and children from neighboring countries—particularly Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua—in sex trafficking and forced labor in construction, domestic service, or the informal sector. Traffickers recruit victims in regions of the country with high levels of violence and capitalize on existing fears to coerce victims and their families through threats of violence. Limited government presence in gang-controlled territory exacerbates trafficking risks among vulnerable groups and limits their access to justice and protection. Gangs use the pretense of domestic employment to lure women into forced labor; gangs force some victims to marry strangers and convince their spouse to take out life insurance policies, which the gang members collect after murdering the spouse. Transnational criminal organizations and gangs recruit, abduct, train, arm, and subject children to forced labor in illicit activities—including assassinations, extortion, and drug trafficking. These groups subject women and children, including LGBTQI+ children, to sex trafficking and forced labor in domestic service and child care. Traffickers exploit Salvadoran men, women, and children in sex trafficking and forced labor in Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. Traffickers exploit some Salvadorans who irregularly migrate to the United States in forced labor, forced criminal activity, and sex trafficking en route or upon arrival. Traffickers exploit some Central and South American, African, and Asian migrants who transit El Salvador to Guatemala and North America in sex and labor trafficking. Individuals without personal identification documents are highly vulnerable to trafficking. Traffickers increasingly use social media and messaging platforms to lure victims, including through false employment offers, and facilitate their exploitation. Corruption and complicity, including within law enforcement, the prison system, and local government, remained significant obstacles to law enforcement efforts.

U.S. Department of State

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