Violence linked to criminal gangs remains a grave problem, and there is increasing concern about the influence such groups have in politics. The country has a lively press and civil society sector, though journalists risk harassment and violence in connection with work related to gang activity or corruption.
- The online news outlet El Faro publicized videos showing members of the country’s two largest political parties making deals with gangs to buy votes ahead of the 2014 presidential election.
- In March, a radio journalist known for reporting on gang activity was murdered.
- In July, the Supreme Court repealed a 1993 amnesty law that had barred the prosecution of crimes and human rights violations committed during the 1980–92 civil war, saying the government had an obligation to investigate war crimes and to provide reparations.
Due to rampant gang-related violence, El Salvador is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world. While the homicide level fell in 2016 compared to the previous year, police still recorded 5,278 homicides, amounting to a rate of approximately 80 per 100,000 people. (In 2015, 6,656 homicides were recorded.) Authorities intensified their militarized response to the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs during the year, and faced criticism from rights activists for the deadly confrontations between security forces and suspected gang members that frequently erupted. Some public officials have been implicated in gang activity.
Journalists whose work focuses on gangs and corruption continue to face harassment and violence. Nicolás García, a radio journalist who reported on gangs, was murdered in March 2016, reportedly after experiencing harassment from MS-13 members who had insisted that he assist them by providing information on police activity.
Several electoral reforms were passed in 2016 in an effort to simplify the cross-party, or “voto cruzado,” and proportional representation voting rules, which had created some confusion in the 2015 elections.
Separately, in July, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that a 1993 general amnesty law barring the prosecution of human rights violations committed during the civil war was unconstitutional. In its ruling, the court stated that the government had an obligation to investigate war crimes and to provide reparations.
El Salvador’s president is elected for a five-year term. The 84-member, unicameral Legislative Assembly is elected for three years. Three candidates contended for the presidency in 2014: former guerilla Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the incumbent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), Norman Quijano of Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and former president Antonio Saca of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). Cerén defeated Quijano in a very close runoff. Turnout was 60 percent. Quijano accused the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of fraud, but domestic and international observers considered the elections free and fair.
Before the 2015 legislative and municipal elections, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court passed a number of rulings on the electoral system, including one allowing voters to cast ballots for candidates from more than one political party (cross-voting); previously, voters selected a party rather than individual candidates. The FMLN accused the Chamber of purposefully generating confusion before the election, while the Organization of American States (OAS) questioned whether the date of the decision allowed enough time for parties to adapt to the changes. Citing a lack of time, the legislature delegated to the TSE how it would count votes under the new rules in 2015.
In the 2015 elections, ARENA won 35 seats—32 on its own and 3 in coalition with the National Coalition Party (PCN). The FMLN won 31 seats, GANA won 11, and the rest went to smaller groupings. Turnout was 48 percent. Some vote buying was alleged in rural areas. The OAS observation mission declared the election broadly transparent and free. It did note that the TSE had difficulties in the counting and transmission of results. San Salvadoran candidates disputed their results, prompting the Constitutional Chamber to call for an unprecedented recount that did not affect the results, but delayed the seating of 24 deputies.
In 2015, residential voting was extended nationwide, and municipal elections were conducted under new proportional rules. In February and May of 2016, the legislature passed reforms that clarified the application of those rules and of the cross-party voting system. The reforms also prohibited changes to the electoral process one year before an election, and mandated that alternative candidates be listed on the ballot. However, in July 2016, the Chamber declared the 2015 election of alternate legislators unconstitutional, removing them from office and creating uncertainty for future elections.
The OAS, and other organizations, have repeatedly called for the TSE to update its list of registered voters.
Since the end of the civil war in 1992, FMLN and ARENA have been the two largest political parties, though the newer GANA has significant support. Some Salvadorans continue to express concern that foreign governments and multinational corporations exert excessive influence over local and national government officials. Increasingly, there are concerns about the growing political influence of gangs. In March and May 2016, El Faro released videos that showed ARENA and the FMLN apparently making deals with gang leaders in exchange for votes ahead of the 2014 presidential election.
The current legislature includes no members who identify as representatives of ethnic minorities or indigenous groups, nor do these populations hold high-level government positions. A 2013 statute requires that 30 percent of legislative and municipal candidates be women; currently women hold 32 percent of seats in the Legislative Assembly.
Corruption is a serious problem. There has been some progress in corruption investigations and prosecutions against officials from previous administrations, and the current one. However, a majority of crimes continue to go unpunished, and the FMLN has pushed back against investigations of its members. In January 2016, the United Nations announced the establishment of a U.S–funded program designed to assist El Salvador’s attorney general with anticorruption investigations.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) agree that while there are advances in the government’s application of the Access to Public Information Law, passed in 2011, there is still room for improvement.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press, and while this right is generally respected, harassment and acts of violence following coverage of corruption and gang violence have led reporters to engage in self-censorship. Journalists continue to face intimidation and threats following their reporting on gangs, corruption, police impunity, and negotiations between the gangs and political parties. Nicolás García, a radio journalist who reported on gangs, was murdered in March 2016, reportedly after experiencing harassment from MS-13 members who had insisted that he assist them by providing information on police activity.
Salvadoran media are privately owned, but ownership is confined to a small group of businesspeople that manipulate reporting to protect their interests. ARENA-aligned Telecorporación Salvadoreña dominates the market, controlling three of the five private television networks. Online sites such as El Faro and Contrapunto provide alternative views and investigative reporting. Access to the internet is unrestricted. In May 2016, the legislature approved a package of amendments to the Telecommunications Act that were developed amid a robust debate that included civil society and private media outlets. Among other things, they included changes to how radio frequencies are allocated that gave greater representation to community media.
The government does not encroach upon religious freedom, and academic freedom is respected. Religious leaders working with former gang members or who have been critical of the government’s security strategy have been harassed.
There have been no recent reports of extralegal surveillance or government interference in private discussions or communications. However, given the prevalence of gang activity throughout the country, Salvadorans take precautions when discussing matters of public security outside their homes in order to minimize the risk of retaliation.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally upheld, and public protests are permitted without obstruction. NGOs for the most part operate freely. Labor unions have long faced obstacles in a legal environment that has traditionally favored business interests, including light penalties for employers who interfere with strikes. The law prohibits strikes in sectors deemed essential, but is vague about the type of work falling within this designation. A number of strikes among both public- and private-sector workers took place in 2016; several involving health-care workers were ruled illegal.
El Salvador’s judicial system remains weak and plagued by corruption and obstructionism. Judges are often affiliated with a particular party, and various parties have complained that some recent investigations and judicial decisions were politically motivated. Justice system officials have frequently been accused of brutality, corruption, and arbitrary arrest.
The government has enlisted the help of the military in its efforts to rein in gang activity. Authorities escalated a crackdown on gangs in 2016, and an increased rate of lethal armed confrontations between suspected gang members and security forces during the year drew concern from rights advocates and others about human rights violations perpetrated by police. In June, the director of the National Civil Police (PNC) announced that 346 suspected gang members had been killed since the start of the year in joint operations carried out by the police and the military, while the attorney general said in April that 50 police officers had been killed in by gang members so far in 2016.
In 2016, the government passed reforms that tightened its control of prisons, in large part to curtail the activities of gang leaders who continue to direct operations while incarcerated. Prisons remain extremely overcrowded, and conditions within can be lethal due to disease, lack of adequate medical care, and the risk of attack by other inmates. In June 2016, the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber ruled that prison conditions had deteriorated to the point of being unconstitutional. Prisoners held in pretrial detention account for more than 30 percent of inmates.
El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world. In 2016, police recorded 5,278 homicides—a rate of approximately 80 per 100,000 in 2016—compared to 6,656 in 2015. The country since 2011 has been on the U.S. list of “major” drug producing and transit countries.
In 2010, the legislature criminalized gang membership. In 2016, the legislature passed a series of antigang measures, among them one that criminalized negotiations with gangs. The 2006 Special Law against Acts of Terrorism allows street gangs and those who finance them to be treated as terrorists and expanded the use of wiretaps and the freezing of funds. However, despite a high number of such investigations, very few suspected gang members are convicted under the terrorism provisions.
In July 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that a 1993 general amnesty law barring the investigation and prosecution of human rights violations committed during the civil war was unconstitutional; in its ruling it stated that the government had an obligation to investigate war crimes and to provide reparations. The law’s repeal will permit prosecutions related to the conflict, during which 75,000 people were tortured, unlawfully killed, or disappeared, according to Amnesty International.
Much of the indigenous population faces poverty, unemployment, and labor discrimination, and challenges with regard to land rights and access to credit. Article 63 of the Constitution, ratified in 2014, recognizes indigenous peoples and pledges to adopt policies that support indigenous cultural identity, values, and spirituality. In August 2016, the legislature approved a new Culture Law that includes a clause on the preservation of indigenous culture and language.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation is widespread, despite being illegal. According to local activists, the state’s security apparatus and gangs are responsible for most violence against the LGBT community. Women continue to face questionable trials and high prison sentences for supposed abortions.
Freedom of travel within El Salvador is complicated by the government’s inability to control gang violence. The MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs control certain neighborhoods, making it dangerous for citizens to travel, work, and live freely. The Global Report on Internal Displacement estimated that at the end of 2015, there were some 289,000 internally displaced persons in El Salvador, with most displacements due to gang violence and criminal activity, and tens of thousands of students have stopped attending school in 2015 due to violence. Businesses and private citizens are regularly subject to extortion, paying an estimated 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to criminal groups.
Women are granted equal rights under the Constitution, but are often subject to discrimination. Abortion is punishable by imprisonment even when the life of the mother is at risk or in cases of incest. Some women have been jailed despite credible claims that their pregnancies ended due to miscarriage. The Constitutional Chamber affirmed in 2013 that the “rights of the mother cannot be privileged over the fetus.” In September 2016, one of the so-called Las 17—women who served jail time for pregnancy-related crimes—was released, though some of the women still remained in prison at year’s end. Violence against women, including domestic violence, is a serious concern. In February 2016, the legislature created new tribunals to preside over cases that involve discrimination or violence against women.
Despite government efforts, El Salvador remains a source, transit, and destination country for the trafficking of women and children. Gangs often force children to sell drugs, and migrants traveling from or through El Salvador can fall victim to sex and labor trafficking rings. Corruption among public officials has stymied efforts to dismantle sex trafficking operations.
On El Salvador
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Global Freedom Score56 100 partly free