El Salvador’s status declined from Free to Partly Free because criminal groups continue to commit acts of violence and intimidation against politicians, ordinary citizens, and religious congregants, and because the justice system has been hampered by obstruction and politicization.
Elections in El Salvador are largely credible and free. However, corruption is a serious problem that undermines democracy and rule of law, and violence remains a grave problem. Authorities have pursued a harsh, militarized response to the country’s gangs, resulting in allegations of abuse. 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.
- Nayib Bukele, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) candidate, was elected president in the first round of voting in February, easily defeating the long-dominant Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) parties. Bukele became the first third-party candidate to win the presidency since the end of the civil war in 1992.
- In August, President Bukele stopped asylum seekers aiming to present their cases at the US border from traveling through the country, despite warnings from rights groups that El Salvador’s pervasive violence made it an unsuitable third country for asylum seekers.
- Forced disappearances rose by over 20 percent in the first 11 months of the year compared to 2018, as gangs used the tactic to extort and intimidate Salvadorans. While the government also claimed that homicides fell during the year, it removed deaths at the hands of police from its reporting.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4 4|
El Salvador’s president is directly elected for a single five-year term. In February 2019, Nayib Bukele, who ran on the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) ticket, won the presidential election in the first round with 53.1 percent of the vote, followed by Carlos Calleja of ARENA with 31.72 percent and Hugo Martínez of the FMLN, with 14.41 percent. Voter turnout was 51.88 percent. Organization of American States (OAS) observers called the election free and generally fair, and lauded the losing candidates’ willingness to concede on election night.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3 4|
The 84-member, unicameral Legislative Assembly is elected for three years. In the March 2018 elections, ARENA won 37 seats, the FMLN won 23, GANA won 11, and the National Conciliation Party (PCN) won 8; the rest went to smaller parties and coalitions. Votes for the ARENA and FMLN parties declined compared to previous legislative elections. Turnout was roughly 46 percent.
A European Union (EU) observation mission declared the elections well organized, transparent, and the calmest since the 1992 peace accords that ended the country’s 1980–92 civil war. However, observers also noted a lack of voter education, particularly regarding the issue of cross-voting, a procedure that allows voters to vote for candidates from more than one party list.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4 4|
The country’s electoral framework has undergone a number of changes in recent years, at times contributing to inefficiencies and confusion surrounding electoral processes. Implementation of a 2015 reform by which citizens, as opposed to partisan representatives, are called on to oversee vote counting was delayed ahead of the 2018 polls, resulting in inadequate training for the citizens drafted. Additionally, there were reports that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) dismissed nonpartisans in favor of partisans.
In 2018, a list of political donors who gave between 2006 and 2017 was published for the first time, marking an improvement in campaign transparency.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4 4|
Salvadorans are free to organize in different political parties or organizations. While two parties, FMLN and ARENA, have dominated politics since the end of the civil war, new parties have emerged and are able to participate and compete in political processes. In 2018, the first independent candidate was elected to the legislature, and the two major parties saw their share of the vote decline.
Campaign donation records released in 2018 showed that between 2006 and 2017, ARENA received more donations than any other party, and that most of its donations had come from companies. The FMLN collected the second-most donations, with most of those funds coming from individuals.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4 4|
Opposition parties have the ability to increase support and gain power through elections. Historically, executive elections were closely contested between the two main parties, while smaller parties performed better in the legislature. President Bukele’s 2019 election marked a break in the two main parties’ dominance over the executive branch; while they commanded a combined 88 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2014 presidential election, they received 46 percent in 2019.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||2 4|
Criminal groups hold significant influence over Salvadoran political life. Political candidates face threats from such groups, though there are also persistent reports of negotiations and transactions between political parties and criminal organizations. For example, party leaders negotiate with criminal leaders in order to secure permission to hold rallies or otherwise operate in gang-controlled areas; police have asserted that all major political parties engage in such negotiations, and some politicians upon questioning have openly admitted to it, describing the deals as a reality that accompanies political operations in parts the country. Parties have paid gangs to coerce or intimidate voters into casting ballots for particular parties or candidates. Parties also hire gangs to provide security for their events. Transactions between parties and gangs also involve deals in which gang leaders receive special access to politicians, or a party’s investment in social services for the families of gang members.
Since the transition to democracy, the military has largely been an apolitical institution—though it has not always cooperated with civilian authorities. The military retains a significant role in public security operations, even though the 1992 peace accord originally prohibited their involvement.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3 4|
Ethnic, religious, and gender groups, and LGBT+ people have full political and electoral opportunities, but are underrepresented in the legislature and in high-level government positions. In 2018, the first openly transgender candidate ran for election, for a seat on the San Salvador Municipal Council. A 2013 statute requires that 30 percent of legislative and municipal candidates must be women, and just over 30 percent of seats in the Legislative Assembly were held by women following the 2018 elections. However, only 10 percent of women held mayoral seats after that year’s municipal elections, and the interests of women are poorly represented in practice. President Bukele’s cabinet represented a recent improvement for female representation in politics, however; his inaugural cabinet achieved gender parity, with eight women holding ministerial posts in 2019.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3 4|
The freely elected government is generally able to determine policies. However, the government lacks authority over some areas that are controlled by criminal groups, and public officials are known to collaborate with criminal organizations. Several mayors have been accused of facilitating extortion rackets, assassinations, and buying campaign support from gangs and criminal networks. The United States also wields significant influence on the government’s ability to execute policy; El Salvador currently relies on a bilateral agreement, which it signed in August 2019, to bolster its own asylum and internal security capacity.
Salvadorans continue to express concern that multinational corporations exert influence over local and national government officials. The Chinese government has also made recent efforts to influence Salvadoran policy. In 2018, former president Sánchez Cerén sent the legislature a bill that would create a special economic zone in El Salvador, with observers believing it was largely dictated by the Chinese. Subsequent measures to create this zone in the Isla Perico region stalled in 2019 under US pressure.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2 4|
Corruption is a serious problem in El Salvador, and remained endemic and widespread in 2019 despite efforts to combat it. In March, the Supreme Court used a narrow reading of the Constitution to limit investigations by its Probity Section, which examines illicit enrichment, to public officials who have left office within the past ten years. Their decision effectively closed pending cases against officials whose terms of service ended before 2009.
In September 2019, President Bukele announced the creation of the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES), a new anticorruption agency that would be supported by the OAS. The OAS named a temporary spokesperson later that month, who was charged with collaborating with the judiciary and the attorney general’s office ahead of a final agreement, due at an unspecified date. In the interim, CICIES opened two cases, but it does not have the constitutional power to launch prosecutions.
El Salvador’s justice system continued to grapple with corruption cases involving three former presidents in 2019. One case dated back to 2003, when over $15 million donated from Taiwan to support survivors of a 2001 earthquake were allegedly embezzled by ARENA. Investigators claimed that $10 million was routed to the party, while the remaining $5 million went to late former president Francisco Flores (1999–2004). In March 2019, prosecutors charged ARENA officials for diverting these funds to party accounts, including former president Elías Antonio Saca (2004–09) and two businesspeople. The defendants were acquitted in July, when a San Salvador court ruled that the allegation exceeded the statute of limitations.
In May 2019, Saca offered to plead guilty on a separate charge that he bribed a member of the judiciary to help him recover ill-gotten monetary gains, and informally received a two-year sentence. Saca confessed to that crime in open court that September, leaving the judge to decide if he would serve another two years, or if the added prison time would be counted concurrently with a 10-year sentence he received in 2018 on separate charges of corruption. While Saca offered to confess to one crime, he maintained his innocence on the original corruption charges; the Supreme Court upheld his sentence in December 2019 and ordered him to return $260 million to the government.
In March 2019, the Supreme Court issued an extradition order for former president Mauricio Funes (2009–14). Funes, who fled to Nicaragua in 2016 as a corruption investigation gained speed, was accused of embezzling as much as $351 million by the attorney general’s office. In July 2019, Nicaragua gave Funes citizenship, preventing his extradition.
The aftermath of the case against former president Funes and businessman Enrique Rais, an alleged coconspirator, impacted the attorney general’s office in 2019. That May, 12 prosecutors involved in the Funes investigation and one staff member were placed under investigation by prosecutors, and four prosecutors were transferred to other units. Attorney General Raúl Melara claimed they were accused of coercion while investigating Funes, but online newsmagazine Revista Factum noted that one of Melara’s deputies was himself implicated because of his connection to Rais.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3 4|
There have been advances in the implementation of the Access to Public Information Law, but challenges remain, including delays in responding to information requests and the denial of requests on dubious grounds, or for reasons not sufficiently explained. In 2017, the Constitutional Chamber added additional limits to the law’s reach when ruling on a case involving the travel expenses of former president Funes. According to the ruling, the current government did not have to disclose information related to incidents that took place during previous administrations, because it would not have sufficient information regarding those events.
El Salvador’s government has also elected to provide less transparency in its efforts to fight crime; in July 2019, the government announced that it would stop including deaths resulting from encounters with security forces in official homicide data, which potentially obscures both extrajudicial killings and the homicide rate.
|Are there free and independent media?||2 4|
The Constitution provides for freedom of the press. In practice, the media scene is robust, but reporters face significant challenges. Harassment and acts of violence following coverage of corruption and gang violence have led reporters to engage in self-censorship. Most of the country depends on privately-owned television and radio networks for news, and ownership in the broadcast sector is highly concentrated. Access to the internet is unrestricted. Online outlets like El Faro and Revista Factum are critical sources of independent reporting.
Police officers and government officials sought to prevent press coverage of controversial or sensitive matters in 2019. Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that police officers stopped members of the press from covering a protest led by veterans, restricted journalists from visiting homicide scenes, and kept some journalists from attending President Bukele’s inauguration. In September 2019, journalists from El Faro and Revista Factum were banned from a press conference announcing the formation of CICIES, and were singled out for attacks by the president on Twitter afterwards.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3 4|
Religious freedom is generally respected by the government. However, congregants and religious leaders have been increasingly subject to gang violence and extortion in recent years. Congregants in some communities have been unable to access their churches due to territorial disputes between gangs. Additionally, religious leaders working with former gang members have faced harassment and the threat of murder.
Friar Cecilio Perez Cruz was shot to death in May 2019, and extortion was considered a motive in his killing. However, members of the clergy cast doubt on this explanation, pointing to his calls to halt deforestation near the western town of Juayua as a possible motive instead. The Catholic Church also called for the continued investigation of the 2018 murder against another priest, which remained unsolved in 2019. In June, another clergyman was charged with the friar’s murder, though local parishioners maintained his innocence.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because religious congregants and leaders have been subjected to extortion and violence by gangs.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3 4|
Academic freedom is respected and the educational system is generally free from extensive political indoctrination. However, intimidation and violence by gang members against teachers and students continues to present a challenge to the education system. Female students with children often leave school, sometimes under pressure from their principals. The United Nations reported that 60 percent of Salvadoran girls who became pregnant dropped out of school, most of them within two years of their children’s births.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3 4|
While private discussion is generally free, the prevalence of gang activity requires many Salvadorans to curtail discussion of gang-related and other sensitive topics outside of their homes.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||3 4|
Freedom of assembly is generally upheld, and public protests and gatherings are permitted. However, due to the prevalence of violence in El Salvador, the safety of participants is impossible to guarantee.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||3 4|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely and play an important role in society and policymaking. However, groups involved with human rights– and governance-related topics sometimes face threats and extortion attempts from criminal groups. Impunity for such attacks, as well as occasional pressure on NGOs by police, has prompted some observers to question the government’s commitment to the protection of freedom of association and human rights.
Several NGOs and associations have reported discovering microphones or other listening devices on their premises in recent years, including the National Association of Private Companies (ANEP), the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES), and the National Development Foundation (FUNDE).
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||2 4|
Labor unions have long faced obstacles in a legal environment that has traditionally favored business interests, including by mandating only 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.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||2 4|
Judicial independence is not consistently respected by the government, and the judicial system is hampered by corruption. The legislature does not always observe Supreme Court rulings. Powerful individuals can evade justice by exerting pressure on the judiciary.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2 4|
Due process rights are guaranteed by the constitution, but are upheld inconsistently. Interpreters are not always provided for defendants who do not speak Spanish. Rights advocates report that police have carried out arbitrary arrests and detentions as part of the country’s crackdown on gangs.
Progress on addressing crimes committed during the country’s civil war was inconsistent in 2019. In May, El Salvador’s legislators were forced to suspend efforts to introduce a controversial amnesty bill that would have kept civil war fighters from prison; the bill was heavily criticized by civil war victims’ families, human rights groups, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the US State Department. Had it been passed, it would have been the country’s second postwar amnesty bill; in 2016, the Supreme Court called a 1993 law preventing the investigation and prosecution of war crimes unconstitutional. The legislature was unable to finalize their draft by year’s end, and the Supreme Court allowed an extension of the drafting process into February 2020.
A trial against 17 high-ranking military officers, who stand accused of massacring nearly 1,000 people in the northeastern town of El Mozote in 1981, continued in 2019. The military previously denied their involvement, saying instead that the residents of El Mozote died during a clash between the military and guerrillas. As the trial continued, the Bukele administration resisted calls to cooperate. In October, a judge ordered Bukele to open defense archives on El Mozote and other military operations. Bukele indicated that he would comply, but had not done so by year’s end. The Defense Ministry repeatedly evaded requests to preserve its archives and make them available.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||1 4|
Violence, much of which is linked to criminal gangs, remains a grave problem. The official homicide rate declined in 2019; police estimated 2,383 homicides during the year, compared to 3,346 in 2018. President Bukele claimed that the month of December had the lowest homicide rate since the end of the civil war. However, 2019 also marked the first year where deaths resulting from security force operations were not included in official homicide figures.
People in El Salvador are also vulnerable to forced disappearances. In 2018, the national police reported 2,457 disappearances, the highest number in 12 years; that figure rose to 2,993 in the first 11 months of 2019. Relatives of the disappeared often fear reprisal, and either refrain from discussing their concerns publicly or insist on anonymity.
Police have been implicated in hundreds of extrajudicial killings as part of an ongoing militarized response to the country’s criminal gangs. In August 2019, the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) released a report documenting evidence of extrajudicial executions by police during its 2014–18 reporting period. The same report noted that most of the victims were unarmed. Witnesses who spoke to the PDDH reported that officers commonly hid evidence, moved bodies, and engaged in acts of torture and sexual assault against their victims. Gangs, in turn, continue to target members of security forces and their families.
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 August 2018, the legislature voted to make permanent the “extraordinary measures” implemented in 2016 to increase security in prisons. Human rights groups and the OHCHR criticized the decision, with the latter saying that “these are implemented for the primary purpose of dehumanizing the detainees.” President Bukele expanded these measures to all Salvadoran prisons between June and September 2019, and ordered 24-hour block confinement. The president also allowed gang members to return to the general prison population, overturning a policy instituted in 2004 that kept warring gangs apart.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2 4|
Women are granted equal rights under the law, but are often subject to discrimination. Indigenous people face poverty, unemployment, and labor discrimination. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prevalent, and LGBT+ people are often the targets of hate crimes and violence, including by state security agents. In February 2019, a transgender woman deported from the United States died from a violent assault committed in January. In July, three police officers were accused of a hate crime and charged in her death. The subsequent murders of three LGBT+ people in El Salvador in late October and early November, along with the disappearance of a fourth victim during this period, caused continued consternation within the LGBT+ community as the year progressed.
Underrepresented populations, particularly internally displaced persons and LGBT+ people, have limited access to the justice system. However, in a development reflecting increasing attention to discrimination against LGBT+ people, the government approved an Institutional Policy for the Care of the LGBT Population in 2018. Officials signaled the government’s commitment to its tenets in public statements and events, but its practical effect remains unclear.
El Salvador also restricted the rights of asylum seekers by signing an agreement with the United States in September 2019. Under its terms, El Salvador agreed to accept asylum seekers trying to reach the US and stop them from traveling north. Human rights groups objected, warning that El Salvador was not a safe third country for asylum seekers to reside in due to pervasive violence.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||2 4|
Freedom of travel within El Salvador is complicated by gang activity. The MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs control certain neighborhoods of Salvadoran cities, making it dangerous for residents to travel, work, and attend school. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) has estimated that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by violence in recent years.
In July 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the government had failed to protect victims forcibly displaced by violence, and gave the government six months to develop policies and legislation to protect and assist victims of displacement. The government did not meet this deadline, and work on this legislation was still underway at year’s end.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||2 4|
Businesses and private citizens are regularly subject to extortion. This activity affects 90 percent of small businesses, according to a 2018 from the National Council of Small Businesses in El Salvador (CONAPES). According to a May 2019 report from two NGOs, InSight Crime and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, businesses and individuals pay extortion fees worth 1.7 percent of the country’s GDP.
Indigenous people also face difficulties securing land rights and accessing credit.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2 4|
Abortion is punishable by imprisonment, including in cases where a woman’s life is at risk due to her pregnancy, and the Constitutional Chamber affirmed in 2013 that the “rights of the mother cannot be privileged over the fetus.” Some women have been jailed despite credible claims that their pregnancies ended due to miscarriage. A small number of women found their sentences commuted or received acquittals in 2019, though this remain rare. In March, a court commuted the sentences of three women, calling their sentences disproportionate. In August 2019, a woman previously convicted of murder for her stillbirth and sentenced to 30 years in prison was acquitted. Weeks later, prosecutors announced they would seek a third trial.
Adolescent pregnancy is a serious problem in El Salvador. Adolescent pregnancies account for one out of every three pregnancies in El Salvador, and many are the result of sexual assault.
Domestic and sexual violence remains high. In April 2019, a report by the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) indicated that sexual violence against women increased by a third in 2018. The majority of victims were girls between the ages of 12 and 17. ORMUSA also reported 560 cases of missing women and 383 cases of femicide in 2018, down from 468 in 2017.
There were reports of several incidents of femicide-suicide, where women and girls die by suicide as a result of abuse, during the year. El Salvador remains one of the only countries in the world where this is considered a crime, and saw its first conviction in March 2019.
LGBT+ marriage remains illegal in El Salvador, though at least one politician has recently voiced support for the idea. In October 2019, Ernesto Muyshondt, the ARENA mayor of San Salvador, openly called on his party to consider its legalization. Transgender rights were slightly expanded in January 2019, when a judge in the southern city of Zacatecoluca ruled in favor of a transgender woman who sought to update her name and gender on government-issued identification.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2 4|
El Salvador remains a source, transit, and destination country for the trafficking of women, children, and LGBT+ people. There are instances of forced labor in the construction and informal sectors.
The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons 2019 report noted that El Salvador investigated one public official for their involvement in trafficking, and convicted seven traffickers in 2018. The department went on to highlight the country’s services for girls who survived trafficking, but called services for boys, adults, and LGBT+ survivors critically insufficient.
Children are vulnerable to economic exploitation, and child labor is a serious problem. Children perform dangerous jobs in agriculture, and are recruited by gangs and other criminal elements to carry out illegal activities. While the government made improvements in collecting and publishing data on this activity, and continued a National Action Plan for the Protection of Children and Adolescents in 2019, progress in combating child exploitation was slow.
On El Salvador
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Global Freedom Score66 100 partly free