Elections in El Salvador are largely credible and free. However, widespread corruption undermines democracy and the rule of law, and lack of physical security remains a grave problem. Authorities have pursued a harsh, militarized response to the country’s powerful criminal gangs, resulting in extrajudicial killings and other abuses. There is an active civil society sector and a lively press, though journalists risk harassment and violence in connection with coverage of organized crime or corruption.
- The party of President Nayib Bukele, New Ideas (NI), won a supermajority in the February legislative elections. Upon assuming office in May, new legislators replaced the attorney general and all five members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, undermining democratic institutions intended to check executive power.
- In September, the Constitutional Court—newly staffed by Bukele allies—ruled that the president may serve two consecutive terms, contravening Article 152 of the constitution. The decision enabled Bukele to run for reelection.
- Amid mounting allegations of corruption, a number of mechanisms meant to ensure government transparency and combat official misconduct were undermined through a series of executive decrees and partisan appointments. In May, legislators approved a bill granting public officials and contractors immunity from any civil or criminal liability stemming from pandemic-related state expenditures.
- After the unconstitutional appointment of a government-aligned attorney general in May, opposition party offices in July were raided and party property was confiscated, and the Legislative Assembly set up commissions to investigate past bonus payments to politicians and public funding of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The actions were ostensibly meant to combat corruption, but opposition parties, rights groups, and other critics denounced them as political persecution.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
El Salvador’s president is directly elected for a five-year term. In February 2019, Nayib Bukele won the presidential election in the first round with 53 percent of the vote, and was inaugurated that June. Voter turnout was 52 percent. Organization of American States (OAS) observers called the election free and generally fair and praised the peaceful transfer of power, noting the losing candidates’ willingness to concede on election night.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The 84-member, unicameral Legislative Assembly is elected for three years. The Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) dominated Salvadoran politics since the first postwar election in 1994. However, in the February 2021 legislative elections, ARENA was reduced to 14 seats and the FMLN to 4, while the newly constituted party of President Bukele, New Ideas (NI), won a supermajority with 56 seats. The remaining 10 seats went to smaller parties. Turnout was about 49 percent.
European Union (EU) and Latin American election observers attested that the results reflected the popular will, but found that the campaign environment was flawed in favor of NI, with violations of electoral law including the use of significant state resources to favor the party. Notably, an investigation into the use of pandemic-related food aid by the campaign for the NI candidate for mayor of San Salvador was closed by the government-named attorney general. Such aid was also distributed through the NI party elsewhere.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
El Salvador’s electoral framework is designed by the Legislative Assembly and administered by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). The three parties that won the greatest proportion of votes in the last presidential election appoint three of the five TSE magistrates. The remaining two are nominated by by the Supreme Court of Justice and must gain a two-thirds approval vote in the legislature. All are appointed to five-year terms.
In September 2021, the Constitutional Court—newly staffed by Bukele allies the NI-dominated legislature had appointed after dismissing sitting members in May—ruled that the president may serve two consecutive terms, contravening Article 152 of the constitution; the decision overturned a recent ruling that had reaffirmed the ban. The Constitutional Chamber directed the TSE to allow the change, which the TSE did, saying that the ruling could not be appealed.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because the government-controlled Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court overturned a constitutional ban on presidential reelection, enabling President Bukele to run in future contests.
|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?||3.003 4.004|
The leftist FMLN and the right-wing ARENA dominated politics since the end of the war in 1992 until recently. In 2018, the first independent candidate was elected to the legislature, and in 2021, two new parties associated with Bukele won seats—NI with 56 seats, Our Time with 1.
Salvadorans have traditionally been free to organize in different political parties or groupings. However, in 2021, politically motivated corruption charges resulted in raids on party offices. After the unconstitutional appointment of a government-aligned attorney general in May 2021, ARENA party offices in July were raided and party property was confiscated. In addition, other figures from ARENA and FMLN were arrested or had arrest warrants issued against them, including two former mayors, a number of former ministers, and former president Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Meanwhile, the Legislative Assembly set up commissions to investigate past bonus payments to politicians and public funding of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during the year. While these actions were all ostensibly linked to fighting alleged corruption, opposition parties, rights groups, and other critics denounced them as political persecution and attempts to silence the opposition. There were numerous reports of those arrested being denied due process protections, including being refused access to their lawyers, and police failing to inform detainees of the charges against them.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because opposition figures faced politically motivated corruption charges, resulting in raids and the confiscation of party assets.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Opposition parties are able to increase support and gain power through elections. Historically, presidential elections were closely contested between the leftist FMLN and the right-wing ARENA, while smaller parties performed better in the legislature. President Bukele’s 2019 election marked a break in the two main parties’ executive dominance; 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.
In the February 2021 legislative and municipal elections, two recently founded parties, NI and Our Time, both gained national and local representation.
|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?||2.002 4.004|
Gangs threaten political candidates and elected officials, but individual politicians and their parties also regularly engage in transactions with gangs for their own purposes. For example, municipal officers may find this necessary to guarantee the safety of their staff while working in communities. Cash payments and political promises have been made to gangs in elections going back at least twenty years.
Top-level politicians from all major parties have at different times been accused of links to organized crime. Journalists have regularly uncovered evidence of covert engagement between the Bukele government and gang leaders, chiefly to rein in gang-related crimes—especially homicides—in exchange for various concessions such as privileges for imprisoned gang members. A criminal investigation into the government’s negotiations with gangs was underway, but the former prosecutor in charge said in December 2021 that the probe was shut down after the government-controlled legislature replaced the attorney general.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
All citizens have full political rights and electoral opportunities under the law, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, but women and minority groups are underrepresented in the legislature and in high-level government positions. A 2013 statute requires that 30 percent of legislative and municipal candidates be women, but the proportion of women in the Legislative Assembly dipped under 30 percent following the 2021 elections, and only 11 percent of mayors are women. Furthermore, women’s, LGBT+, and Indigenous peoples’ interests are poorly represented in practice.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||2.002 4.004|
The Bukele administration repeatedly interfered with the legislature’s ability to determine policy until it gained a supermajority in the new legislative session that commenced in May 2021. Since then, the government and ruling party legislators routinely deny opposition legislators access to key information, including draft legislation, inhibiting substantial deliberation of proposed laws. In practice, legislation is drawn up by the government and swiftly rubber stamped by its legislators. Policy decisions are centralized in the executive, and specifically in President Bukele and a close circle of his trusted collaborators.
Gangs leverage their ability to coordinate surges in homicides so as to push for specific concessions from those in power, especially as regards prison conditions and police harassment and abuse.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||1.001 4.004|
Corruption including embezzlement, money laundering, and other forms of self-enrichment remains a problem in government, and anticorruption bodies and prosecutions are increasingly susceptible to politicization.
In November 2020, prosecutors launched a criminal investigation into the suspected misuse of COVID-19-related funds, including the awarding of public contracts to businesses linked to politicians from the ruling party. Against this backdrop, in May 2021, the government-controlled legislature passed a law granting public officials and contractors immunity from any civil or criminal liability stemming from pandemic-related state expenditures. Since then, more cases of suspected graft involving COVID-related funds have emerged.
In July 2021, the US Department of State released a list of actors engaged in “significant corruption” or actions that “undermine democratic processes or institutions” in Central America. Out of 14 Salvadorans listed, 6 were senior officials in the Bukele government, including Bukele’s cabinet chief and close associate, Carolina Recinos. President Bukele dismissed the allegations. Three weeks later, authorities issued arrest warrants for former President Sánchez Cerén and several former ministers, and arrested four former ministers and a former legislator, all from the FMLN, charging them with topping off their salaries with generous bonuses—a long-standing and widespread practice among top Salvadoran officials.
The government in June 2021 ended its cooperation agreement with the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES), an OAS-supported anticorruption agency that assisted Salvadoran prosecutors. The OAS denounced the decision in a statement, which also said that the government had a record of attempting to “induce the CICIES to investigate actions of opposition politicians exclusively.”
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to the politicization of anticorruption efforts under President Bukele.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||1.001 4.004|
The 2011 Access to Public Information Law instituted strong mechanisms for transparency and oversight of public institutions. While there have been issues with compliance all along, government bodies have been more resistant and less transparent since the beginning of the Bukele administration. Bukele has issued executive decrees that impinge on the independence of the oversight and enforcement body, the Access to Public Information Agency (IAIP), and has named partisan commissioners. In April 2021, Bukele suspended one commissioner, who claimed she had been harassed by the other commissioners and appealed the suspension, which was pending at the end of the year.
Government officials in 2021 continued to withhold information on COVID-19-related expenditures, even amid widespread allegations and indications of related corruption.
As of September 2021—more than two years into Bukele’s term—no government ministers had submitted their asset disclosures, as required by law to detect potential corruption. Moreover, in July the government proposed 11 changes to the Access to Public Information Law that would restrict access to information about officials’ finances.
After the governing party won a supermajority in the legislative session that started in May 2021, legislation has been routinely passed with minimal information provided to the public and even opposition lawmakers. Government plans are generally withheld from public access.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to the Bukele government’s efforts to dismantle public oversight mechanisms.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
While the constitution provides for freedom of the press, and the media scene is robust, reporters face significant challenges. Harassment and acts of violence in response to coverage of corruption and organized crime have often led journalists to engage in self-censorship. Access to the internet is not restricted, and online outlets like El Faro, GatoEncerrado, and Revista Factum are critical sources of independent reporting. However, most Salvadorans rely on social media and privately owned television and radio networks for news, and ownership in the broadcast sector is highly concentrated. Fake news and disinformation campaigns are widespread and fomented by key government officials, including through surrogate online media outlets.
At an April 2021 meeting of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), a number of journalists denounced the deterioration of freedom of the press and harassment of journalists in El Salvador. In November, Apple warned at least 24 Salvadoran reporters, in addition to activists and political opposition leaders, that they were being targeted by “state-sponsored attackers” trying to remotely compromise their mobile phones.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3.003 4.004|
Religious freedom is widely respected by state and nonstate actors. However, people in some communities have been unable to access their churches due to territorial disputes between gangs. In addition, some religious leaders working with former gang members face harassment by gangs and police and the threat of murder.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3.003 4.004|
Academic freedom is respected, and the educational system is generally free from extensive political indoctrination.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
While private discussion and personal expression are generally free, the prevalence of gang activity leads many Salvadorans to curtail speech about criminal activity and other sensitive topics outside of their homes.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||3.003 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is generally upheld, and public protests and gatherings are permitted.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||3.003 4.004|
NGOs have operated freely and played an important role in society and policymaking in the postwar era. However, they have largely been excluded from engagement with policymakers under the Bukele government and are frequently lambasted by the president and other officials over critical stances toward government policy.
The Legislative Assembly set up a special commission in May 2021 to investigate NGOs and other associations and the state funding they had received during the last five years. Government officials allege that the money had been used by opposition politicians for the illicit enrichment of the organizations and their trustees. Critics noted that the commission was made up solely of progovernment legislators and their supporters.
In November 2021, the government put forward a Foreign Agents Law, requiring individuals and organizations to register as foreign agents if their activities “respond to the interests of, or are directly or indirectly funded by, a foreigner.” The law would also require them to submit to government inspections and pay a 40 percent tax on foreign payments. Ruling-party legislators and government officials explicitly linked the law to funding given to investigative journalism that is critical of the government and recent protest marches. In the face of massive pressure, not least by the diplomatic corps and foreign donors, the government later in the month announced that it would delay voting on the law. During the same month, police and prosecutors raided the offices of seven NGOs on charges of embezzlement.
Groups that work on human rights and governance-related topics sometimes face threats and extortion attempts from criminal groups.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||2.002 4.004|
Labor unions have long faced obstacles in a legal environment that favors business interests, including by mandating only light penalties for employers who interfere with strikes. The law prohibits strikes in sectors deemed essential, and the designation is vaguely defined.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||1.001 4.004|
Judicial independence has long been under pressure, and the judicial system is hampered by corruption. Elected officials do not always observe Supreme Court rulings. Powerful individuals can evade justice by exerting pressure on the judiciary.
The Bukele administration repeatedly defied court orders related to its COVID-19 response during 2020. Constitutional Court orders against Bukele’s pandemic response—in particular, its decision that a strict stay-at-home order was illegal—appeared to have a major role in prompting the legislature’s dramatic removal of the chamber’s judges in 2021: in early May, the 2021–24 Legislative Assembly came together for the first time and immediately removed all members of the Constitutional Chamber, as well as the attorney general. Minutes later, the Constitutional Chamber ruled that the legislature’s actions regarding the magistrates was unconstitutional and a violation of judicial independence. That night, the legislature named new members of the Constitutional Chamber and a new attorney general. In the next days, the ousted judges submitted their resignations, amid reports that the home of Óscar Pineda, who until then served as the president of the Supreme Court (CSJ) and head of the Constitutional Chamber, was being monitored by police.
Three months later, in August, President Bukele announced that it was time to “purge” the judiciary, and the legislature days later passed measures to dismiss judges and prosecutors who were over 60 years old or who had more than 30 years of service, which were estimated to affect one in three judges and numerous prosecutors. The reforms, which Bukele signed in September, also changed the mechanism for appointing and reassigning judges to a seemingly arbitrary process, garnering condemnation by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.
The Bukele administration continued to resist calls to cooperate in the ongoing El Mozote trial, in which 17 high-ranking military officers stand accused of massacring nearly 1,000 people in the northeastern town of El Mozote in 1981. In September 2021, the judge in charge of the case, who was 61 years old, resigned in protest of the new measure under which he would be dismissed.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because President Bukele and his government forced the resignation of all five members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, along with scores of judges throughout the country.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||1.001 4.004|
In May 2021, the government-controlled Legislative Assembly removed from office the attorney general, Raúl Melara, and replaced him with the government-affiliated Rodolfo Delgado, in breach of the procedures laid out in the constitution.
Due process rights are constitutionally guaranteed but systematically violated. Human rights advocates report that police routinely carry out arbitrary arrests and detentions and fabricate and plant evidence. Defendants—especially those in pretrial detention—are provided inadequate access to effective legal counsel.
Progress on addressing crimes committed during the civil war has largely stalled.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because the Bukele administration replaced the prosecutor general through unconstitutional procedures.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||2.002 4.004|
Crime and violence, much of which is linked to gangs, remain grave problems. Yet, 2020 and 2021 saw the lowest homicide rates in years. In 2020, according to statistics from the Salvadoran National Police, there were 20 homicides per 100,000 people; in 2021, the number dropped to 18 per 100,000. In comparison, in 2016, police recorded 5,278 homicides—a rate of approximately 80 per 100,000.
Civilians in El Salvador are vulnerable to forced disappearances. According to police figures, in 2020 there were 1,534 reports of missing persons, and 989 between January and June 2021. Relatives of the disappeared often fear reprisals for discussing their cases publicly.
Police and military forces have been implicated in hundreds of extrajudicial killings as part of the government’s militarized response to gangs, with almost complete impunity. A report by the Observatory of Human Rights at the José Simeón Cañas University of Central America found that between 2015 and 2020, killings by police peaked in 2016 at 603 but have declined since, with 88 recorded cases in 2020.
Prisons remain overcrowded, and conditions for incarcerated people can be lethal due to disease, lack of adequate medical care, and the risk of violence. The “extraordinary measures” in prisons implemented by the Sánchez Cerén government in 2016 to increase security in prisons and upheld ever since have suspended family visits, limited access to lawyers, and undermined due process guarantees.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because the number of victims of homicides and use of lethal force by law enforcement officers has dropped significantly in recent years.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
Men and women are granted equal rights under the law, but women are often subject to discrimination. Indigenous people disproportionately face poverty, unemployment, and labor discrimination. Certain other populations, particularly internally displaced persons and LGBT+ people, also have inadequate access to the justice system. 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.
The government restricted the rights of asylum seekers by signing an agreement with the United States in September 2019, whereby El Salvador would accept asylum seekers trying to reach the United States and stop them from traveling north. Human rights groups objected, warning that the country was unsafe, but the two governments reportedly finalized the agreement in December 2020.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||2.002 4.004|
Freedom of travel within El Salvador is complicated by gang activity. People living in the turf of one gang may suffer threats or violence when entering the turf of another gang, making it dangerous to travel, work, and attend school, especially for young men. Internal displacement due to gang-related crime and violence is commonplace.
Severe and lengthy restrictions on movement under the aegis of the COVID-19 pandemic were in place from March to August 2020.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because disproportionate pandemic-related restrictions on movement were not reimposed.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||2.002 4.004|
The rights to property and to start and run a business enjoy legal and regulatory protections. Businesses and citizens are regularly subject to extortion, chiefly by gangs.
Indigenous people face difficulties in securing land rights and accessing credit. Most Indigenous Salvadorans live on communal land or in rented accommodations.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
Men and women have equal legal rights on matters such as marriage and divorce, and there are few formal restrictions on such decisions. However, same-sex marriage and adoption remain illegal in El Salvador. The rights of transgender people 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 documents.
Abortion is punishable by imprisonment, including in cases where the pregnant person’s life is at risk. Some women have been jailed despite credible claims that their pregnancies ended due to miscarriage.
The prevalence of adolescent pregnancy is a serious problem, accounting for approximately a third of all pregnancies, and many are the result of sexual assault. Female students with children often leave school, sometimes under pressure from their principals. Gender-based violence, including domestic violence, sexual violence, and femicide, is also common. An April 2019 report by the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) indicated that the majority of sexual-assault survivors were girls between the ages of 12 and 17. El Salvador has one of Latin America’s highest femicide rates.
There have been several reported incidents in recent years of femicide-suicide, in which women and girls die by suicide as a result of abuse. El Salvador remains one of the only countries in the world where this is considered a crime, and the first conviction was handed down in March 2019.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
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. According to the 2021 edition of the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, there has been a significant increase in prosecutions of traffickers, and 2019 legislation granted temporary residency rights to trafficking survivors. However, shelter and public services for survivors remain 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.
On El Salvador
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Global Freedom Score56 100 partly free