El Salvador | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

El Salvador

El Salvador

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Public security and disaster relief headed up the list of most pressing issues in El Salvador in 2001, as rivalries between the country's powerful gangs and an upsurge in extortive kidnappings and murders, particularly in rural areas, appeared to be too much for the country's law enforcement agencies to handle. In early 2001, a series of earthquakes left nearly 2,000 people dead or missing, 25 percent of private homes destroyed or badly damaged, and 1.5 million homeless.

Independence from the Captaincy General of Guatemala was declared in 1841, and the Republic of El Salvador was established in 1859. More than a century of civil strife and military rule followed.

Elected civilian rule was established in 1984. The 1983 constitution, and subsequent reforms, provide for a president elected for a five-year term and an 84-member, unicameral national assembly elected for three years. More than a decade of civil war (which left more than 70,000 dead) ended with the United Nations--mediated peace accords signed in 1992 by the Frente Farabundo Marti (FMLN) guerrillas and the conservative government of President Alfredo Cristiani.

The FMLN participated in the 1994 elections, backing its former ally Ruben Zamora of the Democratic Convergence (CD) for president and running a slate of legislative candidates. The incumbent party, Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), nominated San Salvador Mayor Armando Calderon Sol. The Christian Democrats (PDC) nominated Fidel Chavez Mena. The PDC had previously held power under President Jose Napoleon Duarte (1984--1989). The well-oiled ARENA political machine sounded populist themes and attacked the FMLN as Communists and terrorists. The FMLN-CD coalition offered a progressive but moderate platform and called for compliance with the peace accords. Calderon Sol won just under 50 percent, setting up a runoff against Zamora, who had come in second with 25 percent. In the runoff, Calderon Sol defeated Zamora, 68 to 32 percent.

In the March 16, 1997, elections ARENA won 28 congressional seats, 11 fewer than in 1994, to the FMLN's 27, with other parties splitting the difference. The FMLN also dramatically improved its municipal presence, winning 2 of the 3 largest cities (in coalition with other parties), 6 of 14 departmental capitals, and 10 of the 19 municipalities in San Salvador department. At the same time, ARENA suffered significant reversals, reflected in its having won 35 percent of the vote, as compared with 45 percent in previous polls.

In 1998, the FMLN's electoral chances in the following year's elections appeared to dim, as the party split into hardline Marxist and reformist camps. Although social democratic leader Facundo Guardado, himself a former guerrilla leader and a leading reformist, emerged as the party's presidential nominee, business and social sectors worried that the FMLN was still committed to social revolution.

Francisco Flores, a 39-year-old philosopher, and former president of the legislature, the ARENA candidate, swept to victory in the March 1999 presidential elections, beating Guardado in the first round of voting, 51.4 to 28.9 percent, in contrast to the near tie voting two years earlier. After his inauguration, Flores promised that public security would be a priority in his administration; meanwhile, the FMLN fell back into crisis.

However, in 2000 the FMLN was able to consolidate its electoral gains by becoming the leading party in the Salvadoran legislature, after winning 31 seats in the national assembly in the March 12 legislative elections. Although ARENA remained dominant in the municipal contests, taking 124 mayoralties, the FMLN also improved its showing, winning 78 races, 24 more than it had in 1997. A more hardline faction headed by Shafick Handal regained leadership of the FMLN, whose electoral luster was enhanced by the performance of the mayor of San Salvador, Hector Silva. Meanwhile Flores had to pay the costs of public weariness with ARENA's decade-long rule, and faced stiff protests against his government's free market policies, particularly the privatization of some of the country's health services.

Because the FMLN won the greatest number of legislative seats in the 2000 elections, it claimed the right to lead the parliament, in accordance with a previous multiparty agreement. ARENA, however, brokered a deal with another right-wing group--the National Conciliation Party (PCN), which held 14 seats--in order to set up an annually rotating leadership position within the FMLN. As a result, the first legislative president, elected in May 2000, was from the PCN. When his term expired in 2001, ARENA elected its party leader, Walter Araujo, as president. In October 2001, Guardado was expelled from the FMLN amid a deepening rift between the party's old guard and reformists, as the latter pushed for a review of voter rolls to guard against fraud.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can change their government democratically. The 1999 elections were free and fair, although there were charges that hurricane relief funds were used by ARENA to elect Flores, and abstentions reached a new high. The 2000 legislative and local elections, which the FMLN turned into something of a referendum on ARENA's performance, actually drew a higher turnout than the 1999 vote.

The constitution guarantees free expression, freedom of religion, and the right to organize political parties, civic groups, and labor unions. Random killings, kidnappings, and other crimes, particularly in rural areas, have reinforced the country's reputation as one of the most violent countries in Latin America. The 1992 peace accords have led to a significant reduction in human rights violations; nevertheless, political expression and civil liberties are still circumscribed by sporadic political violence, repressive police measures, a mounting crime wave, and right-wing death squads, including "social cleansing" vigilante groups. The crime wave has also been fed by the deportation of hundreds of Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States. In 1999, the national assembly approved a law that allows civilians to possess war weapons, such as AK-47s and M-16s, for their own defense.

The problem of gang membership continues to be one of the most pressing public safety issues in El Salvador, home to Central America's best-organized and most virulent juvenile delinquency. More than 30,000 youths, nearly 20 percent of Salvadoran adolescents between the ages of 9 and 15, are believed to belong to gangs, known in Spanish as maras. Now, a decade after the problem first came to the fore as a major public safety issue, and as the older gang members become adults, the inter-gang violence characteristic of past years has escalated into myriad acts committed against the public, including kidnappings, car thefts, commercial robberies, and murder.

The judicial system remains ineffectual and corrupt, and a climate of impunity is pervasive. A first step toward judicial reform came in 1994 with the naming by the new legislature of a more politically representative 15-member supreme court, which controls the entire Salvadoran judiciary. Poor training and a lack of sustained disciplinary action for judges, as well as continued corruption, a lack of professionalism, and a painfully slow system of processing cases, greatly undermine public confidence in the justice system.

Although El Salvador is one of the few Latin American countries to restrict military involvement in internal security, the army occasionally joins the police in patrolling San Salvador and some rural districts in crackdowns on gang violence. Following the successful end of peace negotiations that brought the country's decade-long civil war to a close, a new civilian police force was created to replace the discredited public security forces. First deployed in March 1993, the National Civilian Police (PNC) currently has more than 18,000 officers. However, the PNC, which incorporated some former FMLN guerrillas into its ranks, has proved unable to curb the country's rampant crime while protecting human rights. The United States, through its Justice Department's International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP), led international support for the PNC and the National Public Security Academy (ANSP), and has provided more than $30 million in nonlethal equipment and training since 1992. However, a shift in U.S. policymakers' attention from policing in El Salvador to the task of creating a civilian police force in Haiti in the mid-1990s bled resources from the Salvadoran training program at a critical time.

As the crime situation deteriorated, U.S.-funded plans to start innovative community policing programs that attack the gang problem head on were delayed, as were the training of criminal investigators and improvements in the training of police supervisors. Nearly a decade after they were created, both the ANSP and the PNC are struggling to develop more experience in police techniques and procedures, as well as to streamline their operations and administration. Complaints of police brutality and corruption are widespread; scores of policemen have been imprisoned on rights charges. In June 2000 Flores announced that 24 senior- and middle-ranking PNC officers were being cashiered because of their involvement with organized crime. Prisons are overcrowded, conditions are wretched, and up to three-quarters of the prisoners are waiting to be charged and tried. Dozens of inmates have been killed during prison riots.

The media are privately owned. Left-wing journalists and publications are occasionally targets of intimidation. Although the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestantism has made substantial inroads, leading to friction.

Labor, peasant, and university groups are well organized. The archaic labor code was reformed in 1994, but the new code lacks the approval of most unions because it significantly limits the right to organize in some areas, including the export-processing zones known as maquiladoras. Unions that strike are subject to intimidation and violent police crackdowns. Child labor is a problem, as is violence against women.

El Salvador is also the source and transit country for trafficking in persons, primarily women and girls, who are sent to Guatemala and other Central American countries. Trafficking also occurs within El Salvador. Most trafficked victims from outside the country are from Nicaragua, Honduras, and South America. El Salvador's criminal code specifically prohibits trafficking in persons, and the penalties for doing so are comparable to those for rape and forcible sexual assault. The government is making significant efforts to stem the commerce but has not prosecuted cases against traffickers, in part because the law is new and also because of a lack of resources. However, special units to investigate and prosecute cases of violence against women and children, including trafficking, have been created.