El Salvador | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

El Salvador

El Salvador

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The two earthquakes of 2002, the collapse of world coffee prices, and the slowdown of the U.S. economy, where many of the country's exports go, have made governance in El Salvador a challenge one decade after the end of the civil war. High levels of crime, corruption, and incompetence have led to popular distrust of national political leaders, evidenced by the low voter turnout of 39 percent in the 1999 elections. The Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party's candidate, Francisco Flores Perez, was elected with 52 percent of the votes, avoiding a runoff election. By early 2002, control of the Legislative Assembly had also passed to ARENA, which maintained a working majority alliance with the Partido de Conciliacion Nacional (PCN).

The Republic of El Salvador was established in 1859. More than a century of civil strife and military rule followed. The civil war that raged from 1979 to 1991, and left more than 80,000 dead and 500,000 displaced, ended with the Chapultepec Accords. President Flores Perez canceled the 10-year anniversary celebrations set for March 15, 2002, after a boycott was threatened by the Frente Farabundo Marti (FMLN) and declared the accords finished. The 1983 constitution, and subsequent reforms, provide for a president elected for a 5-year term and the 84-member, unicameral National Assembly elected for three years.

In 2002 two former generals, Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, were on trial in Florida for torture and extrajudicial killing. After a general amnesty was granted to the armed forces in 1993, legal action for human rights abuses committed during the civil war moved to the United States. A case against the generals, accusing them of bearing ultimate responsibility for the killings of three nuns and a lay worker and for covering up the role of senior officers, had been dismissed by a U.S. appeals court. Former U.S. ambassador Robert White, who served in El Salvador at the time of the murders, had testified that he long believed that there was a cover-up of the killings by both the Salvadoran and the U.S. governments.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can change their government democratically. The 1999 elections were free and fair, though there were charges that hurricane relief funds were used by ARENA to elect President Francisco Flores Peres, and abstentions reached a new high. There are constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the right to organize political parties, civic groups, and labor unions. Seven political parties are represented in the assembly, and four more are recognized. There are eight unions and three business organizations, and while public employees are not allowed to have unions, they are represented by professional and employee organizations that engage in collective bargaining. Although the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestantism has made substantial inroads, leading to friction.

The 1992 peace accords 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; gang violence is pronounced. Random killings, kidnappings, and other crimes--particularly in rural areas--have reinforced the country's reputation as one of the most violent in Latin America. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, who is elected by the National Assembly for a three-year term, was created by the peace accords with an amendment to the constitution defining its role. The office has been accused of corruption and is hampered by staffing problems, including a 17-month period when there was no ombudsman.

The judicial system is ineffectual and corrupt, and a climate of impunity is pervasive. Poor training and a lack of sustained disciplinary action for judges, as well as continued corruption, a lack of professionalism, and a slow system of processing cases, greatly undermine public confidence in the justice system. Violence against women and children is widespread and common. Human trafficking for prostitution is a serious problem, and up to 40 percent of victims are children.

El Salvador is one of the few Latin American countries to formally restrict military involvement in internal security, but the army occasionally joins the police in patrolling San Salvador and some rural districts in crackdowns on gang violence. The National Civilian Police, which incorporated some former FMLN guerrillas into its ranks, has been unable to curb the country's crime while protecting human rights. Complaints of police brutality and corruption are widespread; scores of police have been imprisoned on human rights charges. Prisons are overcrowded, conditions are shameful, and up to three-quarters of the prisoners are waiting to be charged and tried.

The media are privately owned. There are 5 daily newspapers and 12 television stations. Two cable television systems cover much of the capital, and other cable companies operate in major cities. All carry major local stations and a wide range of international programming. There are approximately 20 small cable television companies across the country, serving limited local areas. There are some 150 licensed radio stations, and broadcasts from neighboring countries are available. A national defense bill approved by the assembly in August of 2002 raised concerns that reporters would have to reveal their sources. Books, magazines, films, and plays are not censored. Academic freedom is respected.