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Elias Antonio "Tony" Saca, representing the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), won El Salvador's March 2004 presidential election, the fourth since the country's civil war ended in 1991. Meanwhile, high levels of crime, particularly gang violence, continued to plague El Salvador throughout the year.
The Republic of El Salvador was established in 1859, and 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.
In the 1999 presidential election, the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party's candidate, Francisco Flores Perez, was chosen with 52 percent of the votes, avoiding a second-round run-off. However, the election was marked by a low voter turnout of only 39 percent.
The two earthquakes of 2002, the collapse of coffee prices, and the slowdown of the U.S. economy, where many of the country's exports go, made governance in El Salvador a challenge a decade after the end of the civil war. High levels of crime - especially on the part of gangs (maras) - corruption, and government incompetence have led to popular distrust of national political leaders. More than 70 percent of public officials are perceived to be corrupt.
In 2002, two former generals, Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, were on trial in Florida for torture and extrajudicial killings. 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, testified that he long believed that there was a cover-up of the killings by both the Salvadoran and the U.S. governments.
President Flores Perez canceled the 10-year anniversary celebrations of the end of the civil war, set for March 15, 2002, and after the Frente Farabundo Marti (FMLN) threatened a boycott, and he declared the Chapultepec accords completed.
In the March 16, 2003 parliamentary elections, the FMLN captured 31 seats, the largest number, in the 84-seat Legislative Assembly. ARENA lost 2 seats, down to 27. The Partido de Conciliacion Nacional (PCN) gained 2 seats, up to 16, and moved quickly to establish an alliance with the FMLN to pass legislation.
The months before the March 2004 election were tense with threats of violence and intervention from both within the country and abroad. However, the polls were relatively peaceful and free of major irregularities. ARENA candidate Saca captured 58 percent of the vote, while Shafik Handal, of the FMLN, received 36 percent of the votes. The conclusive results validated ARENA's hold on the presidency, while also exposing the FMLN's poor choice of candidate. On June 1, Saca was sworn into office, along with the first Salvadoran woman to be elected vice president, Ana Vilma de Escobar. Saca has been mostly generous in victory, a reality that reflects the divided legislative assembly, where ARENA and the FMLN hold roughly the same number of seats.
El Salvador's greatest challenge is the ever-increasing violence from gangs who are thought to be responsible for half of each day's murders in the country. Among Saca's electoral promises was the vow to implement a "super-hard-hand plan," a more draconian policy than the "hard-hand plan," already passed by the legislature in 2003, which criminalizes membership in gangs. Also a priority is the economy, held afloat in part by the $2 billion in remittances, by now the largest source of foreign exchange, received from the more than two million Salvadorans living in the United States. ARENA is a strong backer of the regional free-trade agreement with the United States.
Citizens of El Salvador can change their government democratically. The 2004 presidential and 2003 legislative elections were free and fair. The 1983 constitution and subsequent reforms provide for a president elected for a five-year term and the 84-member, unicameral National Assembly, elected for three years. Four political parties are represented in the assembly, and five more are recognized.
Corruption is regarded to be a serious problem in the country's judicial system. El Salvador was ranked 51 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media are privately owned. There are 5 daily newspapers and 16 television stations. One government and 5 private television stations reach most of the country. 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 2002 raised concerns that reporters would have to reveal their sources. The law that was passed includes a requirement that public officials provide information related to national defense. Books, magazines, films, and plays are not censored. There is free access to the Internet.
The government abstains from any intervention in religious freedom. Although the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestantism has made substantial inroads, leading to friction among the faithful. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedom of assembly and association are respected. Many nongovernmental organizations (NGO) are active and represent diverse interests. There are 133 unions, 16 federations, and 3 confederations representing labor. Public employees are not allowed to have unions; they are represented by professional and employee organizations that engage in collective bargaining.
The judicial system continues to be ineffectual and corrupt, and a climate of impunity is pervasive, especially for those politically, economically, or institutionally well connected. 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. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, who is elected by the National Assembly for a three-year term, was created by the 1992 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 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. 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 crime wave has also been fed by the deportation of hundreds of Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States; gang violence is pronounced.
In response, the government introduced a controversial state security offensive against the extreme violence of youth street gangs in 2003. The law, which makes membership in a gang illegal, received strong public support. More than 7,000 young adults have been imprisoned, and the already overburdened legal system has been overwhelmed. Most of the detained have been released by judges who found insufficient cause to support charges of "illicit association." While the measure raises constitutional questions over rights and due process, the Supreme Court refused to rule on the law. Meanwhile, violent crime, especially armed assaults and kidnapping, has not diminished.
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, and up to three-quarters of the prisoners are waiting to be charged and tried. The anti-gang police actions have further strained the judicial and prison system.
Research conducted in 2003 determined that there were three different indigenous groups in El Salvador: Nahua-Pipiles, Lencas, and Cacaoperas. The research project concluded that indigenous people have lost their relationship with the land and that they are generally considered to be peasants. Urban populations do not believe the country to have an indigenous population. Nevertheless, some small, NGOs represent these peoples' interests. There are no national laws regarding indigenous rights.
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. Child labor is a major problem in the country.