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El Salvador was overrun by crime and violence in 2006, facing the highest per capita murder rates in years. The situation was exacerbated by a corrupt and ineffective judicial system, which impeded effective law enforcement. Vigilante groups committing extrajudicial killings, reminiscent of the death squads that terrorized El Salvador during the 1979–1992 civil war, were also of particular concern. Although CAFTA-DR, a regional free-trade agreement, was enacted in 2006, it has yet to have a profound effect on poverty and outward migration, which continue to be major problems in El Salvador.
The Republic of El Salvador was established in 1859, and more than a century of civil strife and military rule followed. The country endured a civil war from 1979 to 1992 that left more than 75,000 people dead and 500,000 displaced. During the civil war—which pitted the right-wing military government against Marxist guerrillas led by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)—paramilitary death squads terrorized the capital of San Salvador and other urban centers.
The National Republican Alliance (ARENA) has held presidential power since 1989. The current president, Elias Antonio “Tony” Saca Gonzalez, is the third president elected since the end of the civil war. The months before the March 2004 presidential 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—which had transformed from a rebel group to an opposition political party following the civil war—received 36 percent. In June, Saca was sworn into office, along with the country’s first female vice president, Ana Vilma de Escobar.
The divide between ARENA and the FMLN continued to dominate Salvadoran politics during the legislative and municipal elections of March 2006. Handal, legendary leader of the FMLN and symbol of the leftist movement in El Salvador, died of a heart attack in January 2006. His death marked a potential turning point for the Salvadoran left, but the election results showed no signs that the event affected support for the FMLN. ARENA won 34 seats in the 84-member Legislative Assembly, up from 27 seats in 2003, followed by the FMLN with 32 seats. The Partido de Conciliacion Nacional (PCN) captured 10 seats, while the Christian Democratic Party won 6 and the Democratic Change party took 2. San Salvador’s close mayoral race ended in protests as government officials initially announced that ARENA candidate Rodrigo Samayoa had won. Some 20,000 FLMN supporters marched in San Salvador on March 16, accusing ARENA officials of fraud and intimidation. Protestors were dispersed by police with tear gas and rubber bullets. In the end, the FMLN maintained its control over the emblematic mayoralty of San Salvador, which it had held since 1997. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal determined that FMLN candidate Violeta Menjivar, a former guerrilla, had won the post by a slim 44-vote margin; she was the first woman to be elected mayor of the city.
The country’s homicide rate reached new heights in 2006, with an average of 11 murders a day occurring nationwide during the first eight months of the year. The Institute of Legal Medicine reported that 3,928 were killed in 2006, resulting in an average of about 10.8 homicides per day. This number is slightly higher than El Salvador’s homicide rate from the previous year, where 3,812 Salvadorans were murdered. Out of the total number of homicides reported in 2006, nearly 79.3 percent were committed with firearms. The capital of San Salvador remains the most violent department of the country, reporting 1,457 murders in 2006. Crime hit commerce as well as individuals, with the National Civil Police reporting that tens of thousands of businesses were subject to the extortion of sums ranging from $5 to $50,000.
Saca’s administration claimed that street gangs ( maras ), with an estimated 100,000 members and associates, were behind the country’s crime wave. The forced repatriation of hundreds of Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States contributed to the problem and reflected the international reach of major gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13), which had members in other Central American countries as well as the United States. Salvadoran government responses to the gang violence included large-scale round-ups of suspected members and crackdowns on displays of gang symbols. Unofficial death squads, allegedly linked to the police and army, also emerged to combat the gangs with extrajudicial murders. In response, security forces have increased operations in areas most impacted by violent crime, including five zones of San Salvador.
Meanwhile, El Salvador continued to struggle with the aftermath of the previous year’s natural disasters, as well as a range of long-term economic problems. In May 2005, Hurricane Adrian struck the country, killing two people and displacing some 20,000. Torrential rains and mudslides following Hurricane Stan flooded at least 300 communities, killed more than 70 people, and displaced roughly 50,000 others. Damage from the storms was estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In October 2005, the Ilamatepec volcano erupted, killing at least two people and forcing thousands to be evacuated from affected areas.
The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), which lowered trade barriers between five Central American countries, the Dominican Republic, and the United States, came into effect on March 1, 2006. However, the increased foreign investment and job creation predicted by the Saca administration remained to be seen. The government estimates that at least 36 percent of the population lives in poverty. Together, underemployed workers and the unemployed make up 70 percent of the potential workforce.
The combination of poor economic performance and natural disasters spurred further emigration from El Salvador, which first began as a result of the civil war. It is estimated that between 817,000 and 2.7 million Salvadorans, or about 13 to 40 percent of El Salvador’s population, live outside the country, particularly in the United States. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Salvadoran migrants abroad sent $2.83 billion in remittances to El Salvador in 2005.
El Salvador is an electoral democracy. The 2006 legislative and 2004 presidential elections were deemed 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. The two largest political parties in El Salvador are the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), formerly a left-wing guerrilla organization. Other parties include the National Conciliation Party (PCN), the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), and the United Democratic Center (CDU).
Corruption is regarded as a serious problem throughout government, particularly in the country’s judicial system. Early in the year President Saca promoted an Ethics Law with the purpose of dealing with corruption in the public sector. The initiative was later approved by Congress in May 2006. Critics, including the Governance Commissioner Gloria Salguero Gross stress that the law needs to be strengthened with an access to information component. El Salvador was ranked 57 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media are privately owned, but ownership is confined to a small group of powerful businesspeople. There are five newspapers with a combined daily circulation of about 250,000. One government and five private television networks reach most of the country. However, TeleCorporacion Salvadoreno (TCS), which is openly aligned with ARENA, owns three of those networks and dominates the country’s ratings. There is unrestricted access to the internet, and the government and private organizations have worked to extend internet access to the poor.
Salvadoran journalists practice self-censorship and are subject to more overt controls imposed by media owners with strong political and economic ties to the country’s elite. Reporters are also hemmed in by criminal defamation laws and the right of judges to close legal proceedings to the media for national security reasons. In 2003, the National Assembly changed the code of criminal procedure to exempt journalists from having to reveal their sources if ordered to testify in a court case. At least 14 reporters were assaulted in July 2006, either by protesters or the National Civil Police, while covering street demonstrations. Concerns have also been raised about ethics in the news media, as some journalists have been accused of using their status for personal and family gain.
The government does not encroach on religious freedom. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are upheld by the authorities. El Salvador has a wide array of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that generally operate without government restrictions. However, some NGOs have reported difficulties in registering with the government. Labor unions have long faced obstacles in a legal environment that has traditionally favored business interests over the labor movement. However, under pressure from the European Union, El Salvador ratified International Labor Organization conventions 87, 98, 135, and 151 in August 2006, guaranteeing historic protections for the rights of labor unions; many activists have voiced doubts as to whether the rules would be enforced in practice.
The judicial system continues to be ineffectual and corrupt and to promote impunity, especially for those who are politically, economically, or institutionally well connected. Problems within the judicial system emerged as a major issue in El Salvador in 2006, as both national and international actors, including the United States Department of State and the Salvadoran Foundation for Social and Economic Development (FUSADES), spoke out to criticize defects in the system and advocate major reform. The World Bank-financed Judicial Modernization Project began to be enacted in 2006, with the goal of enhancing the judicial system’s effectiveness and credibility through a system of monitoring and evaluation. This project is slated to last until 2008.
Human rights violations have declined steadily since the end of the civil war in 1992. 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. Nevertheless, political expression and civil liberties are still limited by sporadic political violence, repressive police measures, and vigilante groups committing extrajudicial killings against suspected criminals and gang members. President Saca, like other Central American leaders, has continued to use “iron fist” ( mano duro ) policies against the country’s powerful gangs.
The antigang measures include the use of the police and the military in house-to-house sweeps of various neighborhoods, a tactic that recalls the violent civil war era. Thousands of gang members have been detained in the operations. However, judges have often refused to approve warrants for such wide searches, saying they are overly broad and unfairly brand people as members of the violent gangs. “Social cleansing” groups, such as “La Sombra Negra” and the “Comando Ejecutivo Antidelincuencional Transitorio,” have been accused of working with the cooperation of the police and the army. Citing a faulty judicial system, these groups have been responsible for extrajudicial killings. Police have also been accused of indiscriminately murdering homeless street children.
Beyond the gang-related violence, complaints of police brutality and corruption are widespread. The U.S. State Department has reported complaints of excessive use of force and mistreatment of detainees by police, cases of arbitrary arrest, and lengthy pretrial detention. Prisons are overcrowded, and at the end of 2006 there were 5,841 prisoners being held in pretrial detention, representing nearly 40 percent of El Salvador’s prison population. Thousands of prisoners in the system launched a major hunger strike in the fall of 2005 to protest poor conditions; inmates complained that they were tortured and denied food, medical care, and family visits.
The ghosts of the civil war death squads continue to haunt the country, along with past abuses by the military. In 1993, President Alfredo Cristiani declared a general amnesty for crimes committed during the war; Salvadoran law bars trials for those accused of human rights violations during the civil war. In March 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States ordered a new investigation into the 1981 massacre of more than 500 people by government troops in the village of El Mozote. Saca denounced the investigation, saying it was a dangerous precedent and could disrupt the country’s peace. By the March 2006 deadline set by the IACHR, the government of El Salvador had failed to meet most of the recommendations made by the court. Some NGOs, such as Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos, have become active in addressing human rights violations such as the disappearance of children during the civil war, and many criticize the government for refusing to provide the appropriate support for such efforts.
There are three different indigenous groups in El Salvador: Nahua-Pipiles, Lencas, and Cacaoperas. However, much of the indigenous population has been assimilated into Spanish culture. There are no national laws regarding indigenous rights. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 human rights report, access to land and credit remained problems for indigenous peoples.
While women are granted equal rights under family and property law, they are occasionally discriminated against in practice; women also suffer discrimination in employment. Violence against women and children is widespread and common. Child labor and human trafficking for purposes of prostitution are serious problems in the country.