El Salvador | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

El Salvador

El Salvador

Freedom in the World 2009

2009 Scores



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Political violence related to elections scheduled for early 2009 rose in 2008, and in October parties signed a pact to prevent such violence as well as inflammatory campaign tactics. Economic growth began to slump during the year as a result of the global economic climate, and persistent poverty continued to fuel crime and outward migration.

El Salvador gained independence from Spain in 1821 and broke away from a Central American federation in 1841. A republican political system dominated by the landowning elite, and subject to foreign interference, gave way to military rule in the mid-20th century. The country endured a civil war from 1979 to 1992 that left more than 75,000 people dead and 500,000 displaced. During the 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 and other urban centers.

The National Republican Alliance (ARENA) has held the presidency since 1989. Elias Antonio Saca Gonzalez won the 2004 election with 58 percent of the vote, and Shafik Handal of the FMLN, which had evolved into an opposition political party after the war, placed second with 36 percent. The balloting was relatively peaceful and free of major irregularities, despite threats of intervention from both within the country and abroad.

Handal, the FMLN’s legendary leader, died of a heart attack in January 2006, but the event did not appear to affect the outcome of legislative and municipal elections that March. ARENA won 34 of 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly, up from 27 in 2003. The FMLN took 32 seats, the National Conciliation Party (PCN) captured 10, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) won 6, and the Democratic Convergence party took 2.

In 2007, the conservative ARENA and PCN, responding to the rise of the left in neighboring Nicaragua and other Latin American countries, began to build an alliance aimed at blocking the FMLN from taking power in the 2009 elections. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced in September 2008 that it had finalized a voter registry of about 4.2 million people, but it claimed that it was unable to remove the names of voters who may have died. A 2007 audit by the Organization of American States (OAS) had identified 85,000 deceased voters on the registry. Also in September, the TSE announced the country’s first-ever restrictions on international electoral observers, and granted official status only to missions from the European Union, the OAS, and the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organisms.

Political violence related to the upcoming elections increased in 2008. The FMLN and ARENA accused each other of instigating violence, and the office of the country’s human rights ombudsman drafted a nonviolence pact that was signed by representatives of all major parties in October. The agreement obliged the parties to prevent violence among their supporters, avoid confrontational language while campaigning, implement mechanisms to maintain discipline among party members, and recognize the legitimacy of the election results.

El Salvador’s epidemic murder rate continued to drop in 2008, with a daily average of 8.7 murders, down from 10 per day in 2007 and 10.8 in 2006. The majority of homicides occur in the metropolitan area of San Salvador. Crime has affected commerce as well as individuals, and businesses are subject to regular extortion by organized criminal groups. Saca’s administration has claimed that street gangs (maras), with an estimated 100,000 members and associates, are behind the country’s crime problems. The forced repatriation of hundreds of Salvadoran criminals from the United States has contributed to the violence and reflects the international reach of major gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13). The government has responded with round-ups of suspected members and crackdowns on the display of gang symbols. Unofficial death squads and vigilantes, allegedly linked to the police and army, have also emerged to combat the gangs with extrajudicial killings.

The Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which lowered trade barriers between five Central American countries, the Dominican Republic, and the United States, took effect in 2006. However, the benefits in foreign investment and job creation predicted by the Saca administration have been lackluster, despite a 38 percent increase in U.S. investment stemming mostly from U.S.-based Citigroup’s acquisition of El Salvador’s Cuscatlan Financial Group in 2007. Gross domestic product growth slowed to about 3.0 percent in 2008, due in part to recession conditions in the United States. It is estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of all Salvadorans live in poverty, and 70 percent of the potential workforce is either underemployed or unemployed.

Poor economic conditions and a recent series of natural disasters have spurred further mass emigration from El Salvador, which began during the civil war. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, there are approximately 1.5 million Salvadorans living in the United States, and migrants sent back nearly $3.7 billion in remittances in 2007; this source of income was expected to suffer as deportations mounted and the U.S. economy faltered.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

El Salvador is an electoral democracy. The 2006 legislative and 2004 presidential elections were deemed free and fair. The president is elected for a five-year term, and the 84-member, unicameral Legislative Assembly is elected for three years. The two largest political parties are the conservative ARENA and the FMLN, formerly a left-wing guerrilla organization. Other parties include the PCN, the PDC, and Democratic Convergence.

Corruption is regarded as a serious problem throughout government. In 2006, the legislature approved an Ethics Law designed to combat corruption in the public sector, but critics, including Governance Commissioner Gloria Salguero Gross, stressed that the law needed to be strengthened with an access-to-information component. El Salvador was ranked 67 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution provides for freedom of the press, and this right is generally respected in practice. The media are privately owned, but ownership is confined to a small group of powerful businesspeople who often impose controls on reporters to protect their political or economic interests. The ARENA-aligned TeleCorporacion Salvadoreno (TCS) owns three of the five private television networks and dominates the ratings. Reporters are subject to criminal defamation laws, and judges can close legal proceedings to the media on national security grounds. In 2003, the Legislative Assembly exempted journalists from having to reveal their sources if ordered to testify in a court case. In January 2008, an owner of Radio Cadena Mi Gente, William Osmar Chamagua Morataya, reported receiving death threats related to programming that criticized the government, including a show hosted by the FMLN presidential candidate. Salvadoran courts sentenced three gang members in May 2008 for the 2007 murder of journalist Salvador Sanchez Roque, but human rights organizations criticized the prosecutors for neglecting to investigate the motives behind the killing. In September 2008, reporters filming a documentary in the department of La Libertad were allegedly attacked and threatened by municipal officials. Some reporters have been accused of using their status for personal gain, raising ethical concerns. There is unrestricted access to the internet, and the government and private organizations have worked to extend internet access to the poor.

The government does not encroach on religious freedom, and academic freedom is respected.

Freedoms of assembly and association are generally upheld, but a vaguely worded 2006 antiterrorism law has raised concerns about the potential repression of left-leaning social movements. Police arrested 14 people on terrorism charges during a July 2007 protest in Suchitoto against the privatization of water services. The detainees included a journalist as well as the leaders of local labor unions and community activist groups, though all of the charges were dropped in February 2008. One of those arrested, Hector Antonio Ventura, was assassinated by unknown assailants in May 2008; an investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

El Salvador’s wide array of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate freely, but some have reported registration difficulties. Labor unions have long faced obstacles in a legal environment that has traditionally favored business interests. Under pressure from the European Union, El Salvador ratified International Labor Organization conventions 87, 98, 135, and 151 in 2006. However, many activists have voiced doubts as to whether these protections would be enforced.

The ineffectual and corrupt judicial system continues to promote impunity, especially for the well connected. Members of the National Security Commission estimate that 80 percent of crimes against life go unpunished, while the UN Development Programme reports that less than 20 percent of homicide cases reach the courts, and only 3.8 percent of crimes end in a conviction. The World Bank–financed Judicial Modernization Project, implemented from 2006 to 2008, was designed to enhance the judiciary’s effectiveness and credibility through a system of monitoring and evaluation.

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. While human rights abuses have declined steadily since the end of the war, civil liberties are still limited by sporadic political violence, repressive police measures, and vigilante groups. President Elias Antonio Saca Gonzalez, like other Central American leaders, has continued to use “iron fist” (mano duro) tactics against the country’s powerful gangs, including house-to-house sweeps by the police and military. However, judges have often refused to approve warrants for such wide searches.

Beyond the gang-related violence, law enforcement officials have been criticized for brutality, corruption, arbitrary arrest, and lengthy pretrial detention. In 2007, the National Civil Police reported evidence that some officers were moonlighting as hired assassins. As of 2008 there were some 18,000 inmates held in a prison system that was designed to house just 8,000, and it is estimated that about half of the inmates are awaiting trial.

Salvadoran law, including a 1993 general amnesty, bars prosecution of crimes and human rights violations committed during the civil war. In 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights chastised the government for failing to fully comply with its 2005 order to investigate the 1981 massacre of more than 500 people by government troops in the village of El Mozote. Saca had denounced the investigation, saying it could disrupt the country’s peace. Some NGOs have begun addressing wartime human rights violations such as the disappearance of children, and many rebuke the authorities for refusing to support these efforts.

There are three 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 2008 human rights report, access to land and credit remain problems for indigenous people.

While women are granted equal rights under family and property law, they are occasionally discriminated against in practice; women also suffer discrimination in employment. Human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution is a serious problem. In 2008, El Salvador was ranked as a Tier 2 country on the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. Child labor also continues to be an area of concern, and one 2007 estimate held that up to a third of the workers on the country’s sugarcane plantations were under the age of 18. Violence against women and children is widespread.