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In legislative and municipal elections held in March 2012, the Nationalist Republican Alliance regained political ground that it had lost to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in 2009. Also in March, the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs agreed to a truce that cut the country’s murder rate by more than 40 percent. The Constitutional Court in June rejected a second set of appointments to the Supreme Court which led to a showdown with the legislative branch.
El Salvador gained independence from Spain in 1821 and broke away from the Central American Federation in 1841. A republican political system dominated by an oligarchy of landowning elite, and subject to foreign interference, gave way to military rule in the mid-20th century. A 1979-92 civil war pitted El Salvador’s Christian Democratic Party (PDC) government, the right-wing oligarchy, and the military, with support from the United States, against the Marxist-Leninist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and other leftist groups. The war left more than 75,000 dead and 500,000 displaced. In 1989, the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) captured the presidency, and the civil war ended in 1992 with the signing of a peace treaty. ARENA held the presidency for two decades, with ongoing competition from the FMLN party.
In the March 2009 presidential election, Mauricio Funes became the first president from the FMLN. While the FMLN has supported Funes on several issues since taking office, important disagreements have complicated their relationship, causing a rift between the president and his party. Funes was accused by some on the left of moving towards the center after taking office and deviating from the FMLN’s original program. Contentious issues included Funes’ replacement of FMLN members from his cabinet, allegedly under pressure from the U.S. government; in November 2011, for example, Funes replaced Minister of Justice and Public Security Manuel Melgar, an FMLN militant, with former general David Munguía Payés.
El Salvador held legislative and local elections in March 2012, with a turnout of 51 percent of registered voters. The elections returned ARENA to power, with the party winning 33 seats. The FMLN followed with 31 seats, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) with 11, the National Conciliation (CN) with 7, and the Party of Hope (PES) and the Democratic Change Party (PDC) with 1 seat each. The elections marked the first time that candidates could run for office independently of parties, though independents won less than 1 percent of the national vote. In municipal elections, ARENA captured 116 out of 262 mayorships. The FMLN won 95 mayoral races, including 8 in a coalition with the PDC and 2 with the PES; the CN won 26 races, including 3 in coalition with the PES; and GANA won 18, including 1 in coalition with the PES. The PES won 4 mayorships, and the PDC won 3. An electoral observer mission from the Organization of American States (OAS) made a number of recommendations to improve the legitimacy of El Salvador’s electoral process, including the passage of campaign finance and accountability laws, as well as measures to increase female representation in the national and municipal-level governments.
In March 2012, online investigative journal El Faro uncovered a truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gangs, facilitated by former guerrilla and member of congress Raul Mijango, along with the military bishop Fabio Colindres. The gang leaders agreed to the ceasefire in return for improved prison conditions. After initially denying involvement with the truce, the government eventually acknowledged it and held several meetings with representatives of civil society, political parties, the business community, and the OAS in order to devise a long-term plan to sustain the peace. While the country’s murder rate dropped by more than 40 percent in 2012 compared to 2011, the public remained skeptical that overall violence had decreased and that the truce could be sustained. In December, the two mediators of the truce requested that the Legislative Assembly adopt new laws that would offer a legal framework for the continuation of the truce. Among the proposed measures was one for the creation of jobs for at-risk youths. All political parties were open to these suggestions.
After overcoming a constitutional crisis with the passage of Decree 743 in 2011—which required the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court to reach unanimous decisions before rulings could take effect—the independence of the country’s judiciary was tested once again in 2012. The constitutional crisis was triggered when FMLN deputies elected a new attorney general during the legislature’s April lame duck session. The Supreme Court declared the election unconstitutional, and the legislators retaliated by trying to change the composition of the Supreme Court. On June 5, the Constitutional Chamber ruled that the those judicial appointments, as well as appointments that had been made in 2006, were unconstitutional on the grounds that legislators voted twice to elect judges in each year despite being authorized by the constitution to vote only once during each term. President Funes helped the political parties broker an agreement in August whereby the legislature re-elected the 2006 and 2012 Supreme Court judges, four judges elected to the Constitutional Chamber in 2009 remained in their positions, and José Salomón Padilla was elected president of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Chamber.
The global economic crisis continued to have a significant effect on the country, as the economy is closely linked to that of the United States through trade and remittances. Analysts estimate that economic growth will remain low for the next several years. It is estimated that 41 percent of all Salvadoran live in poverty, which has fueled social alienation, as well as organized crime and violence.
El Salvador is an electoral democracy. 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 leftist FMLN.
Corruption remains a serious problem in El Salvador, and few high level public officials have ever been charged or convicted. In March 2011, the Legislative Assembly passed a law requiring public entities to provide information in order to promote accountability and to encourage participation and public oversight; the reforms went into effect in 2012. Zaira Navas resigned as inspector general of the National Civil Police (PNC) in January 2012, claiming that the military had gained too much influence over the nation’s security institutions, including the PNC and the State Intelligence Agency, and that further investigations into corruption would be blocked. Shortly after Navas’ resignation, several officers who had been under investigation were promoted. In October, President Mauricio Funes announced that his administration had investigated 307 cases of anomalies in governance, including 172 from his term. While 111 cases were sufficiently documented to be taken to the prosecutor, only three were in judicial proceedings as of October. El Salvador was ranked 83 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press, and this right is generally respected in practice. In September 2011, the Legislative Assembly approved reforms to the penal code that would replace jail time with fines in cases involving crimes against public image and privacy. A member of MS-13 accused of murdering Canal 33 cameraman Alfredo Antonio Hurtado in April 2011 was convicted in May 2012. The staff of the newspaper El Faro have received threats and reported being followed after reporting in May 2011 about connections between gang leaders, politicians and businessmen, as well as the March 2012 gang truce. The media are privately owned, but ownership is confined to a small group of powerful businesspeople who often impose controls on journalists to protect their political or economic interests. ARENA-aligned Telecorporación Salvadoreña owns three of the five private television networks and dominates the market. 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. The Legislative Assembly passed a controversial law in 2010 criminalizing gang membership. Critics argued that the law threatened freedom of association and would not succeed in addressing gang-related crime. El Salvador’s 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.
The judicial system continued to demonstrate its independence in a number of important cases in 2012, including corruption investigations against former political officials. However, judges and others continue to speak out against the corruption and obstructionism that still permeates the Supreme Court and the entire judiciary. While very few complaints against judges ever move forward, the Supreme Court investigation unit dismissed two judges and suspended six others in 2011. In December 2012, the Constitutional Chamber demonstrated its independence once again when it ruled that elements of the regulations issued by the Funes administration to implement the Access to Information Law were unconstitutional.
Law enforcement officials continue to be criticized for brutality, corruption, arbitrary arrest, and lengthy pretrial detention. In September 2012, Colonel Alberto Gonzalez Quezada, who had served as head of the military’s Logistics Division in 2010 and 2011, was arrested and charged with illegal arms sales. There are an estimated 20,000 gang members in the country; nearly 10,000 were in detention centers in 2011. The U.S. Treasury Department named MS-13 a transnational criminal organization in October 2012. Primarily as a result of the March 2012 gang truce, El Salvador ended the year with a homicide rate of approximately 42 per 100,000 compared to 70 per 100,000 in 2011. El Salvador was added to the U.S. list of “major” drug producing and transit countries in 2011. The Legislative Assembly elects a human rights ombudsman for a three-year term. According to the country’s Prison Directorate, as of June 2012, the prison system was operating at over 300 percent of its capacity, and nearly 30 percent of inmates had not been convicted of a crime. After having increased military authority over the country’s prison system in recent years, the Funes government began to demilitarize prisons in April 2012.
Salvadoran law, including a 1993 general amnesty, bars prosecution of crimes and human rights violations committed during the civil war, but the authorities have faced criticism from NGOs and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) for failing to adequately investigate such crimes. In November 2011, the Spanish government formally requested the extradition of 15 military officers for their involvement in the murders of six Jesuit priests—five of whom were Spanish—and their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989. The Supreme Court denied the request in May 2012. In December, the IACHR ruled that that the 1993 amnesty law was invalid and that the government must investigate a 1981 massacre in and around the village of El Mozote, in which the armed forces killed more than 800 civilians as part of an antiguerilla campaign.
There are no national laws regarding indigenous rights. Access to land and credit remain a problem for indigenous people, along with poverty, unemployment, and labor discrimination.
Businesses are subject to regular extortion by organized criminal groups. While the murder rate decreased in 2012, there are concerns that extortion by gangs increased.
While women are granted equal rights under the constitution, they are often discriminated against in practice, including in employment. Violence against women, including domestic violence, is a serious problem. Despite governmental efforts, El Salvador remains a source, transit, and destination country for the trafficking of women and children for the purposes of prostitution and forced labor.