El Salvador | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

El Salvador

Freedom in the World 2016
Freedom Status: 
Aggregate Score: 
Freedom Rating: 
Political Rights: 
Civil Liberties: 
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Quick Facts

San Salvador
Press Freedom Status: 
Partly Free
Net Freedom Status: 

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El Salvador received a downward trend arrow due to flaws in the 2015 legislative elections and increasing criminal violence, including threats against journalists, teachers, and the general public.


After an intense campaign focused on security and economic challenges, March legislative election results were split between the formerly dominant Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). A complex new system for allocating seats contributed to delays in finalizing the tally.

Violence increased dramatically in 2015 as a result of conflict involving the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), the Barrio 18 gang, other criminal elements, and the country’s security forces. The increased violence has affected nearly every facet of Salvadoran political, social, and economic life. With a tally of 6,650 murders—compared to 3,912 in 2014—El Salvador ended 2015 with the world’s highest homicide rate.

The Salvadoran government continued to support a variety of initiatives to confront security problems in 2015 while distancing itself from a previous policy of dialogue with gangs. 

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 33 / 40 (−2) [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 10 / 12 (−2)

El Salvador’s president is elected for a five-year term. The 84-member, unicameral Legislative Assembly is elected for three years. Three candidates contended for the presidency in 2014: former guerilla Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the incumbent FMLN, Norman Quijano of ARENA, and former president Antonio Saca of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). Cerén defeated Quijano in a very close runoff held in March. Turnout was 60 percent. Although Quijano accused the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of fraud, domestic and international observers considered the elections free and fair.

In March 2015 legislative elections, ARENA won a total of 35 seats, 32 on its own and 3 in coalition with the National Coalition Party (PCN); the PCN and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), which also had a coalition bloc, won an additional 3 seats. The FMLN won 31 seats, and its traditional partner GANA took 11; the National Reconciliation Party won 4. Turnout was 48 percent. Technical problems that prevented the transmission of voting results to election headquarters delayed final vote tallies and the seating of the new legislature in May. A monitoring mission from the Organization of American States (OAS) declared the vote broadly transparent and free, though it pointed out difficulties in the counting of votes and transmission of results. Some vote buying was alleged in rural areas. Candidates from San Salvador disputed the results, prompting the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court to call for an unprecedented recount that did not affect the results but delayed the seating of 24 deputies.

In November 2014, three months before the election, the Constitutional Chamber ruled that voters could cast ballots for candidates from more than one political party (cross-voting); previously, voters selected a party rather than individual candidates. The OAS questioned whether the date of the decision allowed sufficient time for parties to adapt before the election. The Constitutional Chamber continued to issue decisions on voting rules as late as a week prior to the election, prompting accusations by the FMLN that the chamber’s conservative majority was purposefully generating confusion that would disproportionately harm ruling-party candidates. Municipal council seats are now filled via proportional representation. Residential voting was extended to the entire country for the first time in the 2015 legislative and municipal elections.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 14 / 16

Since the end of the civil war in 1992, FMLN and ARENA have been the country’s two largest political parties, though there is significant support for GANA. In 2014, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that transfuguismo—the practice whereby deputies abandon the parties with which they are elected—was unconstitutional.

Some Salvadorans continue to express concern that foreign governments and multinational corporations exert excessive influence over decisions made by local and national government officials.

The newly elected legislature included no members who identified themselves as representatives of ethnic minorities or indigenous groups, nor do these populations hold high-level government positions. A 2013 statute requires that 30 percent of all legislative and municipal candidates be women.


C. Functioning of Government: 9 / 12

The Constitutional Chamber delayed the swearing in of the legislature to wait for a ballot recount, leading FMLN legislators to accuse the court of implementing a partisan agenda intended to favor the country’s right wing.

El Salvador was ranked 72 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption continues to be a serious problem, and few high-level public officials have been charged or convicted.

Salvadoran authorities are making limited progress in their prosecution of government officials with alleged ties to organized crime and other criminal elements. In September, a former colonel was arrested on multiple weapons possession and arms trafficking charges. In October, the Supreme Court of Justice for the first time ordered an investigation into a sitting congressman, Reynaldo López Cardoza, on allegations of illicit enrichment. Despite these cases, the vast majority of crimes still go unpunished.

The Legislative Assembly passed a controversial Law on Integrity in December that requires public officials to declare their assets. The president signed the law later that month. Critics claimed the law failed to create a comprehensive framework to control corruption.

Journalists have condemned the government for failing to comply with an Access to Public Information Law passed in 2011 and regularly refusing to disclose information, often by citing supposed security concerns.


Civil Liberties: 36 / 60 (−4)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 12 / 16 (−3)

The constitution provides for freedom of the press, and while this right is generally respected in practice, harassment following coverage of corruption and gang violence has increasingly led reporters to engage in self-censorship. For example, El Faro journalists were subject to death threats, illegal surveillance, and harassment following two July 2015 reports in which they accused police of abusing suspects in custody and unlawfully killing eight people. In April, President Sánchez accused the media of participating in a “psychological terror campaign” against his government after reporting on violent crime rates in the country. Like other news outlets in the region, the website of La Prensa Gráfica was cloned and two fake interviews with its president were published in July.

Salvadoran media are privately owned, but ownership is confined to a small group of powerful businesspeople that manipulate reporting in order to protect their political and economic interests. ARENA-aligned Telecorporación Salvadoreña dominates the market with three of the five private television networks. Online sites such as El Faro and Contrapunto provide alternative views and investigative reporting. Access to the internet is unrestricted. In recent years, the government and numerous other organizations have started programs to extend internet access to the poor.

The government does not encroach on religious freedom, and academic freedom is respected. However, religious leaders who work with former gang members and are critical of the government’s approach to security have been harassed and received death threats. Moreover, gangs’ strict enforcement of territorial boundaries has gravely affected the ability of students and teachers to safely reach schools, and teachers have been increasingly subject to extortion.

There have been no recent reports of extralegal surveillance or government interference in private discussions or communications. However, given the prevalence of gang activity throughout the country, Salvadorans take precautions when discussing matters of public security outside their homes in order to minimize the risk of retaliation. In August, the Legislative Assembly began to consider a proposal that would expand the surveillance power of the Attorney General’s Office; critics fear that the law will infringe upon citizens’ right to privacy and be used against political opponents.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 8 / 12

Freedoms of assembly and association are generally upheld, and public protests have been permitted without obstruction. El Salvador’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate freely, though some have reported difficulties with registration. Labor unions have long faced obstacles in a legal environment that has traditionally favored business interests. In 2015, the Labor Court ruled five strikes illegal, though no arrests were made during the strikes.


F. Rule of Law: 8 / 16

El Salvador’s judicial system remains weak and is plagued by corruption and obstructionism. In 2015, the left argued that some judicial decisions—like the constitutional chamber’s decision to delay the seating of the legislature pending a vote recount—were partisan. Justice system officials have frequently been accused of brutality, corruption, and arbitrary arrest. In November, police issued arrest warrants for 12 former judges, prosecutors, and lawyers on charges of money laundering and corruption. Among them were three antimafia judges already under investigation for accepting bribes in exchange for favoring certain criminal defendants. As of December 2015, the Supreme Court had expelled or suspended at least four judges in connection with these cases, and prosecutions were proceeding.

Over 80 police officers and military personnel were killed, presumably by gang members, in 2015, and several car bombs exploded or were deactivated during the year. Current and former gang members make up 40 percent of the country’s prison population, which continues to exceed capacity by 300 percent. Prisoners held on pretrial detention account for more than 25 percent of inmates. At least 31 inmates were murdered as of mid-October, while 27 prison employees were arrested on corruption charges during the year.

In terms of homicides per capita, El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world; homicides increased more than 70 percent from 2014 to 2015. The country has been on the U.S. list of “major” drug producing and transit countries since 2011, and the government has been criticized for not cracking down on organized crime, gangs, and drug trafficking networks more aggressively. In 2015, death squads wearing security force uniforms killed more than a dozen gang members, with no investigation or prosecutions for these extrajudicial killings.

A 2010 law criminalized gang membership, and despite offers of concessions from gang leaders there has been no movement toward repeal of the measure. In 2015, a security council comprised of both state and civil society actors considered a law offering benefits to gang members who choose to leave their gangs. In August, the Supreme Court upheld the October 2006 Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism, which allowed street gangs and those who finance them to be treated as terrorists and expanded the use of wiretaps and the freezing of funds. According to one report, 1,312 gang members were charged with terrorism in 2015, including 304 who enforced a July bus boycott that resulted in the assassination of eight motorists.

Salvadoran law and a 1993 general amnesty bar prosecution of crimes and human rights violations committed during the civil war; the authorities have faced criticism from NGOs and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for failing to adequately investigate such crimes.

Article 63 of the constitution, ratified in 2014, recognizes indigenous peoples and pledges the state to adopt policies supporting maintenance of indigenous and cultural identity, values, and spirituality. However, no public policies or laws have been designed to advance this recognition. Along with poverty, unemployment, and labor discrimination, indigenous people also face challenges with regard to land rights and access to credit.

Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is widespread in El Salvador, despite being prohibited by law. According to a local NGO, 18 transgender women were murdered in 2015, and rights groups have condemned officials for failing to adequately investigate such murders. In September, the Legislative Assembly approved legislation increasing penalties for hate crimes based on gender expression or sexual orientation.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 8 / 16 (−1)

Freedom of travel within El Salvador has been complicated by the government’s inability to control mounting gang violence. The MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs each control certain neighborhoods, making it extremely dangerous for citizens to travel, work, and live freely throughout the country. One report estimated that approximately 13,000 Salvadorans were internally displaced in 2014, in addition to thousands who fled to the United States. Approximately 70,000 children dropped out of school for fear of crime in 2014, and at least 72 students were murdered traveling between home and school as of November. Businesses and private citizens are subject to extortion by organized criminal groups on a regular basis. Gang threats and the murders of several bus drivers shut down the country’s transportation system in July.

Canadian gold mining firm Pacific Rim is suing El Salvador for $315 million for the country’s failure to issue permits for gold extraction. Environmental advocates are concerned that the mining could jeopardize the country’s water supply.

Women are granted equal rights under the constitution, but they are often subject to discrimination in employment and other areas. Abortion is punishable by imprisonment even when the life of the mother is at risk, and some women have been sent to jail despite credible claims that their pregnancies ended in miscarriage and not abortion. The constitutional chamber affirmed in 2013 that the “rights of the mother cannot be privileged over the fetus.” Fifteen of the so-called Las 17—women who served jail time for pregnancy-related crimes—are still in prison. Violence against women, including domestic violence, is a serious problem.

In April, El Salvador’s legislature granted preliminary approval to constitutional reforms that would ban same-sex marriage and adoption, but a two-thirds majority is required for the reforms to go into effect. In previous years, similar measures had failed to pass.

Despite government 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. Gangs often force children into trafficking and selling drugs, and migrants traveling from or through El Salvador can fall victim to sex and labor trafficking rings. Corruption among public officials has stymied efforts to dismantle sex trafficking operations.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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