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El Salvador

Executive Summary

El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic. Municipal and legislative elections held in March were generally free and fair, according to international observers, although slow tabulation contributed to reporting delays. Free and fair presidential elections took place in 2014.

Civilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over security forces.

Human rights issues included allegations of unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of government respect for judicial independence; widespread government corruption; violence against women and girls that was infrequently addressed by the authorities, as well as security force violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals; and children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.

Impunity persisted despite government steps to dismiss and prosecute some in the security forces, executive branch, and justice system who committed abuses.

Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of murder, extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence directed against police, judicial authorities, the business community, journalists, women, and members of vulnerable populations.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed politically motivated killings. There were reports, however, of security force involvement in extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members. As of July 31, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) announced it was investigating 22 complaints against police officers, prison guards, and personnel of the Attorney General’s Office for such killings.

The case continued against nine police officers charged in September 2017 with aggravated homicide and concealment stemming from the killing of five persons. Three of the accused were members of the now decommissioned Police Reaction Group (GRP), and police claimed at the time of the events that the deaths were justified homicides.

On March 2, the Attorney General’s Office appealed the September 2017 acquittal of five police officers for aggravated homicide charges in the 2015 killing of a man at a farm in San Blas, San Jose Villanueva. The judge had ruled that the prosecutors failed to prove which of the five officers was specifically responsible for firing the fatal shot and likewise failed to prove conspiracy. On May 4, the Fourth Appellate Court of Appeals confirmed it would retry the case.

On February 23, police authorities in coordination with INTERPOL arrested Jaime Ernesto Bonilla Martinez, who lived in Texas, for participating in at least eight homicides as part of an alleged extermination group operating in San Miguel. The group, composed of civilians, some of whom were alleged rival gang members, and retired and active members of the military and police, was purportedly responsible for murder-for-hire and targeted killings of alleged gang members in San Miguel. Funding for the extermination group reportedly came from Salvadoran citizens living abroad.

As of October 25, alleged gang members had killed 21 police officers. On August 21, the Organized Crime Court convicted 61 MS-13 members of homicide, extortion, illicit trafficking, and conspiracy to kill police officers, among other crimes.

b. Disappearance

There were reports alleging that members of security and law enforcement were involved in unlawful disappearances. Since March 2017 law enforcement agencies had not released data on disappearances, citing a discrepancy between data collected by police and the Attorney General’s Office.

On March 7, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the armed forces were responsible for investigating the disappearance of two 17-year-old boys in Ilopango in 2014. According to the court, seven soldiers detained and searched them, tied their hands with their shoelaces, and took them to Colonia Santa Maria, which was controlled by a rival gang. The two youths missed school that afternoon and were not seen thereafter. The case was ongoing.

In May 2017 a Sonsonate court convicted five soldiers of forced disappearance committed in 2014 and sentenced them to eight years’ imprisonment. Their defense attorneys filed an appeal, and the case remained ongoing. In January the Constitutional Chamber found the military in contempt of their August 2017 order that the Ministry of Defense investigate and report on civilian deaths caused by the military.

On September 1 and in December 2017, the Constitutional Chamber issued two sentences in forced disappearance cases from 1982. The Constitutional Chamber determined that investigations should be carried out on the whereabouts of the victims and underlined the state’s responsibility in ensuring an unobstructed investigation. The chamber noted that the Ministry of Defense and the chief of the joint chiefs of staff of the armed forces were uncooperative in the investigation.

As of October the attorney general had opened investigations into 12 instances of forced disappearance during the 1980-92 civil war.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although in many areas the government could not guarantee freedom of movement due to criminal gang activity. As of July 31, the PDDH received two complaints of restrictions from freedom of movement, one against the PNC and the other against a court in Jiquilisco. Both cases involved subjects being detained without charge. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and some assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although this was often difficult in gang-controlled neighborhoods.

In-country Movement: The major gangs controlled their own territory. Gang members did not allow persons living in another gang’s controlled area to enter their territory, even when travelling via public transportation. Gangs forced persons to present government-issued identification cards (containing their addresses) to determine their residence. If gang members discovered that a person lived in a rival gang’s territory, that person risked being killed, beaten, or not allowed to enter the territory. Bus companies paid extortion fees to operate within gang territories, often paying numerous fees for the different areas in which they operated. The extortion costs were passed on to customers.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

On July 13, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the government violated the constitution by not recognizing forced displacement or providing sufficient aid to IDPs. The ruling followed several lawsuits brought by victims, including members of the PNC. The court ordered the Legislative Assembly to pass legislation addressing internal displacement and officially recognize internal displacement. The court also called on the government to retake control of gang territories, develop protection protocols for victims, and uphold international standards for protecting victims.

As of July the PDDH reported 69 complaints of forced displacement from January to May. Nearly all of the complaints were from gang-controlled territories, with 51 cases from San Salvador. As of October the government acknowledged that 1.1 percent of the general population was internally displaced. UNHCR estimated there were 280,000 IDPs. UNHCR reported the causes of internal displacement included abuse, extortion, discrimination, and threats.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, including an established system for providing protection to refugees. As of July 31, four petitions had been submitted, with three resulting in denial and one still under consideration.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. While the Supreme Court investigated corruption in the executive and judicial branches, referring cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal indictment, impunity remained endemic, with courts issuing inconsistent rulings and failing to address secret discretionary accounts within the government, for example in CAPRES.

Corruption: On September 12, a judge sentenced former president Antonio Saca to 10 years in prison. He originally faced up to 30 years in prison before seeking a plea deal. As part of his plea agreement, Saca detailed how he used a network of public officials and advisers to launder money into his ARENA political party, banks, media outlets, publicity companies, fronts, and other activities. Saca testified that weak institutions such as the Court of Accounts were ineffectual in conducting audits, with transparency mechanisms failing to detect fraud. While Saca’s defense offered to return $15 million, the court found him fully liable and ordered him to repay $260 million and surrender his bank accounts and six companies managing 86 radio stations to the asset forfeiture program.

The attorney general investigated corruption pertaining to a discretionary fund within CAPRES in existence for more than 25 years and used by six presidents since 1989. It was originally created to provide resources for the national intelligence budget and CAPRES. The funds, totaling more than one billion dollars since its inception, had never been audited by the Court of Accounts. Both former presidents Saca and Funes were accused of embezzling more than $650 million from public funds. President Sanchez Ceren’s discretionary account was reportedly $147 million, while former presidents Saca and Funes controlled $301 million and $351, million respectively.

On June 19, the Attorney General’s Office initiated an asset forfeiture claim against 24 properties owned by Funes, cabinet members, public officers, and his relatives. Properties included sugarcane plantations, beach houses, and homes.

As of July 31, the Ethics Tribunal reported it had received 190 complaints against 273 public officials. The tribunal sanctioned 20 public officials and forwarded six cases to the attorney general. The attorney general issued 28 arrest warrants on June 6, targeting individuals linked to more than $300 million allegedly embezzled by former president Funes from 2009 through 2014. Despite Constitutional Chamber restrictions on transferring funds without legislative approval, Funes allegedly had misdirected funding for personal gain since 2010. In July the attorney general accused Funes of using $215,000 in public funds to acquire 91 military-grade weapons through the Ministry of Defense for his personal use.

Financial Disclosure: The illicit enrichment law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section of the Supreme Court. The law establishes fines for noncompliance that range from $11 to $571. The declarations were not available to the public unless requested by petition. In 2016 the Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting investigable cases: the age of the case (i.e., proximity to the statute of limitations), relevance of the position, and seriousness and notoriety of the alleged illicit enrichment.

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