El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic with a democratically elected government. In February 2019 voters elected Nayib Bukele as president for a five-year term. The election was generally free and fair, according to international observers. Free and fair municipal and legislative elections took place in 2018.
The National Civilian Police, overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security. The Ministry of Defense is responsible for maintaining national security. Although the constitution separates public security and military functions, it allows the president to use the armed forces “in exceptional circumstances” to maintain internal peace and public security “when all other measures have been exhausted.” The military is responsible for securing international borders and conducting joint patrols with the civilian police. In November 2019 President Bukele signed a decree authorizing military involvement in police duties. The decree, in effect until December 31, authorizes the military under National Civilian Police control to identify areas with the highest incidence of crime to target peacekeeping operations; conduct joint patrols with police to prevent, deter, and apprehend members of organized crime and common crime networks; carry out searches of individuals, vehicles, and property; help persons in cases of accidents or emergencies; make arrests and hand over detainees to police; prevent illegal trafficking of goods and persons at unauthorized national borders; strengthen perimeter security at prisons and other detention centers and schools; and provide land, sea, and air support to police. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses. On February 9, the executive branch used security forces to attempt to interfere with the independence of the legislature.
Significant human rights issues included: allegations of unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression and the press; serious acts of government corruption; lack of consistent investigation and accountability for violence against women; and crimes involving violence by security forces against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals.
Impunity persisted despite government steps to dismiss and prosecute abusers in the security forces, executive branch, and justice system. In some cases authorities investigated and prosecuted persons accused of committing crimes and human rights abuses.
Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes. They committed killings and acts of extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence. They directed these acts 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. The Attorney General’s Office (FGR) investigates whether security force killings were justifiable and pursues prosecutions. According to the FGR, as of August 24, there were seven extrajudicial killings under investigation in which nine National Civilian Police (PNC) officers were implicated, including cases that originated in past years. As of August 27, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) announced it was investigating six complaints of such killings, some by law enforcement, including those in which PNC officers were alleged to have directly participated and one attributed to prison guards.
On April 26, President Bukele responded, via Twitter, to an increase in gang-related homicides, stating, “the use of lethal force is authorized for self-defense or for the defense of the lives of Salvadorans.” This tweet did not grant police any additional powers, although international civil society and multilateral organizations criticized the president for heightening the risk that police would commit extrajudicial killings of gang members. On July 9, the news agency EFE reported that the official figures from Minister of Security Rogelio Rivas indicated that from January to late May, there were 90 confrontations between security forces and alleged gang members, leaving 44 persons dead, 29 injured, and 70 detained.
On May 13, media outlets reported the case of a woman killed by PNC officers while she was shopping in San Julian Municipality, Sonsonate Department. According to police reports, the woman was a gang member who attacked three police officers with a firearm, and in response, the officers returned fire and killed the woman. The newspaper El Diario de Hoy reported police sources did not find it credible that the woman attacked police, and the woman’s family denied she was involved with gangs. The police officers faced an initial hearing before the justice of the peace of San Julian. Per the request of the FGR, the judge decided the officers would continue to face the judicial process but without being detained in prison.
On August 13, the FGR arrested three PNC officers who were allegedly linked to an extermination group accused of murdering three persons in July 2019.
On August 16, the Specialized Court of Instruction C of San Salvador, at the request of the FGR, announced a sentencing hearing for four PNC officers accused of forced disappearances and aggravated homicide. Three of the officers worked in rural Usulutan and the fourth in Zacatecoluca, La Paz Department. According to media reports, the officers were charged with a triple homicide that occurred on July 7, as well as prior homicides from 2017 and 2019.
On June 20, media reported that Víctor David Castillo Campos, an officer of the elite Police Reaction Group (GRP) and alleged accomplice in the killing of fellow GRP member Carla Ayala after a GRP gathering in 2017, received house arrest after serving two years in prison without a final verdict. Castillo Campos was arrested in 2018 and was one of 13 defendants (eight police officers and five civilians) implicated as accomplices in Ayala’s killing. Juan Jose Castillo Arevalo was also accused of killing Ayala and since 2017 remained a fugitive. The PNC disbanded the GRP in 2018.
In July the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America (IDHUCA), Servicio Social Pasionista, Cristosal, Due Process of Law Foundation, and other organizations presented a report on extrajudicial killings that was a follow-up to the UN special rapporteur’s 2018 recommendations. On July 9, EFE stated the report concluded extrajudicial killings persisted in the country despite a change of the presidency in June 2019. According to the report, from June to December 2019, there were 156 clashes between the security forces and alleged gang members that left 107 civilians dead and 43 injured.
Reports alleged that security and law enforcement officials were involved in unlawful disappearances. Law enforcement agencies had not released data on disappearances since 2017, citing a discrepancy between data collected by the PNC and the FGR. Media reported in March that the discrepancy continued.
According to media reports, the FGR recorded 542 disappearances between January and March, with an average of six missing persons cases per day. This marked a decrease from the same period in 2019 when the FGR tracked 829 cases, equivalent to nine disappearances daily. The PNC reported that 65 percent of those reported missing were later found alive and that there was a likelihood that many of the remaining 35 percent had emigrated. The FGR reported 724 cases of “deprivation of liberty” through July 13, compared with 2,234 cases from January through October 2019; however, this offense included both disappearances and missing persons.
On August 10, media reported that the PNC registered 728 missing persons cases in the first half of the year, compared with 1,295 reported during the same time period in 2019. Of the cases reported in the first six months, 56 percent were still missing as of September, 40 percent were found alive, and 4 percent were found deceased. The local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Servicio Social Pasionista reported that as of June there were 434 disappearances, compared with 652 in 2019.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, but there were reports of violations. As of August 27, the PDDH had received 15 complaints of torture or cruel or inhuman treatment by the PNC and two by the armed forces, compared with 33 and nine complaints, respectively, as of August 2019. The PDDH also received 55 complaints of mistreatment and disproportionate use of force by the PNC, four by the armed forces and one by the PNC and armed forces together.
Reports of abuse and police misconduct came mostly from residents of metropolitan San Salvador and mainly from men and young persons. As of June, according to the PNC, 104 officers had been involved in crimes and offenses, resulting in 92 charges. Furthermore, as of September 14, the PNC received 90 complaints of general misconduct by police, including but not limited to torture or cruel or inhuman treatment; five of the 90 complaints were officially submitted to the FGR.
On May 6, in Zacatecoluca, La Paz Department, media reported on the case of a man who died while in provisional detention under police custody. Allegedly, the PNC told the family of the man, arrested on homicide and gang membership charges connected to the 2019 killing of a soldier, that he had died of COVID-19 and that he should be buried immediately and without opening the casket. Media reported that the family did not believe the cause of death and inspected the body at the grave, finding the man still handcuffed, with a bloodied face and broken teeth. The family believed he died after being tortured and took photographs of the body. The PNC maintained the man died of massive bleeding. The PDDH called for an investigation into the case. On May 12, the FGR exhumed the body for an autopsy but, as of September 16, had not made any arrests.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in March of sexual exploitation and abuse by Salvadoran peacekeepers deployed to the UN Mission in South Sudan, allegedly involving an exploitative relationship with an adult. As of September the United Nations was investigating the allegation.
Impunity was a problem in the PNC and armed forces. Media reported cases of the PNC abusing their authority during the nationwide stay-at-home order. The government repeatedly defied judicial order to allow expert witnesses access to inspect military archives to determine criminal responsibility for the 1981 El Mozote massacre. Factors contributing to impunity included politicization and general corruption. The FGR is responsible for investigating abuses. The government provided annual training to military units to dissuade any potential for gross abuses of human rights, such as the training provided to the Marine Infantry Battalion by the navy’s Legal Unit on the need to respect human rights.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and gang activities.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding, at one-third above capacity as of August, was a serious threat to prisoners’ health and welfare. The prisons system had a capacity for 27,037 inmates, but, as of August 17, there were more than 36,000 inmates. For example, the PDDH reported that in one prison, 1,486 inmates were held in facilities designed for 280.
Convicted inmates and pretrial detainees were sometimes held in the same prison cells.
Gangs remained prevalent in prisons. After a sudden increase in gang violence in late April, President Bukele ordered a lockdown and imposed strict measures in the seven prisons where most imprisoned gang leaders and members were held. Prison authorities implemented the order, placing gang leaders in solitary confinement, mixing rival gang members together, conducting cell searches for contraband, and boarding up cells to prevent prisoners communicating among cells using visual signals. As of September approximately 55 percent (18,746 prisoners) of the prison population were active or former gang members.
According to the PDDH, many prisons had inadequate sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature control, medical care, and lighting. Inmates experienced gastrointestinal illnesses and skin problems due to poor water quality.
In August the PNC reported 51 percent overcrowding in police holding cells, with more than 4,000 detainees in cells designed for 1,500-1,800 individuals. This was up from 2,300-2,400 detainees held in similar facilities in 2019.
On March 11, President Bukele announced a quarantine plan that required anyone entering the country be placed in a government-run quarantine center for 30 days. Government officials began implementation immediately after President Bukele’s announcement and forced many who were already in transit to enter the quarantine centers. According to media reports, the government was not sufficiently prepared and faced high levels of overcrowding; one facility in particular held 700 persons in an area meant to house 400. Quarantined individuals posted photographs and videos on social media denouncing poor sanitary conditions, including dirty restrooms and a lack of personal hygiene supplies, as well as a lack of food, water, and medical attention.
Administration: The PDDH has authority to investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions. During the state of emergency, authorities did not allow prisoners and detainees to receive any visitors or to gather for religious observances.
Independent Monitoring: As of August, according to the PDDH, COVID-19 made it temporarily impossible to inspect detention centers or interview inmates due to the serious health risk. At times the prison system was entirely closed to visits, allowing only employees to enter. Professional and family visits, inspections of institutions, and visits by international organizations, NGOs, churches, and others were completely suspended.
Improvements: New construction and a redistribution of prisoners reduced overcrowding from 141 percent in September 2019 to 139 percent as of August.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, there were numerous complaints that the PNC and military forces carried out arbitrary arrests. NGOs reported that the PNC arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals on suspicion of gang affiliation.
The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed this provision.
On March 21, President Bukele issued a mandatory nationwide stay-at-home order for 30 days. Following this announcement, the PNC and armed forces began enforcement and placed those violating the order in containment centers for 30 days of quarantine. Some of those detained for violating the stay-at-home order were taken to police stations and held for more than 24 hours.
Apolonio Tobar, the ombudsman for human rights, reported that individuals in detention were not receiving their COVID-19 test results until weeks after being tested. According to media, this delay contributed to extended time in detention as individuals were forced to stay in the quarantine facilities longer than the mandated 30 days without a specific explanation from health officials regarding the reason for their continued quarantine or the date of their release.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The constitution requires a written warrant of arrest except in cases where an individual is caught in the act of committing a crime. Authorities generally apprehended persons with warrants based on evidence and issued by a judge, although this was frequently ignored when allegations of gang membership arose. Police generally informed detainees promptly of charges against them.
The law permits release on bail for detainees who are unlikely to flee or whose release would not impede the investigation of the case. The bail system functioned adequately in most cases. The courts generally enforced a ruling that interrogation without the presence of counsel is coercive and that evidence obtained in such a manner is inadmissible. As a result PNC authorities typically delayed questioning until a public defender or an attorney arrived. The constitution permits the PNC to hold suspects for 72 hours before presenting them to court. The law allows up to six months for investigation of serious crimes before requiring either a trial or dismissal of the case; this period may be extended by an appeals court. Many cases continued beyond the legally prescribed period.
Arbitrary Arrest: As of August 27, the PDDH reported 22 complaints of arbitrary detention or illegal detention, compared with 66 from January to August 2019. Most of the complaints were related to alleged violations of the COVID-19 quarantine.
In March the NGO Cristosal presented a habeas corpus petition to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court on behalf of three women in Jiquilisco, Usulutan Department, who were arrested and taken into police custody after they went shopping for food and medication. On April 8, the court ordered the government to release the women, since shopping for food and medication was a permitted exception to the stay-at-home order and thus the arrests were illegal. On the same day, the Constitutional Chamber issued a resolution ordering the executive branch to stop illegal and arbitrary arrests and detentions. The Constitutional Chamber stated that any arrest or decision to take someone to a quarantine facility needed the legal framework of a legislative decree, not a presidential decree. The court stated that the decision to move someone into quarantine should be made by health officials only in cases where there are risks of being exposed to or spreading COVID-19.
In a follow-up order on April 15, the Constitutional Chamber ordered the executive branch to set up a registry of persons who had been detained and those who had been released, and mandated that the PDDH monitor the situation and send progress reports to the court every five days. President Bukele announced via Twitter that his administration did not recognize the court’s resolutions or the oversight role of the PDDH.
The Constitutional Chamber ruled in April that any military, police, or other security officials who committed abuses in applying COVID-19 containment policies, including strict enforcement of a stay-at-home order resulting in arbitrary arrests or detention, would be held personally responsible for their actions. The court warned that no one would be allowed to claim “due obedience” for complying with orders and that neither the military nor police were authorized to carry out discretionary or arbitrary arrests.
The Constitutional Chamber received 330 habeas corpus petitions in the two months after the government instituted the nationwide stay-at-home order. Prior to COVID-19, the Constitutional Chamber averaged approximately 400 petitions a year. Most of the complaints involved alleged violations of citizens’ freedom of movement, brought by individuals who were detained in containment centers for disobeying the stay-at-home order. On or about May 11, security forces stopped sending individuals to containment centers for circulating publicly and instead began sending them home. According to the IDHUCA Human Rights Observatory report, 16,756 persons were detained and released from the containment centers from March 21 to August 24.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a significant problem. As of August three-quarters of the general prison population had been convicted and one-quarter had yet to be tried. Some persons remained in pretrial detention longer than the maximum legal sentences for their alleged crimes. In such circumstances detainees were permitted to request a Supreme Court review of their continued detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the government did not always respect judicial independence, and the judiciary was burdened by inefficiency.
On February 9, President Bukele used the PNC and armed soldiers to pressure and intimidate the Legislative Assembly to approve funding for his security plan. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice stated his action put “at risk the republican, democratic and representative form of government, the pluralist political system and in a particular way the separation of powers.” Observers noted that although at the time President Bukele believed his actions were justified based on the advice of his legal counsel, his subsequent acquiescence to the ruling of the Supreme Court prohibiting further such actions demonstrated the independence of the judicial branch.
While the government generally respected court orders, some agencies ignored or minimally complied with orders.
As of August the PDDH received 12 complaints of lack of a fair public trial.
On August 28, the judge in the prosecution of 13 surviving former military officers for the alleged El Mozote massacre of more than 800 civilians in 1981 ordered inspections of 12 military archives and the national historical archives between September 21 and November 13. After the Ministry of Defense refused to permit the El Mozote judge to access archives on September 21, President Bukele defended the ministry’s actions in a national address on September 24, claiming the judge has no jurisdiction over the armed forces and no right to access the archives. On October 12, the Supreme Court Constitutional Chamber rejected a Ministry of Defense petition seeking to block the military archive inspections. As of October 19, the ministry continued to refuse the El Mozote judge access to inspect the military archives, notwithstanding the Supreme Court ruling.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although some trial court judges were subject to political, economic, or other corrupting influences. By law juries hear only a narrow group of cases, such as environmental complaints. In those cases after the jury determines innocence or guilt, a panel of judges decides the sentence.
Defendants have the right to be present in court (except in virtual trials; see below), question witnesses, and present witnesses and evidence. The constitution further provides for the presumption of innocence, the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges, the right to a trial without undue delay (seldom observed), protection from self-incrimination, the right to communicate with an attorney of choice, the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, freedom from coercion, the right to appeal, and government-provided legal counsel for the indigent.
In criminal cases a judge may allow a private plaintiff to participate in trial proceedings (calling and cross-examining witnesses, providing evidence, etc.), assisting the prosecuting attorney in the trial procedure. Defendants have the right to free assistance of an interpreter. Authorities did not always respect these legal rights and protections. Although a jury’s verdict is final, a judge’s verdict is subject to appeal. Trials are public unless a judge seals a case.
While implemented in 2015 to expedite fair trials, virtual trials still involved delays. The law allows for virtual trials for gang membership charges to proceed without the defendants present, although with defense counsel participating. The law requires judicial and prison authorities to provide a video copy of the virtual trial to the defendants within 72 hours so they may exercise their right to defense.
Virtual trials often involved group hearings before a judge, with defendants unable to consult with their defense lawyers in real time. The law allows defense lawyers to attend a hearing without the defendant’s presence. Human rights groups questioned the constitutionality of the reform.
Legal experts pointed to an overreliance on witness testimony, as opposed to the use of forensics or other scientific evidence. The justice system lacked DNA analysis and other forensic capabilities.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The law provides for access to the courts, enabling litigants to submit civil lawsuits seeking damages for, as well as cessation of, human rights violations. Domestic court orders generally were enforced. Most attorneys pursued criminal prosecution and later requested civil compensation.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports the state intelligence service tracked journalists or collected information regarding their private lives.
In many neighborhoods, armed groups and gangs targeted certain persons and interfered with privacy, family, and home life. Efforts by authorities to remedy these situations were generally ineffective.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
d. Freedom of Movement
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 ensure freedom of movement due to criminal gang activity.
In-country Movement: The major gangs controlled access to their specific territories. Gang members did not allow persons living in another gang’s 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 denied entry to 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.
As of July the FGR had filed 463 cases charging an illegal limitation on the freedom of movement, a decrease from the 1,515 cases brought from January through October 2019. The FGR reported 81 convictions for such charges through July 13, compared with 50 through the same period in 2019.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials. Although the Supreme Court investigated corruption in the executive and judicial branches and referred some cases to the FGR for possible criminal indictment, corruption and impunity remained endemic. Courts issued inconsistent rulings and failed, in particular, to address secret discretionary accounts within the government.
Corruption in the judicial system contributed to the high level of impunity, undermining the rule of law and the public’s respect for the judiciary. As of June 30, the Supreme Court had received complaints against 46 judges due to irregularities (41 of which remained under review) and had punished one judge. Accusations against judges included collusion with criminal elements and sexual harassment.
Corruption: On September 3, El Faro accused the Bukele administration of negotiating with senior gang leaders since 2019 to obtain electoral support and a reduction in homicides prior to the February 2021 legislative and municipal elections. On September 4, the attorney general announced an investigation into El Faro’s allegations. On June 23, the FGR arrested former defense minister David Victoriano Munguia Payes and issued an arrest warrant for former president Mauricio Funes, for their alleged roles in similar negotiations associated with the 2012-14 truce with the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs.
In June, July, and August, local press reported on irregular government purchases of food, personal protective equipment, and other supplies to combat the COVID-19 pandemic that allegedly involved inflated prices, agreements with companies linked to government officials, and purchases from companies with no past experience selling the purchased products or similar products. These transactions included the purchase of $1.1 million of protective masks for allegedly inflated prices from companies associated with the newly appointed finance minister, Jose Alejandro Zelaya, and the head of the Salvadoran Environmental Fund, Jorge Alejandro (“Koky”) Aguilar Zarco; the purchase of $12 million in medical supplies from Javi Performance Parts, a Spanish automobile parts company that last filed required financial reports in 2012, and $3.5 million in medical supplies from Lasca Design LLC, a Florida-based ceramics company, neither of which have any apparent experience manufacturing or selling medical supplies.
President Bukele fired Aguilar Zarco shortly after his reported transactions became public, and as of October 19, Aguilar Zarco was the only administration official to lose his job because of pandemic-related corruption allegations. On June 26, the attorney general confirmed he had opened criminal investigations of several senior Bukele administration officials based on newspaper reports of corruption. As of October 19, the attorney general had not publicly filed charges against any of those officials.
As of June 30, the Supreme Court’s Probity Section had opened 47 illicit enrichment investigations against public officers and forwarded two cases to the FGR for potential prosecution.
On August 14, two former defense ministers, David Victoriano Munguia Payes and Jose Atilio Benitez Parada, and the former president of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), Gustavo Lopez Davidson, were arrested on various embezzlement-related charges associated with a two-million-dollar weapons transaction in 2012. The FGR also filed charges against and issued arrest warrants for several other defendants, including former president Mauricio Funes.
As of August the Ethics Tribunal reported that it had opened 355 administrative proceedings against public officials between September 2019 and August 31. One complaint against a Supreme Court magistrate ended with the judge removed from the bench. As of September 3, the FGR had filed claims against three judges for committing crimes involving corruption or for violating public administration laws.
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 modest fines for noncompliance. The declarations were not available to the public unless requested by petition. The Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting investigable cases: age of the case (that is, proximity to the statute of limitations), relevance of the official’s position, and seriousness and notoriety of the alleged illicit enrichment.
On July 6, local investigative magazine Factum reported that the Supreme Court Probity Section had identified $1.4 million in unjustified funds in the accounts of Walter Araujo, an outspoken Bukele supporter, legislative candidate for the political party Nuevas Ideas and former Supreme Electoral Court magistrate. As of September 14, the Supreme Court judges had not yet voted on whether to send Araujo to trial for illicit enrichment.
The law requires public officers to present asset certification reports no later than 60 days after taking a position. In September the Supreme Court Probity Section reported that 112 public officers had failed to present their assets certifications in the 10 previous years and two public officers from the current administration had failed to present their assets certification in the last year.