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.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. The law permits the executive branch to use the emergency broadcasting service to take over all broadcast and cable networks temporarily to televise political programming.
Press and Media Freedom: There continued to be allegations that the government retaliated against members of the press for criticizing its policies. There were reports the Ministry of Labor conducted arbitrary labor inspections and financial audits of news organizations.
Both the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) parties steered funding, including public funds, to journalists in exchange for positive coverage. The online news outlet El Faro reported during the year that former president Antonio Saca funneled $665,000 (currency is the U.S. dollar) to media contacts in exchange for positive coverage from 2004 until 2009, while former president Mauricio Funes continued the practice of using a secret fund to corrupt journalists from 2009 through 2014.
Violence and Harassment: On May 22, the Salvadoran Journalist Association (APES) reported that former youth secretary Carlos Aleman threatened El Faro journalist Gabriel Labrador after he published a report that accused Aleman of benefiting from illegal salary increases during the Saca administration. APES also reported that journalist Milagro Vallecillos received a call asking him where he would like a body disposed after he criticized the police investigation into the killing of journalist Karla Turcios.
In relation to reporting on the March 4 municipal and legislative assembly elections, APES recorded 15 complaints against civil servants, mayors, unions, and gang members. The incidents included three verbal threats, two physical assaults, one property damage claim, and three suspicious incidents. On March 19, online news outlet Diario 1 journalist Miguel Lemus was physically attacked by members of the San Salvador city employees’ union.
Minister of Defense Munguia reportedly visited media offices unannounced and accompanied by armed soldiers.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government advertising accounted for a significant portion of press advertising income. According to APES, media practiced self-censorship, especially in reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking.
Nongovernmental Impact: APES noted journalists reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking were subject to kidnappings, threats, and intimidation. Observers reported that gangs also charged print media companies to distribute in their communities, costing media outlets as much as 20 percent of their revenues.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
The International Telecommunication Union reported 31 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
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.