El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic with a democratically elected government. In 2019 voters elected Nayib Bukele as president for a five-year term. The election was generally free and fair, according to international observers. Municipal and legislative elections took place on February 28 and were largely free and fair.
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. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture and 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 media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists and censorship; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious acts of government corruption; lack of consistent investigation and accountability for gender-based violence; significant barriers to accessing reproductive health; and crimes involving violence by security forces against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex individuals.
Impunity persisted 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. Impunity for official corruption remained endemic.
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
Media reports alleged that security and law enforcement officials were involved in unlawful disappearances. According to reports, the PNC recorded 989 disappearances between January 1 and June 29, an increase from the same period in 2020 when the PNC tracked 728 cases. The PNC reported that 545 of those reported missing were later found alive and 51 found dead. Minister of Justice and Public Security Gustavo Villatoro explained that many disappeared persons were victims of homicide, as criminals hid the bodies of their victims to avoid charges of homicide.
On April 7, the Foundation for Studies for the Application of Law released a study stating that the illegal practice of disappearing a person was no longer exclusive to gangs and that police, soldiers, and extermination groups viewed unlawful disappearances as a low-cost, effective way of resolving conflicts. According to a Human Rights Observatory of the Central American University (OUDH) report published in September, extermination groups operated with police, military, and civilian members, simulating legal actions such as searches, raids, and police operations in addition to illegal actions such as arbitrary detentions and killings. The report also noted that between 2015 and 2020, the Attorney General’s Office identified approximately 15 extermination groups in the country.
On May 31, Minister of Justice and Public Security Gustavo Villatoro criticized families who posted photographs of their missing relatives on social media accounts and asked them instead to file a formal complaint with the PNC or the Attorney General’s Office. Villatoro accused the families of psychologically damaging their missing children who eventually are found and stated most persons leave their families because they want to leave their life partner or because they did not get enough attention at home.
On June 1, the daily newspaper El Diario de Hoy reported that the Attorney General’s Office stopped the regular practice of publishing the photographs and information of missing persons following the arrival of the new attorney general, Rodolfo Delgado, on May 1. The Attorney General’s Office recorded more missing persons (5,381) than homicides (2,940) during the first two years of the Bukele administration, with most of the victims disappeared in areas with a high presence of gangs.
The Attorney General’s Office reported 66 minors as missing in the first 10 months of the year, 15 boys and 51 girls. All cases were under investigation.
On December 1, the daily newspaper La Prensa Grafica reported the findings from a study by the OUDH showing that between June 2019 and June 2021, only four cases of missing persons ended in a conviction. This number represented well less than 1 percent of the total cases of missing persons initiated by the Prosecutor’s Office.
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 31, the PDDH had received 13 complaints of torture or cruel or inhuman treatment by the PNC and one by the armed forces, compared with 15 and two complaints, respectively, as of August 2020. The PDDH also received 62 complaints of mistreatment and disproportionate use of force by the PNC and seven by the armed forces, compared with 55 and four complaints, respectively, as of August 2020.
As of September the PNC registered a total of 95 accusations against police officers involved in crimes and offenses. Of the 95 accusations, 38 concerned homicides committed by police officers. The PNC received 296 complaints of general misconduct in the same period, including but not limited to torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading acts of punishment. Three of the 296 complaints were referred to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution, while the 293 unresolved cases remained under investigation by the PNC.
On March 12, the Attorney General’s Office issued arrest warrants for four PNC officers for the torture of a minor and a woman in 2017 in Sensuntepeque, Cabanas Department. According to a video widely circulated on social media, PNC officers Cristian Neftali Franco Vasquez, Elvis Alirio Montenegro Beltran, Omar Alexander Pineda Chevez, and Mario Enrique Perez Chavez beat the minor to force him to reveal the hiding location of drugs and weapons. One of the officers fired a warning shot when a woman who witnessed the beating began to complain.
On April 30, El Diario de Hoy reported that an armed forces officer was arrested for shooting Rene Alfredo Lainez Andasol in the face in Victoria, Cabanas Department. The Attorney General’s Office accused the soldier of attempted homicide.
On June 23, the Sentencing Court of Cojutepeque, Cuscatlan Department, sentenced PNC officer Juan Carlos Portillo Velasquez to 12 years in prison for the aggravated rape of an adolescent in 2018. According to the Attorney General’s Office, Portillo Velasquez abused his position by ordering a 17-year-old girl to enter her home and remove her clothes under the guise of checking for gang-related tattoos. His partner caught him in the act of rape and informed his supervisors.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were no new allegations against El Salvadoran peacekeepers brought in the year. The most recent allegation was submitted in March 2020 concerning 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 October the United Nations had found the allegation of sexual exploitation or abuse to be unsubstantiated but found evidence of fraternization and repatriated the perpetrator.
Impunity was a problem in the PNC and armed forces. Factors contributing to impunity included politicization and general corruption. The Attorney General’s Office investigates whether security force killings were justifiable and pursues prosecutions, and the PDDH investigates complaints of such killings. 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. The government repeatedly defied a June 2020 judicial order to allow expert witnesses access to inspect military archives to determine criminal responsibility for the 1981 El Mozote massacre.
Previous government efforts to counter impunity were also eliminated. In June President Bukele ended the cooperative agreement with the Organization of American States to back the International Organization Against Impunity in El Salvador. Civil society organizations condemned this action and characterized it as a step backwards in the fight against impunity and corruption in the country. The government pursued actions against members of other parties governing in past administrations and judges who had served a long time in a so-called effort to “clean house” of influence of officials appointed under previous administrations. Civil society organizations criticized many of these actions as politically motivated.
Impunity in the executive branch also remained a problem. From January through September, the Attorney General’s Office reported that it processed 150 cases of embezzlement, illicit negotiations, illicit enrichment, and bribery perpetrated by government employees. Of these cases, only seven resulted in convictions.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and gang activity.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a serious threat to prisoners’ health and welfare. The prison system had a capacity for 30,864 inmates, but as of April 19, held more than 36,500 inmates. Director of Penal Centers Osiris Luna reported that the General Directorate of Penal Centers (DGCP) reduced the overcrowding of prisons from 50 percent to 12 percent and stated one of the objectives of the government’s Territorial Control Plan was to reduce the number of prisons from 23 to 10. Police holding facilities were equally crowded. In May the director of the National Civilian Police stated that there were approximately 5,000 persons in police holding cells, including prosecuted and convicted individuals who could not be transferred to the overcrowded prisons. Convicted inmates and pretrial detainees were sometimes held in the same prison cells.
Gangs remained prevalent in prisons. As of April the DGCP reported approximately 51 percent (18,652 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.
According to the DGCP, 94 inmates died between January 2020 and February 2021. PDDH deputy attorney Beatriz Campos said most of the deaths were due to chronic diseases, including kidney failure, respiratory diseases, and HIV. Campos said the DGCP received nine to 15 complaints daily, with 90 percent related to inquiries about health.
Administration: The PDDH has authority to investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions. The government suspended visits to prisons in March 2020, which continued as of November. According to February 14 media reports, relatives of inmates had not communicated with inmates in a year. Despite an article of the PDDH law that allows the PDDH to have free and immediate access to prisons to inspect and guarantee the human rights of the inmates, the DGCP denied entry to PDDH staff in March. On August 12, the DGCP again denied the PDDH access to prisons despite the Second Peace Court authorizing the PDDH entry to visit three former government officials in prison after receiving complaints from the officials’ relatives on their state of health.
On June 17, La Prensa Grafica reported that relatives of an inmate who died inside Mariona Prison in San Salvador Department on June 7 learned of the death through Facebook. Prison Directorate personnel failed to inform the family of the deceased in a timely manner.
Independent Monitoring: The prison system was closed to visits during the year, allowing only employees to enter. Professional and family visits, inspections of institutions, and visits by international organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), churches, and others were suspended, although there were reports of sporadic entries granted based on personal connections with prison officials to members of the clergy and nonprofits.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated there were 114,000 new instances of internal forced displacement due to violence during 2020 and reported the causes included threats, extortion, and assassinations perpetrated by criminal gangs. The IDMC also reported 17,000 additional internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020.
More than 30 families that lived in Panchimalco, San Salvador Department, abandoned their homes on May 25 after receiving threats from gang members. The families, some of whom had lived in Panchimalco for more than 40 years, feared their lives would be in danger after the gang threatened to hold the village responsible for the disappearance of a gang member.
Comprehensive, up-to-date data on internal displacement was not available, but the NGO Cristosal counted 200 persons displaced between January and June. As of August 31, the PDDH reported 53 cases of forced internal displacement. Beatriz Campos, a PDDH attorney, said 90 percent of forced internal displacement cases were caused by gangs in their community and the other 10 percent due to PNC harassment of youth in high-risk communities.
Although the government passed new IDP legislation in January 2020, authorities had yet to take substantial action to fund or implement the law. The government failed to allocate sufficient funding to the Unit of Attention to Victims of Internal Forced Displacement, the entity tasked with the implementation of the law. According to the Due Process of Law Foundation, implementation of the law was further hindered by the lack of clear implementing regulations and available records of IDPs in the country.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, and the law’s definition of rape may apply to spousal rape, at the judge’s discretion. The law requires the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute rape cases whether or not the victim presses charges, and the law does not permit the victim to withdraw the criminal charge. The penalty for conviction of rape is generally imprisonment for six to 10 years. Laws against rape were not effectively enforced.
The law prohibits domestic violence and generally provides for sentences for conviction ranging from one to three years in prison, although some forms of domestic violence carry higher penalties. The law also permits restraining orders against offenders. Laws against domestic violence remained poorly enforced, and violence against women, including domestic violence, remained a widespread and serious problem.
According to a newly published survey, the first of its kind carried out by the General Directorate of Statistics and Census (DIGESTYC), six of 10 women older than age 15 suffered some type of sexual violence in their life. The data was collected in 2019 but not disclosed until March due to difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Sixty-three percent of women ages 15 to 19 and 72 percent of women ages 30 to 34 reported having suffered sexual violence.
Between January and April, the Attorney General’s Office received 441 complaints of domestic violence, which encompasses domestic violence toward any member of the family, including children. Observers noted this number likely did not capture most domestic violence cases, particularly those perpetrated against women. On November 3, several women’s organizations discussed in a forum the 2019 National Data System on Violence against Women of the Ministry of Justice and DIGESTYC, which showed that 68 percent of women older than 15 years suffered sexual violence, but only 5.3 percent sought help. The organizations attributed this low reporting number to women’s distrust of state institutions.
On January 15, the Specialized Sentencing Court for a Life Free of Violence for Women sentenced David Eliseo Diaz Ramirez to 35 years in prison for femicide. Diaz Ramirez and several gang members killed a woman in Tutunichapa, San Salvador Department, in 2019 because she refused to have sex with them.
On May 8, the PNC found more than a dozen bodies, most of them girls and women, buried in the house of former police officer Hugo Ernesto Chavez Osorio, who was arrested on May 6 for the murders of two women. According to the PNC investigation, Chavez Osorio raped his victims and then killed them before burying their bodies in his house.
The Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) reported that the Ministry of Health registered 6,938 pregnant girls or adolescents in the first six months of the year, including 156 girls ages 10 and 11 who were raped and became pregnant. During the first half of the year, the number of pregnancies among girls between the ages of 10-14 increased 9 percent as compared to the same period in 2020. ORMUSA attributed this to several causes, including a lack of government policy for preventing pregnancies in girls and adolescents, a lack of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education, and an increase in sexual violence. According to the Feminist Collective, families did not report the rapes to the PNC and the Attorney General’s Office because the rapist was commonly a relative of the victim and the families considered it an embarrassment.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and establishes sentences if convicted of five to eight years’ imprisonment. Courts also may impose additional fines in cases in which the perpetrator held a position of trust or authority over the victim. The law mandates that employers take measures against sexual harassment and create and implement preventive programs. The government, however, did not enforce sexual harassment laws effectively.
On March 11, the Second Sentencing Court sentenced Jose Misael Maldonado Palacios, a corporal of the Third Infantry Brigade of the San Miguel Armed Forces, to six years in prison for improper sexual conduct against two employees. The Specialized Attention Unit for Crimes related to Children, Adolescents, and Women stated that in March 2020, Maldonado Palacios offered to pay two women in exchange for sexual acts inside the barracks.
On March 19, the Attorney General’s Office announced the arrest of Salvador Alcides Villegas, general manager of the Council of Mayors of Usulutan. Villegas was formally accused of sexual harassment of three women, including touching and improper sexual expressions. The victims told the authorities that Villegas touched their legs, breasts, and buttocks.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
The law bans abortion. Civil society advocates expressed concern that the ban led to the wrongful incarceration of women who suffered severe pregnancy complications, including miscarriages.
In March the Inter-American Court of Human Rights concluded that the government violated the right to personal freedom, life, health, and justice of Manuela, a woman sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2008 for the aggravated homicide of her unborn child. Manuela died from cancer in 2010 after not receiving timely and appropriate treatment in prison.
On June 2, the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion in El Salvador reported that at least 17 women were in prison on charges of having an abortion after suffering out-of-hospital obstetric emergencies. One of the women, Sara Rogel, received early parole, and the Second Court of Penitentiary Surveillance in Cojutepeque, Cuscatlan Department, released her from prison on June 7. Rogel suffered an obstetric emergency in 2012 when she slipped while washing clothes and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide for allegedly having an abortion. The court commuted Rogel’s sentence to 10 years in January, and Rogel received early parole after the Attorney General’s Office declined to appeal the decision.
The government-run Institute for Women’s Development implements the National Care System which aims to improve the care, protection, and access to justice for victims of sexual and other types of violence. The specialized comprehensive care includes medical care, counseling, family planning, medical examinations, and treatment of sexually transmitted infections in victims of sexual violence and services were generally available throughout the country.
ORMUSA reported that the closure of Ciudad Mujer health centers throughout the country since June 2019, shortly after President Bukele became president, had created a barrier to women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons receiving timely health services. Following the closure of the centers, women and LGBTQI+ persons were subjected to long delays to see doctors, and the doctors were not specialized in the field of reproductive health and health issues specific to the LGBTQI+ community, as were the doctors in the Ciudad Mujer health centers.
Discrimination: The constitution grants women and men the same legal status in family, religious, personal status, and nationality laws. There were no reports of discrimination in marriage, divorce, child custody, education, and judicial processes. The law also provides equal rights for men and women in the areas of property rights, inheritance, employment, access to credit, business ownership, and housing. The law establishes sentences of one to three years in prison for public officials convicted of denying a person’s civil rights based on gender and six months to two years for employers convicted of discriminating against women in the workplace, but employees generally did not report such violations due to fear of employer reprisals.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Police and gangs continue to commit acts of violence against LGBTQI+ individuals. These actions were tolerated by the government, and perpetrators were rarely prosecuted.
On February 20, the Attorney General’s Office announced three MS-13 gang members were convicted of homicide for the 2017 murders of two transgender women in San Luis Talpa, La Paz Department, and each was sentenced to more than 60 years in prison. The Prosecutor’s Office handled the case as a quarrel between gangs and not as a crime related to gender identity of the victims, and as a result the Prosecutor’s Office did not categorize the homicides as hate crimes.
On April 25, Zashy del Cid, a transgender woman, died in San Miguel after she was shot in the back while walking down the street. As of June 5, police had made no arrests. A report by Association Communicating and Training Trans Women in El Salvador (COMCAVIS Trans) found that gangs were responsible for nearly two-thirds of the violence against the LGBTQI+ community.
LGBTQI+ activists reported to the Attorney General’s Office that they received death threats on social media. Police generally failed to act on these reports. NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons. Persons from the LGBTQI+ community stated the PNC and officials from the Attorney General’s Office harassed transgender and gay individuals who reported cases of violence against LGBTQI+ persons, including by conducting unnecessary and invasive strip searches.
In 2020 the Bukele administration eliminated five presidential secretariats created under the previous administration, including the Secretariat of Inclusion. The responsibilities of the secretariat moved to the Gender and Diversity Office in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, which has no authority to influence policy and insufficient support to implement programs. It did not provide any significant public services.
The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which applies to discrimination in housing, employment, nationality, and access to government services. Gender identity and sexual orientation are included in the law covering hate crimes, along with race and political affiliation. Despite the existence of these laws, the government has not taken enforcement actions against violators.
As of August 31, the PDDH reported seven alleged cases of discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons. The PDDH confirmed on February 14 that they opened an investigation into the possible discrimination against an army officer who complained of being discharged due to his sexual orientation. On January 31, the Lieutenant Cristian Adalberto Castro Grijalva was discharged from the army for “public or private conduct that is notoriously immoral or contrary to good customs or public order.” Castro Grijalva said his sexual orientation was not a secret and that it never affected his performance.
Supreme Electoral Tribunal guidelines state individuals may not be denied the right to vote because the photograph on their identification card does not match their physical appearance. Nonetheless, media documented cases of transgender persons who faced harassment while voting in the municipal elections during the year because their name and photograph on their national identification document did not match their expression of gender identity.
COMCAVIS Trans reported that the LGBTQI+ community faced discrimination when obtaining health care. Lesbian women said their gynecologists only focused on HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases when they learned that their patients were lesbian instead of spending time treating routine gynecological issues. According to COMCAVIS Trans, transgender persons also faced discrimination from medical staff when they insisted on calling patients by their legal name instead of their chosen names.