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.
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.
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.