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
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
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, although the government at times did not respect this right. The law permits the executive branch to use the emergency broadcasting service to take control of all broadcast and cable networks temporarily to televise political programming.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Journalists from several digital and print media outlets publicly accused President Bukele, his administration, and his supporters of a pattern of harassment designed to constrain media. In public statements and in testimony to the Legislative Assembly, journalists claimed the president and his cabinet officials bullied them on Twitter, threatened them with physical harm, launched unwarranted financial investigations into their taxes and funding sources, denied them access to press conferences, and surveilled them. Senior officials, such as legal advisor Javier Argueta, called for actions against journalists who criticized the government. The increased villainization of the role of media inspired supporters of the president to threaten journalists as well. The president denied threatening journalists and dismissed accusations he was stifling freedom of the press.
On September 29, the jury of the Maria Moors Cabot award from Columbia University, the Governing Council of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Foundation, Reporters without Borders, and the Inter American Press Association issued statements in which they demanded that President Bukele cease attacks against critical media in the country.
In November the president of the Association of Salvadoran Journalists (APES) stated at a journalism forum that journalists were seen by the government as enemies of the state. He also confirmed that an increasing number of journalists were under attack by the government.
Violence and Harassment: On June 6, Minister of Justice and Public Security Gustavo Villatoro confirmed during a radio interview that the government was investigating and monitoring many journalists for what he alleged was their irresponsible coverage of crime.
On July 7, a PNC officer slapped a journalist in the face, claiming the journalist had entered a crime scene. A video showed PNC officer Raul Martinez Velasquez hit Jorge Beltran, a journalist for El Diario de Hoy, while Beltran was reporting on the recovery of the body of a missing student kidnapped and killed by gang members in Apopa, San Salvador Department. In response the PNC issued memorandums on July 20 and July 22 instructing police officers to act with professionalism and to adhere to the law and respect for human rights when interacting with citizens.
As of August 30, APES had registered 173 violations of the exercise of journalism, an increase of 73 percent, compared with 2020. Among these were physical aggression, digital harassment, blocking access to public information, intimidation, and sexual harassment. APES noted 84 violations against the exercise of journalism during the February 28 municipal and legislative elections, most of which the PNC perpetrated. As of August 31, the PDDH had received four complaints of violence against journalists by government officials, compared with 10 as of August 2020.
On April 14, the digital newspaper El Faro published the preliminary results of the audit the Ministry of Finance had performed on the newspaper over a one-year period. According to the ministry’s audit, El Faro evaded approximately $34,000 in taxes in 2017. The newspaper disputed the finding, saying it was an attempt by the government to again harass and threaten the organization, and it vowed to fight the finding in court if needed.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: On May 5, the Legislative Assembly reformed the printing law to eliminate tax exemptions on the importation of raw materials, machinery, and equipment for printing materials. The Inter American Press Association described the reform as a “serious attack against democracy” that would impact the local newspaper industry. Romeo Auerbach, a legislative assembly member from the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, justified the reform by arguing that the print media had evaded paying taxes for decades.
On June 14, the First Justice of the Peace of Santa Ana, Santa Ana Department, ordered the local investigative magazine Factum to take down its June 12 article about killings in Chalchuapa, Santa Ana Department, because the article included details of the crimes that were declared confidential. The Attorney General’s Office supported the court’s decision by citing the Special Comprehensive Law for a Life Free of Violence for , which prevents the disclosure of the victim’s identifying information. Factum sourced its article from a witness statement that detailed the names, dates, and modus operandi of 13 killings that occurred in Chalchuapa in 2020 and 2021, directly contradicting the government’s claim that the homicides occurred more than a decade ago.
On June 21, Minister Villatoro accused independent media of causing anxiety and deceiving persons and asked citizens to inform themselves through state-owned media instead.
On July 6, the General Directorate of Migration and Foreigners (DGME) denied a work permit to Mexican journalist Daniel Lizarraga of El Faro because he allegedly could not prove that he was a journalist. The DGME notified Lizarraga that he had five days to leave the country. On July 9, the DGME also denied the work permit of Roman Gressier, another El Faro journalist. According to the DGME, Gressier failed to comply with the provision to remain in the country while his permit was in process.
On July 15, Minister Villatoro stated the PNC would further limit access to crime scenes to prevent the publication of violent images. Villatoro justified the restriction to protect the mental health of children.
Nongovernmental Impact: APES noted journalists who reported 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.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
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.
On April 12, gang members in Santa Tecla, La Libertad Department, beat a 77-year-old priest who tried to circumvent heavy traffic and accidentally entered a neighborhood with gang presence. When the priest slowed down to ask for directions, gang members surrounded his vehicle and demanded to know why he was in their neighborhood. The gang members then beat the priest and took photographs of his identity documents.
On August 25, gang members killed a 25-year-old man in Ciudad Delgado, San Salvador Department. The victim was helping change a tire on his friend’s vehicle when MS-13 gang members approached them to demand their identity documents, where they lived, and what they were doing in the neighborhood. When the gang members realized the victim and his friend resided in a different neighborhood, the gang members shot the victim, while the friend managed to escape.
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 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 Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal indictment, corruption and impunity remained endemic.
Multiple officials in the executive branch were accused of engaging in corrupt acts. In many instances the government either ignored the actions or took steps to actively prevent prosecution of those officials unless the officials were political opponents or were members of previous administrations.
Corruption: On August 23, El Faro followed up on its September 2020 story accusing the Bukele administration of negotiating with senior gang leaders since 2019 to obtain electoral support and a reduction in homicides prior to this year’s legislative and municipal elections. Citing photographs and audio recordings, El Faro reported that former attorney general Raul Melara’s investigation found evidence that the Bukele administration negotiated with the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs and that the DGCP removed hard drives and hundreds of logbooks documenting the negotiations four days after the publication of the initial article.
On September 19, El Faro reported that the Attorney General’s Office under former attorney general Melara found evidence that Bureau of Prisons Director Osiris Luna embezzled $1.6 million worth of food between September and November 2020 from the Public Health Emergency Program, a government food program assisting families during the pandemic. There was also evidence that Luna then resold these goods to a merchant who was known to sell contraband.
According to media reports, President Bukele dismissed Minister of Justice and Public Security Eduardo Rogelio Rivas Polanco in March due to Rivas Polanco diverting public funds to a private account to finance his presidential candidacy in the 2024 elections.
On May 6, the Legislative Assembly approved the Law for the Use of Products for Medical Treatments in Exceptional Public Health Situations Caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic. The law includes provisions to shield vaccine manufacturers from liability and allows the government to bypass procurement and transparency regulations. According to the NGO Democracy, Transparency, and Justice Foundation, the new law seeks to retroactively protect government officials from misuse of public money for pandemic spending that occurred before the approval of the law.
On June 4, President Bukele announced the termination of the cooperation agreement with the OAS, bringing an end to the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES). The president claimed the termination was in response to the OAS announcing the hiring of former San Salvador mayor Ernesto Muyshondt as an advisor to the OAS. The president explained that Muyshondt faced criminal proceedings for negotiating with gangs for electoral support and therefore the government could not continue to work with an organization that hired a criminal as an advisor. Analysts and media reported that CICIES was investigating Bukele administration officials and speculated that the president used the Muyshondt issue as a pretense to terminate the CICIES agreement to stymie the investigations into his administration. In July, OAS representatives stated they offered Muyshondt an honorary contract but did not formally hire him and that the contract was never signed. Head of CICIES Ronalth Ochaeta said CICIES sent 12 cases of possible corruption from five government institutions to the Attorney General’s Office on April 7. As of September 13, the Attorney General’s Office had not revealed the details of those investigations.
Officials from the Attorney General’s Office raided the headquarters of opposition party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) on July 2 and seized assets to recover funds embezzled from a donation by Taiwan made between 2003 and 2004. Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado stated that former president Antonio Saca financed his electoral campaign with $10 million donated by Taiwan for reconstruction projects following two earthquakes in 2001.
On July 22, the PNC arrested five former government officials on charges of illicit enrichment for having received illegal side payments that exceeded their salaries authorized by law. All five served in the administration of former president Mauricio Funes, who remained under political asylum protection in Nicaragua to evade charges of illicit enrichment. Attorney General Delgado also issued arrest warrants for four more government officials, including former president Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who left the country in December 2020 and became a citizen of Nicaragua on July 30. Funes, Ceren, the five arrested officials, and the other former officials with arrest warrants all belonged to opposition party FMLN.
As of August 10, the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) failed to fulfill its legal obligation to publish the 2020 report on public entities. The report, approved in November 2020, evaluated the transparency performance of 98 government institutions and 60 municipalities and was expected to cover information related to purchases, contracts, or tenders made during the COVID-19 pandemic. After President Bukele appointed three commissioners to the IAIP, the institute decided in December 2020 to postpone publication of the report. As of August 20, the Ethics Tribunal reported that it had opened 170 administrative proceedings against 240 public officials. The Ethics Tribunal imposed sanctions on 19 cases and referred 18 cases to the Attorney General’s Office.
On September 8, the Legislative Assembly approved reforms to the criminal procedure code to remove the statute of limitations and apply the law retroactively to crimes of corruption.