1998 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 2.5
Civil Liberties: 3
Political Rights: 2


The former guerrilla organization that has become El Salvador's second largest political force, Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN), has all but ruined its chances to wrest control of the presidency from the long-ruling Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) in March 1999 elections due to infighting in the opposition. Crime and public safety continue to pose grave challenges in El Salvador, one of the most violent countries in the Americas.

Independence from the Captaincy General of Guatemala was declared in 1841, and the Republic of El Salvador was established in 1859. Over a century of civil strife and military rule followed.

Elected civilian rule was established in 1984. The 1983 constitution provides for a president elected for a five-year term, and an 84-member, unicameral National Assembly elected for three years. Over a decade of civil war, which left more than 70,000 dead, ended with the United Nations-mediated peace accords signed in 1992 by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the conservative government of President Alfredo Cristiani.

The FMLN participated in the 1994 elections, supporting former ally Ruben Zamora of the Democratic Convergence (CD) for president and running a slate of legislative candidates. The incumbent National Republican Alliance (ARENA) nominated San Salvador Mayor Armando Calderon Sol, and the Christian Democrats (PDC) nominated Fidel Chavez Mena. The PDC had previously held power under President Jose Napoleon Duarte (1984-89).

The well-oiled ARENA political machine sounded populist themes and attacked the PMLN as Communists and terrorists. The FMLN-CD coalition offered a progressive but moderate platform and called for compliance with the peace accords.

In March 1994, Calderon Sol won just under 50 percent of the vote, setting up a runoff against Zamora, who came in second with 25 percent. In the legislature, ARENA won 39 seats, the FMLN 21, the PDC 18, the CD one, and the Unity Movement (MU), a small evangelical party, won one. The right-wing National Conciliation Party (PCN) won four seats, giving ARENA an effective right-wing majority. In the runoff, Calderon Sol defeated Zamora, 68 percent to 32 percent.

In the March 16, 1997, elections, ARENA won 28 congressional seats, 11 less than in it did in 1994, and the FMLN won 27, with other parties splitting the difference. The FMLN also dramatically improved its municipal presence, winning two of the three largest cities (in coalition with other parties), six of 14 departmental capitals, and ten of the 19 municipalities in the San Salvador department. At the same time, ARENA's suffered significant reversals, reflected in its 35 percent of the vote, as compared to 45 percent in previous polls.

In 1998, the FMLN's electoral chances in the following year's elections appeared to dim, as the party split into hard-line Marxist and reformist camps. The two factions fought bitterly over who was to control the party, as well as whether it should support an ARENA sponsored project for a national development commission. Although Social Democratic leader Facundo Guardado, himself a former guerrilla leader and a leading reformist, emerged as the party's presidential nominee, the party was under renewed scrutiny by business and social sectors that worried that the party was still committed to social revolution. Guardado faces ARENA nominee Francisco Flores, a philosopher and the former president of the legislature.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens can change their government democratically. The 1997 elections were a marked improvement over those held in 1994. However, 250,000 fewer voters turned out in 1997 than in the previous election in which 1.45 million people voted. Political parties have agreed to a set of electoral reforms needed to improve the process, such as updating the voter registry and reforming the registration process.

Political rights improved significantly in 1997, as evidenced by the fact that the left-wing FMLN nearly equaled the vote of the ruling ARENA in the March congressional and municipal elections in contests which were generally considered free and fair. ARENA accepted their losses without threatening extra-legal action; the once-feared army remained neutral as it had since Christiani's election, and the new National Civilian Police (PNC) enforced election laws in a professional manner. Random killings, kidnappings and other crimes – particularly in rural areas – have reinforced the country's reputation as one of the most violent countries in Latin America.

The constitution guarantees free expression, freedom of religion, and the right to organize political parties, civic groups, and labor unions. Although the 1992 peace accord has led to a significant reduction in human rights violations, political expression and civil liberties are still circumscribed by sporadic political violence, repressive police measures, a mounting crime wave and right-wing death squads, including "social cleansing" vigilante groups. The crime wave has also intensified due to the deportation of hundreds of Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States.

The judicial system remains ineffectual and corrupt, and a climate of impunity is pervasive. A first step toward judicial reform came in 1994 with the naming by the new legislature of a more politically representative 15-member Supreme Court, which controls the entire Salvadoran judiciary. Public confidence in the justice system is undermined by poor training and a lack of sustained disciplinary action for judges, in addition to continued corruption, a lack of professionalism, and a painfully slow system of processing cases.

El Salvador is one of the few Latin American countries to restrict military involvement in internal security, and the army's strength has been slashed to 30,000, about half of what it was before the 1992 peace accords were signed. The National Civilian Police (PNC), which incorporated some former FMLN guerrillas, has yet to prove capable of the task of curbing the country's rampant crime while protecting human rights. Police accountability is a problem, although scores of policemen have been imprisoned on rights charges. Some 200 PNC officers have been killed in the five years since the force was created. In 1998, the government called on the FBI to assist in the investigation of three murders in which national police members are suspects.

Prisons are overcrowded, conditions are wretched, and up to three-quarters of the prisoners are waiting to be charged and tried. Dozens of inmates have been killed during prison riots.

The media are privately owned. Election campaigns feature televised interviews and debates among candidates from across the political spectrum. The FMLN's formerly clandestine Radio Venceremos operates from San Salvador, and competes with nearly 70 other stations. Left-wing journalists and publications are occasionally targets of intimidation. In 1998, a newspaper publisher was jailed for reporting on alleged police corruption.

Although the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestantism has made substantial inroads, leading to friction.

Labor, peasant, and university organizations are well-organized. The archaic labor code was reformed in 1994, but the new code lacks the approval of most unions because it significantly limits the rights to organize in areas including the export-processing zones known as maquiladoras. Unions that strike are subject to intimidation and violent police crackdowns. According to UNICEF, the number of working children between the ages of 10 and 17 increased from 130,000 in 1995 to 311,000 in 1997.

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