2001 Scores

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


Former guerrillas of the Frente Farabundo Marti (FMLN) continued in 2000 to consolidate their electoral gains by becoming the leading party in the Salvadoran legislature, after winning 31 seats in the national assembly in March 12 legislative elections. Although the ruling Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) remained dominant in the municipal contests, taking 124 mayoralties, the FMLN also improved its showing, winning 78 races, 24 more than it had in 1997. In October, memories of the vicious civil war that wracked the country for more than a decade were stirred as two retired generals faced a wrongful-death lawsuit in Florida for their alleged responsibility in the 1980 murders of four American churchwomen before being acquitted.

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

Elected civilian rule was established in 1984. The 1983 constitution, and subsequent reforms, provide for a president elected for a five-year term and an 84-member, unicameral national assembly elected for three years. More than 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 FMLN and the conservative government of President Alfredo Cristiani.

The FMLN participated in the 1994 elections, backing its former ally Ruben Zamora of the Democratic Convergence (CD) for president and running a slate of legislative candidates. The incumbent party, ARENA, nominated San Salvador mayor Armando Calderon Sol. The Christian Democrats (PDC) nominated Fidel Chávez Mena. The PDC had previously held power under President José Napoleon Duarte (1984-1989). The well-oiled ARENA political machine sounded populist themes and attacked the FMLN as Communists and terrorists. The FMLN-CD coalition offered a progressive but moderate platform and called for compliance with the peace accords. Calderon Sol won just under 50 percent, setting up a runoff against Zamora, who had come in second with 25 percent. In the runoff, Calderon Sol defeated Zamora, 68 percent to 32 percent.

In the March 16, 1997, elections ARENA won 28 congressional seats, 11 fewer than in 1994, to the FMLN's 27, with other parties splitting the difference. The FMLN also dramatically improved its municipal presence, winning 2 of the 3 largest cities (in coalition with other parties), 6 of 14 departmental capitals, and 10 of the 19 municipalities in San Salvador department. At the same time, ARENA suffered significant reversals, reflected in its having won 35 percent of the vote, as compared with 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 hardline Marxist and reformist camps. Although social democratic leader Facundo Guardado, himself a former guerrilla leader and a leading reformist, emerged as the party's presidential nominee, business and social sectors worried that the FMLN was still committed to social revolution.

Francisco Flores, the presidential candidate of the long-ruling, rightist ARENA, swept to victory in the March 1999 elections, in the aftermath of which the major opposition party, FMLN, dominated by former guerrillas, fell back into crisis. Crime and public safety remain grave challenges in one of the most violent countries in the Americas. ARENA nominee Flores, a 39-year-old philosopher and the former president of the legislature, beat Guardado in the first round of voting, 51.4 to 28.9 percent, in contrast to the near-tie voting two years earlier. After his inauguration, Flores promised that public security would be a priority issue in this small country where, on average, 17 murders are committed each day.

In 2000, a more hardline faction headed by Shafick Handal regained leadership of the FMLN, whose electoral luster was enhanced by the performance of the mayor of San Salvador, Hector Silva. Meanwhile Flores has had to pay the costs of public weariness with ARENA's decade-long rule, and in his first year in office he faced stiff protests against his government's freemarket policies, particularly the privatization of some of the country's health services. In a West Palm Beach court, General Jose Guillermo Garcia and General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, defense minister and director of the National Guard in 1980, respectively, were tried for one of the most heinous atrocities of the civil war. They were accused of bearing ultimate responsibility for the killings of three nuns and a lay worker and for covering up the role of senior officers. Former U.S. ambassador Robert White, who served in El Salvador at the time of the murders, testified that he long believed that there was a cover-up of the killings by both the Salvadoran and the U.S. governments.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens can change their government democratically. The 1999 elections were free and fair, although there were charges that hurricane relief funds were used by ARENA to elect Flores and abstentions reached a new high. The 2000 legislative and local elections, which the FMLN turned into something of a referendum on ARENA's performance, actually drew a higher turnout than the 1999 vote.

The constitution guarantees free expression, freedom of religion, and the right to organize political parties, civic groups, and labor unions. 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 1992 peace accords have led to a significant reduction in human rights violations; nevertheless, 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 been fed by the deportation of hundreds of Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States. In 1999, the national assembly approved a law that allows civilians to possess war weapons, such as AK-47s and M-16s, for their own defense. In 2000 the national assembly approved a constitutional amendment that allows the government to negotiate with the United States an extradition treaty, which would give El Salvador the ability to return Salvadoran nationals who committed crimes to the United States to stand trial. It is estimated that more than 100 Salvadorans accused of murder in the United States have taken refuge in El Salvador.

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. Poor training and a lack of sustained disciplinary action for judges, as well as continued corruption, a lack of professionalism, and a painfully slow system of processing cases, greatly undermine public confidence in the justice system.

Although El Salvador is one of the few Latin American countries to restrict military involvement in internal security, the army occasionally joins the police in patrolling San Salvador and some rural districts in crackdowns on gang violence. The National Civilian Police (PNC), which incorporated some former FMLN guerrillas into its ranks, has been unable to curb the country's rampant crime while protecting human rights. Complaints of police brutality and corruption are widespread; scores of policemen have been imprisoned on rights charges. In June 2000 Flores announced that 24 senior and middle-ranking PNC officers were being cashiered because of their involvement with organized crime. 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. Left-wing journalists and publications are occasionally targets of intimidation. Although the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestantism has made substantial inroads, leading to friction.

Labor, peasant, and university groups 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 right to organize in some areas, including the export-processing zones known as maquiladoras. Unions that strike are subject to intimidation and violent police crackdowns. Child labor is a problem, as is violence against women.

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