Political Rights: 2
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Free
Population: 6,600,000
GNI/Capita: $2,040
Life Expectancy: 70
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (83 percent), other (17 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Mestizo (90 percent), white (9 percent), Amerindian (1 percent)
Capital: San Salvador


In El Salvador's March 2003 parliamentary elections, the Frente Farabundo Marti (FMLN) secured the largest number of seats. Growing violent crime, including by youth street gangs, led to the implementation of a controversial government offensive targeting gang members.

The Republic of El Salvador was established in 1859, and more than a century of civil strife and military rule followed. The civil war that raged from 1979 to 1991, and left more than 80,000 dead and 500,000 displaced, ended with the Chapultepec accords.

In the 1999 presidential election, the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party's candidate, Francisco Flores Perez, was chosen with 52 percent of the votes, avoiding a second-round runoff. However, the election was marked by a low voter turnout of only 39 percent. Public opinion polls indicate that support for democracy as a preferred form of government has declined over the past decade.

The two earthquakes of 2002, the collapse of coffee prices, and the slowdown of the U.S. economy, where many of the country's exports go, have made governance in El Salvador a challenge a decade after the end of the civil war. High levels of crime, especially on the part of gangs (maras), corruption, and government incompetence have led to popular distrust of national political leaders. More than 70 percent of public officials are perceived to be corrupt.

In 2002, two former generals, Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, were on trial in Florida for torture and extrajudicial killings. After a general amnesty was granted to the armed forces in 1993, legal action for human rights abuses committed during the civil war moved to the United States. A case against the generals, accusing them of bearing ultimate responsibility for the killings of three nuns and a lay worker and for covering up the role of senior officers, had been dismissed by a U.S. appeals court. 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.

President Flores Perez canceled the 10-year anniversary celebrations of the end of the civil war, set for March 15, 2002, after a boycott was threatened by the FMLN, and he declared the Chapultepec accords finished.

In the March 16, 2003 parliamentary elections the FMLN won 31 seats, the largest number, in the 84-seat Legislative Assembly. ARENA lost 2 seats, down to 27. The Partido de Conciliacion Nacional (PCN) gained 2 seats, up to 16, and moved quickly to establish an alliance with the FMLN to pass legislation. The run-up to the 2004 presidential elections has exposed the polarized relations between the political parties. Schafik Handal, of the FMLN's orthodox faction, has announced his intention to run for the presidency, but he is likely to be challenged by moderates in the party.

The government's support for the Unites States actions in Iraq, including the deployment of Salvadoran troops, received little public support and was perceived to be a result of pressure from Washington.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens can change their government democratically. The 2003 legislative elections and the 1999 national elections were free and fair. The 1983 constitution, and subsequent reforms, provides for a president elected for a five-year term and the 84-member, unicameral National Assembly elected for three years. Four political parties are represented in the assembly, and five more are recognized.

The media are privately owned. There are five daily newspapers and 16 television stations. One government and five private television stations reach most of the country. Two cable television systems cover much of the capital, and other cable companies operate in major cities. All carry major local stations and a wide range of international programming. There are approximately 20 small cable-television companies across the country, serving limited local areas. There are some 150 licensed radio stations, and broadcasts from neighboring countries are available. A national defense bill approved by the assembly in August 2002 raised concerns that reporters would have to reveal their sources. The law that was passed includes a requirement that public officials provide information related to national defense. Books, magazines, films, and plays are not censored. There is free access to the Internet.

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

There is full freedom of assembly and association. A full range of nongovernmental and voluntary organizations are active and represent diverse interests as well as vie for support. There are 133 unions, 16 federations, and 3 confederations representing labor. Public employees are not allowed to have unions; they are represented by professional and employee organizations that engage in collective bargaining.

The judicial system is ineffectual and corrupt, and a climate of impunity is pervasive, especially for those politically, economically, or institutionally well connected. Poor training and a lack of sustained disciplinary action for judges, as well as continued corruption, a lack of professionalism, and a slow system of processing cases, greatly undermine public confidence in the justice system. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, who is elected by the National Assembly for a three-year term, was created by the 1992 peace accords with an amendment to the constitution defining its role. The office has been accused of corruption and is hampered by staffing problems, including a 17-month period when there was no ombudsman.

The peace accords 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 rightwing death squads, including "social cleansing" vigilante groups. Random killings, kidnappings, and other crimes, particularly in rural areas, have reinforced the country's reputation as one of the most violent in Latin America. The crime wave has also been fed by the deportation of hundreds of Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States; gang violence is pronounced.

In response, the government introduced a controversial state security offensive against the extreme violence of youth street gangs in 2003. The law, which makes membership in a mara (gang) illegal, received strong public support. Over 7,000 young adults have been imprisoned, and the already overburdened legal system has been overwhelmed. Most of the detained have been released by judges who found insufficient cause to support charges of "illicit association." While the measure raises constitutional questions over rights and due process, the supreme court refused to rule on the law. Meanwhile, violent crime, especially armed assaults and kidnapping, has not been reduced.

El Salvador is one of the few Latin American countries to restrict formally military involvement in internal security, but the army occasionally joins the police in patrolling San Salvador and some rural districts in crackdowns on gang violence. The National Civilian Police, which incorporated some former FMLN guerrillas into its ranks, has been unable to curb the country's crime while protecting human rights. Complaints of police brutality and corruption are widespread; scores of police have been imprisoned on human rights charges. Prisons are overcrowded, conditions are shameful, and up to three-quarters of the prisoners are waiting to be charged and tried.

Research conducted in 2003 determined that there were three different indigenous groups in El Salvador: Nahua-Pipiles, Lencas, and Cacaoperas. The research project concluded that indigenous people have lost relationship with the land and that they are generally considered to be peasants. Urban populations do not believe the country to have an indigenous population. Nevertheless, some small nongovernmental organizations represent these peoples' interests.

There are no national laws regarding indigenous rights. According to research done during the year by the Native Land NGO, Jose Matias Delgado University, the Environmental Ministry, and National Geographic, the country has three different classes of indigenous people.

Violence against women and children is widespread and common. Human trafficking for prostitution is a serious problem, and up to 40 percent of victims are children. Child labor is a major problem.

Trend Arrow

El Salvador received a downward trend arrow due to rising crime, especially from gangs, and continuing corruption, impunity, and judicial incompetence.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.