Political Rights: 2
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Free
Population: 6,900,000
GNI/Capita: $2,340
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


Crime and gang violence continued to plague the country in 2005, leading to the deaths of thousands of people. El Salvador also suffered from Hurricanes Adrian and Stan and the eruption of the Ilamatepec volcano, resulting in many deaths and the displacement of thousands. In November, a U.S. court found former deputy defense minister Nicolas Carranza complicit in the murder and torture of civilians during El Salvador's civil war.

The Republic of El Salvador was established in 1859, and more than a century of civil strife and military rule followed. The country endured a civil war from 1979 to 1992 that left more than 75,000 dead and 500,000 displaced. During the civil war – which pitted the right-wing military government against Marxist guerrillas led by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) – paramilitary death squads terrorized the capital of San Salvador and other urban centers. The National Republican Alliance (ARENA) has held presidential power since 1989. The current president, Elias Antonio "Tony" Saca Gonzalez, is the third president elected since the end of the civil war.

In March 2003 parliamentary elections, the FMLN – which transformed from rebel group to opposition political party following the civil war – captured 31 seats, the largest number in the 84-seat Legislative Assembly. ARENA lost 2 seats from the 2000 elections, 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 months before the March 2004 presidential election were tense with threats of violence and intervention from both within the country and abroad. However, the polls were relatively peaceful and free of major irregularities. ARENA candidate Saca captured 58 percent of the vote, while Shafik Handal, of the FMLN, received 36 percent. In June, Saca was sworn into office, along with the first Salvadoran woman to be elected vice president, Ana Vilma de Escobar.

The country's homicide rate increased dramatically to 43.3 homicides per 100,000 people in 2005, up 83 percent from 2004; the rate made El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the world, behind only Colombia and Guatemala in the Western Hemisphere. President Saca's administration blamed street gangs (maras) for much of the violence, claiming that as much as 60 percent of the country's murders were due to gang violence. However, the national police disputed that view and said most murders were due to domestic violence, with gang murders accounting for no more than 30 percent of the national homicide total. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, gang violence resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 Salvadorians in 2005.

Following the lead of other Central American leaders, Saca extended the use of "iron fist" (mano duro) policies against the country's powerful gangs. These policies allowed the arrest and detention of suspected gang members for wearing gang colors or displaying gang tattoos. Saca's administration estimated at least 100,000 gang members and their associates were behind the country's crime wave. The country's most powerful gang, Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) has international reach, with members in other Central American countries and in the United States.

Saca's antigang policies often employed the police and the military in house-to-house sweeps of various neighborhoods, a tactic that recalled the violent civil war era. More than 9,000 gang members were collected in these sweeps, and more than 4,000 remained in custody at the end of the year. However, judges often refused to approve new warrants for such wide searches, saying they were overly broad and often unfairly branded people as members of the violent gangs. Human rights groups accused the police of extrajudicial killings in their fight against the gangs; Saca was forced to order an official investigation into possible police misconduct and the rise of death squads run by off-duty Salvadoran police. Police were also accused of indiscriminately murdering homeless street children.

The ghosts of the civil war death squads continued to haunt the country, along with past abuses by the military. In March 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States ordered a new investigation into the 1981 massacre of more than 500 people by government troops in the village of El Mozote. Saca denounced the investigation, saying it was a dangerous precedent and could disrupt the country's peace. In 1993, President Alfredo Cristiani declared a general amnesty for crimes committed during the war; Salvadoran law bars trials for those accused of human rights violations during the civil war.

However, in November 2005, a U.S. federal court in Memphis, Tennessee, found El Salvador's former deputy defense minister, General Nicolas Carranza, responsible for the torture and murder of civilians during the civil war, saying that Carranza had ordered his troops to commit atrocities. The court ordered Carranza to pay $1.5 million to each of the four families that had brought charges against him in civil court. Carranza, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had relocated to Memphis in 1985, during the war. Against this backdrop, Shafik Handal, the leader of the FMLN, asked the United Nations for human rights monitoring after he received numerous death threats.

Handal's controversial party leadership divided the country's left wing during 2005. A new party, the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR), split from the FMLN, taking with it four seats in the country's National Assembly. With that defection, the FMLN held the same number of legislative seats, 27, as ARENA.

The country was beset by natural disasters and continued economic problems. In May 2005, Hurricane Adrian struck El Salvador, killing two people and displacing some 20,000. Torrential rains and mudslides following Hurricane Stan flooded at least 300 communities, killed over 70 people, and displaced more than 50,000. Damage from the storms was estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Also in October, the Ilamatepec volcano erupted, killing at least two people and forcing thousands to be evacuated from affected areas.

The government estimated that at least 36 percent of the population lives in poverty. Together, underemployed workers and the unemployed make up 70 percent of the potential workforce. Although ARENA politicians believed the December 2004 ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) would eventually rescue the country from its economic woes, the country's leftist political factions opposed the agreement. CAFTA is a free trade agreement between the United States, the Dominican Republic, and five Central American countries.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of El Salvador can change their government democratically. The 2003 legislative and 2004 presidential elections were free and fair. The 1983 constitution and subsequent reforms provide for a president elected for a five-year term and the 84-member, unicameral National Assembly, elected for three years.

Following the 2005 defection of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) from within the FMLN, both the FMLN and ARENA hold 27 seats in the National Assembly. The National Conciliation Party (PCN), which is usually allied with ARENA, holds 16 seats in the Assembly. The Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and its ally, the United Democratic Center (CDU), each hold 5 seats. The FDR controls 4 seats.

Corruption is regarded as a serious problem throughout government, particularly in the country's judicial system. El Salvador was ranked 51 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The media are privately owned, but ownership is confined to a small group of powerful businessmen. There are five newspapers with a combined daily circulation of about 250,000. One government and five private television networks reach most of the country. However, TeleCorporacion Salvadoreno (TCS), which is openly aligned with ARENA, owns three of those networks and dominates the country's ratings. There is unrestricted access to the internet, and the government and private organizations have worked to extend internet access to the poor.

Salvadoran journalists practice self-censorship and are subject to more overt censorship imposed by media owners with strong political and economic ties to the Salvadoran elite. Those who speak out, such as controversial anchorman Mauricio Funes, often end up without a place to ply their trade. In February 2005, the Mexican owners of Canal 12, where Funes worked, stopped transmission of his news and interview program during a live broadcast when he complained about editorial changes at the network. Journalists are also hemmed in by criminal defamation laws and the right of judges to close legal proceedings to the media for national security reasons. In 2003, the National Assembly changed the code of criminal procedure to exempt journalists from having to reveal their sources if ordered to testify in a court case. In 2005, there was an increase in the number of journalists who suffered physical attacks due to their work. More than 10 journalists were assaulted by either protesters or the National Civil Police while covering street demonstrations.

The government abstains from any intervention in religious freedom. Academic freedom is respected.

Freedom of assembly and association is respected. El Salvador features a wide array of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that generally operate without government restrictions. However, some international NGOs reported difficulties in registering with the government. Unions have a strong and organized presence. Public employees are not allowed to have unions; they are represented by professional and employee organizations that engage in collective bargaining.

The judicial system continues to be ineffectual and corrupt and to promote impunity, especially for those politically, economically, or institutionally well connected. 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. However, the office itself has been accused of corruption and is hampered by staffing problems.

Human rights violations have declined steadily since the end of the civil war in 1992. Nevertheless, political expression and civil liberties are still limited by sporadic political violence, repressive police measures, and vigilante groups committing extrajudicial killings against suspected criminals and gang members. The recent crime wave has also been fed by the deportation of hundreds of Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States.

Complaints of police brutality and corruption are widespread. Prisons are overcrowded, and up to three-quarters of the prisoners are waiting to be charged and tried. Thousands of prisoners in the system launched a major hunger strike in the fall of 2005 to protest poor conditions. Inmates complained that they are tortured and denied food, medical care, and family visits.

There are three different indigenous groups in El Salvador: Nahua-Pipiles, Lencas, and Cacaoperas. However, much of the indigenous population has been assimilated into Spanish culture. There are no national laws regarding indigenous rights. According to the U.S. State Department's 2005 human rights report, access to land and credit were problems for indigenous peoples.

Violence against women and children is widespread and common. While women are granted equal rights under family and property law, they were occasionally discriminated against in practice; women also suffer discrimination in employment. Human trafficking for purposes of prostitution is a serious problem. Child labor is also a major problem in the country.

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.