Capital: San Salvador
Population: 6,900,000

Political Rights Score: 2
Civil Liberties Score: 3
Status: Free


The implementation of a new antiterrorism law drew criticism from human rights defenders in 2007, especially after the arrest of 13 protesters and a journalist on terrorism charges in July. The government reported favorable economic growth during the year, but persistent poverty continued to fuel crime and outward migration.

El Salvador gained independence from Spain in 1821 and broke away from a Central American federation in 1841. A republican political system dominated by the landowning elite, and subject to foreign interference, gave way to military rule in the mid-20th century. The country endured a civil war from 1979 to 1992 that left more than 75,000 people dead and 500,000 displaced. During the 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 and other urban centers.

The National Republican Alliance (ARENA) has held the presidency since 1989. The current president, Elias Antonio "Tony" Saca Gonzalez, is the third elected since the end of the civil war. The March 2004 presidential election was relatively peaceful and free of major irregularities, despite threats of violence and intervention from both within the country and abroad. Saca won with 58 percent of the vote, while Shafik Handal of the FMLN – which had evolved into an opposition political party after the war – received 36 percent.

Handal, the FMLN's legendary leader, died of a heart attack in January 2006, but the event did not appear to affect the outcome of legislative and municipal elections that March. ARENA won 34 of 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly, up from 27 in 2003. The FMLN placed second with 32 seats, the National Conciliation Party (PCN) captured 10, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) won 6, and the Democratic Convergence party took 2.

In 2007, the conservative ARENA and PCN, responding to the rise of the left in neighboring Nicaragua and other Latin American countries, began to build an alliance aimed at blocking the FMLN from taking power in the 2009 elections. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal in June scheduled the presidential contest for March 2009 and other elections – legislative, municipal, and for the Central American Parliament – for January 2009. In late September 2007, the FMLN chose Mauricio Funes, a prominent journalist and a longtime FMLN leader, as its presidential candidate.

El Salvador's murder rate dropped slightly in 2007, with an average of 10 murders per day; this is nearly one victim less per day than in 2006. According to the Institute of Legal Medicine, the total number of murders committed in 2007 was 3,491. The murder rate in 2005 was 10.4 per day, for a total of 3,802, and the 2006 rate was 10.8 per day, for a total of 3,928. El Salvador suffers roughly 68 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants; the World Health Organization considers rates higher than 10 per 100,000 to be an epidemic. Most murders in El Salvador are committed with firearms and target young men, although the proportion of female victims rose to 13 percent in 2007, from 10 percent the year before. Crime has affected commerce as well as individuals, and businesses are subject to regular extortion by organized criminal groups.

Saca's administration has claimed that street gangs (maras), with an estimated 100,000 members and associates, are behind the country's crime wave. The forced repatriation of hundreds of Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States has contributed to the problem and reflects the international reach of major gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13), which has members in other Central American countries as well as the United States. The government has responded with round-ups of suspected members and crackdowns on the display of gang symbols. Unofficial death squads and vigilantes, allegedly linked to the police and army, have also emerged to combat the gangs with extrajudicial killings.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), which lowered trade barriers between five Central American countries, the Dominican Republic, and the United States, took effect in March 2006. However, the increased foreign investment and job creation predicted by the Saca administration remains to be seen. In 2007, the administration announced gross domestic product growth of 4.2 percent, but the expansion has not been felt by the majority of Salvadoran households. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that half of all Salvadorans live in poverty, and 70 percent of the potential workforce is either underemployed or unemployed.

Poor economic conditions and a recent series of natural disasters have spurred further mass emigration from El Salvador, which began during the civil war. Between 13 and 40 percent of all Salvadorans live outside the country, particularly in the United States. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, the migrants sent nearly $3.32 billion in remittances to El Salvador in 2006, but mounting deportations from the United States threaten to reduce this income.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

El Salvador is an electoral democracy. The 2006 legislative and 2004 presidential elections were deemed free and fair. The constitution provides for a president elected for a five-year term and an 84-member, unicameral Legislative Assembly, elected for three years. The two largest political parties are the conservative ARENA and the FMLN, formerly a left-wing guerrilla organization. Other parties include the PCN, the PDC, and Democratic Convergence.

Corruption is regarded as a serious problem throughout government. In 2006, the legislature approved an Ethics Law designed to combat corruption in the public sector, but critics, including Governance Commissioner Gloria Salguero Gross, stressed that the law needed to be strengthened with an access-to-information component. El Salvador was ranked 67 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The Salvadoran constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and these rights are generally respected in practice. The media are privately owned, but ownership is confined to a small group of powerful businesspeople who often impose controls on reporters to protect their political or economic interests. In 2007, the FMLN accused the newspaper Prensa Grafica of obstructing freedom of expression when it refused to print an advertisement criticizing the government. 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. Reporters are subject to criminal defamation laws, and judges can close legal proceedings to the media on national security grounds. In 2003, the Legislative Assembly exempted journalists from having to reveal their sources if ordered to testify in a court case. At least 14 reporters were assaulted in July 2006, either by protesters or police, while covering street demonstrations. In July 2007, journalist Maria Haydee Chicas was arrested while filming a demonstration in Suchitoto. Some reporters have been accused of using their status for personal and family gain, raising ethical concerns. There is unrestricted access to the internet, and the government and private organizations have worked to extend internet access to the poor.

The government does not encroach on religious freedom. Academic freedom is respected.

Freedoms of assembly and association are generally upheld by the authorities, but a vaguely worded antiterrorism law passed in late 2006 has raised concerns about a possible return to repressive practices. Police arrested 14 people on terrorism charges during the July 2007 protest in Suchitoto against the privatization of water services. In addition to the journalist, Chicas, the detainees included the leaders of local labor unions and community activist groups. The president later proposed increasing the punishment for disorderly conduct during demonstrations to 15 years in prison, drawing public criticism in light of the government's perceived failure to tackle more serious crimes. Opponents fear that the antiterrorism law and disorderly conduct proposal are aimed at repressing left-leaning social movements as the left gains ground in the wider region.

El Salvador is home to a wide array of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that generally operate without government restrictions, but some NGOs have reported difficulties in registering with the government. Labor unions have long faced obstacles in a legal environment that has traditionally favored business interests. Under pressure from the European Union, El Salvador ratified International Labor Organization conventions 87, 98, 135, and 151 in August 2006. However, many activists have voiced doubts as to whether these historic protections would be enforced in practice.

The ineffectual and corrupt judicial system continues to promote impunity, especially for the well connected. Members of the National Security Commission estimate that 95 percent of crimes against life go unpunished, and the UNDP reports that less than 20 percent of homicide cases reach the courts. The World Bank-financed Judicial Modernization Project began in 2006, with the goal of enhancing the judicial system's effectiveness and credibility through a system of monitoring and evaluation. The project is slated to last until 2008.

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. While human rights abuses have declined steadily since the end of the war, civil liberties are still limited by sporadic political violence, repressive police measures, and the activities of "social cleansing" vigilante groups. President Elias Antonio Saca Gonzalez, like other Central American leaders, has continued to use "iron fist" (mano duro) tactics against the country's powerful gangs, including house-to-house sweeps by the police and military. However, judges have often refused to approve warrants for such wide searches.

Beyond the gang-related violence, law enforcement officials have been criticized for brutality, corruption, arbitrary arrest, and lengthy pretrial detention. In 2007, the National Civil Police reported evidence that some officers were moonlighting as hired assassins. El Salvador's prison population has increased by 50 percent over the past three years, and the total represents 174 percent of available bed spaces. It is estimated that about half of the inmates are awaiting trial. Thousands of prisoners launched a hunger strike in 2005 to protest torture and denial of food, medical care, and family visits.

Salvadoran law, including a 1993 general amnesty, bars prosecution of crimes and human rights violations committed during the civil war. In 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights chastised the government for failing to fully comply with its 2005 order to investigate the 1981 massacre of more than 500 people by government troops in the village of El Mozote. Saca had denounced the investigation, saying it could disrupt the country's peace. Some NGOs have begun addressing wartime human rights violations such as the disappearance of children, and many rebuke the authorities for refusing to support such efforts.

There are three 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 2007 human rights report, access to land and credit remain problems for indigenous peoples.

While women are granted equal rights under family and property law, they are occasionally discriminated against in practice; women also suffer discrimination in employment. Child labor and human trafficking for purposes of prostitution are serious problems in the country. One 2007 estimate held that up to a third of the workers on the country's sugarcane plantations were under the age of 18. Violence against women and children is widespread and common.

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