El Salvador Country Profile


Key Statistics

Population: 6,384 million (World Bank, 2014)

Capital: San Salvador

Languages: Spanish

Major Ethnic Groups: Mestizo 86%, White 12%, Indigenous 1%

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 
4,114 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

GDP per Capita PPP (current international dollars): 8,275 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: 15,300 (Military Balance, 2014)

Small Arms: The estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians in El Salvador is 450,000; The defence forces are reported to have 102,000 firearms; and Police in El Salvador are reported to have 18,500 firearms (Gun Policy, 2015)

Military Expenditure: 1.1% of GDP (The World Bank, 2013)

Executive Summary

Although the conclusion of El Salvador’s bloody civil war in 1992 initiated a period of important transition for the country’s judicial institutions, it also saw the rise of violent street gangs, which are the primary generators of violence and feed a very high murder rate. For the past two decades El Salvador has struggled to combat these gangs with the process complicated by police corruption, a largely repressive security policy and ineffective social investment. There have been indications of top officials in the police force having links to organised crime and local drug trafficking networks. Aggravating its insecurity problem is a political environment that remains highly polarised and is marked by persistent attempts to weaken the influence of the judiciary branch.

A recently-announced truce between the country’s two largest street gangs has significantly reduced the number of homicides, and civil society organisations are hoping to transform it into a lasting solution to El Salvador’s gang problem. This represents perhaps a key opportunity for engagement to aid the process and thus help tackle El Salvador’s high crime rate.

Security and Justice Context

El Salvador has struggled to bring down high crime and violence rates, which shot up in the immediate aftermath of its civil war (1979-1992). While the country’s homicide rate has fallen from its 1995 peak of around 139 per 100,000 people, its 2011 rate of 69.2 per 100,000 (See Figure 1.) made it the second most violent country in the world after neighbouring Honduras.


Fig. 1 El Salvador Homicide Rate 1995-2011

The main contributors to violent crime in the country are its street gangs, known as “Maras.” Collectively, they are responsible for the majority of homicides, extortions, robberies and local drug dealing in El Salvador. While a number of different gangs operate in El Salvador, the two most powerful are the Barrio 18[1] and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)[2] , both of which have spread throughout Central America.

The origins of these gangs are complex, and their growth can be explained by a combination of widespread poverty; lack of access to basic services and educational opportunities; dysfunctional family structures; rapid, unplanned urbanisation and a culture of violence that preceded their emergence, one in which guns were prevalent and ex-combatants from the civil war were active in criminal networks.

Both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 first began as small-time street gangs in the US city of Los Angeles, California. They eventually grew in size and influence, and as a result of concerted anti-gang efforts by US law enforcement in the early 1990s, began operating inside federal prisons. The United States changed its immigration policies in the mid-1990s, increasing the number of criminal offenses for which a foreign-born resident could be deported back to their country of origin. This policy was applied aggressively to gang members who had been jailed in California, resulting in waves of MS-13 and Barrio 18 members being sent back to the streets of El Salvador. Once there, many deepened their involvement in criminal activity, establishing dominance in impoverished urban areas and later in overcrowded prisons across the country.

In 2003, the government of Francisco Flores initiated a policy known as the ”Iron Fist Plan” (Plan Mano Dura), an aggressive anti-gang strategy which allowed suspected gang members to be arrested and imprisoned on the basis of their appearance (for having gang-affiliated tattoos, for instance). Over the next four years the number of gang members in prison doubled from 4,000 to 8,000. Unfortunately, this served to strengthen the Maras’ structures in prisons across the country, solidify their identity and structure.

A “ceasefire” between these two rival groups was brokered with help from the Catholic Church, and facilitated by concessions from the government, in March 2012.  Since then El Salvador’s homicide rate has fallen dramatically. Whereas the country saw about 13 or 14 murders a day in the beginning of the year, this had fallen to around five a day towards the end of 2012. Based on statistics from the National Civil Police ( Policía Nacional Civil-PNC), 2012 saw a more than 40 percent drop in the number of recorded homicides compared to 2011.

There are estimated to be close to 400,000 guns in civilian hands in the country, less than half of which are registered. This wide availability of guns has helped fuel the homicide rate; over 70 percent of murders in the country are committed using a firearm, well above the global average of 42 percent.

Despite the reduction in violence, the levels of other serious crimes—most notably extortion—remain high. According to the El Salvador Chamber of Business and Industry (Cámara de Comercio e Industria de El Salvador-CCIES), businesses in commercial sections of the capital city of San Salvador are forced to make weekly extortion payments to gangs, often running as high as $1,500 a week. The country’s public transportation sector is especially vulnerable to extortion, and bus drivers are frequently forced to make regular payments to local street gangs despite the PNC’s best efforts to patrol bus routes in the country.

Kidnapping for ransom is a source of income for criminal networks in El Salvador, but the PNC seems to have made significant strides in combating kidnapping gangs in the country in recent years. In 2011, there were 25 reported kidnapping cases, down from 45 the year before. Police arrested 138 individuals linked to kidnapping in 2011, with courts successfully convicting 78 of them to prison sentences ranging from 30 to 45 years.

To a lesser extent, illicit smuggling networks known as “transportistas”are another security threat in the country. Transportista groups operate largely on El Salvador’s borders, moving contraband, people and illegal drugs in and out of the county, often with the aid of corrupt government border, police and military officials. These include two networks known as the Perrones[3] and the Cartel de Texis[4] . Both groups have ties to Mexican drug trafficking organisations, and are key actors in the northward flow of illicit drugs in the hemisphere. But while transportistas are responsible for the drugs passing through the country, the Maras are more responsible for local distribution of drugs and the high levels of violent crime. However, there is evidence of the Maras making the leap into transnational organized crime and this may present future challenges to law enforcement in El Salvador.

Perceptions of Insecurity

According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), the perception of insecurity in the country rose between 2004 and 2010 from 43.3 to 49.7 points[5] . This level did drop, however, in the 2012 survey to 43.8 points (See Figure 2.).

Fig. 2 El Salvador Perceptions of Insecurity 2010 and 2012

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions

El Salvador’s current legal system is based on its 1983 Constitution. The judicial branch is comprised of the Supreme Court (Corte Suprme de Justicia), federal appellate courts and local trial courts. The Supreme Court is made up of 15 justices. Supreme Court justices are elected by the Legislative Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa) by a two-thirds majority vote for nine-year terms, and the legislature also designates one judge as Supreme Court President, who serves as head of the entire judicial branch.  A third of the court is elected every three years.

The Supreme Court is divided into four separate courts with different functions: the five-member Constitutional Court headed by the Supreme Court President, hears disputes related to the constitutionality of laws and regulations; the four-member Administrative Disputes Court, decides on cases related to the administration of laws; the three-member Civil Court, is tasked with ruling on appeals of civil, labour and economic issues; and the three-member Criminal Court, is charged with deciding on appeals of criminal cases.

El Salvador also has a National Judicial Council (Consejo Nacional de la Judicatura), an independent body which proposes Supreme Court justice candidates to the legislature, and nominates candidates for appeal and trial judges. It also runs the Judicial Training School, which is designed to provide professional training to judges and other legal officials.

There is also the Public Ministry (Ministerio Público), consisting of the Prosecutor General of the Republic (Procuraduría General de la República de El Salvador), the Attorney General (Fiscalía General de la República) and the Prosecutor for the Defence of Human Rights (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos). These officials are also elected for three-year terms by the Legislative Assembly, and can be re-elected.

Despite progress made in the last decade towards building a professional judicial branch, inefficiency and corruption continue to plague the court system. Salvadoran police and prosecutors often find it difficult to coordinate efforts, and relatively few arrests lead to successful prosecutions as a result. In addition, there are concerns over the independence of the judiciary; in the World Economic Forum’s 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report, El Salvador placed 116 out of 144 countries, ranking lower than neighbours Honduras (69) and Guatemala (103).

Another problem facing El Salvador’s judicial sector is its overcrowded and underfunded prison system which is managed by the General Directorate of Prisons[6] (Dirección General de Centros Penales - DGCP). As previously mentioned, overcrowding and a lack of control in Salvadoran prisons have allowed Maras to flourish. Even in maximum security facilities, gang leaders are able to run their organisations nearly as effectively from inside prison as on the outside, communicating with their lieutenants via cell phone. According to official statistics, the country’s penitentiary system was operating at 299 percent its official capacity as of 2011, with a total of 25,400 inmates. And, due to public support for aggressive anti-gang policies, the number of prisoners continues to grow steadily.

Security Institutions

In the wake of the 1992 Peace Accords, El Salvador shifted responsibility for domestic law enforcement from the military to the newly-created PNC, which was established as a hybrid force made up of former military police and ex-Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional–FMLN) guerrillas. As of 2012, the PNC had 20,558 officers across the country and is housed under the Justice and Public Security Ministry.

Misconduct, arbitrary detention and excessive use of force continue to present major obstacles to the establishment of a professional police force in the country. Of twenty Latin American countries surveyed by LAPOP in 2008, El Salvador had the second-highest incidence of reported police abuse (after Argentina) with more than 8 percent of Salvadorans saying they had been victims of police abuse in the past year. Most of these victims are younger men in urban areas, who claim to have been unjustly targeted by the PNC’s aggressive anti-gang strategy.

Additionally, the PNC is plagued by corruption and criminal penetration at many levels. PNC officers in urban areas frequently accept bribes as an alternative to arrests or citations, and Maras have been known to establish “arrangements” with local police departments, making regular payments in exchange for license to operate in their neighbourhoods. This corruption also appears to extend to the PNC’s leadership, as a number of high-level officials have been investigated in recent years for ties to organised crime and drug trafficking.

Public confidence in the police has declined over the years. In 2004, El Salvador had a score of 64.6 points for police confidence[7] ; this dropped to 49.3 percent in 2010 though rose slightly in 2012 to 53.9 points, giving El Salvador one of the better scores on this issue out the 26 countries surveyed by LAPOP (See Figure 3.).


Fig. 3 El Salvador Confidence in Police 2012

While the majority of law enforcement activity in El Salvador is handled by the PNC, the military assists with domestic security operations as well, a role which has steadily increased in the last decade. Since 2002 the country’s defence budget has risen by 32 percent, with the government allotting $144 million to the armed forces in 2012. In addition to carrying out high profile anti-drug operations, army personnel now routinely patrol the country’s major cities. The deployment of the military has been a key facet of President Mauricio Funes’ security strategy, and the ranks of the army have grown by 57 percent since he took office. The military has 15,770 personnel and is overseen by the National Defence Ministry (Ministerio de la Defense Nacional).

The executive, military and police each have their own intelligence branches—the Police Intelligence Centre (Centro de Inteligencia Policial-CIP) being the PNC’s arm—which work actively with United States and European intelligence bodies, sharing information and, in some cases, coordinating joint operations against organised criminal groups.

The government launched its Five-Year Development Plan (Plan Quinquenal de Desarrollo) in 2010 that will run until 2014. One of the ten priority areas for the plan is reducing crime and criminality, and combating social violence. Roughly seven percent of money provided through the Plan will be for citizen security, with the majority of the budget (43 percent) going towards social inclusion and poverty reduction programmes.

State of Security and Justice Reform

Justice Sector Reform and Initiatives

Through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, El Salvador enacted a series of ambitious reforms to its judicial system, replacing hearings based on written submissions with competitive oral trials by prosecutors and defenders. Since the end of the Civil War the strength of the judiciary and the professional capacity of judicial officials increased tremendously as a result of these measures.

Despite this reform, concerns persist over judicial independence and respect for the Supreme Court as the highest judicial authority.  In June 2011, for instance, the Legislative Assembly voted to change process by which the Constitutional Court operates, requiring its five mandates to issue rulings by consent rather than majority. The bill—known as Decree 734—was immediately signed into law by President Funes. Such consensus is rare, meaning that the initiative essentially prohibited the court from making new decisions.

The law was seen as a direct attack against four judges who began their three-year term in 2009, because it included a provision which would end the unanimity requirement in July 2012, after their terms ended. Prior to Decree 734’s passage the magistrates had issued a number of decisions aimed at fighting corruption and strengthening judicial institutions, which were unpopular with lawmakers. Among these was their decision to end the Attorney General’s absolute control over which cases could be investigated and prosecuted by the government.

The law’s violation of the principle of judicial independence, and the fact that it was passed with virtually no public debate, sparked immediate backlash from civil society in El Salvador. A series of escalating protests led by groups across the political spectrum followed, and support for Decree 734 became a source of embarrassment for lawmakers and President Funes, who immediately began to distance themselves from the initiative. In late July 2011, the Legislative Assembly repealed the law.

In 2012, the country saw another major constitutional crisis, caused by a June 2012 ruling by the Constitutional Court that the Legislative Assembly’s Supreme Court votes in 2006 and 2012 were unconstitutional. The Court ruled that legislatures could only vote for a Supreme Court member once every three year term, and found that since lawmakers in 2006 and 2012 voted twice, the votes were illegal.

Both the Legislative Assembly and President Funes disagreed with the ruling, and in response lawmakers brought a case against the Constitutional Chamber before the Central American Court of Justice[8] , which ruled against the judiciary. While the crisis ended in August when the legislature agreed to re-elect magistrates to the 2006 and 2012 classes, it demonstrated an alarming lack of respect for the judiciary in El Salvador. In a visit to the country, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, expressed concern over the incident, and said, “The institutional independence of the judiciary should be assessed and addressed as a matter of urgency.”

Security Sector Reform and Initiatives

Another area of institutional weakness is the issue of police reform. President Funes has recognised police corruption as a serious problem, and upon taking office in mid-2009 vowed to purge the police force of corrupt elements. In an initial positive sign, he appointed Zaira Navas as Police Inspector General, who oversaw the dismissal of more than 350 PNC officers for corruption and misconduct. She also led investigations against a number of top PNC officials accused of links to organised crime.

The momentum of this purge began to falter, however, as she began to encounter mounting resistance from the PNC’s leadership, which complained about a lack of objectivity in Navas’ investigations. Navas resigned in January 2012, and in July was replaced by Carlos Linares Ascencio. In September, Linares announced the “definitive closure” of several high profile investigations which began under Navas.

El Salvador has been the recipient of US aid in the form of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), an aid program that has sent $496 million to the region since 2008 to assist law enforcement and justice institutions and promote community policing programs, among other measures. CARSI has focused less on taking on sweeping reform measures, though, and more on increasing the capacity of forces to bolster citizen security.

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight

The Legislative Assembly has the constitutional power to provide oversight of the Executive and government bodies. There are a number of permanent committees concerning issues including defence, citizen security, and justice and human rights, among others.

The Assembly has been the recipient of aid—notably from the Inter-American Development Bank—to help strengthen its capacity for providing oversight and to modernise the institution.

Security and Justice Opportunities

El Salvador made tremendous strides in bringing down violence levels in 2012. However, institutional weakness throughout all levels of government represents a hindrance to solidifying these gains and ensuring the downward trend continues.

The government appears predisposed to accepting help with reform measures though endemic levels of corruption mean assistance should be approached with caution.

Justice Sector Opportunities

While the push to professionalise the judicial branch and improve the efficiency of prosecutors and judges has also lost momentum in recent years, there is an opportunity for outside help. El Salvador has proved willing to accept international assistance on this issue in the past, receiving aid and loans from both the United States government and the Inter-American Development Bank. Special emphasis might be placed on providing technical assistance to the Judicial Training School, and on ensuring that prosecutors are better trained to coordinate their cases with police investigators.

Security Sector Opportunities

At present, the most promising opportunity for engagement in El Salvador is the aforementioned “ceasefire” between MS-13 and Barrio 18, which has drastically reduced the homicide rate. Although the truce was publicly mediated by former congressman Raul Mijango and Catholic Bishop Fabio Colindres, press reports have revealed that it was also facilitated by concessions from the Ministry of Public Security and closely overseen by President Funes. In exchange for a reduction in violence, the government transferred some 30 jailed leaders of the two gangs from maximum security facilities to less strict prisons, and granted them increased visitation rights.

The main obstacle for the civil society actors involved in the truce is persuading the gangs to expand it to crimes other than homicides. Despite the drop in murders, for instance, the number of reported instances of gang extortion increased since the ceasefire was announced. The truce mediators also face the challenge of developing it into an initiative which would have a more permanent effect on the country’s gang problem.

To this end Salvadoran human rights groups have called for the creation a government-sanctioned “re-insertion plan,” which would provide education and job training in an effort to help young men leave the Mara lifestyle behind. Deputy Security Minister Douglas Moreno announced in April that the government would be launching such a program, but there have been no reports of its progress since. These initiatives would benefit from foreign funding and monitoring, and could be a boost to both security and economic growth.

Mijango and Colindres have also managed to convince Mara leaders to accept a proposal to end all gang activity in ten so-called "peace zones" in the country. Within these designated areas, MS-13 and Barrio 18 would agree to a non-aggression pact, and commit to refraining from all homicides, extortion, theft, and kidnapping. As of December 2012, the exact locations of these peace zones had not been announced, though the gangs claim that they could affect some 900,000 residents. As a condition of these peace zones, however, Mara leaders are demanding the repeal of a 2009 anti-gang law which allows police to conduct mass arrests of alleged gang members.

Such demands are another challenge to this truce. While the initiative is an impressive demonstration of a unique and successful civil society-led security effort, it has afforded the gangs a dangerously high profile. In gaining concessions from the state, the Maras have entered the realm of politics, which they can use to expand their overall influence in the country. Considering their strong presence in El Salvador’s major cities, they are in a position to potentially deliver entire neighbourhoods to candidates in local and national elections in exchange for protection.

In terms of facilitating police reform, there are less encouraging prospects. As mentioned, the PNC’s new Inspector General Linares has demonstrated considerably less political will than his predecessor to go after top police officials with questionable ties. International pressure and funding could nudge the process on.

Civil Society Actors for Engagement

There are a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) currently involved in security in El Salvador.  Chief among these is the Catholic Church, which—as noted above—has been involved in facilitating the gang truce between the MS-13 and Barrio 18.

The non-governmental Human Rights Commission[9] (Comisión de Derechos Humanos de El Salvador–CDHES) is another prominent source of detailed analysis of security in El Salvador. The CDHES was also instrumental in assisting with the end of the Civil War and continues to document human rights abuses of this era and advocate non-violent approaches to conflict resolution.

Let’s Work for Peace (Trabajemos Por la Paz) is an organisation dedicated to creating safe spaces for children, providing work opportunities to youths most susceptible to gang influence and assisting reformed gang members with “reinsertion” into society. Created by a coalition of business groups, the NGO bills itself as a “private solution” to the problem of gangs and gang violence.

The Human Rights Institute at the Central American University[10] (Instituto de Derechos Humanos de la UCA–IDHUCA) is another key organisation dedicated to promoting human rights and justice for Salvadorans.


Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Police Reform in Latin America: Implications for U.S. Policy,” February 2012

Center for Strategic and International Studies, “The Transformation of El Salvador’s Gangs into Political Actors,” June 2012

Organisation of American States, “2012 Report on Citizen Security in the Americas,” May 2012

Red de Seguridad y Defensa de América Latina, “Atlas Comparativo de la Defensa en América Latina y Caribe Edición 2012,” October 2012

Small Arms Survey, “Small Arms Survey 2012: Moving Targets,” August 2012

Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney, “El Salvador – Gun Facts, Figures and Law,” Data retrieved from http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/el-salvador

The AmericasBarometer, by the Latina America Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “Police Abuse in Latin America,” March 2009

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “Cultura Política de la Democracia en El Salvador, 2010: Consolidación Democrática el las Américas en Tiempos Dificiles,” November 2010

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” December 2010

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2012: Towards Equality of Opportunity,” November 2012 (Preliminary Version)

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Homicide Statistics 2012,” Data set retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/homicide.html

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment,” September 2012

U.S. Department of State, “2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012

Washington Office on Latin America, “Interview with Zaira Navas, Inspector General of El Salvador’s National Civilian Police,” July 2011

World Economic Forum, “The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013,” September 2012


[1] See InSight Crime profile of Mara Salvatrucha at: http://www.insightcrime.org/groups-el-salvador/mara-salvatrucha-ms-13

[2] See InSight Crime profile of Barrio 18 at: http://www.insightcrime.org/groups-el-salvador/barrio-18

[3] See InSight Crime profile of the Perrones: http://www.insightcrime.org/groups-el-salvador/perrones

[4] See InSight Crime profile of the Texis Cartel: http://www.insightcrime.org/groups-el-salvador/texis-cartel

[5] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher perception of insecurity.

[6] This is housed under the Justice and Public Security Ministry (Minsiterio de Justicia y Seguridad Publica).

[7] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher level of confidence.

[8] The Court comes under the Central American Integration System (Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana – SICA) and is designed to settle disputes between member states or a member state and an outside party, and between member states and a person who is resident in a member state, among other functions. It is rare for it to involve itself in matters such as the El Salvador case. 

[9] More information on their website: http://www.cdhes.org.sv/

[10] More information on their website: http://www.uca.edu.sv/publica/idhuca/

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

  1. Diagnose challenges through cutting-edge research;
  2. Trigger informed debate and action across public and private spheres; and
  3. Design tailor-made solutions that are people-centered.

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.