EL SALVADOR (Tier 2 Watch List)
The Government of El Salvador does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. These efforts included convicting more traffickers and identifying more victims. However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity. The government significantly reduced its number of specialized prosecutors. Fewer than half of all identified victims received government services or referral to outside care providers. The government did not implement procedures to identify potential trafficking victims among children apprehended for illicit gang-related activity or persons forcibly displaced from their homes. The government did not initiate any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials allegedly complicit in human trafficking crimes or report progress on investigations from previous years. The government’s anti-trafficking council was inactive and did not draft a new national anti-trafficking action plan (NAP), publish a report on the government’s 2021 efforts, or compile data from across different agencies. Therefore El Salvador was downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List.
PRIORITIZED RECOMMENDATIONS: Increase specialized services for all identified trafficking victims, including shelters and access to services for adults, boys, and LGBTQI+ victims. * Develop and implement procedures to proactively identify and refer to service providers victims from at-risk groups – including individuals in commercial sex, children apprehended for illicit gang-related activities, forcibly displaced persons, and irregular migrants returning to El Salvador. * Strengthen and improve the specialized anti-trafficking prosecution unit, including by addressing staffing challenges and providing training. * Increase and institutionalize anti-trafficking training for police, immigration officials, municipal security personnel, prosecutors, and judges, with a focus on applying trauma-informed, victim-centered procedures. * Strengthen efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers, including complicit officials and perpetrators of forced labor. * Develop a mechanism to enforce payment of court-ordered restitution to victims. * Allow authorities and the public to refer potential victims directly to government or NGO service providers, without first referring to police or prosecutors. * Provide reintegration and livelihood support services for victims’ long-term wellbeing and extend witness protection services beyond the duration of a trial, particularly for victims who testify against members of organized criminal groups. * Amend the 2014 anti-trafficking law to include a definition of human trafficking consistent with international law. * Draft, allocate resources for, and implement a new NAP to combat trafficking. * Develop a case management system to improve data collection, sharing, security, and analysis related to trafficking cases. * Expand prevention measures, including through raising awareness of fraudulent recruitment for employment in El Salvador and abroad and by holding accountable employers or recruiters who commit fraudulent practices that facilitate trafficking.
The government maintained law enforcement efforts. The 2014 Special Law Against Trafficking in Persons criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of 10 to 14 years’ imprisonment; these penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law, the law considered the use of force, fraud, or coercion as an aggravating factor rather than an essential element of the crime; the penalties increased to 16 to 20 years’ imprisonment for trafficking offenses involving these factors. The law defined trafficking broadly to include fraudulent adoption without the purpose of exploitation, which was inconsistent with international law.
Police investigated 45 suspected trafficking cases (40 for sex trafficking and five for forced labor) involving 32 suspects in 2021, compared with 30 cases investigated in 2020 and 80 cases investigated in 2019. The government prosecuted 31 individuals in 12 cases, some of which continued from previous years. Authorities convicted 29 traffickers, including 27 for sex trafficking and two for forced labor, and acquitted two defendants. In comparison, in 2020 authorities initiated prosecution of 39 sex trafficking cases involving 31 suspects and convicted 12 traffickers. The government did not report sentences for convicted traffickers. The government did not report any new investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes nor progress in investigations from previous years. Endemic corruption and complicity, including within law enforcement, the judiciary, the prison system, and local government, remained significant obstacles to anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. An international investigation revealed government officials in 2020 pursued political gains through collusion with financial and other incentives to gangs known to have committed trafficking crimes.
The government maintained specialized anti-trafficking police and prosecution units. Both units lacked sufficient human and material resources to effectively investigate and prosecute all cases, and the absence of an electronic case-management system limited efforts to collect, share, and analyze law enforcement information. For a second year, the government directed most law enforcement officials to focus on pandemic-related support tasks, severely limiting resources dedicated to identifying and investigating suspected cases of trafficking. In 2021, many prosecutors in the anti-trafficking unit were reassigned and not replaced, precipitating a decline from 23 prosecutors to only nine by the close of 2021.
Observers noted the attorney general’s office frequently assigned different prosecutors to handle different phases of a single criminal case, which hampered its ability to prosecute cases in an efficient and cohesive manner and provide consistency to victims. They further reported prosecutors outside San Salvador lacked the autonomy to pursue investigations and were required to refer their cases to the unit’s leadership in the capital. Experts noted some police used harsh questioning during victim interviews, leading to re-traumatization. Observers reported judges did not have an adequate understanding of the complexity of trafficking crimes or sufficient expertise in evidentiary processes and victim-centered procedures for trafficking cases, including the use of non-testimonial evidence to corroborate victim testimony. The government provided training workshops for prosecutors on vital topics, including victim psychology, trauma, and protecting the rights of at-risk LGBTQI+ individuals, and some officials benefitted from additional donor-funded trainings. However, overall training for law enforcement and criminal justice officials was insufficient. The government reported coordinating on investigations with the Government of Guatemala, under the auspices of a 2021 agreement signed by the Governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to enhance cooperation against trafficking; however, it did not provide details on victims assisted or suspects prosecuted because of these efforts.
The government decreased victim protection efforts. Although authorities identified more victims, they did not provide direct services or referral to the majority of identified victims. The government identified 95 sex trafficking victims, 60 women and 35 girls, and two forced child labor victims, gender not specified. In comparison, authorities identified 37 victims in 2020 and 124 victims in 2019. Three female victims were from Colombia, one was from Guatemala, and the remainder of identified victims were from El Salvador. NGOs identified two additional sex trafficking victims, both girls. The government provided services to 24 victims (12 women, 10 girls, and two men) and referred 11 additional child sex trafficking victims, all girls, to NGOs for support. In 2020, the attorney general’s office provided psychological care to 27 victims and collaborated with NGOs to provide financial assistance for lodging, food, basic necessities, and job placement to 36 victims; in 2019, the government assisted 111 victims. The government maintained one trafficking victims’ shelter, which had the capacity to house 12 girls between the ages of 12 and 18, and provided services to 11 residents in 2021. Officials required residents to quarantine for 15 days in a general-purpose shelter before they could be admitted to the trafficking victim shelter. The government repatriated two foreign victims to their home countries.
The government’s 2018 Inter-Institutional Action Protocol for the Immediate Comprehensive Care of Victims of Trafficking in Persons outlined the roles and responsibilities of government agencies in responding to trafficking victims. The protocol required all initial referrals to be made to police or prosecutors, without an option to refer potential victims directly to government or private sector service providers. In 2021, officials from the Protection Boards of Childhood and Adolescence, the National Hospitals of the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance, and the Directorate General for Migration and Foreigners identified and referred nine suspected trafficking cases to the anti-trafficking unit of the attorney general’s office. Police received 20 trafficking-related calls to the 911 emergency division but did not report whether they identified any victims through these calls. Immigration agents had a manual to guide identification and referral of possible trafficking victims in border regions. However, the government lacked formal procedures to identify and refer trafficking victims among most vulnerable groups, including individuals in commercial sex and children apprehended for gang-related activity. Local experts reported police, immigration agents, and other first responders lacked sufficient training to properly identify, interact with, and protect victims, who were often mistaken for criminals and may have been punished for unlawful acts their traffickers compelled them to commit. In addition, experts reported authorities did not screen for indicators of human trafficking among families fleeing gang-controlled communities or other forced displacement victims; trafficking victims and at-risk persons among this population, particularly children exploited by gangs, remained uncounted in official statistics and without access to justice and specialized services.
The government provided limited assistance to victims. The government shelter provided residents with education and recreation, psycho-social care, and protective materials to prevent COVID-19 transmission. The government did not report the shelter’s budget for 2021. In comparison, the government allocated a budget of $167,375 to the shelter in 2020. There were no trafficking shelters that accepted victims who were adults, boys, and/or transgender individuals; women could access shelter and services designed for domestic violence victims, while male and/or transgender victims had little to no access to government services. The government offered few long-term support or reintegration services to trafficking victims following the conclusion of investigations, leaving them at risk of re-trafficking. Although judges ordered convicted traffickers to pay restitution to victims, the government did not effectively enforce these orders, and no victims received restitution or compensation payment in 2021. The government reported providing witness protection, relative to individual safety risks, for victims participating in prosecutions. Such measures included disguising victims’ identities in court and allowing victims to provide testimony by deposition or via teleconference, but this support was only available through the duration of a trial. Local experts reported a lack of adequate security measures and lengthy investigations and prosecutions led many victims to cease participation before the conclusion of criminal justice processes. Inadequate economic and livelihood assistance led victims and witnesses to leave the country in search of economic opportunity before authorities completed investigations; authorities reported the pandemic exacerbated this situation. LGBTQI+ individuals experienced discrimination within the law enforcement and judicial systems, which limited their access to justice.
Due to a lack of formal victim identification procedures for members of at-risk groups, authorities may have prosecuted or punished some unidentified victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit. In 2021, authorities detained, jailed, prosecuted, and sentenced children for unlawful gang-related activity, including drug possession, aggravated homicide, and illegal firearms possession without screening for indicators of trafficking. The 2014 trafficking law provided foreign victims the right to seek residency status, which would allow them to work legally. A 2019 immigration law granted foreign victims the right to obtain residency – with multiple entry and exit permission and the ability to work – for an initial period of up to two years with the option to extend; no foreign victims received residency benefits during the year.
The government decreased prevention efforts. The national anti-trafficking council, led by the Ministry of Public Security and Justice and charged with coordinating anti-trafficking efforts among 12 government institutions, met four times in 2021 but was otherwise dormant. For a second year, the council failed to draft a new national anti-trafficking action plan, as required by law, following the previous plan’s conclusion in 2019. The council did not produce or share information on its legally required annual report on anti-trafficking efforts for 2021. It shared an overdue report on 2020 efforts but did not make this information available to the public. The government’s data collection was unreliable, and methods varied among agencies; the council failed to fulfill its role to reconcile the data.
Officials from several government institutions and local municipalities, in coordination with an international organization, held community events to raise awareness about the dangers of irregular migration, fraudulent recruitment, and human trafficking. With support from foreign donors, the government opened five Urban Opportunity and Wellness Centers providing educational and recreational opportunities in high crime areas for children at-risk of exploitation by gangs.
The Ministry of Labor primarily managed El Salvador’s recruitment process for temporary workers on H-2A visas to the United States and maintained a website, which included information on Salvadoran workers’ rights and warnings against fraudulent recruitment tactics. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs partnered with the United States on additional awareness efforts targeted against fraudulent practices, such as charging workers recruitment fees. The government reported prosecutors in multiple jurisdictions pursued investigations of businesses attempting to charge fees to workers applying for H-2A visas, but it did not report prosecuting or punishing any businesses for violations. The government did not provide warnings or information against fraudulent recruitment practices for employment within El Salvador. The Labor Code prohibits withholding pay, but the government did not effectively enforce this provision. Neither the Labor Code nor the Penal Code specified fines or punishment for fraudulent recruitment of workers. The government did not issue an executive decree, as required by a 2020 supreme court decision, to establish and implement a minimum wage for domestic workers. Salvadoran law criminalized sex tourism and prescribed penalties of four to 10 years’ imprisonment, but authorities did not report any investigations or prosecutions of sex tourism crimes. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.
TRAFFICKING PROFILE: As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in El Salvador, and traffickers exploit victims from El Salvador abroad. Traffickers exploit adults and children in sex trafficking within the country; children without parents, adolescent girls, and LGBTQI+ persons, especially transgender persons, are at particular risk. NGOs reported sex trafficking occurs in the tourism industry. Traffickers often exploit victims within their own communities or homes, sometimes their own children or other family members. Traffickers exploit Salvadoran adults and children in forced labor in agriculture, domestic service, and begging. Traffickers exploit adults and children from neighboring countries – particularly Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua – in sex trafficking and forced labor in construction, domestic service, or the informal sector. Traffickers recruit victims in regions of the country with high levels of violence and capitalize on existing fears to coerce victims and their families through threats of violence. Limited government presence in gang-controlled territory exacerbates trafficking risks among vulnerable groups and limits their access to justice and protection. Many victims of forcible displacement are families fleeing the exploitation of children by gangs in their communities. Gangs that have appropriated Indigenous land threaten Indigenous children for crossing gang territory, compelling them to drop out of school or leave home and increasing their vulnerability to exploitation. Gangs use the pretense of domestic employment to lure women into forced labor. Transnational criminal organizations and gangs including MS-13 and Barrio 18 recruit, abduct, train, arm, and subject children to forced labor in illicit activities, including assassinations, extortion, and drug trafficking – often within children’s own communities. These groups subject women and children, including LGBTQI+ children, to sex trafficking and forced labor in domestic service and child care.
Traffickers exploit Salvadoran men, women, and children in sex trafficking and forced labor in Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. Traffickers exploit some Salvadorans who irregularly migrate to the United States in forced labor, forced criminal activity, and sex trafficking en route or upon arrival. Traffickers exploit some Central and South American, African, and Asian migrants who transit El Salvador to Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, and Canada in sex and labor trafficking. Individuals without personal identification documents are highly vulnerable to trafficking. Traffickers increasingly use social media and messaging platforms to lure victims, including through false employment or educational opportunities abroad, and facilitate their exploitation; traffickers accelerated this trend as a means to reach potential victims in their own homes during the pandemic. Endemic corruption and complicity, including within law enforcement, the judiciary, the prison system, and local government, remained significant obstacles to anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts.