El Salvador

Last updated: 28 May 2024


El Salvador’s first civil society organizations (CSOs) engaged in humanitarian aid work during the 1960s. However, the majority of CSOs in El Salvador formed and developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the country underwent a civil war and post-war reconstruction. During that time many CSOs continued the work begun in previous decades, but with heightened urgency to provide assistance to individuals who were marginalized from the economic and social system. The 1980s and 1990s also witnessed the emergence of new CSOs dealing with social welfare issues. With the end of the civil war and the peace accords in 1992, CSOs continued to develop both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Over time, CSOs developed mechanisms for international cooperation and financing, and created unions, alliances and networks with other organizations, which are called federations, boards, offices and partnerships. They interact effectively in the public arena by formulating proposals for public policies, laws, and even agreements with state agencies.

The legal framework of CSOs is regulated by article 7 of the Constitution (“The people of El Salvador have the right to freely associate and assemble peacefully and without arms for any lawful purpose. […]”) and more recently by the Not -for -Non-Profit Foundations and Associations Law (“LAFSL”). The LAFSL was enacted in 1996 and its regulations establish a special legal regime for social organizations by defining their rights and duties and also creating a state office as a sanctioning body called the Registry of Non-profit Associations and Foundations. It is attached to the Ministry of Governance and Territorial Development.

The arrival of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) government in 2009 opened channels for citizen participation, but CSOs in El Salvador failed to unify around a national agenda for the country’s development, and there is still no policy in place to promote social organizations. In addition, despite the flaws in the government entity that oversees CSOs—related primarily to its bureaucratic procedures—little has been done to improve or replace it. This has resulted in insufficient mechanisms for organized participation in decision making.

The Five-Year Development Plan (“PQD”) of former president Salvador Sánchez Cerén (2014–2019) envisaged the creation of a legal framework for CSOs to replace the current one, and work was carried out on a new Not-for-Profit Social Organizations Act, which was presented in 2019 by the FMLN Government to upgrade processes, modernize services, and plug gaps existing in the current law. The presidential administration of Nayib Bukele (2019–2024), however, lacked interest in updating the regulatory framework for CSOs. The Not-for-Profit Social Organizations Act never reached the Legislative Assembly for review, although improvements aimed at modernizing services have been made, including, for example, online notification for CSOs that seek to register and obtain legal status.

On March 5, 2021, the Nuevas Ideas party led by President Nayib Bukele won the legislative elections. Bukele thereby acquired a large majority in the government, which has allowed him to acquire broad powers to replace his adversaries, including the attorney general and magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice. Since the President has control of state institutions, including the Attorney General’s Office and the Institute for Access to Public Information, among others, threats have been made against human rights organizations regarding the implementation of new legal frameworks to threaten the Salvadoran civic space.

Among the latest attempts at restrictive regulation is the proposal for a Foreign Agents Law, which criminalizes the work of CSOs and constitutes a government tool for the financial drowning of the sector. However, at present, thanks to the political influence of various sectors of the public, it is still only a draft within the Legislative Assembly. In addition to the that draft, the deputies of the Legislative Assembly approved the creation of a Special Commission that is in charge of investigating  funds from the Legislative Assembly, which have been granted to different CSOs. According to the ruling party, $159.8 million from previous legislatures have been provided without justification. The work of the Special Commission lacks a technical and impartial approach, and in practice it is used to generate an erroneous perception of CSOs in the population because its discourses are used against them.

For its part, the Attorney General’s Office, through the Financial Investigation Unit (FIU), has approved the “Instructions for the prevention, detection and control of money and asset laundering, financing of terrorism and the financing of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” In addition to requiring the civil society sector to newly register in a generally applicable way, the state also makes it obligatory for CSOs to carry out a risk assessment of the sector and apply the Risk-Based Approach based on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s recommendations 1 and 8. The Instructions were scheduled to enter into force in July 2023.

Organizational Forms Associations and Foundations at the National Level Development Associations at the Local Level
Registration Body Registry of Non-Profit Associations and Foundations, attached to the Ministry of Governance and Territorial Development Municipal Councils – Municipalities
Approximate Number As of July 14, 2021, there were 4,484 registered organizations, including 3,356 associations and 1,128 foundations. Unknown. El Salvador has 262 municipalities, each of which maintains an individual registry of community development associations.
Barriers to Entry Lack of unified criteria by registrars; centralized register, without branch offices, making access to registration and services difficult for applicants; excessive costs; delays in registration. Municipal Code requires 25 members to create a community development association; party-political interests exist at local level; delays in registration process
Barriers to Activities CSOs have been stigmatized and viewed as opponents for demanding respect for human rights and El Salvador’s Constitution. Because of political party interests, there are community associations that whenever there is a change in local government are not recognized by the local authorities for conducting development initiatives, despite that they have legal status.
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy The work of social organizations is widely stigmatized and CSOs are classified as “front organizations” that are “used to divert public funds and enrich political figures.” None
Barriers to International Contact The El Salvador Agency for International Cooperation (ESCO-El Salvador) is the only institution authorized by executive order to handle foreign CSO cooperation in any of its modalities and forms because no other government institution has the responsibilities to do its work. CSOs are required to collaborate with it in order to carry out activities with foreign CSOs. None
Barriers to Resources No public grants exist for the work and development of CSOs. Funds are allocated to CSOs by the Legislative Assembly according to political interests.

The “Special Commission to investigate funds granted to NGOs” has been established.

A lack of political party affinity between community associations and local authorities leads the latter to not fund development initiatives in certain communities.
Barriers to Assembly Broad discretion for authorities to determine what is a “lawful” purpose; extra restrictions during election season; terrorism laws used arbitrarily against protesters. Broad discretion for authorities to determine what is a “lawful” purpose; extra restrictions during election season; terrorism laws used arbitrarily against protesters.
Population 6,321,042 (2010 est.) (Multi-Purpose Homes Survey)
Capital San Salvador
Type of Government Republic
Life Expectancy at Birth Male: 71.6 years
Female: 78.79 years (2021 est.)
Literacy Rate Male: 92.1%
Female: 88.9% (2021 est.) (Multi-Purpose Homes Survey)
Religious Groups Catholic 45.2%, Evangelical 32.8%, none 15.5%, others 6.4% (2019)
Ethnic Groups Mestizo 86.3%, White 12.7%, Amerindian 0.2% black 0.1%, other 0.6% (2007 census)
GDP per capita $4,408 (2021 estimate)

Source: CIA World Factbook.

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 127 (2023) 1-193
World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 108 (2023) 1-142
Transparency International 126 (2023) 1 – 180
Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index 88 (2023) 179-1
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Partly Free
Political Rights: 21
Civil Liberties: 32 (2024)
Free/Partly Free/Not Free (1-100)
1 – 40
1 – 60

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International Agreements Ratification* Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Yes 1979
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1) Yes 1995
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Yes 1979
Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR) Yes 2011
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) Yes 1979
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Yes 1981
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women No
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Yes 1990
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) Yes 2003
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Yes 2007
Regional Treaties
Organization of American States (OAS) Yes 1950
American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) Yes 1978
Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“Protocol of San Salvador”) Yes 1995

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Constitutional Framework

El Salvador is a unitary state that follows the civil law tradition. The Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, regulates the rights and duties of all of the country’s inhabitants. It protects the rights to freedom of expression and thought, as well as the freedom of association.

Article 7 of the Constitution states that:

The inhabitants of El Salvador have the right to associate freely and to meet peacefully, without arms, for any lawful purpose. Nobody shall be obligated to belong to an association.

A person shall not be limited or impeded from the exercise of any licit activity because he does not belong to an association.

The existence of armed groups of a political, religious or guild character is prohibited.

As of November 2021, a proposed amendment to Article 7 is in the process of being law, but it has not yet been enacted.

In accordance with Article 240 (5) of the Constitution, municipalities can approve the formation of community associations through the authority that has been conferred on them to promulgate local ordinances and regulations. Secondary legislation regulates the scope of the rights articulated in the Constitution. The vice president of El Salvador, Felix Ulloa, together with a team of lawyers, has prepared a list of constitutional reforms that would represent a modification of 85% of the 1983 Constitution. Article 7 is included among the reforms and, at present, it incorporates the possibility of the existence of armed groups when permitted by law.

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

Two systems govern the establishment and operations of CSOs in El Salvador.  The first system is the 1996 national-level Law for Not-for-Profit Associations and Foundations [Ley de Asociaciones y Fundaciones sin Fines de Lucro] (LAFSFL), which regulates the establishment, operation, and dissolution of CSOs.

The second system governs at the local level and is regulated through the Municipal Code and municipal ordinances issued by each of the country’s 262 municipalities.  The goal of the local-level regulation is to promote effective CSO engagement at the local level to address public policy priorities.  According to Article 118 of Title IX of the Municipal Code, “Municipal governments are obligated to promote citizen participation, provide public information on municipal management, address matters that residents may request, and those that the Council considers convenient.”

Additional laws that may affect civil society include:

  1. Código Municipal (Municipal Code)
  2. Código Penal (Penal Code)
  3. Ley de Proscripción de maras, pandillas, agrupaciones, asociaciones y organizaciones de naturaleza criminal (Prohibition Act of maras, gangs, groups, associations and organizations of a criminal nature)
  4. Ley Especial contra actos de terrorismo (Special Law against Acts of Terrorism)
  5. Ley General de Juventud (General Law of Youth)
  6. Ley Marco para la Convivencia Ciudadana y Contravenciones Administrativas (Framework Law for Coexistence and Administrative Violations)
  7. Ley Penitenciaria (Penitentiary Act)
  8. Ley Contra el Lavado de Dinero y de Activos (Law Against Money Laundering)
  9. Ley de Firma Electronica (Electronic Signature Law)
  10. Reformas de Ley de Telecomunicaciones (Reforms of Telecommunications Law)
  11. Ley Contra el Lavado de Dinero y de Activos (Anti-Money Laundering Act)
  12. Ley de Desarrollo y Protección Social
  13. Reglamento de la Ley de Acceso a la Información Pública
  14. Reglamento General de la Ley del Medio Ambiente
  15. Instructivo de la Unidad de Investigación Financiera – Fiscalía General de la República de El Salvador

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

1. Bill on Not-for-Profit Social Organizations (Proyecto de Ley de Organizaciones Sociales sin Fines de Lucro): This was an initiative of the 2014–2019 El Salvador Government and was presented in 2018 after extensive public consultation. However, no advances were achieved under that administration or in the Legislative Assembly and it remains dormant.

2. Special Act for the Prevention, Control and Sanctioning of Money Laundering (Proyecto de Ley Especial para la Prevención, Control y Sanción del Lavado de Activos): This initiative was aimed at replacing the current Anti-Money Laundering Act. Like the Act currently in effect, however, the draft Act treated not-for-profit organizations as reporting entities required to comply with regulations on combating money laundering and terrorist financing. The draft Act was a special case and was being studied in the Legislative Assembly. Despite the absence of a national risk evaluation as required under Recommendation Number 8 and its Interpretive Note by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the backers of the draft Act mentioned that they were including not-for-profit organizations under the draft Act’s remit because they have found evidence of cases where such organizations are involved in money laundering.

The initiative was ultimately sent to be archived through Opinion No. 1 dated May 13, 2021 of the Commission of Public Security and Combatting Narcoactivity of the current Legislative Assembly (2021-2024) by parties allied to President Nayib Bukele. They argued the draft Act was out of date and did not respond to current needs. However, their argument was made before a study of the initiative was carried out.

3. Foreign Agents Law (Ley de Agentes Extranjeros): Submitted by the President of the Republic to the Legislative Assembly on November 9, 2021 through the Ministry of the Interior and Territorial Development, its contents mimic Nicaragua’s Foreign Agents Law. As a result, it was criticized by the IACHR for imposing disproportionate restrictions on the right to free association and for its repressive use against organizations that defend human rights. It further criminalizes the work of CSOs by imposing disproportionate prison sentences and fines on them and promoting the discretionary control of the sector and imposing taxes on the sector that constitute a form of financial suffocation.

Please help keep us informed; if you are aware of other pending initiatives, write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

Organizational Forms

The Not-for-Profit Associations and Foundations Act (“LAFSFL”) addresses two categories of CSOs (Article 1), which may be domestic or foreign (Article 44).  The first category of CSOs is the association, which is a private legal entity formed by two or more natural or legal persons for the ongoing pursuit of any legal not-for-profit activity (Articles 9 and 11). These entities are formally established through a public instrument executed by the founding members and are governed by internal bylaws. Their members may be natural or legal persons who are nationals or foreigners, although in the case of foreigners they must be residents in the country (Article 12). The bylaws of an association establish the rights and obligations of members within the organization and conditions of membership (Article 14). Under the LAFSFL, federations and confederations formed by legal persons are also recognized associations (Article 17).

The second category of CSOs under the LAFSFL is the foundation, which is established by one or more natural or legal persons to manage capital intended for public service (Article 18). A foundation is a non-membership organization and may be established by nationals or foreigners. They require an endowment and operating funds at the time of establishment (Article 22). The establishment of a foundation is formally recognized in a public instrument or will (Article 19). Foundations are governed by their internal bylaws (Article 23).

For both associations and foundations, legal status is obtained by registering with the Ministry of the Interior and Territorial Development (article 26). As of July 14, 2021, there were 4,484 registered organizations, including 3,356 associations and 1,128 foundations.

The Municipal Code (Código Municipal (MC)) provides two additional categories of CSOs at the local level: municipal associations and community associations. Municipal associations are attached to the municipalities that create them (MC, Article 12). Legal status is granted by the municipality in their articles of incorporation. Community associations are formed by local residents who have united to address common needs (MC, Article 118). Community associations must have at least 25 members (MC, Article 120). The decision of a special general assembly is required for their establishment while the relevant municipal council grants them legal status (MC, Article 119).

Churches are not subject to the LAFSFL (LAFSFL, Article 10). Instead, the legal basis for granting them legal status is governed by Articles 542 and 543 of the Civil Code (Código Civil). Trade unions are regulated under the Labor Code (Código del Trabajo). Neither churches nor trade unions are examined elsewhere in this report.

Public Benefit Status

Subject to prior certification by the General Directorate of Internal Taxes under the Ministry of the Treasury, associations and foundations can be declared public interest entities, and can therefore be exempt from income tax. This benefit, which virtually all CSOs apply for, is regulated by the LAFSFL (Articles 6 and 7) and the Income Tax Act (Ley del Impuesto sobre la Renta) (Article 6). Requirements for obtaining public benefit status are set out in the Income Tax Act (Article 7). CSOs established for the purposes of social assistance, promotion of road building, charity, education and instruction, and cultural, scientific, literary, artistic, political and sports activities, as well as business associations and trade unions, are eligible for certification as long as their income and assets are used solely to fulfill the institution’s purpose and are not distributed among their members (Income Tax Act, Article 6). In practice, however, the process of obtaining this status is long and bureaucratic. Furthermore, designation as a public interest entity does not exempt the CSO from having to comply with other formal obligations, such as submitting reports and other documentation requested by the tax authorities.

Authorization of public interest status is granted for one year and may be renewed automatically absent a notice of revocation from the tax authorities. The public interest designation may be revoked at any time if the grounds on which it was granted no longer exist (LAFSFL, Article 7). Neither the LAFSFL nor tax laws outline a specific procedure for revoking eligibility, and there are no known cases of revocation.

Public Participation

Article 18 of the Constitution recognizes that “[e]very person has the right to address written petitions, in a decorous manner, to the legally established authorities; and to have such petition resolved and to be informed of the result.”

Laws affecting public participation include the following:

The Municipal Code (1986) requires that municipalities promote citizen participation (Article 115), and recognizes various mechanisms for citizen participation (Article 116), including:

  • Public meetings of the municipal council;
  • Open town hall meetings;
  • Popular consultations;
  • Neighborhood and sectoral consultations;
  • Participatory investment plans;
  • Local development committees;
  • Citizen security councils;
  • Participatory investment budgets, and
  • Other forms of participation that the municipal council deems appropriate.

To promote civic engagement, Article 118 of the Municipal Code recognizes that inhabitants of communities, neighborhoods, districts, cantons, and hamlets can establish community associations to understand and address community problems and needs. At the same time, however, the Code requires that a community association have a minimum of 25 members in order to attain legal status, which may be necessary to secure funding for community development projects. Such a high threshold for membership can only deter the participation of small community associations.

The Framework Act for Civic Coexistence and Administrative Contraventions (Ley Marco para la Convivencia Ciudadana y Contravenciones Administrativas) (2011) seeks to promote citizen security, preserve the full enjoyment of public and private spaces in municipalities, and stimulate civic engagement. (Article 2(a)) While the Framework Act requires municipal governments to promote citizen participation (Article 15), it simultaneously requires that community development associations (ADESCOs) can only be formed by a minimum of 25 people (Article 120), as is required by the Municipal Code.

The Internal Regulations of the Legislative Assembly (El Reglamento Interior de la Asamblea Legislativa (RIAL)) (2005) relate to the parliamentary procedures of the Legislative Assembly. RIAL addresses the collaboration of public and private institutions, private hearings, and public consultations which legislative committees hold to give voice to those interested in or affected by legislative bills. Article 78 of RIAL addresses citizen participation in the full Legislative Assembly, which may be triggered where the citizen submits a written petition stating the matter on which they will speak. Once approved, the citizen must only speak on the issues for authorized in the petition.

The Social Development and Protection Act (Ley de Desarrollo y Protección Social) (2014) aims to establish a legal framework for human development, protection, and social inclusion that will promote, protect and guarantee the fulfillment of people’s rights, including citizen participation. The Act mandates that the Social Development, Protection and Inclusion Plan be formulated and submitted during the first six months of each presidential term (Article 12); that the Plan be drawn up through participatory mechanisms (Article 13); and that the Plan include mechanisms of intersectoral coordination and social participation in the Plan’s monitoring and follow-up (Article 20). In practice, however, there has been a nearly complete lack of participation in the formulation and implementation of the current Cuscatlan Plan, which was presented by President Nayib Bukele before his inauguration as President.

The Freedom of Public Information Act (Ley de Acceso a la Información Pública (LAIP)) (2011) seeks to promote citizen participation in monitoring government and in decision-making processes concerning public affairs. Entities subject to the Act’s requirements are State bodies and agencies, autonomous institutions, municipalities, or any other entity that administers public resources and State assets. Under the LAIP, these entities are required to make public information available in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Institute for Freedom of Public Information (Instituto de Acceso a la Información Pública (IAIP)). The Act specifically requires the dissemination of information on “mechanisms for citizen participation and accountability that exist within the purview of each institution, the modalities, and the results of the use of such mechanisms.” (Article 10(21)) In addition, the IAIP must promote a culture of transparency so that the benefits of the Act can be available to everyone. Under the Regulations of the Freedom of Public Information Act (Reglamento de la Ley de Acceso a la Información Pública (LAIP)), State entities promoting citizen participation shall facilitate the participation of civil society organizations as observers of election procedures, where possible (Article 62). In practice, however, the impact of the Act has been limited by President Nayib Bukele’s stigmatization of CSOs.

The Environmental Act (Ley de Medio Ambientes) (1998) recognizes the right of persons to be informed about environmental management; to take part in consultation processes whenever concessions for the use of natural resources are going to be granted; to collaborate with State institutions on auditing and oversight for the protection of the environment; and to participate in consultations regarding projects that might affect the environment or require an environmental permit. (Article 9) Along with the General Regulations of the Environmental Act (Reglamento General de la Ley del Medio Ambiente) (2000), the Environmental Act laid the foundation for the creation of the National Council on Environmental Sustainability and Vulnerability (which provided space for the participation of civil society, private enterprise, government, and cooperation agencies) and for the “Sustainable El Salvador Plan”. These opportunities for participation in environmental issues have been lost since the coming to power of President Nayib Bukele. Communities have often not been consulted. Consequently, the environmental authorities have proceeded to authorize construction projects in protected areas or sites of indigenous cultural heritage.

The Act of the Salvadoran Institute for Women’s Development (Ley del Instituto Salvadoreño para el Desarrollo de la Mujer) (1996) provides for equal rights and for women’s full participation on equal terms with men in all spheres of society, including decision-making processes and access to power. The Act also aimed to create the Salvadoran Institute for Women’s Development (ISDEMU), whose goals are to design, direct, carry out, advise, and ensure compliance with the National Women’s Policy and promote the holistic development of Salvadoran women.

In sum, several regulatory steps were taken to promote public participation during the presidential administrations of the 2009–2019 period, including by creating a Secretariat for Citizen Participation, Transparency and Anti-Corruption. These efforts were abandoned, however, when President Nayib Bukele took office. CSOs have been stigmatized by the Salvadoran Government under Bukele, who has labelled CSOs “front organizations” when they have spoken out against human rights violations or demanded transparency and accountability from state institutions. Moreover, El Salvador has witnessed disproportionate persecution of human rights advocates who have opposed urban development projects; specifically, construction companies have filed criminal lawsuits against human rights advocates.

Barriers to Entry

Several barriers to entry are listed below.

Vague Grounds for Denial. Under the LAFSL, the Registry of Not-for-Profit Associations and Foundations (“RAF”) has the power to deny registration if a CSO’s objectives are contrary to “public policy, morality, and good customs.” Vague terminology like this is an invitation for the government to exercise subjective discretion, and RAF can impede or delay the establishment and registration of CSOs because those terms have never been clarified. However, a decision by the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court of Justice (8-97Ac, 2001) declared this provision unconstitutional.

RAF Overstepping its Authority. RAF oversteps its authority when processing CSO registration applications by conducting subjective assessments on all applications in coordination with the line ministry or other public entities responsible for the field of activities of the CSO in question. Moreover, RAF authorizes the ministry or public entity to raise objections to the CSO’s bylaws or other constitutional documents and to insist that the CSO modify those documents. While RAF will not compel changes to the substance of the bylaws, it does make recommendations on the form and style of the documents, which can be burdensome on applicants. The Registry may, for instance, demand further information if the aims set out in the CSO’s bylaws are too broad or lack specificity, and it may require information relating to the origin, allocation, and use of funds for the projects to be implemented. The establishment of requirements beyond those set out in the law is arbitrary and creates legal uncertainty.

Ministry of Interior and Territorial Development (“MIGOB”) as Final Arbiter. In cases of outright denial of registration, article 51 of the LAFSFL provides for the right to administrative appeal. Within the three business days following receipt of the notification of refusal, the applicant may file an appeal for review before the MIGOB, which must decide on the application within 15 business days. The Ministry’s decision is final.

Excessive costs. There are a number of expenses associated with the registration of a CSO. First, the LAFSFL sets a fixed registration fee of approximately $35 (LAFSFL, Article 69). In addition, a CSO must pay for the following: a notary to write the CSO’s incorporation papers for between $300 and $600 (although sometimes this is done for free); an auditor to certify the CSO’s initial balance, which costs $30; publication of the CSO’s articles of incorporation in the Official Gazette with the price determined by the number of articles they contain (30 articles cost approximately $85); and an order or decree the CSO legal status, which costs, on average, $30. Altogether, establishing a CSO may cost between $500 and $800.

In terms of costs, if interested parties are assisted by an attorney and notary who files the papers with the Registry (as is very often the case), the costs can end up at around $2,000, including publishing the papers in the Official Gazette, the filing of credentials of the board of directors, and the purchase of portfolios for the four books required by law (books of the board of directors, the general members’ meeting, and income and expenditures books).

Non-adherence to time limits. At the time of registration, a written application for entry into the Registry is submitted for the consideration of the Directorate General of the RAF. It must be accompanied by three copies of the public instrument containing the articles of incorporation and bylaws, the election of the first board of directors or governing board, and other documentation (LAFSFL, Article 65). If the Registry finds that the application contains information that is inadequate, incomplete, formally defective, or in violation of the law, it must notify the organization within 90 business days from the date the documentation was received, specifying the errors or violations, and advising the organization on how to correct them. However, this time period is not always adhered to in practice.

After being notified, the organization has 45 business days to make the required corrections, pursuant to Article 65 of LAFSFL, and another period of 10 business days under Articles 83 and 88 of the Administrative Procedures Act (Ley de Procedimientos Administrativos).

In El Salvador, the time periods for registering an association or foundation are prescribed in the law. However, there are cases where organizations have spent several years trying in vain to obtain their legal status. Some registrations processes are delayed by by the registry, but there are also cases where the person or persons interested in obtaining legal status for their organization fail to make the corrections required by the Registry to the documentation. Conversely, there are cases where organizations have been given a fast track to legal status, which can be related to political interests.

Delayed registration at municipal level. The Municipal Council must issue a decision approving or rejecting the registration of a community association no later than 15 days after filing the application. The Council will check that the bylaws include the provisions required under the Municipal Code and that they do not contravene any law or ordinance. If there is an objection, the applicant will be notified and given a period of 15 days from the date of the notification in which to correct the application. Once any objections have been addressed, the Council must issue a decision within 15 days from the date of the new application. Should the Council fail to issue a decision within the 15-day time frame, the association’s legal status will be recognized automatically, as mandated by law, and its bylaws approved and registered accordingly. The Council will be obligated to enter the association’s registration and immediately order the publication of the approval and the bylaws in the Official Gazette. This compulsory registration is not always observed, however, and some municipalities delay registration. In practice, the registration of community associations with the municipality is less than systematic or standardized.

Barriers to Operational Activity

The law does not prohibit the formation and operation of unregistered groups as long as they work towards legal purposes. The Criminal Code in article 345 considers the following groups, associations, and organizations to be criminally illicit:

  1. Those that have at least these characteristics: they are made up of three or more people; temporary or permanent; in fact or in law; and possess some degree of structuring and have the purpose of committing a crime; and,
    2. Those mentioned in article 1 of the Law for the Prohibition of Posses, Gangs, Groups, Associations and Organizations of a Criminal Nature.

Sanctions are also imposed on people who are members of terrorist organizations (article 13 of the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism). Article 13 states that “Those who are part of terrorist organizations, in order to carry out any of the crimes contemplated in this Law, will be sanctioned with imprisonment from eight to twelve years. The organizers, chiefs, leaders or ringleaders will be punished with imprisonment from ten to fifteen years.”

There has been a worrying trend in recent years caused by the Legislative Assembly’s approval of several reforms to the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code, which impact the right of association and criminalize defenders of human rights. The ambiguous terms that define “associations” and “illicit groups”, coupled with a prolonged “Exceptional Regime,” haw led widespread arrests of more than 58,000 people based on the allegation that they have links to criminal groups (see also the “Barriers to Assembly” section below).

Barriers to Speech / Advocacy

CSOs suffer from restrictions on freedom of expression when questioning the government or advocating for causes that differ from the government’s views. Restrictions on freedom of expression relate to the defamation, insults, and slander that stigmatize CSOs. There is also frequent speech by officials that stigmatizes social organizations, including calling them anything ranging from allies of opposition political parties, to front organizations, to being financed by obscure international powers. From the various attacks on human rights advocacy organizations, it can be inferred that there is not a guarantee of an environment conducive of the right to defend human rights. The main perpetrators of stigmatization and attacks are government officials, including the President Nayib Bukele.

Barriers to International Contact

The LAFSL governs the registration and incorporation of foreign CSOs and grants them the same rights as Salvadoran CSOs (Article 44).  The operations of foreign entities are approved as long as their purposes are lawful, but they are explicitly prohibited from participating in political activities (LAFSFL, Articles 44 and 47).  “Political activities” is not defined in the LAFSL.

In 2020, the Salvadorean Government created the El Salvador Agency for International Cooperation, (ESCO-El Salvador).

After reforming the Executive Order No. 23 of June 23, 2020, published in Official Gazette No. 127, Volume No. 427, it was decided that the El Salvador Agency for International Cooperation (ESCO-El Salvador), would become the sole institution authorized by Executive Order 24 of June 29, 2020 to manage cooperation in any of its modalities and forms. All development cooperation must be conducted through this agency instead of directly between the organization concerned and the development cooperation source. Moreover, the Executive Order creating the agency failed to adopt any serious position with regard to international cooperation and the country’s commitments. It also did not distinguish the management of the various modalities of cooperation. The centralization in El Salvador’s Presidency of everything relating to development cooperation is a mechanism which constitutes a risk to transparency in the allocation and use of resources and risk for the obstruction of CSO contacts at home and abroad. The agency has the power to arbitrarily marginalize social organizations that for years have been working with Salvadorean communities in most need.

Barriers to Resources

CSOs may participate in any legal activity, whether commercial or economic, related to their purposes or aims. The only limitation is that the funds obtained must be used for the institution itself and not the direct enrichment of its members, founders, and administrators (LAFSFL, Article 9). There are no special rules restricting the ability of CSOs to obtain and manage foreign funds.

The law does not establish explicit criteria for certifying public interest status, although it can be inferred that the process includes an examination of the supporting documentation provided with the request.  Nonetheless, the law does not specify the criteria that the tax authority will use to certify that any such requirements have been met.  This ambiguity leaves room for arbitrary interpretation. The regulations provide no procedure or administrative remedy if a request for certification as a public interest entity is denied, which leaves no other option than protracted and costly legal processes.

Within the Legislative Assembly the “special commission to investigate the destination of the funds granted to non-profit organizations, associations and foundations” was created after deputies connected to the ruling New Ideas party called for an “Anti-Facade (Antifachada) Commission.” This was accompanied by a series of stigmatizing speeches to discredit CSOs without making any distinction between those that actually received funds through a transparent process and those that have never received any public funding. The government rhetoric has resulted in a sizable part of the population developing negative views about work to defend human rights carried out by not-for-profit associations and foundations.

Barriers to Assembly

The Constitution states in Article 7 that the “People of El Salvador have the right to freely associate and to assemble peacefully without weapons for any lawful purpose.” However, the Constitution and other laws, cases and regulations do not establish a clear parameter between what is “lawful” and what is not, leaving it to the discretion of the authorities to determine what is a “lawful” purpose.

Advance Notification

According to articles 181 to 183 of the Electoral Code, meetings or demonstrations with “electoral propaganda purposes” require organizers to apply in writing to the Mayor or the City Clerk for the necessary authorization at least one day in advance of the meeting or demonstration. The Mayor shall respond within a period not exceeding 24 hours from the date of submission of the application. If the application is authorized, notice will be sent to the National Civil Police and contending political parties or coalitions. If the application is denied, it must be shown that there was an application prior to that of the applicant’s application; in such a case, another day for the meeting or demonstration shall be given.

These provisions necessarily prohibit counter-demonstrations, since permission for a meeting or demonstration shall be denied where there is an application for a separate meeting or demonstration submitted beforehand.

Notably, however, the advance notification requirement is only applicable to meetings and demonstrations with “electoral propaganda purposes.”

Spontaneous Demonstrations

Despite the notification requirements in the Electoral Code, spontaneous demonstrations are permitted, according to Judgment of 13-VI-1995, Section 4-94 emitted by the Constitutional Court, which states:

Freedom of assembly and public demonstration in its nature and how it is exercised is one of those rights that cannot be subject in its exercise to the prior approval of the state. The exercise of this freedom can only be subject to limitations if it is justified and has previously established laws.

In addition, Section 6. ITEM. 1 of the Constitution states:

Every person is free to express and disseminate their thoughts if they do not disturb public order or harm the morals, honor, or private lives of others. The exercise of this right shall not be subject to prior examination, censorship or security but who by using it break the law, will answer for the offense committed.

In sum, there is a conflict between court judgments and the Constitution on the one hand and the Electoral Code on the other hand with respect to the permissibility of spontaneous demonstrations.

Content Restrictions

There are a number of restrictions on permissible activities during assemblies. According to the Article 232 of the Electoral Code there are the following restrictions:

No one can paint political propaganda on buildings, public monuments, trees, art, street signs, streets or roads, nor on the walls of private homes without the owner’s permission…

The Political Parties, Coalitions, institutions, associations, organizations or any other kind of group may not use in any election propaganda case: symbolism, colors, slogans, marches and pictures or photographs of the candidates of other political parties or coalitions.”

Criminal Penalties and Enforcement

As part of a disturbing trend, the Legislative Assembly has approved several reforms to the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code that impact the right of association, while criminalizing the work of defending human rights. Ambiguous terms that define “associations” and “illicit groups,” in addition to an Exceptional Regime that has lasted for more than eight months, has led to the arrests of more than 58,000 people. They allegedly have “links to criminal groups.”

The Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism contains vague language that may be subject to arbitrary enforcement. For example, Article 6 of the Special Law states that, “The person who participates individually or collectively in the occupation of cities, villages, buildings or private facilities, public places, diplomatic, or any places for religious cult, in whole or in part, using for this weapons, explosives or similar articles, thereby affecting the normal development of the functions or activities of the inhabitants, staff or users, shall be punished with imprisonment of 25-30 years.”

Other vague provisions in this law have been used to deter or punish individuals participating in assemblies. In 2007, for example, terrorism charges including 10-15 year prison sentences were brought under this law against protesters who allegedly blocked roads and threw stones.

In addition, excessive force has been used to break up assemblies.

COVID-19 Restrictions

On March 15, 2020, a new decree-law instituted 15-day restrictions on the right to free movement and peaceful assembly. Only meetings for religious, cultural, economic, or sports purposes were allowed, and only after obtaining prior authorization by public health authorities. One day earlier, the government declared a one-month “state of emergency” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The measures allowed for restrictions on individuals’ travel and movement within the country, as well as bans on public gatherings. The decree-law also suspended all administrative and judicial functions deemed non-essential, such as operations for access to public information.

On the other hand, the dynamics of the current government management have led to some temporary restrictions on demonstrations, including:

Legislative Decree No. 90 of July 13, two thousand and twenty-one.
On July 3, 2021, the Legislative Assembly approved Legislative Decree No. 90, which contained “Special and Temporary Provisions for the Suspension of Concentrations and Public or Private Events.” Initially, public demonstrations were not prohibited because only public or private “concentrations of people” referred to the suspensions of concerts, rallies, sporting events open to the public, or celebrations of patron saint festivities, while other concentrations not included in the Decree only required people to wear a mask. The Decree lost its validity at the beginning of October 2020, after which various organizations called for marches to protest the government’s policies. However, as a result of this, the Legislative Assembly sought to extend the Decree, but these types of concentrations were not prohibited by the initial decree. The deputies, therefore, had the initiative to extend the Decree to restrict the marches. Nevertheless, once the extension was approved, President Bukele did not sanction th marches because he stated that the Decree had already expired and could not be extended. He then suggested the Assembly approve a new Decree with a term of less than ninety days.

Exceptional Regime

On March 27, 2022, the Legislative Assembly approved Legislative Decree 333, which was published in the Official Gazette No. 62, Volume 434. It established an “Exceptional Regime” in the country with a validity of 30 days under which the rights to freedom of association and assembly and the privacy of communications were suspended, as well as various guarantees of due process. The decree is based on article 29 of the Constitution, which allows the Legislative Assembly to suspend certain constitutional rights in extreme circumstances, such as a foreign invasion or “serious disturbances of public order.” The 30-day period can be extended only once for the same period. The Legislative Assembly, however, ignored the Constitution and has approved eight extensions of 30 days each to the Exceptional Regime. The last extension was approved on November 15, 2022.  The Exceptional Regime has seen the arbitrary detention of more than 58,000 people since the start of 2022.

UN Universal Periodic Review Reports 7th Session 2010
Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs El Salvador
USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes Not available
U.S. State Department Country report on human rights practices (2023)
Fragile States Index Reports Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index
IMF Country Reports El Salvador and the IMF
International Commission of Jurists Not available
International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library El Salvador

While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change.  If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

General News

Statement in Solidarity with Human Rights Defenders in El Salvador (May 2024)
At a joint press conference on April 18, the Movement of Victims of the Regime (MOVIR), the Committee of Families of Political Prisoners in El Salvador (COFAPPES), Humanitarian Legal Aid (Socorro Jurídico Humanitario), the “Herbert Anaya Sanabria” Human Rights Collective, and the Committee of Relatives of Victims of the State of Exception of the Bajo Lempa detailed an alarming pattern of surveillance and police interference into their participation in street marches, protests, and rallies, as well as online harassment.

As free press withers in El Salvador, pro-government social media influencers grow (August 2023)
Rights groups, civil society and even some officials criticized El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele for violating human rights in his crackdown on criminal gangs, and said that his unconstitutional bid for re-election would corrode the country’s democracy…. There is now an expanding network of social media personalities acting as a megaphone for the millennial leader. At the same time Bukele has cracked down on the press, his government has embraced those influencers.

El Salvador Extends the ‘State of Exception’ for the Ninth Time (December 2022)
El Salvador’s Congress approved another 30-day “state of exception”, which involves the suspension of various constitutional rights. The Ombudsman for the Defense of Human Rights, Raquel Caballero, stated that she had met with Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro, who acknowledged that 59,600 people have been detained since the state of exception began. As a result, on September 27, three humanitarian organizations denounced the State of El Salvador before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for the arbitrary detention of at least 152 people during the emergency regime.

10,000 police to seal off a town and search for gang members (December 2022)
The government of El Salvador sent 10,000 soldiers and police to seal off a town on the outskirts of the nation’s capital to search for gang members. The operation was one of the largest mobilizations yet in President Nayib Bukele’s nine-month-old crackdown on street gangs that long extorted money from businesses and ruled many neighborhoods of the capital, San Salvador. Rights activists say young men are frequently arrested just based on their age, on their appearance or whether they live in a gang-dominated slum.

El Salvador Extends State of Emergency to Curb Gang Violence (April 2022)
El Salvador has extended the state of emergency imposed last month to crack down on gang violence amid concerns of human rights violations. Following a request from President Nayib Bukele, the Latin American country’s legislature approved a 30-day extension of the decree, which restricts the right to gather, to be informed of rights upon detention, and to access to a lawyer.

Nayib Bukele’s Recipe for Limiting Human Rights (July 2021)
The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, was elected in June 2019 on a platform in which he promised, among other things, to promote and defend human rights. More than two years later, the country is facing what seems more like a campaign to stigmatize and silence those who dare to question the politics of the government and defend the human rights of all people than the electoral promise.

El Salvador Defends Firing Attorney General, Top Judges (May 2021)
El Salvador President Nayib Bukele defended his party’s removal of the attorney general and five top judges, saying the country’s constitution allows congress to do so and that the U.S. and other critics have a skewed view of what happened. He said the dismissed attorney general, Raul Melara, had been chosen by Arena, the opposition political party, which he called unethical, and accused him of carrying out his work in a partisan manner.

Bukele May Tighten Grip in Elections (February 2021)
President Nayib Bukele, who enjoys an approval rating around 90 percent in polls, is expected to expand his mandate even further in legislative elections that could deliver a decisive victory to his party. The vote could also endow Mr. Bukele with sweeping new powers: control over a legislature that has been dominated by the opposition, along with the chance to begin changing the Constitution and, possibly, to remake the government in his image. If his party and its allies win two-thirds of the seats, they can replace the attorney general and appoint new Supreme Court justices.

Salvadorean President Hostile towards Independent Media (October 2020)
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is very worried by the increasingly hostile environment for reporters in El Salvador, especially by President Nayib Bukele’s recent attacks and threats against critical and independent media, and calls on the authorities to stop denigrating journalism. During a press conference livestreamed on Facebook on 24 September, President Bukele accused the country’s leading online media outlets, El Faro, Revista Factum and Gato Encerrado, and the newspapers La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy of lying, attacking the government and waging an orchestrated political campaign ahead of next year’s legislative elections.

Sending aid is key to solving the Central American migrant crisis (November 2018)
Many Central American migrants are fleeing the violence of kidnapping, gangs, and rape that local authorities have been powerless to stop. But targeted investment in police, courts, prosecutors, and widespread engagement of civil society can make a measurable difference in the lives of the poorest. Central America needs more of that United States investment rather than less.

Supreme Electoral Tribunal Announces 2019 Presidential Elections (October 2018)
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of El Salvador announced the 2019 presidential elections to be held next February for the 2019-2024 term. The court said in a decree, “Salvadoran citizens can cast their votes on February 3, 2019. They will be able to freely vote to elect the next president and vice president.”

Salvadoreans March Against Water Privatization (June 2018)
The Salvadoran people are staging a march today to the headquarters of the right-wing ARENA party in rejection of the move to privatize the administration of the human right to water. The organizations drawing together the Trade Union Front in El Salvador will march from the Cuscatlan Park to the ARENA general headquarters, in another protest against a measure that the oligarchic organization tries to mask.

Investigate private agents released pepper spray on students (June 2018) (Spanish)
On June 14, hundreds of students of the state University of El Salvador (UES) protested in front of the Congress headquarters to demand to be included in the discussion of a general water law. They were sprayed with pepper spray by the the state authorities.

First Transparency Monitoring Report of the Electoral Process (January 2018) (Spanish)
Civil society started work, according to a mandate of the Salvadorian Constitution, to monitor the electoral process for the March 4 elections for the legislative branch and City Council.

Pension Law Amendments with broad citizen participation (October 2017) (Spanish)
The objective of the Pension Law Amendments is to implement a sustainable and profitable pension system that guarantees workers decent and sustainable pensions over time.

New changes to the Electoral Code (May 2016) (Spanish)
The electoral’s commission and constitutional reforms of the Legislative Assembly today agreed unanimously to make a series of reforms to the Electoral Code.

Extraordinary Security Measures Approved (April 2016) (Spanish)
Members of the Legislative Assembly approved the extraordinary security measures. This initiative may be introduce for a year. Extraordinary security measures are compound for several instructions as move prisoner to a maximum security’s prison.

Government and civil society launch Alliance for Open Government (January 2016) (Spanish)
The Government of El Salvador and civil society organizations launched the Alliance for Open Government Observatory, a space for dialogue, feedback, monitoring and evaluation of compliance with internationally agreed commitments in the Action Plan 2014-2016 of the Alliance for Open Government (AGA). The launch was led for the Secretary of Citizen Participation, Transparency and Anticorruption, Marcos Rodriguez; vice-minister of Health Policy, Eduardo Espinoza; the chairman of Centro de Capacitación y Promoción de la Democracia (CECADE), Gustavo Amaya, and other representatives of the entities that make up the observatory.

New contributions in the process of electoral reforms (November 2015) (Spanish)
The Commission on Electoral and Constitutional Reform in closed doors greeted the judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), who released the results of an internal and external evaluation of past elections, providing contributions towards the electoral reform of the next elections 2018-2019.

Assembly approves law on electronic signatures (October 2015) (Spanish)
With 76 votes of the representatives of all parliamentary fractions, the Law on Electronic Signatures was approved. It will allow the signature to be done manually with the same value as if it is issued via electronic means. To achieve this, Salvadorans, who so wish, must certify their signature through companies specializing in this.

Una ley contra los delitos informáticos que respete la libertad de expresión (September 2015) (Spanish)
The development of information technology has resulted in the creation of spaces for business and also for the crime, but the legal system has lagged behind regulating them. The proliferation of computer crime or cybercrime is undeniable and has reached our borders. El Salvador, not having a definition of cyber crime, is in a situation of legal uncertainty.

CSO director victim of threats (May 2015)
Roberto Rubio, director of the Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo (Funde), denounced that he has become a victim of personal attacks through blogs and cyber structures that work from the Presidential House. Rubio questioned the Secretary of Transparency and Anti-corruption, Marcos Rodríguez, about the possible existence of a campaign office that executes a “dirty war” from Presidential House.

Organization promotes more transparency (May 2015)
The Organization of the Consortium for Transparency and Anti-corruption expressed its rejection and concern about anonymous acts of systematic harassment against those who promote transparency and criticize the State’s opacity.

Private media called to recognize international standards of freedom of expression (November 2014)
The new Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Organization of American States (OAS), Edison Lanza, made his first formal visit to Latin America in order to meet different actors that work on freedom of expression and access to information. Lanza came to El Salvador and met vibrant civil society representatives and perceived that the state has good responsiveness to discussions with civil society.

President receives Draft Law of Citizen Participation in Public Management (September 2014)
In September 2014, President Ceren received the draft Law of Citizen Participation in Public Management, which aims to institutionalize participation in the design, implementation and evaluation of public policies and empower citizens through mechanisms for consultation and dialogue. The Secretary of Citizen Participation, Transparency and Anticorruption, Marcos Rodriguez, explained that the Law seeks to sensitize the public about the importance of their voice and actions for the future of the country.

Former guerrilla wins El Salvador vote (April 2014)

U.S./El Salvador: A common ground for partnership (June 2013)

El Salvador one of only ten states to have ratified the Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (January 2013)

Dr. Tillemann travels to Peru and El Salvador (October 2012)

CSOs petition to halt REDD program (August 2012)

Civil society speaks out on constitutional crisis (July 2012)

Trade unionists denounce persecution in El Salvador (June 2012)

Progress can prevail in El Salvador (May 2012)

Legislative blunders and expectations in El Salvador (May 2012)