Country report and updates: El Salvador

Last revision: 30 Apr 1998
30 Apr 1998

1 Conscription

conscription not enforced

Conscription has, in general, not been enforced since 1992. In February that year a peace treaty was signed between the government and the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Liberacion Nacional), which ended a civil war which had lasted since 1980.

There is a legal basis for re-introducing conscription.

Conscription is enshrined in art. 215 of the 1983 Constitution, according to which military service is compulsory for all Salvadorans (men and women) between the ages of 18 and 30. The previous constitution of 1962 had contained a similar provision. [3]

The Law on Military Service and Reserve Armed Forces (Ley del Servicio Militar y Reserva de la Fuerza Armada), passed by the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador in July 1992, provides a further legal basis for conscription. This law was passed shortly after the signing of the 1992 Peace Treaty, which already contained various clauses on introducing a new law on military service. The Peace Treaty stressed the importance of clear recruitment procedures as a means of avoiding human rights violations involved in forced recruitment.

The 1992 law was criticized for failing to exempt former FMLN combatants from military service and for allowing extensive military control over the civilian population by means of the recruitment offices. [6]

However, since 1992 conscription has not been enforced, apart from one general call-up in November 1994 which had a very low reponse. [1]

There is considerable public resentment against re-introducing conscription, owing to the human rights violations which have taken place in the context of forced recruitment and the traditional impunity with which the armed forces have acted in El Salvador. The armed forces lack the financial means to enforce conscription. For the authorities there seems to be no urgency about enforcing conscription as, in accordance with the Peace Treaty, the armed forces have been reduced from 60,000 in 1992 to 28,000 in 1997. Voluntary enlistment seems to be sufficient to obtain the requisite number of recruits. [2] [3]

military service

Under the 1992 law all men between the ages of 18 and 30 are liable for a one year's military service. [6]

The government stated in 1994 that women are liable for military service, but do not have to serve in combat capacity. [7]

postponement and exemption

Postponement and exemption are allowed under chapter VI of the 1992 Law on Military Service. The application procedure is set forth in art. 24. [6]

Exemption is possible for medical reasons, regular, proficient students at universities and technical schools, those with dependent children, those who are sole supporters of their families (art. 19). Certain armed forces and police staff can exempted as they are considered to have performed an equivalent to military service (art. 20). [6]

Under art. 23 temporary exemption is possible for:

- church ministers who have been practising at least 15 months before call-up date;

- registerered teachers whose main occupation is teaching;

- elected public officers, judges, magistrates and other government officials;

- people detained or imprisoned on call-up date;

- Public Security National Academy or National Civilian Police students

- those certified by military health authorities as disabled for a considerable period, although they must report at the end of this period. [6]


The 1992 law requires all men to register for military service at the age of 18. The law further stipulates that selection of recruits is to be by ballot. This seems to be in accordance with the Peace Treaty, which stipulated: "The law shall establish that all Salvadorans must present themselves at the proper time at the appropriate registration centres. Recruitment shall be effected exclusively by calling up individuals through the drawing of lots, and by registering volunteers." [3] [6]

Voluntary enlistment is possible from the age of 16. [6]

forced recruitment

Since the signing of the 1992 Peace Treaty forced recruitment by the armed forces seems to have gradually ceased. A 1993 United Nations Observer Mission declared admissible 136 complaints of forcible, irregular or arbitrary recruitment between January and May 1992. There are no reports of forced recruitment in later years. [6]

2 Conscientious objection

legal right

The right to conscientious objection is not legally recognized. Neither the 1992 Peace Treaty nor the 1992 Law on Military Service include any provisions for conscientious objection and substitute service. [3]

In 1983 the government stated: "No provision is made in El Salvador for cases in which persons object to performing military service on grounds of conscience; exemptions from military service have only been made only for family or health reasons." [5]

3 Draft evasion and desertion


According to art. 33 of the 1992 Law on Military Service those who violate this law will be tried under the Penal Code or the Code of Military Justice.

According to art. 34 of the 1992 law infringements of the law that do not constitute a crime or offence are to be dealt with by the General Direction of Recruitment and Reserve, possible penalties being up to 15 days' imprisonment or a fine in lieu of detention.

Those who don't comply with military service orders can also be refused passports, drivers' licenses and copies of their police records. [6]

Desertion is punishable under the Code of Military Justice, Title V: Offenses Against Military Service (Delitos contra el servicio militar). The latest version was published in 1984. [10]

According to the government in 1994 both it and the armed forces were considering amending the Code of Military Justice, including how it dealt with the legal situation of those who deserted from the armed forces in the 1980s. [10]


In 1992 an amnesty was announced. Although it did not actually deal with the situation of deserters, practically all civil war cases seem to have been suspended or dropped. Desertion cases are not being investigated or prosecuted, and cases that were opened have been suspended or dropped. Nevertheless, records of desertion or trials are probably being kept by the armed forces. This may militate against individuals seeking employment in the armed forces or related bodies. [9]

5 History

Ever since the 1920s there has been legislation on conscription in El Salvador. Before the civil war broke out in 1980 conscription was not as a rule enforced, and voluntary enlistment was usually adequate to obtain the necessary number of recruits as many poor El Salvadorans were drawn to an army career. [8]

Under the law vacancies in the armed forces were supposed to be filled in by ballotting qualified applicants from the semi-annual class of eligible conscripts. Those who were not drafted into regular service performed their obligatory military service by joining in weekly training session by the regular army in or near their home towns. Conscripts have always formed a reserve (which included those released from active service), organised into a battallion force, which has sometimes mobilised, for example in the 1969 'football war' with Honduras. [3] [8]

During the civil war conscription was enforced, so as to achieve the increased strength of the armed forces. The armed forces increased in size from 6,000 in 1979 to 39,000 in 1989 and the length of military service was increased from 18 months to two years. Forced recruitment methods involved round-ups in poor suburbs, at football-grounds, at bus-stops, near schools or anywhere where lower class young men were foregathered. Army trucks were sent into poor villages in the country and swept along the streets picking up young men. Particularly subjected to forced recruitment were poor, illiterate children and the children of peasants. Students at national colleges also faced recruitment as the armed forces needed more educated youths to fight the FMLN. The rich were not recruited. [4]

The legal recruitment age was 18, but in wartime most of the recruits were younger. According to estimates by ex-soldiers, 80 percent of the troops during the war were under 18. [4]

In the late 1980s the army recruited between 12,000 and - 20,000 youths annually. According to the estimate of a military expert, about 60 percent of the Salvadorean soldiers in the army in the late 1980s had been recruited compulsorily. Desertion rates were very high, which in turn increased conscription rates. [5]

The Civil Defence Patrols (CDP) were engaged in forced recruitment too, although, according to government, recruitment into the CDP was voluntary. Anyone serving in the CDP was exempt from military service in the regular armed forces (and vice versa). Service in the CDP was for one year. Many apparently chose to serve in the CDP rather than the army, as this meant they would be nearer home. Forced recruitment by CDP units was particularly prevalent in areas where there were frequent confrontations with the FMLN. The legal recruitment age was not respected and children as young as 10 have been recruited into the CDP. As stipulated in the Peace Treaty, the CDP have been dissolved in the 1990s. [11]

There are fewer reports of forced recruitment by the FMLN during the civil war. Nevertheless about 18 percent of FMLN combatants are said to have been recruited and trained initially against their will. Fear of recruitment into the government forces and fear of harsh treatment within the army could have led to joining the FMLN. The FMLN also recruited minors. It has been estimated that 20 percent of the 10,000 FMLN combatants were under 18. About 700 of the minors demobilized in 1992 were girls. [4]

6 Annual statistics

The armed forces are 28,400 strong - approximately 0.48 percent of the population. [13]


[1] González, J. 1996. Objeci--n de conciencia en Centroamérica. KEM-MOC, Bilbao, Spain. [2] MOOC-El Salvador 1997 Response to CONCODOC enquiry, November 1997. [3] Brett, Derek 1994. Conscientious objection to military service. Quaker Peace and Service, Geneva. [4] Leskinen, Reetta 1995. 'Child Soldiers in El Salvador'. Case study for the UN Study on the impact of armed conflict on children. [5] Eide, A., C. Mubanga-Chipoya 1985. Conscientious objection to military service, report prepared in pursuance of resolutions 14 (XXXIV) and 1982/30 of the Sub-Commission of Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. United Nations, New York. [6] DIRB, 22 April 1994. [7] DIRB, 7 April 1994. [8] US Library of Congress 1988. El Salvador - a country study. Area Handbooks, State Department, Washington DC. [9] DIRB, 7 December 1994. [10] DIRB, 4 August 1994. [11] DIRB, 21 August 1991. [12] DIRB, 15 October 1992. [13] Institute for Strategic Studies 1997. Military Balance 1997/98. ISS, London.