SAN SALVADOR – Salvadoran lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Thursday in favor of a bill to acknowledge the government’s responsibility to protect the rights, persons and property of people forced from their homes by powerful criminal gangs or the actions of police and soldiers.
More than 230,000 people, according to a 2018 estimate, stand to benefit from the legislation, which passed with support from 82 of the 84 members of the Legislative Assembly.
The lawmakers have been under growing pressure to do something for the displaced since El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that the existing mechanisms for aiding victims of violence were “anachronistic, restricted and deficient.”
The court decision came in a case brought in 2017 by a family who suffered at the hands of both gangs and the police.
After the vote, a representative from the right-wing Arena party, Ricardo Velasquez Parker, apologized for the delay in approving the legislation, which must be signed by President Nayib Bukele to become law.
“I ask forgiveness not only in the name of the Legislative Assembly, but in the name of the state in general terms,” he said.
Prior to the 2018 court ruling, the only public institution to recognize the problem of forced displacement was the ombudsman’s office, while the task of aiding the displaced was left to charities and other NGOs.
Though the bill has been passed, the problem of financing programs for the displaced remains.
The government’s 2020 budget does not include any funds for implementation and the assembly rejected a proposal from the Central American rights organization Cristosal to finance initiatives for the displaced by levying surcharges on government purchases of weapons and other equipment for the security forces.
Bukele’s administration can ask lawmakers to amend the budget, or it can decide to use foreign aid to implement the law.
The law establishes the right of victims “to return to their place of origin” and “to be protected from forced recruitment on the part of the gangs.”
Another provision mandates the creation of a single, comprehensive register of displaced persons.
The only official estimate, disclosed in 2018 by United Nations official Elisa Carlaccini, puts the number of people forced from their homes during the period of 2006-2016 at more than 70,000.
But survey conducted in 2018 by researchers at the Jesuit-run Central American University found that the phenomenon affected 5.2 percent of El Salvador’s adult population, or nearly 236,000 people.