Administration of Justice Reform:
Assessment of the Fiscalia General
El Salvador, Central America's smallest and most populous country, has maintained its hold on the UN-brokered peace that in 1992 officially ended 12 years of devastating civil war. Like many countries in Latin America, under conditions of increased stability and security El Salvador has embarked upon an all-encompassing restructuring of its criminal justice system. Constitutional reforms were ratified by the new Legislative Assembly in 1991 and 1992, laying a new foundation for strengthening the system of justice.
For over 10 years the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has worked in El Salvador to help improve the administration of justice. As part of this program, USAID provides training and other assistance to the Fiscalia General (Attorney General's Office), the agency charged with investigating and prosecuting criminal cases. New constitutional and statutory changes required the Fiscalia to take a much more active part in investigating and prosecuting crimes than was its traditional role. In this rapidly evolving climate, USAID required an assessment of the Fiscalia General in order to better plan and implement a strategy of support. In 1992, through a subcontract with the National Center for State Courts, MetaMetrics led a three person team to describe the Fiscalia's operations and effectiveness and make recommendations for further support to improve the Fiscalia's capabilities and administration.
The staff of the Fiscalia General in 1992 included approximately 200 fiscales , or "prosecutors" who provided coverage for all 400+ courts in El Salvador. Fiscales are assigned to individual judges or are assigned as needed. They attend judges' daily sessions and traditionally function as the "guardians of legality" in the criminal process. They are responsible for covering all but non-criminal cases; their caseload amounted to an estimated 80% of court cases in 1991. The fiscales have historically performed an obstructionist legal or review role, except in the case of juried trials when, serving as advocates for the "interests of the state," they play a more active role in the process. In addition to these traditional functions, the Fiscalia has instituted new programs for Crime Prevention and Statistics and for the incorporation of criminal investigations into Fiscalia operations, and its duties under its department of Human Rights have continued to increase.
The assessment team visited regional courts and the Office of the Fiscalia in San Miguel in the eastern part of the country. The team interviewed the Attorney General, judges, and other officials of the government and the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador and San Miguel.
The assessment team was encouraged by the initiatives undertaken by the Fiscalia to meet its constitutionally mandated responsibilities. Training programs provided through USAID had also clearly affected the thinking and resulting discussions surrounding judicial reform and the role of the Fiscalia. However, many serious issues remain to be addressed.
The Fiscalia was poorly equipped to provide enhanced services to the people of El Salvador. There was a general material impoverishment in all areas, including a lack of office quarters, office equipment, telephones, vehicles, support personnel, and legal reference materials. The Fiscalia offices and resources were much worse than those of the other essential components of the criminal justice system (the Public Defender's office and the courts). The lack of personnel support for investigative or liaison tasks meant that fiscales could rarely have contact with the people involved in the cases they handle, which was consistent with the situation that fiscales "try files" and not cases or individuals. Furthermore, the Fiscalia operated with a lack of training, no official standards of professional conduct, and no detached, uniform means for advancing fiscales in their careers. Relatively few had completed their law school programs (20% in the Eastern Regional Office), and the opportunity to complete law school after becoming a fiscal appeared non-existent. Salaries were substantially lower than those for public defenders. While case records contained extensive, complete, and appropriate information, the handling of records and statistics was hampered by a lack of basic office equipment such as typewriters and copiers, and no structure existed for maintaining or compiling totals on key information elements such as entry date of case, charged offense, or case status.
In addition, in spite of key changes in legislation and in the organization of the Fiscalia, the fiscal had generally remained a passive actor in the judicial process. The success of fiscales in performing as prosecutors will depend upon changing the underlying attitudes of judges, defense lawyers, and the fiscales themselves.
The Fiscalia operates within a system of highly interdependent components. In particular, the policy decisions, procedures, and activities of the law schools, the National Civil Police, and the Judiciary have an impact on the Fiscalia. Program development in these three components of the justice system, while external to the Fiscalia itself, will favorably affect the Fiscalia to a high degree. The MetaMetrics team made several recommendations with regard to improving coordination among the components, as well as developing relevant legislation.
Recommendations for short-term program development internal to the Fiscalia concentrated on training, personnel and fiscales career development, and establishing codes of professional and ethical conduct. The MetaMetrics team recommended support be provided in these areas through demonstration projects. It was further recommended that a two-year technical assistance effort be launched that would address the above needs, and include other, long-sighted components, such as a legislation review, study of investigation practices, and the establishment of a Training Academy.
The report for this assessment ("An Assessment of the El Salvador Attorney General's Office: Final Report," MetaMetrics Inc./National Center for State Courts, Washington, D.C. May 20, 1992) is available upon request from MetaMetrics in both Spanish and English versions. The report contains extensive background on all main components of the Salvadoran justice system, as well as selected guidelines, in Spanish, from the Fiscalia General. Please send an e-mail request.
RELATED WEB SITES
Lonely Planet - Destination El Salvador
A balanced and useful overview of El Salvador that includes information on history and culture, as well as a map, photos, and links to other El Salvador sites.
This Spanish-language daily on-line newspaper is published out of San Jose, Costa Rica and covers Central America, including El Salvador.
U.S. State Department Human Rights Reports
The U.S. Department of State issues yearly reports on human rights practices throughout the world that also include recent histories and summaries of current political process. Go directly to the report for El Salvador.