(Last updated May 15, 2003)



Population: 6,353,681 (July 2002 est.)


GDP: purchasing power parity - $28.4 billion (2001 est.)

GDP: per capita: purchasing power parity - $4,600 (2001 est.)

Governance: Republic


Percentage of Households with Firearms: (2) Taking the estimated 400,000 firearms as a statistical basis, and assuming an equal distribution, roughly 30 percent of households in El Salvador would have at least one member in possession of a firearm. Rates of possession of firearms among children are also high. A study carried out in 1999 among 13 to 19 year olds indicated that 7 percent admitted carrying firearms into their schools. (5)

Estimated Number of Firearms: The exact number of firearms in the hands of civilians in El Salvador is not known. This is so for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are many weapons left over from the civil war that were not collected after the soldiers were demobilized.   Secondly, institutional attempts at weapons collection were poorly organized, recorded and executed. A United Nations report released in 1995, a year after the signing of the peace accords, revealed that only 100 weapons had been collected.  

There have been various attempts to estimate the number of firearms in circulation in El Salvador.   In 1997, the number of weapons in circulation was estimated to be between 250,000 and 300,000. (2) (3)   In a more recent survey carried out by La Prensa Gráfica in 1999, 12% of respondents admitted to owning firearms for personal protection, employment in the security business, or for sporting purposes. This would indicate a total national circulation of roughly 400,000. (4)   According to information from the Ministry of National Defence, 143,161 weapons were registered between October 1994 and May 2000.   This figure represents roughly one registered weapon for every 25 adults in the country.   In comparison with total circulation estimates, only about 35% of the weapons in the country appear to be registered, leaving about 250,000 in illegal circulation. (2)

Types of Legal Firearms:   The law permits the acquisition, ownership and carrying of weapons of calibres of up to 11.6mm, which includes the M-16, the AK-47 and the Dragonov. The only limitation in this regard is that such weapons must be modified by the manufacturer not to have rapid burst capabilities. (2)

Purposes of Lawful Firearms Ownership:   Not known


A recent World Bank-sponsored study on violent crime in El Salvador concluded that those who own firearms are more likely to become the victims of violent crime than those who do not. (6)   A similar study carried out in 1998 revealed that those who possess firearms are almost five times more likely to be victimized by such weapons. According to the Institute of Legal Medicine, the proportion of homicides committed with firearms has increased in recent years. Of the 2,542 homicides reported in 1999, 1,898 or about 75% were committed with firearms.

Violent Death in the San Salvador Metropolitan Area between 1995 and 1999 (7)

Causes of Violent Death*







Firearms or explosives






Cutting or piercing weapons






Other causes












*includes homicides and suicides

Statistics available from the National Civil Police for the first four months of 2000 do not indicate any significant change from these patterns. They indicate that the percentage of deaths caused by firearms has reached almost 70 percent at the national level, and is notably higher in urban as opposed to rural areas.


In addition to the unknown numbers of firearms left over from the civil war, there is also an extensive black market in El Salvador, compounding the problems associated with gathering accurate statistics. Added to these numbers are those weapons imported by private firms. Finally, there are the weapons in the hands of the various organs of the Salvadoran state (Armed Forces, National Civil Police and other security units specific to institutions and high level individuals), which, under certain circumstances, can fall into the hands of civilians or be used by officials in their private capacities.

Illegal Trade: In 1998, legal shops reported selling 1,746 weapons, while 16,305 were registered. This indicates that only 10.7% of weapons brought for registration were obtained through the legal market in that same year. Such a discrepancy is possible because between 1994 and 1999 the law allowed individuals to register weapons without presenting a sales receipt. According to members of the Association of Arms Sellers and to the data on arms imports that are available to the public, the number of weapons legally sold in the country has been declining sharply in the last three years. However, the number of registrations has been declining at a much more modest rate, indicating that there continues to be a strong market in the illicit sale of weapons. All anecdotal evidence points to strong roots in the covert networks that supplied armed groups during the civil war. (2)


The Salvadoran constitution stipulates that all matters relating to firearms are under “the authorization and direct supervision of the Executive Organ of the Ministry of Defence”.   This means that the public security authorities, and particularly the National Civil Police, do not intervene directly in the authorization and supervision of matters related to firearms, despite their mandate to “guarantee order, security and public tranquility”. This complicates matters relating to firearms significantly.

Salvadoran law requires that:

However, the law does suffer from a number of significant shortcomings. The law

The enforcement of this law was contingent on the creation of new regulations; this meant that the above laws were not applied until the regulations were finally approved in May of 2000. For example, elements pertaining to permits, the new examination for firearms owners and the ballistics test had not been put into place as had been anticipated.   On the other hand, the law's greater permissiveness with regard to large calibre weapons took effect immediately, since this revision to the law did not depend on the development of the new regulations. In other words, the result has been that the positive aspects of the law have encountered great difficulty in being applied, but not the negative aspects. (2)

Licensing Requirements:   All who wish to carry weapons must obtain a licence.   In order to obtain the licence, the applicant must complete a test. (2)

Registration Requirements: An arms registration system was created in October 1994 by a decree of law that had been passed the previous year.   It is notable that 77% of the registered weapons are handguns – pistols and revolvers.   This is likely due to the lower cost of the weapon, ease of concealment, lower cost of registration, ease of registration, and utility for self-defence.   Figures from the Ministry of Defence indicate that in May 2000 68% of these registered weapons were in the hands of individuals; 30% were owned by companies, corporations and institutions; and 2% were held by active members of the armed forces for their own personal use. (2)

Training Requirements:   Not known

Storage Requirements:   Not known

Prohibited Firearms:   Weapons with rapid burst capabilities (2)

Penalties:   Not known


El Salvador does not manufacture small arms; these are imported from the United Kingdom and the United States. (8)   There are more than 20 firms involved in the legal import of weapons in El Salvador.   Imports are worth about $20 million (US) annually, the majority of which is spent on pistols and revolvers.   Police officials have acknowledged off the record that, in their estimation, the illegal import of weapons is worth twice or three times this figure annually.   According to the Dirección General de Renta de Aduanas del Ministerio de Hacienda, 4,617 firearms and 10,088 cases of ammunition (approximately 8,953,250 rounds per case) were imported between 1997 and 2000. (2)


  1. United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The World Factbook 2002 , El Salvador: http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/ .
  2. M.A. Beltrán, M. Paganini y N.A. Portillo, Actitudes hacia la violencia interpersonal y tenencia de armas de fuego. Tesis para optar al grado de licenciatura en Psicología , San Salvador: Departamento de Psicología, UCA, 1998.
  3. José Miguel Cruz and María Antonieta Beltrán, “Las Armas en El Salvador: Diagnóstico Sobre su Situación y su Impacto', The University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP), Central American University, for the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, 2000: http://www.arias.or.cr/fundarias/cpr/armasliv .
  4. La Prensa Gráfica , 10 September 1999.
  5. M. Santacruz and N. Portillo, Agresores y agredidos. Factores de riesgo de la violencia juvenil en las escuelas , San Salvador: IUDOP-UCA, 1999.
  6. J.M. Cruz, A. Trigueros, and F. González, El crimen violento en El Salvado: Factores sociales y económicos asociados , IUDOP-UCA/Banco Mundial, 2000.
  7. Dr. Roberto Masferrer, Register of the Instituto de Medicina Legal, Portillo, 1998.
  8. The Norwegian Institute on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT), El Salvador Country Profile: http://www.nisat.org .