Latin America is by far the most dangerous region in the world for environmental activists. While hopes of reversing this trend have arrived in countries like Brazil and Colombia with the investiture of moderate progressive governments, in Central America, 2023 began with the murder of at least four environmental defenders in Honduras and the arbitrary detention of five prominent anti-mining activists in El Salvador.
El Salvador commemorated the 31st anniversary of the signing of the peace agreements that ended the country’s civil conflict (1980-1992) on January 16. The date—which is not recognized by the government of President Nayib Bukele—was marked by hundreds of protesters denouncing the prolonged state of emergency that has led to the arrest of tens of thousands of political opponents, union activists, youth for alleged ties to gangs and organized crime, and, more recently, five prominent anti-mining activists.
On January 11, the inhabitants of the community of Santa Marta in the municipality of Victoria, department of Cabañas, witnessed the arrests of Miguel Angel Gamez, Alejandro Lanez Garca, and Pedro Antonio Rivas Lanez, three respected community leaders. The Attorney General's Office and the National Civil Police executed the arrest warrant by means of a judicial order. Simultaneously, in the municipality of Guacotecti, Cabañas, Teodoro Antonio Pacheco, director of the local development organization Santa Marta Association for the Economic Development of El Salvador (ADES), and its legal advisor Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega were also arrested. The prosecutors read the arrest and search warrant before the stunned residents of Santa Marta, who were alerted by the loud presence of authorities at 2:00 am.
Critics argue that the charges were hastily fabricated by the Attorney General’s Office with the intention to intimidate Santa Marta, ADES, and the wider environmental movement by arresting five prominent leaders of an organization that has achieved important social development and territorial defense against extractive projects in the impoverished Cabañas department.
Santa Marta’s Anti-Mining Legacy
Santa Marta is populated by ex-guerrilla combatants and families who fled to the Mesa Grande refugee camps in Honduras during the Salvadoran armed conflict. With historical ties to El Salvador’s revolutionary struggle, Santa Marta stands out in this mostly conservative department. Pacheco is the founder of ADES and a founding member of the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador, a coalition that led the country’s historic anti-mining struggle and won the Institute for Policy Studies Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award in 2009. The other detainees are well-known community organizers and water defenders who played a crucial role on the frontlines of the successful fight to pass, in 2017, the first law in the world that prohibits metallic mining.
The five detainees have been charged with committing a murder in 1989 during the country's civil war and with illicit associations, a crime which populist President Bukele has widely employed to lock up tens of thousands of gang members since declaring a state of emergency on March 27, 2022. Under the ongoing state of exception, more than 61,300 alleged gang members have been detained, and more than 90 people have lost their lives in custody. Humanitarian organizations and the Office for the Defense of Human Rights have registered more than 7,400 complaints of abuses by the authorities and security forces. United Nations experts state that these measures violate human rights and lead to widespread arbitrary detentions.
The detainees have no relationships with gangs; for the last 30 years, they have worked with ADES implementing forest conservation projects, community organizing, sustainable agriculture, and water management programs. ADES community workers have been responsible for improving the quality of life of tens of thousands of people in Cabañas by bringing services and sustainable agricultural practices to isolated communities where government institutions have no reach, and by campaigning against environmentally destructive practices like the installation of garbage incinerators in their territory and the privatization of community water projects.
For 12 years, ADES was key in mobilizing local, national, and international support to stop the mining operations of the Canadian mining company Pacific Rim, which had gained influence with local municipalities, the police, judicial structures, schools, and even some churches to secure its operations. In 2009, “an intimidation campaign was unleashed against us,” says Vidalina Morales, President of ADES. “Anonymous death threats, criminalization, and in the worst case, four anti-mining activists including an unborn child were murdered. These assassinations have yet to be properly investigated.”
Community opposition to mining was widespread, says Morales, and the pressure compelled the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources to deny the company an exploitation license in 2008. Citing environmental and health concerns, the Ministry’s decision led Pacific Rim to sue El Salvador in 2009 before the World Bank’s International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) and demand $77 million in compensation. The demand increased to $250 million when OceanaGold acquired Pacific Rim in 2013. After seven years of litigation, the World Bank tribunal ruled in favor of El Salvador and ordered OceanaGold to pay the country $8 million in legal costs. The defeat of a multinational corporation at a pro-business tribunal inspired a final push of anti-mining mobilization that led to the 2017 mining ban. The prohibition was passed with multi-party legislative consensus and the support of rural community organizations, NGOs, university students, private sector organizations, and faith groups that included the Catholic Church hierarchy. It all started in Santa Marta.
Foreign Investment: The Driving Force Behind the Arrests
Given the detainees’ background, hundreds of national and international organizations have condemned the detentions as politically motivated amidst reports that the government is considering overturning the mining prohibition. In fact, the Salvadoran government is under enormous pressure to find new revenue streams since the country's sovereign debt is out of control, and the adoption of bitcoin as a panacea for the country's economic woes is not paying off.
Following the mining ban, the National Roundtable Against Mining has continued to demand stronger regulations to safeguard El Salvador’s already compromised ecological integrity. The Roundtable urges the government to implement key aspects of the ban such as environmental remediation for over 15 abandoned mining sites, justice for the families of the four anti-mining activists assassinated in 2009, and the establishment of a regional agreement on shared basins to avoid cross-border contamination arising from over 42 potential mining sites located on the border with Guatemala and Honduras.
El Salvador joined the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining in 2021, and a law was recently passed in the legislature to create a Directorate of Hydrocarbons. “The current government operates under a pro-mining logic,” says Luis González from the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES). “We know that Canadian mining companies have their eyes on El Salvador and there are rumors that current free trade negotiations with China involve metal mining.” The unconfirmed inclusion of mining in the secret free trade negotiations is particularly troublesome, as China has become one of the main providers of foreign aid for the Salvadoran government and has offered to purchase its sovereign debt.
El Salvador is the most densely populated country in the region and one of the most vulnerable to climate change. According to a 2016 study from the Office for the Defense of Human Rights, the country could run out of water by the end of the century due to worsening droughts, and 90 percent of surface-level sources are already contaminated. Poor regulations on the industrial sector’s intensive use of water, lack of safeguards for the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals by monocrop agriculture, and irresponsible mining practices that have left unchecked acid drainage streams have contributed to contaminating the country’s water supply.
Organizations like ADES and the Santa Marta community have become the first line of defense, not only to promote environmental awareness and sustainable practices but also to organize communities to stop environmentally harmful projects. Prior to his detention, ADES director Antonio Pacheco had warned authorities and environmental groups that local community development organizations in Cabañas had received inquiries in recent months from suspicious individuals who had approached farmers offering multi-year leases to purchase land in former mining sites. Those early warnings may have led to the detention of Pacheco and the other leaders.
Bukele has utilized the state apparatus to decimate, incarcerate, and humiliate his political opponents. Through an army of anonymous internet trolls, the president also engages in smear campaigns against journalists who dare to question his decisions, says Omar Flores from the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining. Recently, union members have been incarcerated for demanding unpaid wages in the municipality of Soyapango.
Condemning war crimes: A Double Standard
Victims of the war have demanded consecutive Salvadoran governments to pursue a policy of truth, justice, and reconciliation for war crimes. Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado’s narrative against the water defenders seems to manipulate that demand by claiming that the victims “are finally having justice.” Santa Marta members suggest that if the government were truly interested in prosecuting war crimes, it would investigate the dozens of complaints launched against the military by the community, particularly for the 1981 Lempa River Massacre in which 30 community members were assassinated and 182 disappeared during a raid led by the recently deceased Colonel Sigfredo Ochoa Pérez.
Most of the 75,000 civil war victims executed by the military, right-wing death squads, and paramilitary groups during the U.S.-backed dictatorship were civilians. Yet, Bukele’s government so far refuses to open military archives, as ordered by a judge in the infamous case of the Mozote massacre.
This double standard has led critics to argue that the government is utilizing a decades-old alleged crime to criminalize those who stand in the way of an imminent overturn of the mining prohibition. According to the legal defense team, the charges do not meet the minimum legal criteria to justify the arrests; prosecutors are relying on the hearsay of a protected witness, and have failed to provide material evidence that the accused are actually responsible for the murder. Still, at the first audience the judge dictated six months of preventive detention to allow the prosecution to continue its investigation.
“In its haste to please the dictator, the Prosecutor's Office forgot that the National Reconciliation Law of January 23, 1992, which grants amnesty to FMLN combatants and non-combatants, is 100 percent in force” tweeted Luis Parada, a prominent Washington-based lawyer who led El Salvador’s defense in the Pacific Rim/OceanaGold lawsuit.
International Solidarity Denounces the Arrests
Santa Marta, ADES, and rights groups fear that the community leaders could languish in overcrowded cells for months before formal charges are filed in court, a standard practice in the exception regime. “Our relatives, who are in their late 50s, are being held in isolation, with no access to healthcare, no visits allowed from family members, and limited five-minute time slots with their defense lawyers,” said a family member of one detainee, who wishes to remain anonymous.
Through sign-on campaigns, Salvadoran and international organizations have called on the national and international community to reject the political persecution of the water defenders. They also demand that the Salvadoran government drop the charges and urge legal representatives to uphold human rights. The response was immediate: on the day of the first hearing, a letter of support signed by 250 organizations from 29 countries was faxed to the desk of the judge designated to the case urging that the procedure take place outside the terms of the state of exception and that the detainees be released as they await legal proceedings. Statements of support also came from coalitions in South America, Spain, and the United Church of Canada.
Despite a constitutional prohibition on Salvadoran presidents serving consecutive terms, Bukele recently announced that he will seek reelection in 2024. The announcement has been widely criticized both in El Salvador and in the United States. These arrests only deepen concerns about the absence of judicial independence and respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Although our compañeros remain in custody, Santa Marta is not alone.
Giada Ferrucci is a Ph.D. Candidate in Media Studies specializing in Environment and Sustainability at Western University, Canada. She is a researcher for the "Surviving Memory in Post-War El Salvador" project and consults with the Central American Alliance on Mining (ACAFREMIN).
Pedro Cabezas is an environmental activist based in El Salvador with experience working in Canada, Cuba, and Central America.