Water Wars in El Salvador: Tacuba Resists

Community members in the Salvadoran town of Tacuba responded to the state’s failure to provide clean water by creating their own well system. Now the mayor wants to claim ownership. 

September 1, 2017

A protester at a march against the privatization of water in San Salvador (CISPES)

On the evening of August 9, Joel Ernesto Ramírez Acosta, mayor of the small southwestern town of Tacuba, El Salvador, was arrested after running through a police roadblock. He was apprehended, charged with driving under the influence, in the possession of two illegal firearms, and in the company of alleged gang members.

The incident made national headlines. But for Tacuba residents, Mayor Ramírez has bigger crimes to answer for. For over a decade, the mayor has been locked in a battle with seven Tacuba communities over the ownership of a local water system that provides potable water to 1,000 inhabitants.

“It’s about time that he was arrested,” declared 66-year-old Tacuba resident José Gabriel Amaya in an interview after his arrest. “Anything could happen if he’s not in his right mind. Imagine what he could do to us with those weapons.” At a press conference held outside the Attorney General’s Office in the capital city of San Salvador just days after the mayor’s arrest, Amaya called for justice. “They’ve treated us like terrorists for defending the human right to water,” he told the media.

“All across the country, there are conflicts over water,” said Karen Ramírez of the San Salvador based non-profit PROVIDA, a part of the national Water Forum coalition, which has been accompanying the Tacuba communities in the courts, the media and the streets. “In the end the people resist, they struggle. That’s the case of the communities in Tacuba: they’ve been imprisoned and through a difficult process with their families.”

The struggle in Tacuba occurs in the legal vacuum generated by decades of deregulation in El Salvador, where organizers are campaigning for a nation-wide Water Law to defend the increasingly scarce resource from privatization, contamination, and depletion. It also unfolds in the wake of environmentalists’ recent historic victory that made El Salvador the first country in the world to enact a national ban on the metal mining industry, just months after the Salvadoran government defeated a transnational mining giant (Pacific Rim, which was bought by Australia’s Oceana Gold firm) in the World Bank’s controversial investor-state dispute tribunals. The anti-mining campaign was a battle for the value of water over gold.

Repression and Resistance in Tacuba

Tacuba’s communities share a long, fraught history. Home to some of the largest the concentrations of the indigenous Pipil, the town was targeted in one of the America’s largest massacres in 1932. Following a failed insurrection against the military dictatorship and the landed elite led by the communist party and peasants, state forces unleashed a wave of genocidal violence against indigenous campesinos that left somewhere between ten and thirty thousand dead. In the wake of the slaughter, survivors abandoned outward expressions of indigenous culture, including their languages and dress. Political conservativism remains a principal legacy of this massacre, but a spirit of organized resistance survives as well.

Mayor Ramírez, known locally as “the Eagle,” has governed Tacuba for the last twenty years under the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, the party of El Salvador’s oligarchic elite, which inaugurates each electoral campaign in the neighboring town of Izalco, another target of the 1932 matanza, to a celebrate the victory over communism. The party’s signature red, white and blue colors adorn the arch that greets visitors at Tacuba’s entrance, clearly marking the town as ARENA territory. 

ARENA has sought for decades to privatize water systems at the national level. In Tacuba, the mayor’s aims are more modest: appropriate the community-run system.

In 1995, residents of seven communities in Tacuba organized to build a local potable water system; each of the 900 recipients volunteered several months of their labor to install the necessary infrastructure, which had been donated by international aid groups. They formed an association to administer the system and elected a committee to oversee its operations, including charging for the service and performing maintenance.

This type of project had become routine in rural Salvadoran communities during the 1990s. “Unfortunately, due to the irresponsibility of the state, rural areas have basically been totally excluded from certain services and goods for over twenty-five years,” said Karen Ramírez. Four consecutive ARENA administrations (1989-2009) used the aftermath of a brutal 12-year civil war to implement devastating neoliberal economic restructuring, which forced many communities to provide their own basic services.

“In El Salvador in the ‘90s, this process of structural adjustment takes place,” explained Carlos Flores, a longtime environmental activist and current Coordinator of the Water Forum. “From 1989-1999, there was a clear orientation towards deregulating water. Regulatory structures were dismantled, irrigation districts were abandoned, potable water projects in rural sectors were abandoned, [and] regulatory frameworks were introduced, oriented towards commodifying natural resources.”

Under such emerging neoliberal pressures, the militant base-level organizing that fed the armed conflict in the 1980s began to give way to non-profit expansion and promotion of entrepreneurship in the pursuit of an elusive post-war “development.” The construction of community water systems was a symptom of this neoliberal turn, but it also became a crucial organizing instrument for resistance to those very processes.

This community management intervened in a very difficult situation, because the state totally turned its back on them,” recalled Karen Ramírez. “So with great community effort, and from a perspective of the social interest of the whole community of collective goods, they have been organizing and working for their water. We believe that the privatization of water wasn’t achieved in the ‘90s mainly because of the enormous effort by the communities.”

The Eagle Attacks

In Tacuba, the communities’ collective hard work on their water system created a deep sense of pride and ownership. So when the mayor sought to seize it, the residents fought back.  

In 2007, Mayor Ramírez refused to recognize the newly-elected leadership of the water committee. Instead, he installed a parallel committee stacked in his favor, which promptly “donated” the community system to city hall. “We formed part of that committee that the mayor never wanted to legalize,” remembered 65-year-old life-long Tacuba resident David Díaz Aguirre. “We shut down the street for eight days to pressure the mayor to certify it, and he still refused. He brought in the anti-riot police on March 22, International Water Day. It was disastrous, there were helicopters. It was hard for our people, who were sleeping in the [water association’s] offices, making sure the mayor couldn’t take it over.”

Longtime Tacuba resident David Aguirre speaks outside the Attorney General's office (Photo by Hilary Goodfriend)

With support from groups in the Water Forum, the communities filed several suits against the mayor for corruption, intimidation and abuse. The public water utility sued him for fraudulently administering the community system—a charge that the Attorney General’s Office has yet to prosecute. As the legal processes inched forward, community leaders continued to oversee their system. The mayor, on the other hand, began demanding payment for the water from residents seeking basic municipal services such as the emission of birth or marriage certificates, and he made escalating threats against the water committee.

“He needs money. That’s all it is, it’s about money,” explained Aguirre. “We administer the water [because] we developed it and we built it, it’s ours. We don’t do it for money or anything, but rather to provide water services to the communities.”

Karen Ramírez agreed. “The mayor was used to everything in Tacuba taking place as though the town was his private plantation,” she said.

The People vs. Mayor Ramírez

For several years, the Supreme Court managed to subdue the conflict between the communities and the Mayor by issuing temporary protective measures while magistrates reviewed the community’s case. But in 2014, the Supreme Court sent the case to a civil court, leaving local organizers vulnerable. The mayor was able to leverage his influence in the local police and prosecutor’s office to renew his campaign against the communities.

In the early hours of July 22, 2016, police raided the homes of six members of the elected water committee. The men, many elderly, were dragged from their homes in their pajamas under the pouring rain and thrown behind bars.

“I think he thought that he’d be able to intimidate the communities with [the raids],” says Ramírez. “But despite the arrests, the communities—principally women and the elderly—guarded the water system and said: ‘No, we’re not going to hand it over.’” The residents rallied in support of those arrested, and after six days, the water protectors were released from jail.

The legal battle, however, is ongoing. In the meantime, the mayor announced his plans to run for re-election with the ARENA party in 2018. He will do so with no legal obstacles: on August 18th, a local judge dismissed all charges against him from the August 9th arrest.

“We are very worried about the security of the [water] defenders and inhabitants of the communities of Tacuba,” warned Karen Ramírez . “We have asked the Human Rights Ombudsman to take note of this case because it makes not just the defenders but also their families very vulnerable, as well as all of us who have filed reports against the mayor.”

The National Struggle for a Water Law

Conflicts like the one in Tacuba abound across El Salvador. From unscrupulous ARENA mayors in Tacuba and the La Libertad port city, to a Coca Cola plant in the town of Nejapa or luxury gated communities in the Cordillera del Bálsamo, poor and working-class communities are facing off with powerful interests for the right to water.

“The territorial problems are clear evidence of the existence of a general water problem,” said Carlos Flores. “These are exemplary cases, but they’re not the only cases—they’re not even the most critical. […] These are examples of what is happening because of this lack of a law or normative framework to oversee water in El Salvador.”

The Water Forum has fought for the passage of a General Water Law since 2006. The bill is supported by the current government, but debate has been constantly frustrated by right-wing parties hoping to profit off the resource. Despite the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)’s ascendance to the presidency in 2009, the ARENA party holds a majority in the legislature. In 2012, an FMLN-sponsored measure to amend the constitution to enshrine the right to food and water passed, only to fail in 2014 when right-wing parties united to oppose its ratification. In 2013, bitter social movement opposition to a U.S.-supported Public-Private Partnership Law managed to shield potable water services from being opened to private concessions. In June of 2017, the right presented its own bill, which would place representatives of the business-run National Association for Private Enterprise (ANEP) into the national administration of water services.

The fight to guarantee equal access to the human right to water, says Flores, “is an issue between the FMLN and ARENA. Which is to say, between the Water Forum and ANEP.” And ARENA and ANEP, respectively the political and economic instruments of the recalcitrant elite, are formidable opponents.

Commenting on ARENA’s bill, FMLN Environment Minister Lina Pohl observed: “This time, differently from what happened with the Mining Law, gold [would win out] over water. A resource like water that’s so important to the country cannot be private.” Social movement groups also rejected the proposal. In a statement, the Social Alliance for Governability and Justice coalition declared that the opposition’s bill was “developed according to the petty interests of big business and seeks to turn the vital resource into a commodity.”

The March 2017 passage of the law against metallic mining seems to herald an emerging consensus in defense of natural resources of corporate profits. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has called for the Water Law’s approval. But Flores said the challenges that El Salvador’s water protectors face are even greater than those in the struggle against mining. “The owner of the gold mine was a transnational corporation, and there aren’t national [mining industry] representatives involved,” he pointed out. “In the case of the [water] law, all we’ve got are national interests—some transnationals, but mainly it’s national interests with a huge lobbying power.” 

As climate change accelerates, the war over water is becoming increasingly critical in El Salvador. “Not just in Tacuba, powerful interests want access to the closest sources of water,” said PROVIDA’s Karen Ramírez. “The Salvadoran state should guarantee the right [to water] to the small-scale consumers, since businesses and large-scale consumers, like the sugar cane processers and big industry, are in a far better position to defend themselves.”

Hilary Goodfriend a writer and researcher based in San Salvador, El Salvador. She writes about empire, neoliberalism and resistance.

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