International organizations pen letter, report supporting Salvadoran anti-mining activists

Protest demanding the dropping of charges against the ‘Santa Marta 5’. (Image by Mesa Nacional frente a la Minería Metálica en El Salvador, Facebook.)

International non-government, academic and civil organizations published a report that presents evidence of the weakness of the case against a group of Salvadoran water defenders known as the ‘Santa Marta 5.’

The report follows the publication of an open letter sent to the Attorney General of El Salvador and signed by 185 academics and lawyers and 13 legal and related organizations from 21 countries requesting President Nayib Bukele’s administration to drop the case against the water defenders. The missive also demands that the Attorney General respects and enforces the human rights of all Salvadorans.

Both documents, pushed by the Central American Alliance on Mining (ACAFREMIN), the Institute for Policy Studies, MiningWatch Canada, Pax Christi International, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the SHARE Foundation, the United Church of Canada, and the Washington Ethical Society, were released on the first anniversary of the January 11, 2023 arrest and detention of the activists from the northern department of Cabañas. 

The men arrested—Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco, and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega— are members of the Association of Economic and Social Development (ADES) and played a central role in the events that led the Salvadoran government to pass the historic, first-ever national prohibition on metal mining in 2017 aimed at protecting El Salvador’s scarce water supply. They were released to house arrest in September 2023, but the charges remain, and they are scheduled to go on trial later this year.

According to the report, the arrests lack evidence, lack due process of law, and are in violation of the National Reconciliation Law of 1992.  

“The ‘Santa Marta 5’ have played a critical role in longstanding communal efforts to ensure that the historic country-wide mining ban in El Salvador continues to remain in effect, and in communal efforts to safeguard human rights and human dignity of vulnerable Salvadoran communities,” the document reads. “After pressure from over two hundred prominent civil society, human rights, faith-based, and research organizations, the Bukele administration decided to release the five water defenders from jail in September 2023, but they remain under house arrest and the charges against them have yet to be dropped.”

The dossier notes that the Bukele government is misinterpreting events that took place three decades ago when the five activists were combatants of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of rebel forces that fought during the country’s 12-year armed conflict (1980-1992). They were accused of kidnapping, torturing, and murdering a woman in 1989.

“In order to better understand the reasons for their arrest more than thirty years later, this report explores the rise to power of Nayib Bukele, the current president of the country. It traces the political maneuvers that have left him with near-absolute power in the country and enabled him in March 2022 to enact a ‘state of exception’ in the country,” the dossier reads. “This decree, which has been renewed monthly and is still in effect, gives Bukele a free hand to arbitrarily suspend democratic and fundamental rights and to arrest and confine people without legal representation indefinitely. It has resulted in the imprisonment of an additional estimated 70,000 people, many of whom may be innocent but have not been afforded the opportunity to defend themselves.”

The water defenders’ case

The case against the ‘Santa Marta 5’ was brought by the woman’s daughter in April 2022. However, the only evidence provided by the Attorney General to lay the charges was the testimony of a protected witness who accused the men of the murder but admitted, when questioned by the defendants’ lawyer, that he had no firsthand knowledge of the alleged crime.

“Still, at the first hearing, the judge dictated six months of preventive detention (renewed in August 2023) to allow the prosecution to continue its preliminary investigation, imposed a gag order on the case, and the detainees were sent to a detention center where they had no access to health care, legal support nor family visits. It has later come to light that several of those charged had alibis at the alleged time of her death. In addition, strangely, and after more than 10 months, the body of the woman has never been found,” the report states.

The report emphasizes that, as there is little basis to accuse the five men and they are covered by the 1992 amnesty, the charges against them should be dropped.

It also notes that the reason why the Attorney General hasn’t done so is likely because they are fierce mining opponents and the Bukele administration is showing strong signs that it wants to restart mining in the country.

Is mining coming back?

In addition to alleged secret negotiations with China that include the possibility of investment in the mining sector, the experts behind the report note that in 2021, the Ministry of the Economy included in its strategic goals, the regulation of mining, while the executive has joined the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining funded by the Canadian government and requested that it evaluate the Salvadoran mining sector. 

“Bukele has also passed a new law to create a new Directorate of Hydrocarbons, Energy and Mines that includes metallic mining, despite it being prohibited in the 2017 prohibition against mining,” the document points out.

The report also notes that the government seems to be installing administrative capacity for the reintroduction of mining as the 2023 budget has a $4.5-million allocation to modernize the mining and energy laws and, according to the 2024 budget projections, the government will be adding 140 staff members to the Directorate of Hydrocarbons, Energy and Mines.

“Others with whom we met noted evidence of Bukele’s intention to reverse the mining ban in El Salvador and suggested that his motivation for doing so is grounded in the generally poor economic performance of the Salvadoran economy, exacerbated by the significant economic losses suffered by El Salvador following his elevation of Bitcoin (along with the US dollar) to the national currency,” the dossier states.

The paper emphasizes that data from the Central Reserve Bank show that under the Bukele administration, El Salvador has accumulated the largest public debt in the Central American region, 83.7% of the gross domestic product. It has also registered the lowest economic growth in the region, 2.1% according to ECLAC, and in 2022 it closed with a decrease of -133% in direct foreign investment over the previous year.

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