- Calls from the international community are growing for the release of five environmental activists fighting water pollution and mining in El Salvador who were arrested in January.
- A lack of evidence behind the allegation that they were involved in a civil war-era kidnapping and murder has raised questions from U.S. officials and the U.N. about the legitimacy of the charges.
- A group of 17 U.S. members of Congress is the latest to call for their release and a closer look at the steps the government is taking to renew a defunct mining sector.
- The five “water defenders” say there’s insufficient evidence in the case and that they’re protected from prosecution by a post-war reconciliation law.
The arrest of five environmental activists fighting water pollution and mining in El Salvador is drawing international criticism following questionable developments in court proceedings that suggest the case against them is politically motivated.
The activists were arrested in January in connection to an alleged 1989 kidnapping and murder during the country’s civil war. But a lack of evidence in the case has led to calls for their release and a closer look at the steps the government is taking to renew a defunct mining sector.
“We are concerned these arrests are politically motivated and intended to silence the overwhelming opposition to mining in the country. We also have concerns that these men have been denied their basic right to due process,” 17 U.S. members of Congress said in a letter earlier this month.
Known locally as “water defenders,” the five men helped lead a campaign to ban metals mining in 2017 and protect El Salvador’s primary source of clean water, the Lempa River Basin. The countrywide ban was the first of its kind anywhere in the world and was celebrated as a landmark step for environmental policy.
But in recent years, President Nayib Bukele’s government has taken some steps that suggest it’s reconsidering its position on mining. It created a government agency to regulate the energy and mining industries and joined an intergovernmental forum that helps “advance best practices” for the mining sector.
The area licensed to mining companies before the ban was purchased last year by a company called Agricola San José, which couldn’t be reached for comment for this article. Although documents show the company has plans to develop an agricultural and cattle-ranching business, the area is classified in El Salvador’s least arable category, raising concerns among environmentalists that there might be other plans for the land.
“We denounce the continued detention of the five leaders from Santa Marta as a wanton attempt to intimidate the water defenders of El Salvador,” said Jan Morrill, tailings campaign manager at Earthworks, an antimining organization. “This brazen action exposes the Salvadoran government’s desire to overturn the country’s historic mining ban, a ban supported by the overwhelming majority of Salvadorans.”
The five defenders — Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega — were members of the FMLN resistant group, which fought against the government during the civil war. They say they’re protected under the National Reconciliation Law of 1992, which pardons FMLN members for any political crimes committed during that period, most notably when it concerns fewer than 20 people.
In June, a judge denied a petition to annul the case based on the 1992 law, a decision that the water defenders are currently appealing.
“The principle of an impartial, objective judge doesn’t exist,” said Denis Muñoz, the water defenders’ attorney. “That’s where the situation gets complicated — because the justice system is being manipulated.”
The defenders also say the evidence against them is extremely scarce. Without a body, the prosecution is relying almost entirely on an anonymous eyewitness account, Muñoz told Mongabay. Any other details have been closed off from the public.
Last month, the prosecutor’s office carried out an “exhumation process” at the alleged murder site but didn’t come away with anything concrete, according to someone close to the case who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“El Salvador recognizes that it still has many challenges ahead in the transitional justice process,” the Salvadoran government said in a May response to U.N. criticism of the arrests. “However, the current government vindicates its commitment to restorative justice for the victims and faces the obstacles with an active commitment to protect and strengthen human rights.”
Four of the water defenders are currently in the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana department, notorious for its small cell sizes and gang violence. The other water defender, Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega, is being held in a medium-security prison lacking proper health protocols, Muñoz said, a potential human rights concern because he likely won’t receive proper treatment if there are complications with his diabetes and high blood pressure.
“Several people arrested by the regime have died in that place,” Muñoz said, “so I worry about his life and health.”
Banner image: Antimining signs held by protests in El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Ades/Facebook.
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