For the second time in a week, a prominent anti-mining activist has been assassinated in El Salvador. On Saturday, thirty-two-year-old Dora “Alicia” Recinos Sorto was shot dead near her home. One of her children was also injured in the shooting. Sorto was an active member of the Cabañas Environment Committee, which has campaigned against the reopening of a gold mine owned by the Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Company.
Guest: Alexis Stoumbelis, Executive Director of CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.
Amy Goodman: We begin today with El Salvador, where, for the second time in a week, a prominent anti-gold mining activist has been assassinated.
On Saturday, thirty-two-year-old Dora “Alicia” Recinos Sorto was shot dead near her home. She was eight months pregnant, carrying her two-year-old son. Sorto and her husband were both active members of the Cabañas Environment Committee, which has campaigned against the reopening of a gold mine owned by the Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Company.
Last week, Ramiro Rivera Gomez, the vice president of the Cabañas Environment Committee, was shot dead by heavily armed men despite having been under twenty-four-hour police protection. Another anti-gold-mining activist, Marcelo Rivera, from a nearby town was kidnapped and murdered in June.
For more on the situation in El Salvador, I’m joined in Boston by Alexis Stoumbelis. She’s the executive director of CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.
Alexis, welcome to Democracy Now! What’s happening?
Alexis Stoumbelis: Well, thanks for having me, Amy.
As you mentioned, you know, the spate of violence has happened and has increased very urgently within the last week. What the people of Cabañas are facing right now is a really serious crisis surrounding the opposition to this gold mine proposed by Pacific Rim. And over the last several years, this opposition to the mine has been increasing. Ramiro Rivera, who you mentioned, was killed last week, and the husband of Alicia Sorto, who was killed just this past weekend, were both very outspoken leaders against a new mining project proposed in Nueva Trinidad, where they lived.
And what’s really remarkable about the case in El Salvador right now is how effective the mining resistance has been over the last four to five years. And through community education, through mobilization, through street blockades, the movement really has effectively stopped Pacific Rim from being able to start any mining projects in El Salvador, and this is really a tremendous victory. But as we’ve seen, you know, historically in El Salvador and many other places in the world, that when the struggle, when the resistance movement becomes so effective, that’s when this kind of targeted violence happens. And so, what it appears to be right now is a very systematic attempt to eliminate the leadership of a very effective community resistance movement.
Amy Goodman: Can you give us the picture of the map in El Salvador? Exactly where this gold mine is? Was it operating? What is the Vancouver company saying about this?
Alexis Stoumbelis: Well, the mining projects are proposed in the northern part of the region, a department called Cabañas. And it’s a very rural part of the country. It’s very densely populated. Most of the people who live there are agrarian farmers, cattle ranchers, and their biggest concerns really have been environmental.
Pacific Rim owns a mine called El Dorado, which is near the community of San Isidro, where Marcelo Rivera lived and was organizing. And they also have several other proposed mining projects in the area—for example, in Nueva Trinidad, where Ramiro Rivera and Alicia Sorto are from. So the mines have not been in operation at any point, because the communities have been so effective in their resistance and the government of El Salvador has denied the permits to actually start extracting gold. A few years ago, Pacific Rim was doing exploratory drilling in El Dorado, and the community’s experience of that, seeing their rivers dry up and seeing their crops and cattle die, was part of the initial motivation to start organizing. And since then, through the kinds of street protests and sort of physical confrontations with the companies that people like Ramiro Rivera have been leading, Pacific Rim really had to walk away from the project, and they basically ceased operations there in 2008.
Pacific Rim hasn’t said anything yet about these two recent assassinations this week, but it’s pretty clear that the continued presence of the company there, despite widespread community opposition and despite their permits having been denied years ago, that the company’s continued presence and continuing to push for this mine is really creating a climate of violence there.
Amy Goodman: Can you explain how the Pacific Rim, the mining company from Vancouver, ties into CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Association?
Alexis Stoumbelis: Yeah, this is really—this is really one of the key issues, because Pacific Rim applied for mining permits, and they were denied on the basis of their environmental impact study that didn’t pass muster in El Salvador. And that was in 2005, 2006. But just this past year, Pacific Rim filed a lawsuit through CAFTA, the US Central American Free Trade Agreement, suing the Salvadoran government for, at the minimum, $77 million, claiming that this is money that they have lost in their investment or money, potential profits, that they could have made, had they been granted the permits.
And they are going through CAFTA, which was the—is the US Central America Free Trade Agreement, and the only way that they are able to do this, because Pacific Rim is located in Vancouver, is that they acquired a subsidiary in Nevada in 2007. And through that US subsidiary, they are taking advantage of the very generous and expansive corporate rights that are built into CAFTA.
CAFTA has a Chapter 11, which is—Chapter 10, which is very similar to NAFTA’s Chapter 11, around, quote-unquote, “investment rights,” which really is a chapter that gives transnational corporations tremendous legal access to the natural resources of the countries in Central America and in Mexico and defines investors with more rights, literally, to land and to water than even local or national governments have.
And so, the basis of Pacific Rim’s lawsuit is that they didn’t get these permits, even though the Salvadoran government has every right to give or not give mining permits based on what the impact will be—and in this case, you know, because Pacific Rim is going to use, or proposing to use, cyanide extraction, presents a tremendous health and environmental danger to the community. So the really central issue here is about sovereignty. Does El Salvador, do the other countries in Central America, have the right to enforce their own environmental laws, or do transnational corporations get to rule?
Amy Goodman: Alexis Stoumbelis, even before these latest murders, a large number of human rights groups, including your organization, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, the American Jewish World Service, Latin American Solidarity Organization, and many others wrote a letter to Secretary of State Clinton. What are you demanding?
Alexis Stoumbelis: Well, the United States is—El Salvador is extremely dependent, in many ways, still on the United States. El Salvador, having been governed for the last twenty years by the right-wing ARENA party, has been one of the United States’s closest allies in Latin America over the past twenty years.
And what is really necessary right now is for these murders to be investigated, not just on a superficial level of trying to find, you know, the gunmen, but really going beyond that to investigate the intellectual authors behind these murders. They are very systematic. They are very targeted. And what we’ve seen—you know, as you mentioned, with Ramiro Rivera, he was under twenty-four-hour police protection. So the people who are responsible for this, who are calling the shots, or who are making this happen, must have a pretty extensive amount of financial resources or institutional resources. And so, it’s going beyond just chalking this up to common crime or gang-related violence.
And CISPES, along with a lot of other organizations in the US and Canada, has been putting pressure both on the Salvadoran government directly, on the attorney general of El Salvador, to really investigate these as politically motivated assassinations and to stop the impunity that is allowing these assassinations to continue. But it’s also really critical to put that pressure on the United States, which is so deeply involved, over-involved, in El Salvador’s internal governance, and that putting pressure on the [inaudible]—
Amy Goodman: You’re calling on a new US ambassador to be sent to El Salvador?
Alexis Stoumbelis: Well, there are—President Obama recently did announce the new—a new US ambassador to El Salvador, which will be a welcome change, we hope. But what we really need to see is both US—we need to see support for the United—support from the United States to respecting and supporting El Salvador’s internal and independent processes by which they are really going to investigate police corruption, where they’re really going to—potentially, and we hope—expose whatever networks are behind these kinds of targeted and systematic assassinations. And, you know, it’s not for the United States to intervene in those investigations, but rather to respect El Salvador’s independent process of doing so and provide the support that El Salvador may be calling for.
Amy Goodman: And the significance of the new president—you talked about ARENA ruling for years—Mauricio Funes? And what is he demanding right now, especially when this latest murder of Dora, with the wounding of her two-year-old son—she was eight months pregnant—on the way back from the laundry?
Alexis Stoumbelis: Yeah, it’s—you know, this is a really incredibly important moment in El Salvador. After twenty years of a very hard-right government, they have—the Salvadoran people have elected their first progressive government. The FMLN is now in charge of the presidency and in the majority—well, not the majority, but having the most seats in the legislative assembly. And so, there is really a role like we’ve never had before to hear the voices of people be reflected at the top levels of the government. And Mauricio Funes spoke out last week, specifically around the assassination of Ramiro Rivera, and vowed to investigate fully and not to allow this case to continue in impunity, which was very exciting.
But it is going to take a lot more than that. And as it has in El Salvador for many years, the movement has come from the social movement. It’s come from the grassroots. It’s come from the affected communities. And groups like the National Coalition Against Mining have been and are continuing to push the Salvadoran government, Mauricio Funes himself, to take even a stronger stand and to really make this a priority, because, as they have been saying, as long as these cases remain in impunity, the assassinations will continue.
The FMLN, as a political party, made a very strong denouncement yesterday against the violence and a commitment to investigating, and they have also made a public commitment against mining and have actually introduced a bill in the legislative assembly, which is going to take a huge push, to actually ban all forms of metallic mining, which would be the first in the world.
Amy Goodman: Alexis Stoumbelis, I want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, speaking to us from Boston. We will certainly continue to follow this case.