El Salvador made history in 2017 when lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to ban mining for gold and other metals after coming under intense pressure from international mining interests. Mining requires large amounts of water that is often left contaminated with toxic chemicals. Faced with an extremely limited supply of clean water, farmers and environmentalists alike cheered when El Salvador became the first and only nation to choose “water over gold.”
Now five activists known as Water Defenders who were instrumental in the anti-mining campaign are facing serious but unrelated criminal charges dating back to the 1980s and remain on house arrest. An international coalition of advocates and academics is demanding the charges be dropped, warning the world that the legal persecution of the “Santa Marta 5” reflects a broader crackdown on civil society and dissent under President Nayib Bukele’s policy of martial law and mass incarceration.
President Bukele has embraced Bitcoin with a massive investment of his impoverished nation’s funds, launched an authoritarian crackdown on gangs that has filled the country’s prisons and spurred reports of widespread human rights abuses, and is preparing to campaign for a controversial second term widely seen as illegal under the country’s constitution.
Could President Bukele’s next big bet be on gold mining? The price of gold is at a premium, and it’s well known that gold would be found in El Salvador’s northern hill country if the ban were undermined or removed. Does that explain the arrest and detention one year ago of the five Water Defenders on allegations dating back to their days as leftist guerrillas in the 1980s, when a bloody civil war raged for 12 years, and right-wing death squads backed by the United States terrorized the countryside?
After sending a delegation to El Salvador and finding a civil society once again living in fear of state repression, this is precisely what the Water Defenders’ international supporters suspect. Alejandro Artiga-Purcell, a professor of environmental communication at San Jose State University, studies mining and extracting in Central America and joined a fact-finding delegation to El Salvador in October.
“The five Water Defenders are exemplary of one of the most successful social movements, not just in El Salvador but all over Latin America,” Artiga-Purcell said in an interview. “So, in getting at this social and civil society movement, this is a brazen attempt at saying … anybody in civil society can be put in jail with no evidence, no due process.”
The five Water Defenders — Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega — played a crucial role in communal efforts to pass and enforce the mining ban. The activists spent months in jail but won a small victory in September when a judge transferred them to house arrest.
Along with at least 17 prominent labor leaders facing dubious charges, the Water Defenders are among the 70,000 people President Bukele has incarcerated “under abysmal conditions and the use of torture” during the anti-gang crackdown across a country of only 6 million people, according to a new report by Artiga-Purcell and fellow members of the international delegation.
“It’s outrageous that the Canadian and U.S. government are standing back and staying silent in the faces of the abuses outlined in this report,” said John Cavanagh, director of the Institute of Policy Studies and author of a book on the Water Defenders.
Echoing human rights groups, the report concludes that tens of thousands of innocent people have been arrested and incarcerated in the government’s security crackdown. Last year, after an infamous weekend of gang violence, President Bukele worked with lawmakers to declare a state of emergency that suspended constitutional rights such as freedom of assembly and the right to due process. The “state of exception” has been extended a dozen of times, filling newly built prisons with alleged gang members as well as civilians caught in the dragnet who await their day in court. Civil liberties remain suspended while the police military enjoy extraordinary new resources and power.
Last year, Amnesty International reported that Bukele’s government is committing “massive human rights offenses” under the emergency regime, including “thousands of arbitrary detentions and violations of due process, as well as torture and ill-treatment” that led to multiple deaths inside jails and prisons.
“People are often arbitrarily jailed without due process, in appalling prison conditions with inadequate food, water and health care, and torture, communal punishment, and death,” said Artiga-Purcell. “There is systematic targeting of the poor, the young ones, those with tattoos, people living in gang territory and even extorted by the gangs.”
President Bukele does not speak to the media as a matter of policy but is known to spar with human rights groups on social media, where he accuses critics of caring more for criminals than public safety. State police report that violent crime has plummeted, and Bukele remains popular and headed toward an unprecedented second term — even if laws must be changed to allow it. However, peace on the streets comes at a deep social cost as mass incarceration shreds the social fabric of the nation’s most vulnerable communities, leaving families without parents, siblings and breadwinners.
Exactly one year ago police arrested the five Water Defenders in the rural community of Santa Marta on chargers surrounding the disappearance of a woman during El Salvador’s 12 years of civil war. Back in the 1980s, the Santa Marta 5 were combatants and members of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of leftist rebel forces challenging a military dictatorship backed by wealthy landowning elites. The regime was supported by the fervent anti-communists in the Reagan administration who funded terror groups infamously known as “right-wing death squads” to crush peasant organizing. According to the Institute for Policy Studies:
The five are accused by El Salvador’s Attorney General of an alleged murder over 30 years ago during the brutal civil war in El Salvador that claimed the lives of 75,000. The victims of crimes from that war, which saw a U.S.-backed dictatorship and right-wing death squads kill tens of thousands, have, for decades, been calling for justice. The current government, however, has chosen to actively uphold decades of impunity. Rather than investigate or prosecute those responsible for the dozens of cases of human rights violations and crimes against humanity that members of the Salvadoran military committed against the Santa Marta community (including the murders of the Lempa River massacre in 1980, where 30 people were assassinated and 189 were disappeared), the government is now re-victimizing the community by targeting their leaders, who have been outspoken against the policies of the current government.
An international coalition of academics has issued an open letter to the attorney general signed by 185 academics and lawyers from 21 countries, along with 13 legal and related organizations, demanding El Salvador drop the charges against the Santa Marta 5. After sending the fact-finding delegation, the coalition determined the charges were filed without evidence, which is compounded by total lack of due process.
As former FMLN combatants, the five water defenders are also covered by a 1992 amnesty law passed as part of a peace agreement that brought an end the war. The FMLN has since become one of El Salvador’s prominent political parties.
“The charges rest entirely on the testimony of a protected eyewitness who later admitted under oath that they had no first-hand knowledge of the alleged crime,” the coalition writes. “Strangely, the body of the alleged victim has never been found. Moreover, several of those charged have alibis during the time of her death.”
Activists on the ground believe the charges are politically motivated. Locals in northern El Salvador report that outsiders are seeking to buy and lease land near a gold mine that shut down decades ago. Despite the 2017 ban, the delegation says the Bukele administration has signaled interest in drawing in foreign investment through mining — and not just for Bitcoins.
“Growing evidence suggests that this case against the Santa Marta antimining activists is neither random nor motivated by the Attorney General’s genuine pursuit of justice,” the letter states. “Rather, community groups in El Salvador believe that the case was filed as part of the Salvadoran government’s larger political strategy to allow for the entry of metals mining to El Salvador in violation of the 2017 law.”
The “selective violation” of the 1992 amnesty law to muzzle environmental activists is also suspect. The Salvadoran military was responsible for the bulk of atrocities during the civil war, but the government is targeting former guerrillas who became peaceful advocates for clean water and environmental justice.
After interviewing dozens of members of civil society, the delegation warns the charges against the Water Defenders are part of a larger turn toward authoritarianism under President Bukele. Artiga-Purcell said he witnessed a “pervasive fear” among lawyers, activists, community leaders and even lawmakers in El Salvador.
“Many of the rights that enable civil society to have an impact in political life and daily life are being eroded, and that is a big preoccupation for a lot of people,” Artiga-Purcell said. “There is a general and pervasive sense of fear of living under the ‘state of exception,’ of a growing authoritarianism in El Salvador that really threatens to undermine civil society’s long tradition of fighting for civil and human rights.”