Impunity Continues in Murders of Environmental Organizers in El Salvador
Three Assassinated Anti-Mining Leaders Opposed Gold and Silver Exploitation
By Geovani Montalvo
Class of 2010, School of Authentic Journalism
March 15, 2010
The blood from three murders has stained Salvadoran land. The murderers? They reek of gold and silver. Gustavo Marcelo Rivera, Ramiro Rivera Gómez and Dora Alicia Recinos were murdered in 2009. They were leading the opposition to metallic mining in their communities in the state of Cabañas, in northern El Salvador.
On December 26, 2009, anti-mining activist Dora Alicia Recinos Sorto was murdered in the community of Trinidad, Cabañas, when she was returning home from washing clothes in a nearby river. Eight months pregnant, she was shot five times. Her husband was José Santos, spokesperson for the Cabañas Environmental Committee.
Dora Alicia’s murder occurred in the wake of the murder of Ramiro Rivera Gómez in the same community one week earlier, on December 20. Ramiro was a well-known environmental leader. Months prior to his murder, he was the victim of violent attack and was shot eight times, resulting in health problems.
After the attack, Ramiro was assigned agents from the Victims and Witnesses Protection Unit of the National Police force for his personal safety. Paradoxically, when Ramiro was murdered, he was being guarded by two police agents who could not prevent the murder.
This systematic wave of murders began in June 2009 with the murder of Gustavo Marcelo Rivera. Another anti-mining activist, Marcelo was also the director of the local Cultural Center in his community of San Isidro, Cabañas, and was affiliated with the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party.
On June 30, twelve days after Marcelo’s June 18 disappearance, his body was found with clear signs of torture. Days after the murder, his brother Miguel Rivera told local media that “people saw that they were taking him, bound and shirtless, out of town. We told the police, but they never paid any attention to us.”
“We organized a group of more than 70 people. That’s how we found him in the well. We were drawn in that direction by the awful smell. My first reaction was denial. I didn’t want to accept that that bloated and tortured body belonged to my brother,” he added.
These murders of anti-mining activist leaders have alerted social movement organizations. “We are aware that their deaths are because of their opposition to contaminating projects, such as mining exploitation,” Ricardo Navarro, president of the Salvadoran Center of Appropriated Technology (CESTA – Friends of the Earth El Salvador), denounces constantly in the media.
Navarro considers that “it is also necessary to point out that congressional representatives from the Legislative Assembly – concretely, current president of Congress Ciro Cruz Zepeda and his National Conciliation Party (PCN) – are the people who have advocating mining exploitation in El Salvador. They therefore also share criminal responsibility.”
Facing the impunity reigning over the murders, on February 2, 2010, more than 140 national and international organizations signed a letter addressed to the country’s Attorney General, Romeo Barahona, and to President Mauricio Funes.
They demand that the government “guarantee an impartial and exhaustive investigation to determine the material and intellectual authors of the crimes.” The letter also makes note of the importance of investigating “the civil and criminal responsibility” of the Pacific Rim mining company.
Gold and Silver
Pacific Rim is a Canadian mining company that has been operating in El Salvador since 2002, with an exploration permit granted by the Ministry of Economy. During that phase, the company established the viability of extracting gold and silver in the country.
“El Salvador is located in the route of the Gold Belt of Central America. This valuable belt, which extends from central El Salvador to southern Nicaragua, contains more than 10 million ounces of gold,” explains journalist Elaine Freedman in an article published on February 2, 2010, by the Latin American Information Agency (ALAI).
“The most recent resource estimate for the El Dorado project [in the department of Cabañas] was announced on January 17, 2008. This resource estimate tabulated 1.4 million gold equivalent ounces in the Measured and Indicated resource categories combined and a further 0.3 million gold equivalent ounces in the Inferred category,” indicates Pacific Rim on the company website. The company also boasts several million ounces of silver in its resource estimates.
Pacific Rim requested an exploitation permit in the department of Cabañas, but the administration of then President Antonio Saca denied the permit in 2009. The Salvadoran State now faces a lawsuit initiated by Pacific Rim based on the rights granted to investors by the Free Trade Agreement between the United States, the Dominican Republic, and the countries of Central America (CAFTA-DR).
The company’s main demand is for 70 million dollars in compensation for exploration and investment expenses. The lawsuit has been admitted by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) of the World Bank.
Despite the ongoing legal dispute, in January 2010, current President of El Salvador Mauricio Funes declared that his government did not plan to authorize mining exploration or exploitation projects in the country. However, Funes does not want to agree to the demands of social movements, led by the National Committee on Mining (Mesa Nacional Frente a la Minería), namely the ratification of a decree banning metallic mining in the country.
The campaign against metallic mining is based on the experiences of other countries, where there are serious impacts on the environment and population, such as the contamination of rivers by acid mine drainage, a direct effect of mining exploitation.
In El Salvador, “metallic mining activity is not viable, due to the high density of the population in such a small area, where the natural resources are mortgaged,” concludes Katia Hernández in her investigative book Perspectiva de la industria minera de Oro en El Salvador (“The Gold Mining Industry’s Perspective in El Salvador”), published in 2009.
“It is essential that the Legislative Assembly give a responsible and effective response to the petition for legislative reform presented by the National Committee on Mining,” continues the publication. The Committee is comprised of communities affected by mining, as well as environmental and other organizations in the country.
Among other demands, the Committee demands that “the Attorney General of the Republic and the National Civilian Police clarify all of the murders, attacks, and other crimes committed in Cabañas, identifying and bringing to justice all of the intellectual and material authors, no matter who they may be,” according to a press release from January 27, 2010.
“We ratify our proposal to pass a law that bans metallic mining in the country, to terminate the root cause of the murders and other human rights violations in Cabañas, and to remove, once and for all, the threat of the dangerous extraction of precious metals in El Salvador,” concludes the document.
On February 8, Pacific Rim published a “public clarification” in the official newspaper of El Salvador, in which the company denounces that it “has been attacked with irresponsible and unfounded accusations by social organizations.”
In a January 12 2010 interview with independent journalist Jesse Freeston, Pacific Rim president Tom Shrake said that, “we hope that people will listen to the authorities in El Salvador who have publicly stated that the murders in Trinidad are the result of a family dispute.”
The National Civilian Police is still investigating the murders of the anti-mining activists – murders that, oddly enough, have occurred in the context of the struggle against mining exploitation in El Salvador.
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