Gold, impunity, violence in El Salvador
A 37-year-old teacher, community center founder, and anti-mining activist is found tortured and assassinated in Northern El Salvador. Authorities, despite all evidence to the contrary, attribute the death to common gang violence. In the following weeks, other critics of mining are victims of death threats, attempted kidnappings and shootings. Communities plunged into fear not seen since the Civil War of the 1980s place the blame on the presence of Pacific Rim, a Canadian gold mining company.
JESSE FREESTON, PRODUCER, TRNN: Over the past month and a half, with the region’s attention fixed on the coup in Honduras, a campaign of violence and fear has intensified in El Salvador, shedding light on the culture of impunity that persists in much of Central America. The events have been centered in the northern state of Cabañas, which shares more than just a border with southern Honduras: the people on both sides live on top of the Central American gold vein, where Canadian mining companies have claims on the metal beneath. The newest outbreak of violence began on June 18, when teacher and community organizer Marcelo Rivera disappeared. His body was found two weeks later in the bottom of a well, with clear indications of torture, including burn marks and missing toe and finger nails. Marcelo played a central role in the education and organization of his home community of San Isidro, home to the flagship project of Canadian gold mining company Pacific Rim. Marcelo and his brother Miguel started San Isidro’s first community organization 20 years ago when they were only in high school, its main feature a library of less than 30 books. Years later, when international mining companies began to take interest in the area, it was the Rivera brothers that took leadership in informing their community about the pros and cons of gold mining. They were forced to do so when neither the company nor the government followed their responsibility to both inform and consult the people of the region, a situation Miguel Rivera described to me during an interview last year.
MIGUEL RIVERA, COMMUNITY LEADER & BROTHER OF MARCELO (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): If you go in the communities, the little that they know is because organizations like ours have had the dedication to investigate and to bring the information to those that would suffer the problems. Thank God we’ve had examples of mining in our sister republic of Honduras that we were able to see firsthand, and that we had the resources to go.
FREESTON: Honduras is home to three Canadian-operated industrial gold mines, and Vancouver-based Pacific Rim has been seeking an exploitation permit for a similar project in San Isidro for the last three years. The Salvadoran government’s unwillingness to grant the license led the company to file a $77 million lawsuit against the Republic of El Salvador this past April. The case is misleading, because over that time Pacific Rim actually received very friendly treatment from both the national government and local mayors. In fact, the family of the recently departed vice president is a key investor in Pacific Rim’s project. It was due to a formidable grassroots opposition that the government was unable to grant the permit. Activists in El Salvador have come to oppose mining for a variety of reasons, including the lack of democracy in the process, the belief that the 2 percent royalties companies are required to pay under current law is not sufficient, fear of contamination from the liberation of heavy metals like arsenic and lead and the use of cyanide in separating gold from rock, as well as the potential for loss of water access. These serious environmental and public health effects normally occur in the stage of exploitation; however, in 2008, exploratory drilling in Cabañas left numerous community wells without water. José Orlando Amaya, a significant landowner in Cabañas, originally supported Pacific Rim, selling the company the rights to drill on his land. But when his well went dry just days after the drilling began, he quickly changed his tone.
May 28, 2008
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): My grandparents were born here more than 100 years ago. In 100 years we have never seen this. This is Pacific Rim’s fault. 03:54
FREESTON: The company, to its credit, responded immediately to the crisis, accepting full responsibility and trucking in barrels of water. But in El Salvador, a country tied with Haiti for the least access to potable water in the Western Hemisphere, affected communities had now seen firsthand evidence about the vulnerability of their water supply and mining’s potential for disaster.
UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t think they’ll bring us water for our whole lives. That’s illogical. That can only happen in their perverse minds.
FREESTON: In the year that followed, mining became an issue of increasing importance. Then in March of this year, Mauricio Funes of the leftist FMLN Party was elected president.
March 21, 2009
VIDALINA MORALES, ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT ASSOC. (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): For those of us who’ve been completely consumed in the mining fight, it’s encouraging, because Funes, prior to the elections, signed a petition swearing to prevent mining projects in the country. So we were quite impressed with his attitude as a candidate. Now that he’s president, we’re certain that the mining won’t go ahead.
FREESTON: Funes’s victory, the first democratic transfer of presidential power in the country’s history, has done little to solve the problem of impunity for the powerful in El Salvador. Since Rivera’s assassination in June, the attack on the anti-mining movement has intensified considerably. Death threats have been sent to three journalists at the independent radio station Radio Victoria, and to Antonio Pacheco, president of Cabañas’s Association for Economic and Social Development. A local Catholic priest, Father Luis Quintanilla, after receiving numerous death threats on his cell phone, barely escaped an attempted kidnapping by a group of masked and armed men while driving home from a community forum on July 27. These and other victims all have one thing in common: their opposition to mining. And all the death threats have contained the same message: stop your activism, or you’ll end up like Marcelo. As of publication, the authorities have done nothing to ensure the security of these community leaders, nor to investigate who’s behind either Marcelo’s assassination or the ensuing terror campaign. This combination of mining interests, impunity, and violence in Cabañas did not begin over the last few weeks; it has only intensified. When I was there over a year ago, I interviewed Santos Rodriguez from the village of Nueva Trinidad. Rodriguez, a subsistence farmer and father of six, became a vocal anti-mining activist after visiting the Valle de Siria mine in Honduras. After helping organize three successful highway roadblocks, which stopped Pacific Rim’s exploration equipment from entering the community, Rodriguez was attacked with a small machete by his old neighbor and fishing buddy, Óscar Menjivar, severing three of Rodriguez’s fingers in the process. Menjivar is known in this small community as a paid promoter of Pacific Rim’s mining project and as a close friend of local mayors that support the mining. Rodriguez, who was handcuffed to his hospital bed for two days, believes the authorities acted in favor of the company.
May 28, 2008
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): They tied me up, while Óscar was held for just three days, then he paid them off and they let him go free. Before the company showed up, Óscar and I were the best of friends. But since the company arrived, friendships have been destroyed. Families have been divided, siblings, cousins, all kinds. All the friendships around.
FREESTON: The president of the community’s board of directors at that time was Ramiro Rivera.
May 28, 2008
RAMIRO RIVERA, PRESIDENT, NUEVA TRINIDAD COMMUNITY BOARD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Just because Santos Rodriguez went to Valle de Siria in Honduras and described for us the situation there, he has received nothing but hate and death threats. Often we’re told that they’re going to [mimes slitting his throat]. We’re expecting it.
FREESTON: This past Friday morning, just over one year since our interview, Ramiro was shot eight times in the back while tending his cows. He is currently in stable condition, and doctors describe his survival as a miracle. On Monday, from his hospital bed, Ramiro identified Óscar Menjivar as the shooter, the same man who was spared charges after attacking Santos Rodriguez the year before. Impunity for acts of violence against activists has been the norm in El Salvador, and the murder of Marcelo Rivera is no exception. The attorney general’s office has charged foreign-owned gang members with the crime and has publicly labeled the murder as a case of common gang violence—this despite the evidence of torture, the clear trend of targeting of anti-mining leaders, and Marcelo’s own history of receiving death threats. Marcelo’s brother, Miguel, told me that the announcement represented not just an insult to Marcelo’s memory but a dangerous precedent for those continuing Marcelo’s work in opposing mining. Pacific Rim did not respond to repeated interview requests from The Real News, but it should be noted that there’s no evidence that the company either ordered or advocated the crimes in question. However, activists in Cabañas claim that Pacific Rim, like mining companies across the globe, shower money on influential community members, politicians, and local elites in return for support for the company’s project. This, they say, creates a system of incentives that generates violent conflicts of interest inside poor communities. Communities become divided between those who fear the environmental and public health effects of mining and those who are in the pay of the company. All this takes place under a legal system that does nothing to deter the resulting acts of violence. Activists in El Salvador refer to this whole phenomenon as social and institutional contamination. Paying people like Óscar Menjivar, they say, is not much of a strain on the company, since the price of a mere ounce of gold, currently around $950, is roughly equal to ten months of income for a rural Salvadoran worker. Only 17 years ago, El Salvador emerged from a civil war that claimed over 75,000 lives. At the end of that war, a UN truth commission found that right-wing death squads and government forces, largely trained and funded by the US, were responsible for 85 percent of the humans rights abuses. The Government responded five days later by passing a general amnesty law for all crimes committed during the war. The majority of the crimes in question, including rapes, massacres, and targeted disappearances, were committed on civilians, making efforts at community organization almost impossible. Many in El Salvador believe it is precisely this culture of impunity for the powerful sectors, exemplified in the general amnesty law, which permits the violence and fear that organizers continue to live with today.
FRANCISCO PIÑEDA, ENVIRONMENTAL COMMITTEE OF CABAÑAS: They weren’t just looking to kill Marcelo. They sought to strike fear into the whole population. Now if you pass by at 9 p.m., everyone has their doors locked. Everyone is worried, as if we were returning to the 1980s.
FREESTON: Meanwhile in Honduras the so-called San José Accords that are being promoted as a resolution to the current crisis include a general amnesty for crimes committed by the military and police during the coup. This idea is a nonstarter for many in the region who view impunity as a root cause of political violence, not a solution to it. And the current struggles against unpunished human rights abuses in Honduras and El Salvador demonstrate this principle applies at both the national and the community level.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.