The Santa Marta 5

El Salvador's government has locked up 5 community organizers and environmental activists from the rural community of Santa Marta, alleging their participation in a decades old crime during El Salvador's civil war.   But the circumstances surrounding the case suggest to many that the real motivation for their detention is to weaken resistance to metallic mining in the country and make possible the lifting of a mining prohibition.

The actions of the country's Attorney General, Rodolfo Delgado, illustrate how the State of Exception with its suspension of judicial guarantees of due process is being used, not just to fight gangs, but to intimidate human rights defenders, including environmental activists. His actions show that the hard won victory to ban extractive metallic mining in the country may be under threat. 

Nina Lakhani in the Guardian reported the arrests of the five community leaders: 

Five prominent environmental defenders who played a crucial role in securing a historic mining ban in El Salvador have been detained accused of civil war era and gang-related crimes, in what rights groups fear is a ruse to restart mining.

Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega were detained on Wednesday in Cabañas in northern El Salvador, accused of killing an alleged army informant more than 33 years ago during the brutal civil war that claimed 75,000 lives....The detained men are renowned community organizers and water protectors, who helped lead the historic and successful campaign that convinced the Salvadoran legislature to unanimously pass a ban on metals mining in 2017 to save that nation’s rivers.

Rodolfo Delgado is the Bukele ally who was inserted into office when legislators of Nuevas Ideas deposed the prior Attorney General on their first day in power. Delgado used Twitter to announce the captures of the Santa Marta 5:

In August 1989, María Inés Alvarenga was taken from her home in the Santa Marta Canton, Cabañas, by FMLN guerrillas. They accused her of collaborating with the army, for which she was tortured and executed.

In coordination with @PNCSV , we have managed to capture 6 guerrilla "ex-comandantes", accused of directly participating in the murder of María Inés. After decades, we are achieving true JUSTICE. We are not going to stop.

The charges also included "illicit associations" -- a charge being used extensively against persons alleged to be associated with gangs under the current State of Exception in El Salvador.

Hector Silva Avalos, writing in Infobae, says that the government's case so far is based on a witness whose identity is protected and who admitted he does not have first hand knowledge of the crime:

The evidence that the prosecution has presented, to which Infobae has had access, is weak: the government's case is based on the testimony of a protected witness, who is only named as "Soriano" in court documents, who, when asked by the defense admitted that he was never present at the kidnapping and murder of the woman for which prosecutors accuse environmentalists. He is only an hearsay witness, as such is known in judicial jargon, someone who did not witness the alleged facts. Another of the witnesses, one of the victim's daughters, only could place three of the defendants.

It is a case in which no body of the victim has ever been found.  The prosecution also persuaded the judge on the case to declare the case to be "bajo reserva" or "under seal" -- meaning the proceedings and the evidence will not be open to the public.

The case is also highly unusual for this Attorney General, who has shown zero interest in pushing forward much higher profile cases such as the massacre of a thousand children, women and the elderly at El Mozote, a case where there are eyewitnesses, mountains of proof, and a dictate from the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights that the case be prosecuted.   Yet suddenly, the Attorney General decides to promote the present case against defendants who just happen to be local activists who stand in the way of anyone reversing the mining ban.

The prosecution of the Santa Marta 5 has generated an international outcry, with supporters of the environmental activism of the defendants demanding the government release them, in a statement signed by 251 organizations from 29 different countries.

Silva Avalos also points to steps that the Bukele government and its allies have taken which suggest that the metallic mining ban is in peril:

The president has not publicly supported mining, but Congress, which he controls, has already indicated that it will review the 2017 ban. There are also other indications that point to the return of metallic mining; one of them is the allocation of funds to review the mining law.

The Bukele government included, in the budget for 2023, an item of $4.5 million to “review and update” the legislation that prohibited metal mining. The spending plan that the Treasury delivered to Congress at the end of 2022 included that amount to, among other things, carry out a "... review and update of the current legal regulations... as well as the review and update of mining and its regulations," according to a report by La Prensa Gráfica.

The Bukele government had already taken other steps on the path that leads to the recovery of metal mining in the country. On October 26, 2021, Congress, already under the political control of the president, approved the Law for the Creation of the General Directorate of Energy, Hydrocarbons and Mines , which, among other things, states that obtaining mining resources is a " duty of the State.”

The signs that the mining ban might be reversed had already alarmed environmental defenders in El Salvador before the arrests of the Santa Marta 5.  And they fear that these arrests are intended to intimidate the grass roots movement that achieved a prohibition on gold mining in the country.  Andres McKinley, an environmentalist living in El Salvador and deeply involved in protecting its water resources from mining, stated:

All those captured have a long history of fighting for sustainable development in Cabañas, in defense of water and against metal mining, making it clear that the real motivation of the Government is to weaken mining resistance in the area.

From El Salvador Criminalizes Water Protectors in the Progressive:

“The anti-mining movement in El Salvador has been very strong, an example for the region,” says Leonor Arteaga, executive director of the Due Process of Law Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. 

“[The Bukele government] wants to dismantle the leadership in the communities, and they want to dismantle the [anti]-mining movement,” Arteaga tells The Progressive. “The Bukele administration wants to get rid of all citizen resistance, of any voice that opposes its megaprojects.”

Others involved in mining resistance in El Salvador expressed their concerns over the ongoing detention of the activists during the State of Exception.  Some of their concerns were expressed in Arbitrary Arrests of Water Defenders in El Salvador Puts at Risk Peace Accord by Mining Watch Canada:

For Vidalina Morales, a member of the ADES Board of Directors, these arrests represent a return of political persecution in an effort to demobilize strong community opposition to mining at this critical moment. "Their crime is fighting for better living conditions and challenging corporate power, such as transnational mining companies," she says. The Santa Marta 5 have been transferred to a pre-trial detention centre where, like thousands of other prisoners in the country, they are at risk of being hurt or killed before making it to trial. "Since they were moved over a month ago, we know absolutely nothing about the current state of the men's health," says Morales. "We are deeply concerned."

"Statements made by the public prosecutor in the days following the arrests demonstrate a complete lack of evidence," says Luis Parada, an international lawyer who represented El Salvador when it was hit with a multi-million-dollar international arbitration lawsuit by the Canadian mining company Pacific Rim. Parada, who has been following the Santa Marta 5 case closely, says this case is characterized by a lack of information and due process and is shrouded in secrecy.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders expressed "We fear that the case is an attempt to intimidate those who seek to defend the environment in the country, and especially those who defend human rights from the negative impacts of mining" in a March 8 letter to the government of El Salvador.  The government replied on May 6 with a defense of its actions, asserting that the case was a war crime which deserved to be prosecuted, that it had ample proof, that legal norms were being followed, and that the defendants were being treated appropriately while being held in prison.

The detained activists have sought to be released pending their trial on the old charges. The trial court judge refused their petition, and on May 10, an appellate court also refused to let them out of prison while they await trial.  This treatment stands again in stark contrast to the retired military officers being tried for the massacre at El Mozote.  Those military men continue to live in retirement with their families, despite being defendants in a trial for ordering the massacre of almost a thousand innocent civilians.

The community supporting the activists continues to feel itself under threat.  The son of one community environmental activist was arbitrarily detained by security forces, although later released.  Most recently, ADES has denounced the new presence of military patrols and unknown vehicles in the vicinity of their community, which, in the context of the State of Exception, is causing fear of even more new arbitrary detentions.

The case of the Santa Marta 5 shows that the Bukele regime is willing to use its total control of the security forces, the criminal justice system and the prisons to go after more opponents than just gang members. Bukele's government is fond of a virtual coin, the crypto currency Bitcoin, but the pull of the hard metal gold found under the hills and along the rivers of rural El Salvador is strong.  Anyone who wants to reverse El Salvador's metallic mining ban knows they must first soften up the powerful organized resistance of water defenders.   The prosecution of the Santa Marta 5 may be the first step in such a strategy.