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Update 2023/05/5 - Mining

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Santa Marta 5 Water Defenders detained in unknown condition in El Salvador, have they been disappeared by the state?
Interview with Pedro Cabezas, Coordinator of the Central American Alliance on Mining


The Santa Marta 5 are Antonio Pacheco, Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega, Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, and Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez

Arbitrary detention of the Santa Marta 5 Water Defenders in El Salvador

WT: Can you explain to our readers exactly what the Santa Marta 5 is about, and what is your role in this whole story?

Pedro Cabezas: I will start with my role. I am the Coordinator of the Central American Alliance on Mining, and I am also part of an international group called International Allies Against Mining in El Salvador which is a number of organizations that came together in 2008-2009 to support the anti-mining movement in El Salvador. 

It was important to support an anti-mining movement from an international perspective. First of all, many of these organizations have been working in El Salvador since the 80s, since the time of the civil war, having maintained relationships with social organizations in El Salvador. In the mid-2000s people began organizing around the mining industry. There was a plan by the government of the time to introduce a large-scale mining project. 

Many people were concerned, being El Salvador is the smallest country on the continent, having the highest density of population, having (next to) the lowest forest reserves after Haiti and more than 90% of the surface water not fit for human consumption. People felt that bringing in the mining industry would be a death blow for the country. We are concerned that El Salvador is becoming environmentally unsustainable for the population. There are many, many indicators that tell this is the case.

So there was a very strong national movement to prohibit mining. These organizations came together to support the people of El Salvador. In El Salvador, the fight was led by a coalition called the National Round Table Against Mining. That coalition was founded by one of the people that is detained today, his name is Antonio Pacheco. He comes from an organization called the Association for the Development of El Salvador, he and the other four people that are detained were strong anti-mining leaders from 2000 to 2017.

These come from a community called Santa Marta. Santa Marta and many surrounding communities have gold deposits and this is where a Canadian company called Pacific Rim had a project, called Eldorado. 

These people that are now detained really are anti-mining heroes in El Salvador. They are recognized nationally as people that led the movement, the people that sounded the alarms at the beginning of the struggle, and they started to talk about the potential damage that mining companies could have to the water supply of the country. 

We were lucky that in 2017 the government of El Salvador, and the different political parties and all these national institutions like the (Roman) Catholic Church, the University of El Salvador, there was a wide consensus of all these national institutions on the issue of mining. At the legislative assembly, a very rare mining prohibition was passed at the national level. People understood that mining is lethal for our country. It was very rare because there was a political consensus, all political parties from the left, from the right and center understood the problem. Even the Catholic Church, which normally doesn’t get involved in political details, became very vocal against the mining companies. They all came together to pass the legislation.

This was celebrated all around the world. Many news (outlets) around the world announced this rare prohibition, the first country to make a mining prohibition at the national level. For the last five years, we have been celebrating and also asking the government to implement the prohibition by taking steps to ensure its fulfillment.

One of the steps is to permanently close fifteen mining sites abandoned by mining companies in the country. (Another step) is negotiating a Treaty with Honduras and Guatemala to protect our borders from the mining industry. We need to do this because both Honduras and Guatemala have very strong mining programs, there are fifty mining (exploration permits/sites) in the borderlands that when developed, would spread mine contamination to El Salvador. Because of its geographic position, El Salvador is water dependent on these countries, a lot of the watersheds begin in Guatemala and Honduras's higher lands and feed El Salvador’s rivers. Contaminants from mining exploitation will actually drain down to the rivers of El Salvador. 

WT: The President has begun to set aside human rights conditions, and set aside judicial due process, we understand these five Santa Marta heroes were transferred from San Salvador jail somewhere else, is this correct? This madness, this throwing people in jail without due process all began because of a Bitcoin gamble? Is this real?

Cabezas: In 2019 the current government of El Salvador was elected under very difficult conditions economically. First of all, Central America was going on an economic downslide, then the Covid-19 pandemic forced countries in the region to slow down their economies. At the same time, there was a lot of pressure on governments to raise funds to maintain their economies, but the only thing we have available is our natural resources. El Salvador being such a small country really does not have a lot of natural resources, but we do have mining in the northern region.

The government began to take steps to try to make the economy more dynamic. One of the steps was to introduce Bitcoin, but the experiment really failed. The government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in purchasing Bitcoin at a price of over 50 thousand dollars. The investment has since lost almost half its value.

The government spent millions of dollars developing an app that people would download with an incentive of $30 dollars to invest in Bitcoin. What people did is download the app for $30 and never used it again. They also introduced a network of automated tellers where you could exchange Bitcoin for dollars. The ATMs were never used. So the government has made all these big investments to introduce Bitcoin, but the people have not bought into it. It is difficult to find a place where you can use Bitcoin as a currency.

WT: The government has lost a ton of money on Bitcoin, so now the government is under extreme pressure to generate more revenue from other sources.

Cabezas: Exactly. Not only that, but the economy is not really growing. There is a projection that the Salvadorian economy will be the slowest growing of all the Central American economies this year. What the government is doing is getting into debt, a lot of loans. Before this government took office, El Salvadorian foreign debt was about 60% of the GDP. Now it has gone up to almost 100% of GDP because the government has gone further and further in debt just to keep itself afloat.

The US has become critical of this government and the government has retaliated against the United States, so the US is not providing foreign aid anymore. The European Union used to be another source of foreign aid now has limited aid. The government is getting further and further into debt because they are not getting bilateral aid from these governments anymore. 

As a result, the El Salvador government is desperate to open sectors that may generate foreign investment and the mining sector is one of these potential sources.

Since 2021, we have seen signs that the government taking steps to create conditions to reopen the mining sector and reverse the mining ban. For instance, they became part of the Intergovernmental Forum on Sustainable Mining and Minerals. This is an NGO based in Ottawa, funded by the Canadian government and it works with governments around the world to promote best practices in the mining sector. We are wondering, why is El Salvador joining this forum if we have a prohibition on mining in the country.

That same year the government also passed legislation to create a secretariat of Mining, Energy and Hydrocarbons. Again, why do you want an office that includes the mining sector when we have a mining prohibition in the country?

Like these, we have been seeing a lot of signs that the mining sector might be open. The latest one we have heard of is that the El Salvadorian government is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with China. The negotiations are secret. In the last three years, a lot of what the government does is not public information anymore. There is a practice that this government has, that every time they are doing something they don’t want the public to hear about they pass a decree that the information on that specific subject is secret for the next seven years. So we don’t know what’s going on with the free trade agreement with China.

What government insiders are telling us is that the mining sector is part of the negotiations along with sugar production. Those are the two things that we can provide to China, sugar cane and metals. That is another concern. 

Then there are other signs, for instance, we have been monitoring Oceana Gold. This is the company that had the main project in El Salvador back in 2009. First, it was Pacific Rim, then Pacific Rim was acquired by Oceana Gold. (Pacific Rim) sued El Salvador, we won, they had to leave the country and then Pacific Rim disappeared from the corporate structure of Oceana Gold.

In 2022 Pacific Rim appeared again in the structure of Oceana Gold with the same (group), Pacific Rim Canada, Pacific Rim Nevada and Pacific Rim Cayman. There are two companies based in El Salvador that are part of that corporate structure including a company called Eldorado Explorations. So why is Oceana Gold showing up again with the same corporate structure they had before the (mining) prohibition in the country?

WT: What do you think of all of this? As this breaks out, this bitcoin madness, the idea that PacRim is back, that the government for the last year is accused, I believe, of torture, of illegal incarcerations, where do you go from here? What do you need to see happen?

Cabezas: What we think first of all is that the government is creating the conditions to revert the mining prohibitions and open the mining sector again. 

The practice of government with incarceration we believe is kind of like a cookie-cutter practice of a dictatorship. Like other dictatorships in the region, they have the excuse, because of high levels of crime, they have created this plan to tackle gangs. Over 90% of the population supports hardline policies against gangs. The problem with this and what people are not considering is that we are losing our democratic and human rights in the process.

For over one year under the current policy, civil rights and liberties have been suspended and anybody -- anybody -- regardless of who you are, can be detained by the police and spend 6 months in jail without having an audience with a judge. That is problematic. 

According to the government, there are over 65,000 people that have been detained, the government calls them all gang members. Less than 20% of those have had their due process applied, many of those people are still in jail, they don’t know which charges they are being detained for and they haven’t had a chance to talk to a lawyer, most haven’t seen a judge in over 6 months. 

Human rights organizations have documented over 5500 complaints from families, complaints about the government and asking where their loved ones are detained. Technically, these are disappeared. If your family doesn’t know where you are, the government is not telling where you are, and no human rights organization knows where you are, you have been disappeared by the state. 

In this context as well, a lot of political opposition has been detained on charges of corruption. You cannot say there wasn’t corruption in previous governments, and we are okay with the government pursuing corruption, but in a democratic government, you have to allow people access to a lawyer, access to due process, the right to defend yourself and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

What we have here is the opposite. You are presumed guilty until you are given the chance to possibly prove yourself innocent.

It is under these circumstances, that our five community members of Santa Marta have been taken. The Attorney General said that there will not be an exception applied to these detentions. They are being detained for a charge that supposedly took place back in the 80s during the time of the civil war in El Salvador. The Attorney General has not provided any proof that this crime happened. 

Also, they have applied very extreme conditions to (the Santa Marta 5). There are many investigations that are happening in the context of the civil war, mostly investigations of war crimes against the military. In every investigation that has been conducted by the government, those charged have been allowed to pursue their charges at home in liberty, they have been afforded the right to defend themselves and the information has been public. This information, this type of case is of public interest so we should know what is going on in the proceedings.

 In the case of the Santa Marta 5, every expert will tell you that these charges do not classify as war crimes, yet their (proceedings) are conducted behind closed doors, so we cannot speak about the details it in public. The proceedings are secret. We are afraid that because these are older people- the average being 62, 63 years old - we are concerned they are not getting proper medical attention, that they are languishing in jail because of the conditions that they have. 

Nobody has seen them. The lawyer has not seen them for the last two months when they were moved from a preliminary detention center to a more permanent detention center. The families are not allowed to see them and doctors are not allowed to see them. Even the International Red Cross committee, we asked them to go see them. (Red Cross) hasn’t been able to verify that their health is fine and that they are fine.

Even the national human rights office, again, we have gone with the families and made a request that the human rights office go to simply verify health and even these have not been allowed to visit. 

We are concerned, because the conditions are inhumane, and concerned because of the fragility of their health.

WT: We are concerned also, we will follow up with the Canadian embassy in El Salvador.

Cabezas: Just to let you know, there are organizations in Canada that have already approached the Canadian ambassador and we have approached a number of embassies here. Everybody has said they are not interested in getting involved in the internal affairs here in El Salvador. They are not doing anything, not making any public statements. They are concerned the government may break relations with them, so they are shy about doing anything about it. More pressure on the ambassador would be great.




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