El Salvador arrests anti-mining activists as transnational companies eye investment
This case will be central to the future of the country’s political and ecological crises
On January 11, the Salvadoran government under President Nayib Bukele ordered the arrest of five prominent anti-mining activists and water defenders from the north of the country: Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco, and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega. The five are accused of committing a murder during the country’s 12-year civil war (1980-1992) and of “illicit associations.”
The Central American Alliance on Mining rejects the accusation, stating that the Salvadoran government’s actions “do not seem like a genuine judicial action, rather, it appears to be an act of persecution and political revenge in line with the current governments’ strategies aimed at undermining community and civil society organizations.” The organization also called for the legal proceedings to be transparent and to be conducted “under normal legal processes” rather than under the provisions of the ongoing state of emergency, which has seen the Bukele government imprison two percent of El Salvador’s entire adult population.
The background of the five arrested individuals raises questions about the true motives behind their arrest. They were among the social leaders and organizers who helped launch the campaign to persuade the Salvadoran legislature to ban metal mining—a campaign that made history when the lawmakers unanimously declared El Salvador a “mining-free territory” in March 2017.
One must also take into account the country’s current economic context. According to a statement by the Institute of Policy Studies, the Bukele administration is in a difficult economic position “thanks in part to its ill-advised embrace of Bitcoin.” The Salvadoran government may have invested up to $120 million in cryptocurrency prior to its devaluation and is under enormous pressure to find new revenues. As a result, Bukele is reportedly considering overturning the ban and allowing environmentally destructive mining.
Bukele’s government is already making moves toward restarting the industry, such as joining the Canadian government-funded Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, which claims to promote “sustainable” mining practices around the world, and passing a law to create the new Directorate of Hydrocarbons, Energy and Mines.
It is more than a little suspect that the five individuals arrested on January 11 also happen to be leaders who were at the forefront of the popular and successful campaign to ban mining. But social organizations around the world have taken notice. On January 20, 251 organizations from 29 countries across the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia signed a statement calling on the Salvadoran government to drop the charges against the five water defenders or, at the very least, release them from prison to await their trial.
“Canadian mining companies have a history of conflict in our country,” said Vidalina Morales, President of the Santa Marta Association for the Economic Development of El Salvador. She explained that in 2006, Canada’s Au Martinique Silver “was forced to close operations in San Jose las Flores because they failed to inform local residents about their operations. When employees of the company began to… enter private lots to look for gold without the consent of property owners, community members organized to have them banned from their territory.”
The mining prohibition was particularly significant for El Salvador because of the tremendous strain the extractive industry has placed on the country’s water supplies. In 2013, unsustainable agriculture practices and underdeveloped sewage facilities had polluted 90 percent of El Salvador’s surface water, while Oxfam warned that the “development of large-scale metallic mining would further contribute to the deficiency of fresh water due to its release of acid mine drainage.”
“Due to the mining ban,” said Miguel Rivera, Manager of the Municipality of San Isidro Cabañas, “there are no mining companies currently operating in El Salvador. During the 2002–2017 period there was investment from Canada/Australia (Pacific Rim Mining, OceanaGold and Aura Minerals), the United States (Commerce Group), and England (Condor Gold), but most of the mining investment was withdrawn before the mining prohibition, due to widespread opposition.”
Prior to the ban, Pacific Rim (which was later acquired by OceanaGold) reportedly aimed to influence local and national opinion in order to secure mining rights from the central government. Vidalina Morales explained that in the northern Cabañas department, Pacific Rim was “able to set up their operations and forge alliances with local municipalities, the police and judicial structures, schools and even some churches [and] as such it was difficult to voice our concerns because [the company] had already gained their support.”
When local opposition strengthened to the point that the Ministry of the Environment denied Pacific Rim an exploitation license, Morales reported that “violence began,” including “the criminalization [of] 12 compañeros who were charged with destruction of property, intimidation campaigns against organizations and individuals that were opposed to mining, and finally the murder of four anti-mining activists, including an unborn child.”
Pacific Rim then sued the Salvadoran government for denying them the license, taking the state to the World Bank’s International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) and demanding $77 million in compensation. When Pacific Rim was acquired by OceanaGold, the new company increased the amount to $250 million. In October 2016, however, the ICSID dismissed the case and ordered OceanaGold to pay El Salvador $8 million in legal costs. The case’s dismissal energized the anti-mining movement and played a role (alongside the urging of the Catholic Church) in the passing of the mining ban in 2017.
Following the mining ban’s approval, the National Roundtable Against Mining focused their energies on demanding that different government institutions implement regulations to broaden the defense of El Salvador’s ecological integrity. These demands included:
- the proper closure of fifteen abandoned mining sites that continue to pose safety risks to the population by contaminating local watersheds;
- the implementation of alternative economic development programs to help artisanal miners move toward more sustainable economic activities;
- an investigation into the assassination of four anti-mining activists in 2009;
- guarantees that the government would take steps to monitor potential contamination from over forty exploration sites along the Honduran and Guatemalan borders that may affect Salvadoran watersheds.
The Bukele government has not taken steps to implement any of these demands. On the contrary, it appears that Bukele is trying to reverse the important social, economic, and political gains that water defenders and anti-mining activists have earned. Luis Gonzales of the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining said:
Different from previous presidents, who have publicly said no to mining, President Nayib Bukele has never said no to mining. Beyond the public discourse, the government operates under a pro-mining logic: El Salvador joined the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, a law to create… the Directorate of Hydrocarbons, Energy and Mines was passed at the legislature, there are rumors that the current free trade negotiations involve mining, and there are testimonies in the communities that representatives of mining companies are visiting their territories. On the other hand, there is no interest on the government’s part to implement aspects of the mining prohibitions like environmental remediation and reparation for the victims of the mining conflicts.
At the same time, Bukele has stepped up the demonization of water defenders and anti-mining activists. As Omar Flores of the National Roundtable explained:
In general, Nayib Bukele utilizes a narrative of hate and stigma against human rights defenders, including environmental defenders, as they oppose his extractivist economic agenda. The use of hatred by the president is replicated by all the institutions of the state apparatus and has become the hegemonic narrative of all public officials… similarly there is an army of anonymous internet trolls who also disseminate the messages of the government to deepen hatred against environmental and human rights defenders.
While the Bukele government is demonizing environmental activists and moving toward increased collaboration with transnational mining institutions, community members in the mining region of Cabañas have reported appearances by unknown individuals offering to buy farmers’ land and provide funding for municipal social programs. One of the people who informed different social organizations about the arrival of these unknown individuals was Antonio Pacheco, who was one of the five arrested by Salvadoran police on January 11.
Additionally, two mayors from the Cabañas mining region have claimed that they met with the president of PROESA, the Exports and Investment Promotion Agency of El Salvador, who informed them that mining will soon be reintroduced, supposedly with technology that is not as harmful to the environment.
Another development that may indicate the impending return of mining relates to the ongoing free trade negotiations between the governments of El Salvador and China, with whom Bukele has sought to deepen relations. While the specific topics discussed in their talks are unconfirmed, there are rumours that mining is on the negotiating table.
While rumours of China’s interest in El Salvador’s minerals are unverified, there is evidence that Canada’s OceanaGold has maintained an interest in the country’s mining sector. Financial reports published in 2022 show that the company’s El Salvador-based subsidiaries—Bienstar and Dorado Exploraciones—remain registered and active. In fact, funding for Dorado Exploraciones has increased since 2017.
At the moment, Salvadorans are not only concerned with the possible return of Canadian mining companies to their own country. They are also deeply worried about the actions of Canada’s Bluestone Resources in neighbouring Guatemala. Bluestone’s open-pit Cerro Blanco mine—which 89 percent of locals recently opposed in a referendum that both Bluestone and Guatemala’s mining ministry rejected—has the potential to contaminate the Lempa River, which is the main source of water for two-thirds of El Salvador’s population.
In a statement signed by the mayors of Candelaria de la Frontera, Dulce Nombre de María, San Fernando, San Francisco Morazán, and Citalá, as well as numerous mayors from Guatemala and Honduras, locals voiced their opposition to the Cerro Blanco project and urged the national governments of all three states to safeguard the Lempa River.
The signatories also noted: “we exhort the government of El Salvador not to backtrack on the prohibition of metal mining in Salvadoran territory.”
The case against the five organizers arrested on January 11 is being heard by a specialized war crimes tribunal set up by Bukele himself, so there are concerns that the ruling may not be independent but rather dictated from above for political purposes. One of the ironies of the tribunal is that although it was set up to prosecute war crimes committed during the civil war, no military member has been prosecuted there. This is despite the fact that, according to the UN, 85 percent of the crimes committed during the war were committed by the military—a clear example of the Salvadoran state preventing justice for those victimized by the US-backed dictatorship and their paramilitary death squads in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Furthermore, the attorney-general has asked that the trial be conducted behind closed doors, which would mean that nobody except the lawyers and the accused individuals’ relatives will be aware of developments in the case. It would also mean that nobody will be able to issue public updates about the case.
The defence team has expressed its concerns that, regardless of jurisprudence, the attorney-general will utilize the legal system to jail the accused. In this vein, the attorney-general is asking that the water defenders be placed in preventative detention. If this is approved, the defence anticipates that they will be held in jail for at least one a half years before the trial concludes.
With the legal system effectively under Bukele’s control, and the government increasingly viewing transnational mining investment as the solution to its economic woes, the state narrative on the five arrested individuals becomes difficult to accept. In Central America, land and water defenders are often criminalized for their opposition to extractive companies, which frequently leads to intimidation, arrest, and assassination. In some cases, judicial officials have used legal mechanisms to keep activists imprisoned, as in the case of the Guapinol environmental defenders who resisted the pollution of local rivers by a mining company in Honduras.
National and international support actions for the arrested activists have already been organized. In essence, these protestors are voicing their disapproval for the Bukele government’s efforts to demonize and criminalize individuals opposed to extractive investment. This case—which is occurring at a time when it appears that the Salvadoran government is welcoming transnational mining companies for the first time since 2017—will be central to the future of the country’s overlapping political and ecological crises.
Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.
Pedro Cabezas is an environmental activist based in El Salvador with experience working in Canada, Cuba, and Central America.