251 Organizations from 29 countries call on Salvadoran government to drop the charges against leading Water Defenders arrested on January 11


January 20, 2023

  • John Cavanagh, Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), co-author (with Robin Broad) of The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed, (202) 297-4823, johnc@ips-dc.org
  • Pedro Cabezas, Central American Alliance on Mining (ACAFREMIN), (503) 7498-4423, stopesmining@gmail.com
  • Alexis Stoumbelis, Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), (202) 521-2510 ext. 205, alexis@cispes.org

251 Organizations from 29 countries call on Salvadoran government to drop the charges against leading Water Defenders arrested on January 11

Washington, D.C. and San Salvador – On January 20, 251 organizations from 29 countries released the following statement:

On January 11, at the order of the Salvadoran Attorney General, police arrested five prominent Water Defenders in northern El Salvador: Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco, and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega.

These individuals were among leaders of 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. In 2009, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) honored the coalition that several of the five helped build, the National Roundtable on Metals Mining, with IPS’s Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award.

Today, thanks in part to its ill-advised embrace of Bitcoin, the Salvadoran government is under enormous pressure to find new revenues. The government is reportedly considering overturning the mining ban, and allowing environmentally-destructive mining. Environmental and human rights organizations in El Salvador have stated that the arrests are politically motivated as they seek to silence these Water Defenders and to demobilize community opposition at this critical moment.

The five are accused by El Salvador’s Attorney General of an alleged murder over 30 years ago during the brutal civil war in El Salvador that claimed the lives of 75,000. The victims of crimes from that war, which saw a U.S.-backed dictatorship and right-wing death squads kill tens of thousands, have, for decades, been calling for justice. The current government, however, has chosen to actively uphold decades of impunity. Rather than investigate or prosecute those responsible for the dozens of cases of human rights violations and crimes against humanity that members of the Salvadoran military committed against the Santa Marta community (including the murders of the Lempa River massacre in 1980, where 30 people were assassinated and 189 were disappeared), the government is now re-victimizing the community by targeting their leaders, who have been outspoken against the policies of the current government. This further raises questions about whether the Attorney General’s true motivation is to attempt to silence these Water Defenders, especially in light of the current administration’s crusade to criminalize, persecute and demobilize its political opponents. 

The Salvadoran movement to ban mining and the Water Defenders who made it possible have been an inspiration to communities and civil society across the globe. Over the years, hundreds of groups around the world worked with the Salvadoran Water Defenders in the successful campaign to save the country’s rivers from toxic gold mining. 

The undersigned organizations join in demanding that the Salvadoran government drop the charges against the five Water Defenders and otherwise release them from prison to await their trial.

These groups are based in the following 29 countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Ireland, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand Aotearoa, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States.

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