Blog Entry

Global Allies Call for Charges to be Dropped Against 5 Salvadoran Water Defenders

Val Croft

Communications Lead

It’s been one year since five water defenders were arrested in El Salvador and communities in Canada, the United States and El Salvador are taking action to urge the Attorney General to drop the charges.

Known colloquially as the “Santa Marta 5,” Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco, and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega played key roles in the movement to protect El Salvador’s water from the threat of mining, helping to secure a national ban in 2017. They were arrested a year ago on charges related to an alleged crime which took place more than 30 years ago, when they were FMLN combatants during El Salvador’s civil war.

Experts point to a lack of evidence to substantiate the charges and argue the arrests are politically motivated as President Nayib Bukele makes moves to reopen the country to mining. What’s more, a new report finds the charges themselves are in violation of El Salvador’s 1992 National Reconciliation Law.

After suffering significant health impacts during eight months of pre-trial detention, the five were released to house arrest in September 2023. They continue to face significant restrictions as they await trial, expected later this year.


Open Letter
On January 4, 2024, 185 academics and lawyers and 13 legal and related organizations from 21 countries published an open letter to the Attorney General of El Salvador, requesting that the case against the Santa Marta 5 be dropped and that the Attorney General respect and enforce the human rights of all Salvadorans. The letter highlights a lack of evidence in the case, a lack of due process, and raises concerns about the legality of the charges given the existence of the National Reconciliation Law. Further, the letter underscores, “The selective violation of the National Reconciliation Law to muzzle key leaders of the antimining movement while stifling any meaningful attempt to bring the largest perpetrators of human rights violations during the civil war—the Salvadoran military—to justice is a telling sign of the political motivations behind this case.”

On January 10, 2024, demonstrations were held in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Washington DC in front of the Salvadoran consulates and embassies to deliver the open letter. Participating organizations included the International Allies Against Mining in El Salvador, United Church of Canada, Institute for Policy Studies, CISPES, Public Service Alliance of Canada, CoDevelopment Canada, and MiningWatch Canada, among others.

Virtual Press Conference
On January 11, 2024, a virtual press conference was held to launch the “State of Deception” report, detailing findings from an international delegation that traveled to El Salvador in October 2023 to examine the charges against the Santa Marta 5 and the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. Delegates from the US and Canada held 19 meetings with leaders of civil society groups, human rights groups, lawyers, economists, a member of the legislature, and others in the country. The delegation found that, “with elections just a month out, the government of El Salvador has moved systematically in the direction of becoming a dictatorship — with the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of the Santa Marta Five only the tip of the iceberg.” The final report, “State of Deception: A fact-finding report on El Salvador’s detained water defenders, the potential return of environmentally destructive mining, and the state of human rights under the Bukele administration” is available in English and Spanish.

Another press conference will be held in El Salvador on January 12, 2024 to disseminate the report findings.

As the Santa Marta 5 continue to live under house arrest as they await trial, communities around the world are speaking out against their arbitrary arrest and calling for the charges to be dropped. Follow #SantaMartaNoEstáSola on social media for more.