Arbitrary Arrests of Water Defenders in El Salvador Puts at Risk Peace Accord

MiningWatch Canada — The United Church of Canada

OTTAWA – It’s been over three months since the arbitrary arrest of five water defenders from Santa Marta in El Salvador and Canadian and international organizations are marking the moment as part of an International Week of Action to urgently call for their release. 

In a statement released today, 38 Canadian organizations warn that the water defenders’ ongoing detention is a direct violation of El Salvador’s 1992 Peace Accord and National Reconciliation Law, and call on the government of Canada – which fully supported the agreement– to speak out. By continuing to detain and prosecute the five, the Salvadoran government risks violating an agreement that ended one of Central America’s bloodiest civil wars, establishing a harmful precedent for international peace.

Known colloquially as the “Santa Marta 5,” Antonio Pacheco, Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega, Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, and Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez have spent years advocating for the protection of water and played key roles in El Salvador’s historic 2017 decision to ban metals mining. The five, who are members of the Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES) of Santa Marta, were arrested on January 11 on trumped-up charges for an alleged crime dating back to El Salvador’s internal armed conflict when they were FMLN combatants, over 30 years ago. 

The Americas Policy Group, MiningWatch Canada, and The United Church of Canada are among signatories to the open letter published today expressing serious concerns the arrests are politically motivated, as recent reports indicate El Salvador may hope to resume mining activities in the small, water-scarce Central American country.

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. 

“There is a clear pattern of criminalizing water defenders and others who speak out against mining throughout the region,” says Viviana Herrera, MiningWatch Canada’s Latin America Program Coordinator. “We echo the concerns of our Salvadoran partners that these arrests are politically motivated as mining companies, many of whom are Canadian, eye the country for mining.”

Christie Neufeldt of The United Church of Canada noted that Canadian organizations are participating in an International Week of Action led by the International Allies against Mining in El Salvador such as a recently held webinar and other actions that “urge the Canadian government to fulfill its international human rights obligations, advocate for the continued implementation of the Peace Accord, and use all of the tools at its disposal to secure their release.” 

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Media contacts:

  • Viviana Herrera, Latin America Program Coordinator, MiningWatch Canada, [email protected], 438-993-1264
  • Christie Neufeldt , The United Church of Canada, [email protected], 416-213-7680 ext. 4078
  • Laura Avalos, APG Mesoamerica convener, [email protected], 819-319-0904
  • Luis Parada, international lawyer that represented El Salvador in the successful 2016 arbitration case at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), [email protected] 
  • Pedro Cabezas, Central American Alliance against Mining (ACAFREMIN) and International Allies Against Mining in El Salvador, [email protected], +503-7498-4423
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