Nine Prominent International Organizations Call on Salvadoran Attorney General to Drop All Charges against Five Water Defenders

Institute for Policy Studies

One year after their arrest on politically motivated charges, five prominent Salvadoran water defenders are scheduled to stand trial starting on April 3.

Washington, D.C. – In the wake of the 44th anniversary of the assassination of Bishop Óscar Romero in El Salvador, nine international organizations, including the Central American Alliance on Mining (ACAFREMIN), the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), MiningWatch Canada, Pax Christi International, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the SHARE Foundation, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, the United Church of Canada, and the Washington Ethical Society, issued a statement to call attention to the upcoming trial on April 3 against five prominent water defenders and community leaders from Santa Marta, El Salvador, who are currently facing politically motivated charges.

The nine organizations call upon the Salvadoran Attorney General to drop all charges against the five prominent water defenders and community leaders in northern El Salvador arrested on January 11, 2023: Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco, and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega. The case has gained international scrutiny amid allegations that the charges are politically motivated.

These individuals were among leaders of the historic and successful campaign that convinced the Salvadoran legislature to unanimously pass in 2017 a law that prohibits metals mining, to save the nation’s rivers.”In the spirit of Saint Óscar Romero, these community leaders have embodied the legacy of the preferential option for the poor in their fight for justice and for the well-being of their communities,” said John Cavanagh, Senior Advisor at the Institute for Policy Studies. “Now, we’re calling for justice for the Santa Marta Five as they face politically motivated charges and attempts to silence their movement.”

On the one-year anniversary of the water defenders’ arrest on January 11, 2023, the Central American Alliance on Mining (ACAFREMIN), the Institute for Policy Studies, MiningWatch Canada, Pax Christi International, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the SHARE Foundation, The United Church of Canada, and the Washington Ethical Society co-released a new fact-finding report on the “State of Deception/ Estado de Decepción” in El Salvador. The report carefully examines the weak, politicized case against the five prominent water defenders. The report authors call on the government to drop all the charges against these community leaders and dismiss the case against them, and call on other nations including Canada, Mexico and the United States to hold the Salvadoran government accountable for these wrongful arrests and for human rights violations.

In the wake of the February 4 elections in El Salvador, social organizations fear the government will ramp up its campaign to persecute community-led environmental resistance, and to undo critical hard-won environmental protections in the country. The five arrested water defenders, known as the “Santa Marta Five,” led a successful national campaign to ban environmentally destructive mining in El Salvador that culminated in 2017 with a historic national law that prohibits mining.

The water defenders’ arrest and trial signals both a crackdown on civil society under the increasingly authoritarian president Bukele and a signal that he may seek to resume metal mining operations — in part to offset costs incurred by his own disastrous economic policies.

On February 15, 245 international organizations from 31 countries delivered a petition in English and Spanish calling on the Salvadoran Attorney General to drop the politically-motivated charges against the five prominent Water Defenders arrested on January 11, 2023.


“The United Church of Canada is part of a global movement calling for the charges against the Santa Marta 5 to be dropped,” said Christie Neufeldt, Global Partnerships Coordinator – Latin America & Caribbean at The United Church of Canada. “The five leaders represent a community that works to protect the right to water, health, and a sustainable economic future not only for Santa Marta, but also for El Salvador. We pledge to continue to press for the charges to be dropped and to accompany their work to protect the ban on metals mining.”

“Water is a human right, and the Santa Marta 5 water defenders have the right to defend it,” said Jose Artiga, Executive Director of the SHARE Foundation.

“The Santa Marta 5 water defenders were part of an emblematic fight to protect their land and waters from Canadian gold mining and ban metal mining,” said Viviana Herrera, Latin America Program Coordinator at MiningWatch Canada. “However, as in other countries in the region, their environmental struggle has come at an immense cost for them and their communities. As MiningWatch Canada, we continue to join the international call for the charges against the Santa Marta 5 water defenders to be dropped.”

“We recognize the historic and heroic struggle of the community of Santa Marta to build a better future for the most marginalized populations, one where universal rights are guaranteed, including to health and water for all,” said Chris Aylward, National President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

“The Washington Ethical Society has a long history with the communities of El Rodeo and Santa Marta. We partnered with ADES in an eight-year process to build a potable water system for the community,” said Ross Wells, co-chair of the Washington Ethical Society’s sister community program in El Salvador. “Antonio Pacheco, Director of ADES and one of the arrested Water Defenders, was instrumental in making this project possible. WES members met with him every year for 12 years.  Like the other members of the Santa Marta Five, Antonio was arrested and jailed for political reasons. These men fought hard to protect the waters of El Salvador from the ravages of metallic mining, which they helped ban in 2017. To help prop up an imploding economy, the current regime is making moves to reintroduce mining against the will of the people.”

“Under the State of Exception, thousands of Salvadorans have been arbitrarily detained without due process,” continued Wells. “WES stands with the people of Santa Marta, in working for a just El Salvador, where human rights and the rule of law are respected. We pledge to continue fighting with others in the international community to protect the existing law against mining and drop the baseless charges against the Santa Marta Five.”

Press contacts:

  • John Cavanagh, Institute for Policy Studies: [email protected], +1 (202) 297-4823
  • Pedro Cabezas, Central American Alliance against Mining (ACAFREMIN) and International Allies Against Mining in El Salvador: [email protected], +503-7498-4423
  • Olivia Alperstein, Institute for Policy Studies: [email protected], +1 (202) 704-9011