International Community Condemns April 10 Ruling in El Salvador’s Court on the Santa Marta Five Water Defenders

Institute for Policy Studies

In a preliminary court hearing, the presiding Judge upheld politically-motivated charges of murder and illicit association and dismissed a third charge of kidnapping against the prominent anti-mining movement leaders.

San Salvador – On Wednesday, April 10, in San Salvador, in a preliminary court hearing to determine whether five prominent Water Defenders from the community of Santa Marta should stand trial for an alleged murder that took place over 34 years ago during the Salvadoran civil war, the presiding Judge upheld charges of murder and illicit association against the five water defenders and dismissed a third charge of kidnapping.

Since the arrest of the five in January 2023, supporters of the water defenders have led a national and international campaign to demand their charges to be dropped and to denounce that their detention has political motivations given the lack of evidence presented by the Salvadoran Attorney General’s office. These campaigns have also condemned the lack of legal rights and due process under the current “state of exception” imposed by President Nayib Bukele to combat gangs, and have warned about the intention of the Salvadoran government to reverse the prohibition on metal mining for which the Water Defenders gained international notoriety in 2017.

The Institute for Policy Studies joins the Central American Alliance on Mining (ACAFREMIN), MiningWatch Canada, SHARE Foundation, the United Church of Canada, and the Washington Ethical Society, in condemning the April 10 ruling, calling once again for dismissal of all the politically motivated charges against the Santa Marta 5: 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.

Today’s ruling “confirms our theory that there are political motivations behind this case, and caught between pressure from the Attorney General and the demand for justice from national and international organizations, the judge from the lower court of Sensuntepeque has had no other choice than to allow the case to proceed to the trial,” said Alfredo Leiva, member of the board of directors of The Economic and Social Development Association of Santa Marta (ADES). “We will appeal this decision immediately to the Appeals Chamber and advocate for the ruling of this judge to be overthrown.”

As background: an in-depth fact finding report on the detention of the Santa Marta Water Defenders, published by nine international organizations in January, concluded that:

  • Among the over 70,000 people that Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has incarcerated under abysmal conditions and the use of torture are tens of thousands of innocent people, including five water defenders and numerous labor leaders. No evidence has been presented by the government to back the arrest of the five water defenders, and charges against them should be dropped under a 1992 amnesty.
  • There is compelling evidence that President Bukele desires to violate a unanimous 2017 vote in the Salvadoran legislature to prohibit mining, a move that would endanger the country’s water supply and violate the public will.
  • President Bukele has taken a series of steps to reduce the independence of the judiciary, to violate basic human rights, and to suspend civil liberties and the rule of law in the name of protecting the population from the violence caused by gangs.

Last month, members of the Santa Marta community accompanied by the Human Rights Institute of the University of Central America, denounced the double standard of the Attorney General’s office for prosecuting a case that has clear political motivations against recognized community leaders that for decades have contributed to the economic and social development of Santa Marta, while neglecting to prosecute well documented war massacres where hundreds of men, women and children from the Santa Marta community were killed by the Salvadoran army.

“It is outrageous that the judge is allowing this trial to go forward despite the lack of any evidence of a crime. The international community stands strong with the five leaders of the successful fight against mining, and we will join Salvadoran water defenders to continue to fight with them for justice in this case,” said John Cavanagh, Senior Advisor at the Institute for Policy Studies.

“There is a well-documented pattern of criminalization across the Americas, where environmental defenders are slapped with unfounded charges in an effort to silence their opposition to mining and prevent their life-affirming work protecting water for future generations. We firmly denounce today’s Santa Marta case ruling,” said Viviana Herrera, Latin America Program Coordinator at MiningWatch Canada. “All five water defenders played pivotal roles securing an historic ban on metal mining in El Salvador, and this ruling is a clear threat to the rights of all Salvadorans who are protecting their water and environment. We express our heartfelt sorrow with the five water defenders and their families and will continue to call for the charges to be dropped until they are free.”

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
  • Viviana Herrera, MiningWatch Canada: [email protected], +1 (438) 993-1264