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Environmental Human Rights: What is next for the Santa Marta 5 in El Salvador

Tuesday, September 12, 2023
4pm EDT

What is next for the 5 Water Defenders of Santa Marta case 

source: International Allies Against Mining in El Salvador

The Santa Marta and ADES Water Defenders under house arrest as the fight to have their charges dismissed continues

On August 23 the campaign to free the Santa Marta and ADES water defenders celebrated a small victory as the judge of the lower court of Sensuntepeque ordered house arrest for the 5 community leaders who had been languishing in jail since January 11, under the horrific conditions of the Salvadoran penitentiary system.  

After thirteen days of administrative delays, members of the Santa Marta community and ADES confirmed, during an August 5th press conference, that the community leaders are finally with their families and that they are generally in good spirits and happy to be home. Denis Muñoz, lead defense lawyer, also informed that the Attorney General´s office has not appealed the decision of the lower court. Had that been the case, their release could have been delayed for at least another month pending a desicion by the court of appeals.     

The court order also required the detainees to be released into the hospital for medical evaluation, but the General Directorate of Correctional Centers of El Salvador failed to comply with the order, releasing them directly into their homes instead.



To get update about the case, join an information session with members of the Santa marta Community and ADES.

Tuesday, September 12 - 2:00pm (El Salvador time)



Previous to the ruling of the Sensuntepeque lower court, the Government of El Salvador had failed to respond to a request for information issued by the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights on the health status of the Santa Marta 5. The request was prompted by an application for precautionary measures on behalf of the detainees submitted by the Salvadorean legal organization Tutela Legal as concerns about their deteriorating health had mounted due to their advanced age and chronic health conditions that had been diagnosed before their detention.

The intervention of the IACHR added to concerns previously expressed by other multilateral institutions and high profile advocates, such as  18 representatives of the US Congress who urged Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to advocate on behalf of the Santa Marta 5, the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, who in May urged the Salvadorean government to release the detainees, and over 250 international civil society organizations who demanded their release shortly after their detention.   



Following their release into house arrest, the legal defense team will continue to try to have the case dismissed as a short-term strategy. A press release published on August 5th by the Santa Marta community and ADES states that they “will continue to take legal actions until the criminal process is annulled, due to the lack of evidence and in virtue of the National Reconciliation Law of 1992, under which the accusation against the defenders is inadmissible.”

The Water Defenders have been charged with a crime that allegedly occurred in 1989, in the context of the Salvadorean civil war. However, legal experts have pointed out first that the attorney general´s lawyers have failed to provide evidence to warrant their detention, and second, that the National Reconciliation Law of 1992 gave amnesty to FMLN combatants in order to guarantee their transition into civil life. Last June, the legal defense team presented the first application to have the case annulled based on the 1992 National Reconciliation Law, but the application was dismissed on technical grounds. If the second attempt to have the charges dropped fails, then the case will continue its normal course and possibly go to trial after a February 2nd, 2024, deadline granted to the Attorney General´s lawyers in order to conduct further investigations.   




In the press release, members of the Santa Marta community and ADES also expressed their gratitude to all people, institutions, journalists, and national and international organizations that have supported the campaign to secure the freedom of the Santa Marta 5.  At the same time, they asked the international community to continue its support to free the water defenders and also to keep El Salvador free from the threat of mining companies.

From the beginning, Salvadoran environmental organizations have argued that the detention of the Santa Marta and ADES water defenders had nothing to do with bringing justice to war victims, as the Salvadorean Attorney General claimed, but more as an act of intimidaton to demobilise organized communities of Cabañas. Since 2019,  environmentalists have dennounced that the Salvadorean government is slowly taking steps to revert the 2017 mining ban.    


 To get update about the case, join an information session with members of the Santa Marta Community and ADES.

Tuesday, September 12 - 2:00pm (El Salvador time)



Selected readings:

MONGABAY: International community calls for release of El Salvador antimining activists

DAVID HILL: 'This is why we need the eyes of the world on this case', interview with John Cavanah.

THE GUARDIAN: Salvadoran environmental defenders detained for decades-old crime

THE PROGRESSIVE: The crime of fighting for a better life


Good news: The Santa Marta 5 are free! (for now). On August 23, a judge finally agreed to transfer them out of pre-trial detention to house arrest due to the grave condition of their health and the urgency of receiving treatment. Though the Attorney General has not dropped the charges against them, this move could not have come a minute too soon given the life-threatening conditions that human rights organizations have documented within the Salvadoran prison system. Since they were arrested on January 11, their community has organized tirelessly and heroically for their freedom—and international solidarity allies like IRTF, CISPES, and US-El Salvador Sister Cities have been by their side.


BUT our petition campaign continues. We are urging our elected senators and congresspersons to push the US State Department to be more vocal on these three points:

1) speak out against the unjust criminalization of the Santa Marta 5 water defenders

2) call for their release from pre-trial incarceration

3) call for suspension of US aid to El Salvador’s attorney general, military, and police.

SINCE only #2 has been fulfilled, the campaign continues to exonerate the Santa Marta 5 political prisoners!


Did you know?

1) Our campaign resulted in a letter signed by US House members to Secretary of State Blinken  urging the U.S. State Department “to send a clear, public message calling for their release from pre-trial detention and for the charges against the accused to be dismissed.” See the announcement about the July 18 letter here


2) Both the Congressional letter to the State Department and a U.N. statement express concern that these leaders have been targeted as part of a wider plan to overturn the historic ban on metallic mining in El Salvador, which was passed in 2017. (IRTF played an instrumental role among international allies in that campaign to ban open-pit mining for almost a decade leading up to the crucial legislation passed in 2017.)


3) President Bukele and the National Legislative Assembly continue to renew the “state of exception” (i.e., state of emergency) that has resulted in profiling, mass incarceration, and deaths in prisons. Human rights groups say that the “state of exception” is also being used to mask the administration’s targeting of political dissidents, such as the Santa Marta 5. For that reason (and more), it is critical that international solidarity allies keep up on news from El Salvador and consider sending electoral observers to El Salvador for the elections in February (the president) and March (the Legislative Assembly and mayors). To learn more about solidarity electoral observation missions, please contact