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El Salvador: Solidarity with the Santa Marta 5 Grows Across Borders

In an April 10 court hearing in San Salvador, a presiding judge chose to uphold charges against five anti-mining activists. The Santa Marta Five, who were arrested in January 2023, will be tried at a later date for “illicit association” and an alleged murder that took place over 34 years ago amidst the Salvadoran Civil War. For their supporters, the Bukele’s right-wing administration is actively targeting the five water defenders to punish them for their instrumental roles in the country’s historic metals mining ban in 2017.

The five were granted house arrest in August 2023, and will remain under house arrest as they await the scheduling of their trial. In response, the international community has shown unwavering solidarity and is united in calls for justice, with 245 organizations from 31 nations urging Salvadoran authorities to dismiss the charges. Advocates are concerned by the possible motives for the water defenders’ criminalization which poses a threat to the mining ban.

Teodoro Antonio Pacheco, Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega, Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, and Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez—the individuals making up the Santa Marta Five—are well-established community leaders who fought with the FMLN against El Salvador’s US-backed military dictatorship in the 80s. They rebuilt their community from the rubble of civil war during the 90s and organized to defend their precarious water resources from foreign mining companies in the 2010s.

For example, Pacheco—the director of the Santa Marta Association for the Economic Development of El Salvador (ADES)—worked side by side with other advocates on forest conservation, community organizing, sustainable agriculture, and water management over the last three decades. ADES's efforts have provided vital services to tens of thousands in Cabañas, the department where the organization is located while opposing harmful initiatives like garbage incinerators and water project privatization. As one of the founders of the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining, Pacheco, and the other water defenders, were instrumental in passing the 2017 ban.

El Salvador's historic decision marked a significant milestone, positioning it as the world's first country to take such a stand. This move stemmed from concerns over the adverse environmental and social impacts of mining on vital water resources, agriculture, and the country’s fragile environment. Grassroots activism—spearheaded by organizations like ADES and the National Roundtable Against Mining—played a pivotal role in raising awareness about the dangers posed by industrial mining for a country with some of the worst environmental indicators in Central America.

Politically Motivated Charges
The flimsy circumstances of the Santa Marta Five's detention raises concerns about the lack of legal rights in an El Salvador under Bukele. “It is outrageous that the judge is allowing this trial to go forward despite the lack of any evidence of a crime,” said John Cavanagh, Senior Advisor at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The Salvadoran government has failed to provide any new evidence of guilt for the water defenders.The Salvadoran government has failed to provide any new evidence of guilt for the water defenders. The defense team has argued that except for the testimony of a secret witness who contradicted himself when cross-examined, the Attorney General has failed to provide evidence that links the defendants with the murder. Yet the judge ruled a highly unusual gag order on the case and preventive detention, changed to home detention after eight months under barbaric jail conditions, for the defendants while it allowed lawyers for the Attorney General up to a year to conduct further investigations to make their case. Legal expert Luis Parada has also argued that these charges violate the 1992 National Reconciliation Law, which provided limited amnesty to ex-FMLN combatants to allow them to depose their arms and transition into civilian life.

The timing and motivations behind these arrests come as Bukele enjoys a wave of popular support that has allowed him to consolidate his grip on the country based on his hardline war on gangs. Still, it struggles to keep the Salvadoran economy afloat.

Changing Peace Agreement Narratives
The signing of the peace agreements in 1992 put an end to 12 years of brutal civil war and a longer cycle of violence and dictatorship going back to the 1930s. This new beginning committed the warring factions—represented by the two dominant parties, ARENA and FMLN—to fostering a democratic system, curtailing the role of the military, and putting the control of the police under civilian command.

But the promise of the accords quickly crumbled under the weight of a neoliberal economic system, imposed by multilateral lending institutions that privatized state-owned enterprises and services and incentivized foreign investment at the expense of labor and environmental regulations. Over the following decades, chronic social problems like gang violence, mass migration, and rampant corruption took hold. For the population, a shift to FMLN rule after 20 years of ARENA in power brought no significant perceived changes.

Bukele, a self-proclaimed crusader against the “same old politicians,” rode the wave of apathy and disillusionment with the post-war status quo. But the president has sought to redefine the narrative of the war for his political gain. He has called the peace accords a "farce," and his allies in the legislative assembly have scrapped the official commemoration of their signing. More recently, a judge has ordered the detention of the legislators behind the 1992 Amnesty Law that shielded civil war perpetrators from prosecution. Among the detained is the renowned left-wing politician and diplomat Ruben Zamora, who was part of the commission but refused to sign the law.                

State of Exception: Wider Implications for Human Rights and Democracy
Bukele took office in 2019, pledging to combat crime and gang activity and break away from traditional political factions. Since then, his controversial tactics—such as negotiations with gang leaders, imprisonment of political enemies, attacks on the media, and smear campaigns against civil society organizations have drawn significant criticism.

He first declared a "state of exception" in 2022 which suspended constitutional rights for all Salvadorans and granted authorities sweeping powers to detain individuals indefinitely without the right to due process. Despite Bukele's success in curbing crime and gang violence, the now permanent suspension of civil and political rights has been denounced as a threat to human rights and the rule of law. According to government figures, over 75 thousand alleged gang members are currently in jail, the majority of them awaiting to see a judge for the first time, have no legal representation, and have no contact with their families. Human rights organizations have reported that over 20 thousand of those detained are innocent and have no links with gangs and at least 245 detainees have died under suspicious circumstances.

In January, exactly one year after the arrest of the Santa Marta Five, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Share Foundation released a fact-finding report titled “State of Deception” detailing how Bukele’s administration has curtailed environmental activism and human rights. Experiencing continuous "states of exception," citizens live in fear amidst widespread military presence and surveillance tactics. And while these tactics are touted as a way to combat gang violence, there is little doubt that extractive, economic interests are at play here as well.

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