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El Salvador: Take Action to Free the Santa Marta 5!

Since January 2023 when the Bukele administration arrested five water defenders in Cabañas Department on criminal allegations from 34 years ago, IRTF has been part of an international campaign to Free the Santa Marta 5.


Bukele’s State of Exception

President Bukele’s crackdown on gangs and violent crime that he calls the State of Exception (initiated in March 2022) has resulted in suspension of constitutional rights, mass arrests and mass incarceration. In the past two years, El Salvador has quickly climbed to the number one spot for its incarceration rate. With a rate of 1,086 inmates per 100,000 population, El Salvador is locking up its people at twice the rate of the U.S. (531/100,00).


Bukele Goes after Environmentalists

Many critics have pointed out that Bukele’s crackdown on violent crime is being used to mask arrests of political dissidents. The Santa Marta 5 (which include the director of the well-respected development nonprofit ADES, Asociación para del Desarollo Económico y Social) were leaders in the campaign that resulted in the historic national ban on open-pit metal mining of 2017—El Salvador became the first country in the world to do so.  Environmentalists like the Santa Marta 5 succeeded in persuading both major political parties (ARENA, FMLN) to agree on a ban because of water insecurity. The processing of rock to get to the precious metals means leaching poisons like cyanide and mercury into the water. The poster child for the movement was the El Dorado gold mine that threatened to pollute the Río Lempa; the river and its tributaries are the source of drinking water for about 80% of Salvadorans.


Bukele’s Government Is Illegitimate

President Bukele, in efforts to attract foreign investment, is suspected of wanting to get rid of the ban. And as he’s consolidated power in the legislature and courts, he’s in a position to do so. He manipulated the courts to rule that he could run for a second consecutive term (previously understood as strictly forbidden under the constitution).  Winning by a big margin on February 4, he was set to start his second term on June 1, 2024.  





About the Santa Marta 5


The five community leaders from Cabañas Department were instrumental in the national campaign—a 13-year mobilization—that led to the national ban on open-pit metal mining—the first in the world! They fought against the Pacific Rim company because there would be untold contamination of regional waterways. There is already limited clean water in El Salvador, especially for campesinos (subsistence farmers), so these men knew they had to promote the message: Water Over Gold!


The Santa Marta 5 are:

Miguel Angel Gámez

Miguel Ángel Gamez is a former Community Director and member of the Asociación de Desarrollo Comunal - ADESCO “Santa Marta”. He has actively worked in the management and promotion of the community’s infrastructure projects, as well as a defender of the common goods of the community, including the defence of the right to a healthy environment free of activities that may cause harm to it.


Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez

Pedro Rivas Laínez is a member of the “Nueva Heroica Santa Marta” cooperative. He has actively worked to defend land rights and common goods of his community against the negative effects caused by metallic mining.


Alejandro Laínez García

Alejandro Lainez Garcia has actively worked in the recovery, promotion and conservation of the historical memory, the community identity and the protection of the common goods (water, land and environment) of the community, including the peaceful defence of their territory and the environment against the negative effects of metallic mining in the country.


Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega

Saúl Rivas Ortega is a human rights defender and the legal adviser of ADES Santa Marta. He has actively worked as a human rights lawyer of the Santa Marta community, including the defense of the right to a healthy environment.


Teodoro Antonio Pacheco

Antonio Pacheco is a human rights defender and the Executive Director of the Asociación de Desarrollo Económico Social “Santa Marta” ADES (Economic and Social Development “Santa Marta” Association), as well as a prominent voice in favour of the community development and the protection of the environment in the region. The human rights defender was one of the main advocates in the campaign for the prohibition of the metallic mining in El Salvador, in favour of the right to a healthy environment for the communities in the country. 


What’s Next for the Santa Marta 5

On 3 April 2024, the court held a preliminary hearing that concluded on 10 April 2024, resulting in the court’s decision to proceed with a trial against the human rights defenders (potentially in July 2024). Their detention, which occurred on 11 January 2023 by the Public Prosecutor’s Office’s agents and police officers, stems from allegations unsupported by evidence, linking them to a murder purportedly committed in 1989, during the Salvadoran civil war. After a successful international solidarity pressure campaign, they were released from pre-trial detention in September 2023 and ordered to remain under house-arrest.


International Solidarity

In May 2024, IRTF was among 85 organizations from sixteen countries that issued a statement expressing concern about state surveillance, harassment and intimidation against human rights advocates. Members of MOVIR (Movement of the Victims of the Regime) mobilized en masse on May 1 with a major demonstration in San Salvador. With allies in the US (like IRTF partners WOLA: Washington Office on Latin America, LAWG: Latin America Working Group, CISPES: Committee in Solidarity with the people of El Salvador), we are working on a campaign to get the State Department to pressure the Bukele government to ease up on the State of Exception and respect constitutional rights.


Congressional Action Needed This Summer

In 2023, IRTF collected hundreds of signatures to urge Congress to push the U.S. State Department to call for the release of the Santa Marta 5 from pretrial detention. That campaign succeeded; they were released and ordered to house arrest in August 2023. As the Salvadoran attorney general and courts push forward on the false criminalization of these social movement leaders, IRTF continues to push for dropping all charges.  So far things don’t look good. In April a judge ruled that there is enough evidence to move forward with the criminal charges; they set trial for July 2024.


How You Can Help

IRTF is currently collecting postcards to send to the US House of Representatives. By signing the postcard, you can call on your congressperson to:

1) reach out to the US State Department and encourage them to call for due process and send representatives to observe the trial

2) tweet to demand that the charges against the #SantaMarta5 be dropped

3) take action to halt US police and military assistance to El Salvador in light of the suspension of constitutional rights and mass incarceration currently happening under President Bukele’s State of Exception (State of Emergency). 


TAKE ACTION: Please send this letter to your US congressperson

1) Find who your congressperson is at

2) copy the message (pasted below) and email it to your congressperson. If there is no contact form or generic email on their website, call them to get it. If you call the office, you can ask for the name and email of the foreign policy staffer who handles Latin America.

3) Ask them to give you a response. Will they take any of the actions outlined in the letter?

4) Let us know how it went for you. Contact us at or (216) 961 0003.

Thank you!



Dear Representative:

I am writing to express my concern over the political persecution of water defenders in El Salvador who have been sounding the alarm over the government’s plans to reverse a historic ban on environmentally destructive open-pit metal mining.

Five water defenders in the community of Santa Marta (Cabañas Department) are being unjustly criminalized. They were arrested in January 2023 on accusations of a crime that allegedly occurred 30 years ago. The attorney general is pushing forward, and a judge ruled they can stand trial in July.

I urge you to 1) reach out to the US State Department and encourage them to call for due process and send representatives to observe the trial, 2) tweet to demand that the charges against the #SantaMarta5 be dropped, and 3) take action to halt US police and military assistance to El Salvador in light of the suspension of constitutional rights and mass incarceration currently happening under President Bukele’s State of Exception (State of Emergency).