Gold, Bodies and Justice : Investigating a Spate of Bloodshed against Activists in El Salvador
Gold, Bodies and Justice:Investigating a Spate of Bloodshed against Activists in El Salvador
By Julia Kaminsky, AJWS World Partners Fellow 2008-2009
The shot rang out loud and deep, piercing the stagnant mid-day air. A young mother clutched her
nursing baby tighter, and the group, so talkative only moments before, became a circle of transfixed
bodies and darting eyes. Their fear—over what turned out to be an accidental misfire by a police officer
accompanying us—indicates the very real threat that has been hanging over this community.
It was February 2010, and I was in Cabañas, El Salvador as part of a fact-finding delegation to
investigate the recent wave of violence against social and environmental activists. The delegation was
organized by Voices on the Border, an organization that promotes sustainable and equitable
development in El Salvador. I had spent 2008 as a volunteer in Cabañas through American Jewish World
Service’s World Partners Fellowship, and was already familiar with the local context as a result. My
connection to the violence was personal: Marcelo Rivera, the first activist murdered in the recent spate,
had been my supervisor at the NGO where I volunteered for nearly a year.
Tension Mounts in Communities Targeted for Gold Mining
Cabañas, a rural, poverty-stricken department of northern El Salvador, has become deeply polarized over
mining exploration projects operated by foreign companies hoping to extract the region’s abundant
gold deposits. Residents fear the contamination and depletion of water that mining is known to cause,
and are outraged that they have not been consulted in the plans to extract resources from their land.
The most controversial of these companies is the Canadian-based Pacific Rim, which operates the
country’s most advanced exploration project in San Isidro, a small municipality of 10,000 people in
Cabañas. Community members and local NGOs began to organize in 2005—the same year that Pacific
Rim requested an extraction permit from the Salvadoran government. Motivated by the urgency of their
cause, activists in Cabañas reached out to San Salvador-based NGOs, forming a national coalition with
strong international networks.
The Salvadoran government has not granted Pacific Rim the extraction permit it seeks, and due to the
community’s efforts, both former President Tony Saca and President Mauricio Funes have publicly
declared their opposition to gold mining. In April 2009, Pacific Rim commenced a lawsuit against the
Salvadoran government for hundreds of millions of dollars in lost profits to which it feels it is entitled
under the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The preliminary hearing at the World
Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes ("ICSID") began on May 31. Even
though no gold has been extracted, and for the time being it’s unlikely that mining will move forward,
tensions have been set in motion by the company’s activities.
These tensions are particularly evident in Trinidad, a remote village two hours north of San Isidro, where
Pacific Rim conducted preliminary explorations at Limón Peak. Trinidad has been the site of most of the
recent violence, which many believe is the result of deep rifts between residents who staunchly support
mining those who actively oppose it. The latter have taken non-violent action on four occasions,
blockading the highway to prevent Pacific Rim’s equipment from entering, and forcing the company to
remove the machinery operating at Limón Peak. Many activists speculate that these actions angered
local mining advocates, many of whom may have a financial stake in the mining.
Community members in both Trinidad and San Isidro have reported that Pacific Rim has made attempts
to gain favor with local inhabitants by paying some residents to promote mining, and by offering gifts
such as free eye-glasses in exchange for support. “The ambition for money is the root of all this,” says
Israel Menjívar, a Trinidad resident, who, like many community members, believes that the violence is
the result of these divisions.
Early Incidents Predict More Violence to Come
Over the past couple of years, there has been an escalating campaign of threats and violence aimed at
environmentalists and civic leaders in El Salvador, culminating in the recent assassinations of three antimining
activists. While it remains unclear who is behind the bloodshed, it appears that the aggressors
may be fellow community members who support mining.
“We used to be united. But now there are divisions in families, brothers against brothers, friends against
friends, communities against communities,” says Santos José Rodríguez, a farmer from Trinidad, and an
active member of the Environmental Committee of Cabañas (CAC). In May 2008, Santos was attacked
by his neighbor and longtime friend Oscar Menjívar, who is widely believed by community members to
be a paid mining promoter, though Pacific Rim denies this claim. Oscar used a small machete in the
assault, cutting off two of Santos's fingers. He was never prosecuted in connection with the crime.
At the time, many activists and civic leaders took the attack and subsequent impunity as a sign that
more violence was to come. “Often, we’re told that we’re going to be killed. We’re expecting it,” said
Ramiro Rivera, the president of Trinidad’s community board and vice president of CAC. Ramiro had
been approached by numerous concerned community members who viewed the attack against Santos
as a sign that local activists were in danger. Unfortunately, their warnings and Ramiro’s statement were
Six Unpunished Murders Shatter the Region
Marcelo Rivera (no relation to Ramiro), a prominent community organizer from San Isidro, disappeared
on June 18, 2009. His body, disfigured with clear signs of torture, was found 12 days later at the bottom
of a well.
“He didn’t have hair and his face was completely mangled. His mouth was missing. There were wounds
on his back, and his fingernails had been pulled off,” recalls Alirio Hernández, a colleague of Marcelo’s
who was present when the body was recovered. “His arm and jaw were bound with a nylon cord…
There was a dreadful smell. For the next week, I could feel the stench in my nose as I replayed every
instant of that terrible scene with Marcelo.”
Marcelo was the director of Friends Association of San Isidro Cabañas (ASIC)—the AJWS grantee with
whom I worked as a World Partners Fellow. Located 10 minutes away from the site of Pacific Rim’s
proposed mine, ASIC has played a central role in the anti-mining campaign. Active in the left-wing
FMLN party, Marcelo had also vocally denounced electoral fraud in the January 2009 municipal
elections, and was instrumental in organizing protests that had suspended the election.
Marcelo's murder was, unfortunately, only the first incident in a new wave of violence. On August 7,
Oscar Menjívar shot Ramiro Rivera eight times in the legs and back. Unlike his first attack on Ramiro,
Oscar was arrested for this second assault, though he was later acquitted. Ramiro miraculously survived
and was assigned twenty-four hour police protection after his release from the hospital, though this did
no good: On December 20, 2009, as he was traveling on the winding dirt road that leads to Trinidad,
accompanied by two bodyguards, his neighbor Felicíta Echeverría, and 14-year old Eugenia Guevara,
Ramiro’s car was ambushed by M-16-wielding hitmen. Ramiro and Felicíta were both killed, and
Eugenia was wounded. Both guards escaped unharmed.
Less than a week later, on December 26, Dora Alicia Sorto Recinos, Santos Rodríguez’s wife—eightmonths
pregnant and carrying her two-year-old child—was gunned down in Trinidad as she returned
from doing laundry at the stream near her house. She and her unborn child were killed and the toddler
wounded. Two other unsolved murders have also shattered the fragile peace in the region: Oscar
Menjívar’s parents, Horacio Menjívar and Esperanza Velasco de Menjívar, who lived in Trinidad and
openly supported gold mining, were killed on April 9 and October 8, respectively.
Along with the killings, there has been a campaign of threats aimed at local civic leaders, activists and
reporters from Radio Victoria, a community radio station that has closely covered both the mining story
and the recent wave of violence. The threats share a common message: cease your activism or you’ll end
up like Marcelo. In late July, Father Luis Quintanilla, who hosts a program, narrowly escaped a
kidnapping and assassination attempt by hooded armed men. Two days later, the station’s transmitter
was sabotaged, forcing Radio Victoria briefly off the air.
More than six months later, no arrests have been made in connection with the threats or assassination
attempt, and there has been little investigation into the six murders, leaving the residents of the region
and the activist community feeling abandoned by the justice system and that their safety can be
compromised with impunity.
The Activist Community he Seeks Answers
The culture of impunity in El Salvador and its chilling implications for civil society and democracy
prompted Voices on the Border to organize a fact-finding delegation, of which I was a member. The
group included an attorney, a trade justice activist, a psychologist, two college professors, a translator, a
videographer and Voices on the Border staff. We met with friends and relatives of victims, activists,
workers at human rights NGOs, three Ombudspersons, the mayor of San Isidro, the police chief of
Cabañas, a Supreme Court Justice and officials from the U.S. Embassy.
Many people in these meetings pointed to evidence of what they call “intellectual authorship.” In other
words, these crimes do not appear to be random; they bear the stamp of planned and targeted acts of
violence: All of the victims—with the exception of Ramiro Rivera’s two passengers, who simply had the
misfortune of asking for a ride that day—had a declared stance on mining; the type of torture that
Marcelo Rivera endured is characteristic of politically motivated crime; and Ramiro Rivera was murdered
in a sophisticated attack on treacherous terrain using military weapons, suggesting that the hit men had
training and financial backing.
In the interviews we conducted with law enforcement authorities, public officials and community
members, we found the following holes in the justice process furthering the climate of impunity:
Negligence by Authorities
The Attorney General’s Office and the National Civilian Police—the government institutions responsible
for investigating the crimes—have demonstrated negligence in their response to these crimes. When
Marcelo Rivera disappeared, it was the community and his colleagues at ASIC that organized the search
party that recovered his body. And almost immediately after the corpse was found, the Attorney
General’s Office referred to the murder as “common delinquency,” ignoring anecdotal evidence to the
contrary. Marcelo was known to dislike and avoid alcohol, yet the killing was described as the result of a
drunken brawl—something that sounded unlikely to those who knew him.
The Attorney General also ignored hard evidence. In an interview with Hector Berrios, a lawyer from the
Unified Movement of Francisco Sánchez-1932, our delegation was told that despite an autopsy
conducted by the Coroner’s Office, which concluded that Marcelo died from asphyxiation after having
been kept alive for several days after his disappearance, the Attorney General’s Office stated—without
having conducted any further examination of the body—that he was killed by blows to the head with a
hammer. Hector believes that the Attorney General changed the cause of death to better fit the theory
that the crime was a spontaneous fight.
According to many people our delegation interviewed, including Mirna Perla, a Salvadoran Supreme
Court justice, the Attorney General and National Police did not investigate the possibility that the
murder was planned. “Authorities rarely investigate when people are killed for political reasons or when
the victim is a social leader,” she explains. Indeed, Rodolfo Delgado, the head of the Attorney General’s
Organized Crime Unit, has a long track record of leaving controversial crimes hanging in a state of
impunity. According to Mirna, this systematic negligence is a vestige of a 1993 amnesty law that
protects the perpetrators of some of the most repugnant crimes committed during El Salvador’s brutal
Community members, local NGOs and the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office (PDDH) have
repeatedly demanded that the Attorney General and Police fully investigate these crimes and that they
improve the effectiveness of the Witness and Victim Protection Program. These requests have been
Though many community members and activists have been given 24-hour police protection since the
murders, the protective forces have done little to calm fears. There are serious concerns about the
competency of the police forces—after all, Ramiro Rivera was murdered despite being accompanied by
two armed guards.
There is also pervasive distrust between the bodyguards and those they protect. “The victims are treated
like perpetrators,” says Isabel Gámez, one of five staff members from Radio Victoria assigned police
protection after receiving threats. When she wouldn’t allow her bodyguards into a confidential workrelated
meeting, they wrote a report saying that her attitude was suspicious and that she ought to be
called to a hearing. The feeling that police officers collect information with the intention of using it
against those they protect has led several activists to renounce the service.
Financial Conflict of Interest
Community members have long asserted that Pacific Rim has quietly contributed to municipal activities
in San Isidro, most notably sponsoring the local patron-saint parties. In our interview with him, we asked
José Ignacio Bautista, the Mayor of San Isidro, to respond to these allegations, and he remarked: “We
(the municipal government) don’t have a lot of funds. We have to manage our resources and negotiate.
This is not corruption. We didn’t sign anything with conditions. We are not obligated to them in any
way.” He added that various institutions, including the local church, the hospital in the nearby town of
Sensuntepeque, the Ministries of Health and Education, and local sports teams, have accepted help
from Pacific Rim, though he did not elaborate on the nature of that help.
According to Manuel Fuentes, a lawyer with the Foundation for Studies on the Application of the Law
(FESPAD), the laws regulating both private contributions to the government and the publication of
such transactions are weak, as is the enforcement of the existing laws. This lack of regulation and
transparency has the potential to create powerful conflicts of interest.
While there is no evidence that Pacific Rim is directly linked to the violence, it is crucial that all
possibilities be investigated. What is clear is that the company’s presence has created an environment of
The Delegation’s Recommendations
The delegation held a press conference on February 15 to publicize our findings and recommendations,
the most important of which calls for an independent investigation with oversight by the
Ombudsperson’s Office and by internationally recognized human rights and forensic experts. Many of
our other recommendations take aim at problematic aspects of El Salvador’s institutional culture: lack of
accountability and weak legal frameworks. It is crucial that the Ombudsperson’s recommendations be
respected by other government agencies. Regulations and freedom of information laws need to be
strengthened to assure that companies and government institutions operate in a responsible and
transparent fashion. Only by resolving the institutional shortcomings that breed conflict of interest and
impunity can the violence be halted and justice assured.
Many questions linger, and it is still unknown if there is a connection between the various threats and
acts of violence. However, according to Salvador Menéndez Leal, the Assistant Ombudsperson in the
national office, “All of these events are part of the same thing: impunity.”