Anti-mining Activist Juan Francisco Duran Found Dead in San Salvador

Yesterday, officials found the body of disappeared anti-mining activist Juan Francisco Duran Ayala. On Sunday we posted an article about Juan Francisco’s June 3rd disappearance after he left classes at the Technological University in San Salvador where he was completing his masters in linguistics. The day before he had been hanging anti-mining flyers in Ilobasco as a volunteer for the Environmental Committee of Cabañas in Defense of Water and Cultura (CAC), when he was followed and harassed by members of the local police and mayor’s office.

Though few details are available at this time, officials report that Juan Francisco’s body was found in a common grave in the Lamatepec neighborhood located in San Salvador, close to Soyapango. The cause of death appears to be a single gunshot to the head.

Given Juan Francisco’s involvement with the CAC and his activities the day before his disappearance, as well as his father’s leadership within the FMLN veterans group in Ilobasco, there is plenty of reason to suspect that this was a politically motivated crime. If so it would be the tenth homicide over the past two years related to civil society’s participation in the debate over mining and other controversial issues in Cabañas. In addition to the murders, civil society leaders have received a constant stream of threats and several have been assaulted.

As the police and Attorney General’s Office begin investigating Juan Francisco’s murder, it is important to remember that no one has been held accountable for the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Felícita Echevarría, Dora Alicia Sortos Recenos and her unborn child, Horacio Menjívar, or Esperanza Velasco. Simiarly, though several gang members were convicted for the disappearance, torture and murder of Marcelo Rivera, many in Cabañas believe that the police and Attorney General’s office ignored evidence that intellectual authors paid to have him killed. And the police have yet to make arrests for the murders of Darwin Serrano and Gerardo Abrego León.

Investigators tried to depoliticize these murders by attributing them to a drinking binge, as in the case of Marcelo Rivera, or a family feud, as with the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Felícita Echevarría, Horacio Menjívar, Esperanza Velasco, and Dora Alicia and her unborn child. Rodolfo Delgado, the prosecutor in charge of those investigations, has a history of depoliticizing murders. In 2004 he led the investigation of the murder of Gilberto Soto, the union activists killed in Usulután. Though the case had all the attributes of a political assassination, Delgado blamed the murder on Soto’s mother-in-law claiming it was a domestic issue. Delgado also depoliticized the murders of Francisco Antonio Manzanares and his wife Juana, who were killed in Suchitoto in 2007. Instead of investigating political motives for their deaths, Delgado investigated their daughter, Marina Manzanares, claiming that it was a domestic issue.

We don’t know who will be in charge of Juan Francisco’s murder, but the international community should join his family and friends, as well as local civil society leaders in calling for a thorough investigation, including the possibility that there are intellectual authors that paid to have him killed.

As long as impunity exists, murder, fear and intimidation will be a part of public debate in El Salvador, and we can expect more violence in the future.

Yesterday we posted a call to action, asking readers to call or write Attorney General Romeo Barahona and Minister of Security Manuel Melgar. Now it is more important than ever for you to get involved. If you’ve already emailed or called, we thank you and ask that you invite your friends and family to do the same. If you haven’t called yet, please do so by clicking here.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Juan Francisco’s family and friends, as well as all others who are risking their lives in the fight for justice in Cabañas.

Hector Berrios Received Another Death Threat

Hector Berrios, an attorney and activist in San Isidro, Cabañas, received another death threat this past Sunday, the latest of a new wave of violence and threats in the region.

On Saturday night, Hector received several calls on his home and mobile phones, but when he answered the caller hung up. On Sunday, just after noon, the caller finally spoke when Hector answered. The caller, who identified himself as Ricardo, advised Hector, “they have paid a lot of money for us to assassinate you.” When Hector asked who had paid the caller, he responded that it was a man and a woman, and that they had been watching Hector in San Isidro and Mejicanos, a community in metropolitan San Salvador. The caller said that they wanted to negotiate a payment to the assassins not to kill Hector. In a letter detailing the conversation, Hector says that at that point he told the caller that he did not make agreements with people that he did not know, at which point the call ended.

Hector believes that the threat is likely the result of his speaking out against two murders in Cabañas, one on December 12 and another on January 2. Both victims had information about the June 2009 murder of Marcelo Rivera, an activist and community leader in San Isidro. One of the victims had information about the murders and the other was one of the material authors of the crime. Hector has also been speaking out against the attempted murder of William Iraheta who escaped an attempt on his life on December 12. Until a few months before the January 2009 municipal elections, William worked for Mayor Jose Bautista of San Isidro. He believes the mayor has tried on two occasions to kill him for information he has about some of the Mayor’s activities. In addition to these attacks and the threat against Hector, Radio Victoria received a death threat on January 11.

Unfortunately, the latest threats and violence are not unlike those we were writing about in 2009. Between April and December of that year, there were seven homicides in Cabañas that appeared to be linked to the debate over mining, accusations of electoral fraud and other controversial issues over which civil society actors opposed their local governments’ positions. In addition to the murders, reporters and staff at Radio Victoria were harassed, threatened and attacked, and other activists were attacked with machetes and continually threatened.

Hector Berrios and others in the region have been frustrated with the police and attorney general’s office for their unwillingness to continue investigating the crimes and consider the possibility that there might be intellectual authors of the crimes. Shortly after Marcelo was killed the police arrested several youth and labeled the murder a common gang crime and closed the investigation. The police and attorney general’s office similarly attributed the other murders, which all took place in Trinidad, Cabañas, to a family feud in which community rivals hired young assassins to kill their opponents.

We join Hector and others in denouncing the newest wave of threats and violence, and call on the police and attorney general’s office to conduct a thorough investigation.

Amnesty International released a call to action earlier today. Please respond by letting Salvadoran officials know that the international community is watching and their actions have been grossly insufficient.

Amnesty International points out that “Hector Berríos’ activism in his community has resulted in threats and intimidation before, due to his campaigns against mining, impunity and his legal defence of human rights activists. Hector Berríos has received threats on previous occasions. On 7 October 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ruled that El Salvador should provide protection to Hector Berríos. However, despite the demands from the IACHR, Hector Berríos has not yet received appropriate protection, and remains at risk.

PLEASE ACT QUICKLY. Use Spanish or your own language to create a personal appeal.

* Urge the authorities to take immediate steps to fully comply with the IACHR order of 7 October 2009. The form of protection provided to Hector Berríos must be agreed with him and reflect his own wishes.

* Call for an independent, thorough and impartial investigation into the threats against Hector Berríos, with the results made public and those responsible brought to justice.

ADDRESS YOUR MESSAGES TO:

Attorney General: Romeo Benjamín Barahona Meléndez
Fiscal General de la República Fiscalía General de la República
Final 4ª Calle Oriente y 19ª Avenida Sur, Residencial Primavera,
Santa Tecla, La Libertad
San Salvador, El Salvador
Fax: 011 503 2523 7409
Salutation: Estimado Sr. Fiscal / Dear Attorney General

Human Rights Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

David Morales Director General de Derechos Humanos
Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores
Calle El Pedregal, Blvd. Cancillería
Ciudad Merliot, Antiguo Cuscatlan
El Salvador
Fax: 011 503 2231 1152

Salutation: Estimado Director / Dear Director

AND PLEASE SEND A COPY TO

Sra Ana Coralia Mejía de Morot-Gaudry
Chargé d’Affaires, Embassy of El Salvador
209 Kent Street
Ottawa, Ontario K2P 1Z8
Fax: (613) 238-6940
E-mail: embajada@elsalvador-ca.org

Another Wave of Violence in Cabañas

Another wave of political violence swept through Cabañas, El Salvador over the Christmas Holiday resulting in the murders of Darwin Serrano and Gerardo Abrego León, and the attempted murder of William Iraheta. While the latest victims may not have the name recognition of Marcelo Rivera, Ramiro Rivera, Dora Alicia Recinos and the others murdered in 2009, the attacks are directly related and just as important.

On Sunday December 12, 2010, assassins attacked and killed Darwin Serrano (a.k.a. “El Pato”) with a machete in the community of Agua Zarca, a Cantón of Ilobasco, Cabañas – the same community where Marcelo Rivera was killed in 2009. According to a local source with knowledge of the case, El Pato was a minor when he participated in the murder of Marcelo. Police arrested and held El Pato in the juvenile detention facility in Ilobasco, but released him due to “overcrowding,” which is most unusual. When he was released, several people warned the police and prosecutor’s office that his knowledge about who ordered and paid for Marcelo’s assassination put his life in danger. The police responded that they would keep an eye on him. Subsequent to El Pato’s release, the court convicted three other gang members of murdering Marcelo and three others of conspiring to kill Marcelo.

The same day that assassins killed El Pato, they also tried to kill William Iraheta at his home in San Isidro, Cabañas. William testified that when he arrived home at 10 pm on December 12th, several men begin shooting at him. He escaped unharmed by sliding down an embankment behind his house. Just before the shooting, William saw the attackers, including two gang members he recognized, riding in a truck owned by Omar Chopa. This was the second time a contract had been taken out on his life. In 2009, a gang member known as Paco Jayo said that Jose Bautista, the Mayor of San Isidro, hired him and another gang member to kill William – they were arrested on other charges before they were able to complete the task.

On January 2, 2011 assassins shot and killed Gerardo Abrego León (a.k.a. El Gato) in the community of Quesera, another Cantón in Ilobasco, Cabañas. Sources in Cabañas report that El Gato was a key witness in the assassination of Marcelo Rivera.

These latest attacks appear to be motivated by a desire to cover up previous crimes, specifically the murder of Marcelo Rivera. Each of these victims was allegedly able to link a powerful network of local politicians and economic interests with the murder of Marcelo Rivera. William Iraheta was also active in denouncing Mayor Bautista for election fraud during the 2009 municipal elections.

Local police and the prosecutor’s office never investigated the possibility that there are intellectual authors of the violence in 2009. Instead, they attributed the murder of Marcelo Rivera to gang violence, and murders of Ramiro Rivera, Dora Alicia Recenos and four others in Trinidad to a family feud. Nor have they investigated the most recent murders or the attempted murder of William Iraheta.

News coverage of the 2009 murders has decreased over the past six months, but domestic and international organizations have continued to investigate possible intellectual authors. Their focus has turned from Pacific Rim Mining Company, which tried for several years to secure mining permits for a site in San Isidro but was met with fierce resistance from local activists, to the network of local politicians and economic interests, which is allegedly involved in organized criminal activities such as drug trafficking and money laundering.

Local sources suggest that the network of local politicians, which supported Pacific Rim’s efforts to mine gold in Cabañas, tried to use threats and violence to limit the growing influence that civil society has in the region. Organized crime rings depend on a culture of impunity and a passive citizenry to conduct their illicit activities. Local leaders such as Marcelo Rivera threaten the culture of impunity and encouraged local citizens to participate in local policy debates and hold local politicians accountable for their actions. As civil society voices’ grew, the network of politicians seem to have responded by hiring gang members and others to threaten and even kill local activists.

Darwin Serrano, William Iraheta, and Gerardo Abrego appear to have been targeted because they could link Mayor Bautista and others back to some of these crimes, including the murder of Marcelo Rivera.

Though the debate over mining, which is what drew the international community’s attention to Cabañas, is not as active as in previous years, civil society organizations still very much need our support. The tension between the local civil society organizations that led the anti-mining movement and local power structures continues to grow and result in threats and violence.

In the coming weeks we will work with others to organize a call to action, and we ask that you stay tuned in, and make sure that those responsible for the violence in Cabañas no longer enjoy impunity for their crimes.

Three Convicted for the Murder of Marcelo Rivera

Yesterday a judge in San Salvador sentenced gang members José Luis Herrera, Wilber Antonio Baires, and Delfino Lara Arteaga to 40 years imprisonment for the murder of Marcelo Rivera. The judge also sentenced Eliseo Herrera Valladares, Santos Vladimir Avilés, y José Manuel Lara to three years for trying to cover-up the murder.

The conviction comes more than fifteen months after the assassination of Rivera, who was disappeared and found at the bottom of a well in July 2009. Marcelo Rivera was an environmentalist who opposed Pacific Rim’s efforts to mine gold in Cabañas, as well as the director of the Casa de Cultura in his hometown of San Isidro. He was also very active in the local FMLN party and led the January 2009 efforts to prevent election fraud during the local elections in San Isidro.

Since his lifeless body was recovered, police and attorney general investigators have characterized the case as a “common gang crime,” asserting that Rivera was drinking with the gang members when a fight broke out. His friends and family continue to call for a more thorough investigation, arguing that Marcelo did not drink and that intellectual authors of the crime paid the gang members to kill him.

In the year before his assassination, Marcelo received numerous death threats for his participation in the anti-mining movement and making accusations that Mayor Bautista of San Isidro and his supporters were guilty of election fraud in past elections. Some in Cabañas believe his role in denouncing election fraud was the motive for his assassination. Before the January 2009 elections, Marcelo and other civil society leaders arranged for vigilantes to blow whistles every time they saw someone from outside their community trying to vote. Early on Election Day, whistles were blowing non-stop leading to a closing of the polls and a re-vote a week later. Days after the election Javier Moreno, an employee of Mayor Bautista’s office, tried to run over Marcelo with his car as he walked down 1st Street West in San Isidro. In the months that followed, he received several death threats and warnings, until he disappeared after getting off a bus in Ilobasco on June 18, 2009.

Family and friends were extremely frustrated by the police in the 12 days that he was missing. Though they asked for help, the police refused to form a search party, and only assigned an officer to join the community-organized search. When Marcelo’s body was recovered, it showed signs that he had been tortured. Police immediately arrested four gang members for the murder, and closed the investigation. When family and friends received a copy of the coroner’s report, they notice several discrepancies. The police stated that Marcelo died from blows to the head, while the coroner’s report stated the cause of death was affixation. The family was also upset when they went to the coroner’s office to recover the body only to learn that the coroner had received orders to bury Marcelo in a common grave. The coroner reluctantly told friends of the family where the common grave was so they could retrieve the body for a proper burial.

We join the friends and family of Marcelo Rivera, the Mining Roundtable, and others in the international community in their call for a thorough investigation of Marcelo’s death so that the intellectual authors of the crime may finally be brought to justice. While yesterday’s verdict was a step in the right direction, there is much more work to be done to ensure justice. Marcelo was a leader in his community and a pillar of the region’s nascent civil society. As long as those who ordered his assassination continue to enjoy impunity, civil society, rule of law, and democracy in El Salvador will remain weak.

One Year Anniversary of Marcelo Rivera’s Assassination

On June 24th hundreds of people gathered in San Isidro, Cabañas to honor the life of Marcelo Rivera. Exactly one year earlier many of the same people had been searching for the missing Rivera only to find him tortured, hidden, and dead at the bottom of a local well. Before his body could be properly identified, employees at the coroners office were ordered to bury his body in a common grave – but his brother and another friend demanded to be escorted there and dug the grave out themselves. The attorney general still maintains that Marcelo’s death is a common homicide, despite glaring disparities between the report and the original autopsy. Luis Quintanilla, a Catholic priest who has been threatened and attacked himself, demands justice in this video clip.

The Assassinations Continue in Cabañas

Yesterday – Saturday December 26,2009, assassins killed Dora Santos Sorto Rodríguez, also known as Alicia, in Canton Trinidad in Sensuntepeque, the same community where Ramiro Rivera was killed just one week ago. When she was attacked, Alicia was eight months pregnant and carrying her two-year-old child back from a river where she had been washing clothes. Dora and her husband José Santos Rodríguez were members of the Environmental Committee of Cabañas, a local organization that has opposed Pacific Rim’s efforts to mine gold in the region. Santos Rodríguez was attacked in May 2008 by Oscar Menjivar, who is now in jail for shooting Ramiro Rivera 8 times in August 2009.

This is the latest in a series of violence and threats in Cabañas.  Assassins have also claimed the lives of Ramiro Rivera and Marcelo Rivera, and attacked and threatened numerous others.

The international community must stand strong with our friends in Cabañas, and demand that the government respond with a thorough investigation and bring all of those responsible to justice. Again, we ask that you to please take a moment to email the Salvadoran Attorney General and Ombudsman for Human Rights and demand that they do their jobs. Click here for instructions.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Marcelo, Ramiro, and Alicia – and all those who are standing up against injustice.

More Death Threats in Cabanas

This summer we reported on several cases of violence and threats of violence in Cabanas, including the murder of Marcelo Rivera and subsequent attacks on the Radio Victoria in Sesuntepeque, and its employees.

This morning we received an email from our friends at the Radio Victoria reporting that they have received more threats of violence.  One of their correspondents who has been an outspoken critic of Pacific Rim Mining and local government leaders, awoke this morning to find a death threat on his door.  The note warns that those who committed the acts of violence this summer are still around, and that the radio better stop speaking out against the mayor’s office and representatives from the national assembly, or they will kill again.  The note also states that they have received “orders from above”. 

Since July, the number of threats and cases of violence has decreased, though they have not stopped altogether.  One young woman who works at the Radio and was friends with Marcelo Rivera and Jose Beltran, who has received death threats for his speaking out against Marcelo’s murder, has received threatening phone calls and been followed by men who have been spotted loitering outside her house at night. 

Members of the Radio ask that members of the international community denounce these threats by writing an email to the office of Attorney General Romeo Barahona (prensa@fgr.gob.sv).