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.