Cabanas, Mining, violence

Body of Young Anti-Mining Activist Exhumed from Common Grave

Investigation into latest assassination begins


Danielle Mackey

The body of murdered fourth-year university student and active member of the environmental movement in the area of Ilobasco, Cabanas, Juan Francisco Duran Ayala, has finally been returned to his family in San Salvador. On June 24, 2011, the family gathered together with members of civil society and representatives from government agencies to exhume his body from a common grave in the Bermeja Cemetery, where he had been buried by the National Civilian Police. Juan Francisco, who lived in Ilobasco, left his home at 9 a.m. on June 3 to attend his classes in San Salvador and never arrived. His body was found on the same day by the police, next to a basketball court in the community of Amatepec in metropolitan San Salvador, with two gunshot wounds to the head.

Juan Francisco’s cousin and a designated family representative, Norberto Hernandez Ayala, claims that because the cadaver had several tattoos, the coroner’s office labeled it as an unidentified person and probable gang member, and buried it in a common grave. Juan Francisco had a tattoo of Che Guevara on his abdomen, and another two of the Barcelona soccer team and a favorite U.S. basketball team on his side and back, respectively.

His body was identified on June 14 by his father, Jose Benjamin Ayala, in photographs provided by the coroner’s office. Logistical negotiations between the attorney general’s office and the family slowed the process of exhumation ten days. Juan Francisco was laid to rest in a funeral on Saturday June 25, 2011.

Though there exist various theories about the motive for Juan Francisco’s assassination, in a press conference today, Hernandez Ayala confirmed that the primary hypothesis is the young man’s involvement as an environmental activist. The victim’s mother, Marta Duran, added, “What is clear here is that they’re killing innocent people. My son was only a student, dedicated to his studies. I just want justice for my son.”

Father Neftali and Juan Francisco's Mother (in mask)

The afternoon before he disappeared, June 2, Juan Francisco had been seen putting up fliers around the Ilobasco area where he lived, as an active volunteer for the Environmental Committee of Cabanas (CAC.) The messages on the fliers included an open invitation to a public forum on mining, phrases promoting respect for the environment, and a demand for the controversial Canadian mining company, Pacific Rim, to retire its operation from El Salvador. (Pacific Rim is one of two mining companies that have sued the Salvadoran government for a total of almost $200 million, for refusing to grant them permits to conduct metallic mineral mining in several regions of the country.)

Juan is the fourth person active in the anti-mining movement in the department of Cabanas to be murdered in the past two years, and the third victim from the CAC specifically. In a press release published by the CAC, the committee declares, “This assassination comes only two years since the kidnapping and assassination of the anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera and the assassinations of two of our members, Ramiro Rivera and Dora Alicia Sorto. We believe that if these cases are not cleared up with an investigation that leads to the intellectual authors, impunity will continue reigning in Cabanas, and the intimidation, violence and assassinations will continue.”

A secondary hypothesis of Juan Francisco’s murder is that he was yet one more victim of the constant daily violence that plagues this nation of only 6 million people. According to data from the National Civilian Police, the current daily murder average is 11, and on the date of Juan’s killing, four other unidentified partial-or-complete corpses were found. That number does not include the identified victims of that day. In fact, if the violence continues at this pace, the homicide total for 2011 would be more than 4,000. The local organization Voices on the Border points out that this is an astoundingly high number when compared to New York City, whose population size is higher than El Salvador’s and reports only 412 homicides for the entirety of 2009. The environmental movement discards this theory, stating that Juan Francisco’s involvement with the movement was too public and too recent to his sudden murder for these things to be unconnected. They also cite the continuing string of assassinations involving anti-mining activists.

Local environmental activists call on the National Civilian Police and the Attorney General of the Republic to conduct exhaustive investigations of the string of violent crimes in the department of Cabanas. They cite corruption and illicit trades within three local mayoral offices—facts they claim to be well-known among the local population, and which they list in today’s press release—as well as ties between the aforementioned authorities and the mining company Pacific Rim, as possible motives for the violence. As Francisco Pineda, President of the CAC and recent recipient of the internationally recognized Goldman Environmental Prize, asserts, “We can make a good guess about who are the intellectual authors of this crime given our lived experiences here, but that’s not our responsibility. The attorney general and the police have the obligation to investigate and determine the guilty parties.”

On June 24, the attorney general’s office informed Juan Francisco’s family that they had appointed them a lawyer. On the same day, the police also assured them that the investigation had begun. Hernandez Ayala says that the family trusts that what they’ve been told is true, and that justice will take its course. However, a lingering concern is the Salvadoran court system’s lack of precedent in completing exhaustive investigations. A United Nations Development Program report from 2007 found that only 14% of cases enter the judicial system, and only 3.8% are ever fully prosecuted, with the guilty party brought to justice. Speaking specifically of the anti-mining struggle, in all four previous assassination cases, material authors were quickly rounded up and prosecuted, but there exists significant evidence to suggest that they were hired assassins. In none of these cases — of which Juan Francisco is simply the most recent, and the movement fears will not be the last — have intellectual authors been identified by the authorities.

Juan Francisco’s family remembers him as humble, respectful and optimistic. His university professors say that he stood out for his willingness to work together with his peers and his dedication to his studies. He was thirty years old at the time of death, and would have graduated next year with a degree in Linguistics from the Technological University of San Salvador.

The casket for Juan Francisco


Advocacy, Cabanas, Corruption, Mining, violence

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.

Cabanas, International Relations, Mining

Interview with Antonio Pacheco, Director of ADES

On June 8th, the CEO of Pacific Rim mining company, Thomas Shrake, spoke before a Canadian congressional committee about his experience with the El Dorado mining project in Cabañas, El Salvador.  The congressional committee was debating the Bill C-300 that proposes oversight of the government’s investments into international mining projects.  The committee invited Mr. Shrake to testify as an example of why the bill is needed to protect Canada’s reputation abroad.  Mr Shrake’s testimony argued against the Bill and demonized the sectors of Salvadoran society that have opposed the company’s projects in their communities.  Here we provide a response from the community association, ADES, targeted in Shrake’s testimony.

Interview with Antonio Pacheco, Director of ADES:

ROSIE: We’re here with Antonio Pacheco, the Director of ADES, and we have reviewed the comments made by Thomas Shrake to the Canadian Congressional committee on June 8, 2010. I’d like to ask, after reviewing these accusations against ADES, how do you perceive what he has said?

ANTONIO:  Mr. Shrake’s objective was to create a strong impression in the Canadian Congress, to the end that they will not approve a law that controls the behavior of Canadian businesses. Mr. Shrake accuses us of promoting violence, but in reality, the authorities of this country know very well that ADES had nothing to do with these acts, and that ADES is very removed from this type of event.  ADES has done nothing to cause violence in the area of Cabanas.

ROSIE: So, why do you think it was in Mr. Shrake’s interest to make this type of accusation against your organization?

ANTONIO: He tries to paint ADES as the devil, and to make himself into the victim of our actions. He tries to make an impression on the Canadian public that they are the victims of an attack from a Salvadoran organization, and that the Salvadoran government has done nothing to prevent this type of action.

ROSIE: So, what is the real history of ADES? What’s the organization’s mission?

ANTONIO:  ADES is a community organization, comprised of campesinos and campesinas, dedicated to agriculture and community organization. Its focus is community development. This mission leads us to oppose a project like mining exploration, which is so environmentally devastating. Before we knew about the damage caused by mines, we thought it was a good project because of the employment opportunities and development that it could bring. However, our position changed when the people effected by Pacific Rim’s initial exploration came to our office to ask for help and accompaniment. The population, coming to their own conclusions, had already tried to denounce the project through the municipal government, the attorney general, and prosecutor’s office, but these organizations didn’t pay any attention to their complaints.

From this point, ADES began to get involved in this issue. The first thing we had to do was investigate the issue, and we realized that effectively in Central America and Latin America there had been a lot of damage caused by mining companies.  We are convinced that our vision, which is sustainable development, including the rational use of natural resources, is the best way to improve our standard of living.  So, due to this situation, specifically the persistent increase of mining exploration throughout the department, and the continuous complaints of the population, we decided to accompany them by raising awareness of the potential damages, scientific research with outside experts, and to begin to bring the issue onto the national stage. We decided to bring the issue to politicians, to the Salvadoran Congress, ministers, and the church, while respecting the mining industry’s presence in Cabañas.

ROSIE: Mr. Shrake has said that on 2 occasions armed groups attacked his employees and damaged his property, along with other incidences of violence, and he says that ADES is responsible for all of these violent events.

ANTONIO: Frankly, we don’t know where this accusation; that we have acted in a planned manner with armed groups, is coming from.  We are a social organization, legally constituted, and we focus on peaceful advocacy. We understand the detrimental impact that this type of activity could cause on our area, where we work and live with our families. We make it very clear that it is not our political practice to use violent means, as Mr. Shrake suggests.

ROSIE: So, ADES is going to prepare a more detailed response to these accusations, and we will await this document.

ANTONIO: Of course ADES will respond to the accusations of the president of Pacific Rim, so that the citizenry, not only in El Salvador but also in USA and Canada can hear our point of view.

Advocacy, Cabanas, Mining, violence

Voices on the Border’s Fact Finding Mission Returns from Cabañas

Last week, an independent, international fact-finding delegation led by Voices on the Border, traveled to El Salvador to investigate the increased levels of violence in the province of Cabañas.  The delegation, comprised of concerned citizens from El Salvador, the United States and Canada, interviewed over 30 people, including victims and their families, representatives from the police and judiciary, public officials, human rights and environmental experts, and religious leaders. Delegates also reviewed documents, past testimonies, and other evidence related to the Cabañas violence.

Meeting with Francisco from the Environmental Committee of Cabañas
Meeting with Francisco Pineda from the Environmental Committee of Cabañas

In Cabañas the delegation found a climate of intimidation and insecurity that reflects a culture of chronic impunity. Such a climate has resulted in three homicides; attempted kidnappings and other violent attacks; and constant threats against citizens engaged in a local and national debate on Pacific Rim Mining Corporation’s (Pacific Rim) efforts to mine gold. These attacks on citizens attempting to influence public policy are nothing less than terrorism. The delegation found that this climate of impunity and violence has resulted in obstruction of justice, inadequate investigations by government authorities, and a chilling affect on civic participation. Delegate Julia Kaminsky stated, “The consequences are ruinous to civil society and impede democracy.”

With regards to the debate over mining, delegates found existing environmental damage from Pacific Rim exploration projects, a fatally flawed environmental assessment, insufficient public consultation on proposed mining projects, and attempts by Pacific Rim to curry favor among segments of the government and local population. Pacific Rim’s activities have created deep divisions in Cabañas. For example, in an interview with the delegation, the Mayor of San Isidro, Cabañas admitted that his government accepted significant financial support from Pacific Rim.  Accepting financial contributions makes it difficult for the Mayor to remain objective when considering the needs and demands of his constituents, and deepens the fissures between those who are pro- and anti-mining. The debate over mining is healthy, but it cannot be held in a climate of impunity, where intimidation and violence prevail.

Meeting with the Mayor of San Isidro

Delegates also found that Pacific Rim’s promise of “green mining” remain unfounded, and that they have failed to meet standards set forth in the Salvadoran law.  Most proposed mining sites are in the northern regions of El Salvador, within the Lempa River watershed. According to hydrologist Dr. Robert Moran, “if high environmental standards are not demanded… it could spell disaster for the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorians that rely on the river for their livelihoods and basic needs.” Though Pacific Rim has claimed that they will achieve such high standards, they have yet to provide details of how they will do so, justifying the government’s stand that they will not grant exploitation permits. Pacific Rim responded by filing a complaint under the DR-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)

Based on its findings, the delegation has identified several actions that should be taken by Salvadorans and their government, Pacific Rim, and members of the international community.

Most importantly, the delegation calls on those perpetrating the violence to stop immediately. While they are likely motivated by short-term economic or political gains, using violence and terror to influence a public debate undermines El Salvador’s democracy.  In the long-term, an instable democracy will only undermine any economic or political gains that the perpetrators achieve in the short-term.

The delegation also calls for an independent investigation into the violence. A broad consensus of Salvadorans does not trust government authorities to conduct a thorough investigation, believing that their economic ties to Pacific Rim and the mining industry create a conflict of interest. The Salvadoran Government should request that an international body conduct an independent investigation in coordination with the Ombudsman for Human Rights. In addition to identifying those committing the violence and terror, the independent investigator should identify the intellectual authors of the attacks and any government officials who have been complicit or interfered with an investigation.

Meeting with Police Investigators

In order to ensure sustainable development, the delegation calls on all corporations that conduct business in El Salvador to demonstrate that their activities would not or do not jeopardize public safety, or harm the environment. Corporations should comply with Salvadoran law and ensure that citizens have a voice in determining whether proposed economic activities would have an adverse impact on their community.

Similarly, the delegation urges Pacific Rim to respect the rights of the citizens of Cabañas to determine the course of their own development, and stop contributing to a culture of division and instability in the region. This includes abandoning its CAFTA arbitration proceedings.  Delegate Jim Munro states “these proceedings attempt to by-pass democratic processes in El Salvador, and ultimately place the decision in the hands of appointees of the World Bank, which would set a dangerous precedent.” In the alternative, the delegation supports Salvadoran civil society that seek amicus curiae standing at the CAFTA proceedings to ensure that the environmental concerns of the people in Cabañas are given due consideration.

The delegation joins other civil society organizations in calling for the repeal of CAFTA provisions that prioritize foreign investor rights over government interests in preventing environmental degradation or jeopardizing public safety. The right for a corporation to sue a sovereign nation compromises the government’s ability to enforce its environmental and public safety laws, creating tension and fissures between government agencies and the communities that they serve. In the alternative, the delegation supports Salvadoran civil society organizations in their constitutional challenge to CAFTA.

Entrance to Pacific Rim's El Dorado Mine

The delegation left El Salvador today, and will continue working together in the coming weeks to complete a comprehensive report, which it will share with all stakeholders in El Salvador, and distribute widely in the United States and Canada.

See the Co-Latino’s story on the press conference in Spanish from the same day, Feb. 15 2010.