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


Cabanas, Corruption, Organized Crime, Politics, violence

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.

Cabanas, Corruption, violence

Another Disappearance in Cabañas

We are sad to report that another activist in Cabañas has been disappeared. Juan Francisco Duran Ayala is a volunteer with the Environmental Committee of Cabañas (CAC, in Spanish) and was hanging posters in Ilobasco denouncing Pacific Rim and mining last Wednesday. He disappeared the next day.

A press release from CAC representatives states that the Mayor of Ilobasco, Eliseo “Cheyo” Castellano, ordered the municipal police to take down all of the posters that Mr. Duran Ayala had been hanging. Others report that while Juan Francisco Duran and others were hanging posters, the Mayor’s employees were following and watching them.

Like other mayors in Cabañas, Mayor Castellano is no stranger to conflict and controversy, especially with regards to his support of Pacific Rim and local efforts to mine gold. Pacific Rim mining company’s primary asset is the El Dorado mine, which is just up the road from Ilobasco. When Pacific Rim first arrived in Cabañas, they explored La Caldera, a large area covering Illobasco and parts of San Vicente, a neighboring province to the south. Mayor Castellano joined Mayor Jose Baustista, Mayor Edgar Bonilla and others in aggressively suppressing the local anti-mining movement.

Two years ago, activist Marcelo Rivera from San Isidro, Cabañas was disappeared and found dead at the bottom of a well. While sources who wish to remain anonymous believe that Jose Bautista of San Isidro was involved in Mr. Rivera’s disappearance and murder, it occurred in Agua Zarca, a small village in Ilobasco.

Mayor Castellano, who is serving his fifth term in office, is known for more than just suppressing the local anti-mining movement. Over the years he has used extreme measures to repress the leftist FMLN party in Cabañas. During the campaign for the 2009 local elections, he stated in a speech in Agua Zarca, the community where Marcelo Rivera was killed, that the FMLN “are communists and eat babies.” According the Miriam Hernandez, who was the FMLN mayoral candidate during the 2006 elections, Mayor Castellanos and his four loyal bodyguards threatened her and her supporters at gunpoint on at least two occasions.

At the time of his disappearance, Juan Francisco Duran was studying at the Technical University. His father is Benjamín Ayala Flores who resides in Ilobasco and is the coordinator for the group of FMLN war veterans. His role in organizing FMLN veterans has likely put him at odds with Mayor Castellano and his supporters.

As you may recall, when Marcelo in June 2009, his friends and family were frustrated because the police and Attorney General’s office did not organize search parties, stating that he was probably partying with friends. CAC representative and friends of Juan Francisco Duran are asking for your help in demanding that authorities form search parties and properly investigate threats and attacks against other activists in the region. We will post again tomorrow with instructions on who and how to call and write.

Juan Francisco Duran (Photo from CAC press release)

Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Juan Francisco Duran and all others who are being threatened and attacked for taking on local power structures, engaging in public policy debates, and contributing to a stronger civil society.