El Salvador, Violence and Impunity


The bullets buried into the walls of the room within a foot of their intended victim, in El Salvador’s northern town of Ilobasco. After the attacker had fled unrecognized into the dusk, the phone rang: “Have there been any deaths in the house?” The female caller used an anonymous number and refused to give her name. This time Alejandro Guevara had been targeted: the anti-mining activist had been receiving threats by phone and text message in the weeks before the attack. On 8 October 2013, five days after the shooting, he told the press: “This is a plan that we have seen since 2009 … the same method they used when they killed our colleagues. This is the same structure operating to persecute us; it reveals the forms of suppression used against the environmentalists working in opposition to mining projects in the municipality. This has been happening all along, but here it is uncovered.”

Guevara’s cousin was one of three environmentalists killed in 2009, and his daughter was injured in another of the attacks. All those killed had campaigned against the Canadian mining group Pacific Rim, which explored for gold at two locations in the department of Cabañas, but as yet no link between the deaths and mining has been investigated by the authorities.

That year the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) asked El Salvador to take precautionary steps to “protect the life and personal integrity” of surviving activists such as Héctor Berrios, Luis Alberto Quintanilla and the staff of Radio Victoria who were receiving threats “allegedly as a result of their activism in defence of the environment”. Pointedly, they also requested the government to “inform the IACHR about any actions taken to investigate the facts.” The Salvadoran authorities refused to investigate claims that there were intellectual authors behind the killings, and Guevara has been warned by the authorities that his case may be dropped as investigators have discovered no leads.

Culture of impunity

The continuing intimidation of anti-mining activists is not uncommon in countries experiencing environmental conflicts. A Global Witness investigation found that more than one environmental activist was killed per week, worldwide, between 2002 and 2011. The researchers say that killings are accompanied by “a very low number of convictions and credible investigations, which contributes to a culture of impunity that suppresses activism and emboldens further abuse.”

Such impunity is particularly entrenched in Cabañas. Francisco Pineda is one of the many farmers who makes his living in the rolling farmland surrounding Ilobasco, and has become one of the most internationally renowned Salvadoran environmentalists. He was awarded the 2011 Goldman Prize for his “courage” in “living under a constant threat of assassination” while protecting “El Salvador’s dwindling water resources”. Pineda says: “There are witnesses who say that a worker with Pacific Rim wanted to hire someone to poison me, and pay him $2,000, but the Attorney General’s Office does not investigate.”

Pineda’s activism against mining began in 2004 when he found that irrigation water had stopped flowing on his land. Walking along the creek, he found Pacific Rim’s pumps directing the water to its exploration activities. Petitions to local government had no effect. Ever since Pacific Rim began exploring at the El Dorado concession near San Isidro and the Santa Rita mine in Cantón Trinidad, Sensuntepeque, it had been investing in local health and education services and making financial and material donations to local mayors. If Pacific Rim were granted an extraction licence and were able to proceed from exploring to exploiting seams of gold, local municipal authorities would receive 1% of mining profits in addition to mining taxes, amounting to millions of dollars passing through the mayors’ hands.

Local opposition to mining persuaded farmers to refuse to sell their land to Pacific Rim, and since Salvadoran law requires a company to have the deeds to land above which they seek to mine, the Salvadoran government refused to grant a mineral extraction licence to the Canadian group. Pacific Rim is currently suing the Salvadoran government for $301m in the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a process begun in 2008 but whose resolution is still pending.

Pineda is now president of the Cabañas Environmental Committee, formerly part of the National Roundtable Against Mining, which is pressing for a nation-wide ban on metallic mining. The Roundtable claims a national ban will pressure Guatemala and Honduras to forbid mining within the Trifinio Fraternidad Biosphere, a Unesco-backed environmental reserve shared by the three states that contains the watershed of the Lempa river on which El Salvador depends for 60% of its drinking water. Guatemala has allowed construction of the Cerro Blanco mine within the reserve despite opposition from Honduras and from the Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman. Cerro Blanco is owned by Goldcorp, a Canadian mining giant that also owns the Marlin Mine whose record of pollution has raised opposition to mining throughout western Guatemala.

Salvadoran NGO the Centre for the Investigation of Investment and Commerce, part of the Roundtable against Mining, reports that recent cyber-attacks on its website originated in Guatemala. Meanwhile Pineda remains under 24-hour police protection due to continuing threats.

‘The police only look after the mayor’

The convictions that followed the 2009 attacks only served to increase the mystery surrounding the mining conflict. In January 2009, six months before he was killed, anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera was saved by his brother from the wheels of an oncoming car in the Cabañas town of San Isidro. The car was driven by Javier Moreno, an employee of the town’s mayor, José Bautista.

In January 2009 Rivera was representing the left-wing FMLN, exposing massive voter fraud in favour of Mayor Bautista’s right-wing ARENA party in San Isidro’s municipal elections. ARENA and the conservative PCN have dominated Cabañas since the 1979-92 civil war, when the area was held by the army with support from paramilitary death squads and the since-disbanded National Guard. The mining conflict had eroded their support, however, and Rivera and his colleague Hector Berrios recorded busloads of Hondurans being brought into the community on election day to vote for Bautista. The scandal forced the elections to be rerun (Bautista retained power but with a reduced majority).

Rivera disappeared less than six month later; it was locally reported that a contract for his killing was widely known in the area, and he was last seen alive at a bus stop close to Ilobasco on 18 June 2009. Salvadoran daily Diario Co Latino recorded a local resident telling them that “the threat that Marcelo would be disappeared had spread around the town. There are hitmen living quietly here, and the police only look after the mayor [José Bautista].”

Marcelo Rivera’s colleague Berrios had been part of the first group of FMLN members to be integrated into the national police as part of the peace accords that ended the civil war, serving as an investigator in the “white-collar crime” unit. When Marcelo Rivera was killed, Berrios was serving as a lawyer with the Supreme Court of Justice but, despite his connections, he was unable to persuade the local police or the minister of justice and security, Manuel Melgar, to help the search mounted by local residents.

The searchers received calls from an anonymous source saying that Rivera was alive and tied up in the area, and being moved between local houses at night to avoid the searchers. Then a message came that he had been killed and his body thrown down a well. His corpse was found sitting in an upright position at the bottom of a well in Agua Zarca, close to Ilobasco. It had been covered with a natural fertiliser of rice husks and chicken manure to conceal the smell of decomposition. A pair of surgical gloves had been discarded with the body.

Berrios was present as Marcelo Rivera’s brothers, Miguel and Antonio, hauled the body from the well. He said: “His thumb was tied with a length of black bailing twine towards the back of his neck, and the other four fingers placed in his mouth. His jaw had been dislocated and his tongue was hanging out. All the fingernails had been taken out; something that caught my attention was that they had not taken his toenails out. He had two wounds on the back of his head, one 7cm long and one 10cm long. He was shirtless and his trousers and underwear were around his ankles.” The following day Berrios inspected the body as it lay in cold storage in the forensic office in San Vicente. The doctor who performed the autopsy described the cause of Rivera’s death as asphyxiation due to strangulation, which caused his trachea to break. The narrow wounds to the head had been made after death, probably caused by a metal rod with which the searchers had been exploring the well from above.

‘The body is no longer there’

The police had previously warned that the search for a body was futile, since the gangs responsible for most abductions always ensured that the corpses of their victims disappeared for good. But if the shadows of obscurity had parted in this instance, they were soon to return. Forty-eight hours after the body’s discovery, Berrios called Dr Juan Carlos Monterrosa Pachaca, genetics specialist at the Forensic Unit of the Supreme Court of Justice, and asked him if they could accelerate the DNA testing on Marcelo Rivera’s body. The doctor replied: “I would do it if I could, but the body has disappeared. Earlier I sent someone to take some samples but they found that the body is no longer there.” Through investigation, it was discovered that Rivera’s body had been buried in a common grave; Santiago Hernandez of the Attorney General’s Office told Berrios: “I did not authorise the burial, and I’m the only person who can.” Morgues are under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. So through his contacts with judges, Berrios discovered that the head of the Forensics Department in San Salvador had called the head of the Forensics Department in San Vicente, and ordered that Rivera be buried in a common grave for unidentified corpses.

The prosecution that followed the murder added to the obscurity. Rodolfo Delgado of the Attorney General’s Office ruled that he had been killed after an evening of heavy drinking with gang-members, one of whom was allegedly his gay lover. Rivera’s friends and family describe him as teetotal, say he did not have a partner, and were unaware of any homosexuality.

Four gang-members were arrested, and the case against them was based on the testimony of a gangster Gerardo Abrego Leon (who was given the secret witness name of “Coyote”, although he was not present when Marcelo was killed). “Coyote” initially claimed that Rivera had been shot by the gangsters; but when no bullet wounds were found on the body, he changed his testimony and claimed Rivera was murdered with a hammer. No blunt instrument injuries were found on the body. At the trial Leon claimed the gang members tortured Rivera before hanging him from a tree. Darwin Serrano, José Herrera, Wilber Baires and Delfino Arteaga were convicted of his murder. Serrano was released from prison (due to over-crowding) and was killed with a machete in Agua Zarca on 12 December 2010. The same day assassins tried to kill William Iraheta, who reportedly claimed to have twice been targeted by his former employer, Mayor José Bautista, due to information he has on the mayor’s activities. “Coyote” was shot to death on 2 January 2011. No prosecutions have followed their deaths.

Threats to anti-mining activists

The threats towards anti-mining activists continued throughout 2009. Radio Victoria, the community radio station in the Cabañas town of Ciudad Victoria has chronicled the threats made against its staff, such as the typical threatening text message received days after Marcelo Rivera’s disappearance from “Exterminator”. It read: “Everyone at Radio Victoria will die for being assholes and screwing with ARENA. They’ll end up rotten like that fag Marcelo.” The radio station declined $8,000 in publicity broadcasting from Pacific Rim in 2007, and turned down the company’s offer to complete building work at the station, fearing that it was an attempt to compromise their broadcasting.

On 13 July, two days after Rivera’s funeral, Father Luis Quintanilla left Radio Victoria following his show, and drove along the winding road towards Sensuntepeque. He saw a masked man waiting on the road with a rifle and sped past. When he drove the same road on 28 July 2009, a pickup truck overtook and forced him to stop, before three armed men dragged him from his car. One asked whether they were to shoot him there and was told No, they were to bring him in alive. When Father Quintanilla’s car alarm activated, the priest broke free and escaped his pursuers by diving down a ravine. The police and the Attorney General’s Office refused to investigate the event, telling Quintanilla that since nothing had been stolen no crime had been committed.

On 7 August 2009 Ramiro Rivera, a member of the Cabañas Environmental Committee, was riding his horse to milk a cow. He was shot in the back and legs by Oscar Menjívar and three unidentified men. Menjívar was widely viewed as a promoter of Pacific Rim’s mining proposals (although the company denies he was ever on the payroll) and had previously attacked two anti-mining activists with a machete. Ramiro survived the attack and was given 24-hour police protection. Oscar Menjívar was arrested but a trial never took place due to a second attack that killed the only witness, Ramiro, on 20 December 2009.

His two police guards proved to be no protection as Ramiro drove towards Trinidad with environmental activist Santos Rodriguez (who had lost two fingers in a machete attack by Oscar Mejivar), Alejandro Guevara’s daughter Maria Eugenia Guevara, and local resident Felícita Echeverría with two children. The car climbed towards a sharp bend by the Menjívar residence when a team of gunmen opened fire. Ramiro and front-seat passenger Felícita were killed immediately, and Maria Eugenia Guevara was injured. A local farmer, Domingo Miranda, had been roping a bull across the fields when the attack happened: “I heard the M-16s; the attackers emptied their magazines,” he says. “Then a van pulled up with the girl [Maria Eugenia] who was covered in blood.”

When Pacific Rim gained exploration permits for the Santa Rita concession in 2005, they co-operated with the head of the community development council, Andres Chicas Gomez. But fears of pollution caused social divisions, and Gomez found himself voted off and replaced with Ramiro Rivera.

Alejandro Guevara was distantly related to Ramiro and the two men had grown up together in Trinidad, the community in which Guevara continues to live most of the year. “Ramiro was always very popular,” he remembers. “I’m sad to say that initially he followed the right-wing party,” before the mining conflict radicalised him, “and then some who had thought well of him before no longer did so.”

Killed, with her baby 

Environmentalist Santos Rodriguez had escaped the attack, but having received death threats, he moved into Ramiro’s house which was still guarded by the police. Guevara was first cousin to Santos’s wife Dora Recinos, who had remained in her home. “We were trying to calm her down” he says, “because Ramiro was killed days before and she was alarmed”. On 26 December 2009, Dora washed the family’s laundry in the stream below the house, before walking back up the slope with her two year old son on her hip. She climbed the hill slowly as she was eight months pregnant. She was shot in the back, killing her and her unborn child and wounding her son in the leg. “We were 75 metres away,” says Guevara, “but we never imagined that it was Dora, that she had been killed; there was a grassy slope and we couldn’t see where she had been killed.” He remembers Dora as a child: “I used to call her ‘the little beetle’ as she was so small. As she grew up she never made any problems for anyone, her humility was what everyone saw… She married and had children, and then she fought the gold mining and then she was killed, with her little baby in her arms…”

Billy Kyte, who has researched similar violence worldwide, says: “El Salvador is not an isolated case. Global Witness has seen the same pattern of violence and abuse in Cambodia, Brazil and many other countries where the rule of law is weak and the prize of oil, gas or mineral wealth intoxicating. Whilst impunity reigns and hunger for the world’s resources gets ever more competitive, killings of those defending their rights to land and the environment will rise and rise.” His team’s work in collecting information on murders related to the extraction of natural resources had been made more difficult by what their report terms an “institutionalised impunity”, since those responsible often have “significant control over the legal structures and media which could be used to seek redress or hold them to account. And in many countries which are rich in natural resources but have poor populations, the judiciary and legal institutions are weak, corrupt or non-existent.”

To public knowledge the Attorney General’s Office has not investigated possible links between any of the killings and the victims’ activism, despite the accompanying threats explicitly linking the two. Rodolfo Delgado of the Attorney General’s Office instead linked the Trinidad attacks to the murders earlier in the year of Oscar Menjívar’s parents. Oscar’s father Horacio, who is widely reported to be involved in trafficking, was shot dead in April 2009; Esperanza Menjívar was shot in October.

Delgado claims that Ramiro Rivera and Santos Rodriguez contracted Ilobasco-based Alexander Pérez to kill Oscar Menjivar, due to a feud over Esperanza threatening Ramiro’s niece with a gun for an alleged affair with Horacio. Since Pérez was unable to attack Oscar (who was in prison for shooting Ramiro), he attacked Horacio and Esperanza instead, and when Ramiro and Santos refused to pay him, the assassin turned his gun on his alleged clients, targeting Dora when he was unable to find Santos Rodriguez.

Delgado claims that Santos Rodriguez confessed to arranging the attack with Perez. That proved impossible to verify as the environmentalist lives in hiding with 24-hour police protection. Delgado pointed to cash transfers from US-based Saturnino Rodriguez, arguing that these were payments for the murder. In April 2012 Alexander Pérez was sentenced to 145 years in prison for the murders, and five others, including Santos Rodriguez, were given sentences ranging from 30 to 105 years. Francisco Pineda dismisses the sentences, saying Delgado’s was the only hypothesis investigated by the Attorney General’s Office, and claiming that his case “falls short because the prosecutor’s didn’t recognise that Saturnino was always sending money to his family and people in the community, including Alexander Pérez.”

Ramiro’s brother claims that he was pressured by the prosecution while giving evidence, and threatened with imprisonment. Alejandro Guevara says those imprisoned were responsible for Horacio and Esperanza Menjíar’s murders, but that those killings were lumped together by the Attorney General’s Office with the murders of environmentalists. He claims that Santos was the key witness to the prosecution, but that his declarations were forced upon him by investigators, and in exchange for testifying his sentence was suspended and he lives in hiding under police protection. Guevara argues that those who killed Dora and Ramiro have never been prosecuted.

Rodolfo Delgado led the prosecution following the murder of high profile US-Salvadoran trades unionist Gilberto Soto who was shot in the back by three men in the port-city of Usulután on 5 November 2004. He had travelled to El Salvador from his home in New Jersey to develop links between his Teamster trade union and Central American dockworkers involved in disputes with the Maersk shipping company. According to a report published by The Woodrow Wilson Centre, Salvadoran investigators believed that Soto was killed because he “stumbled on the Perrones drug operations in the port warehouses and their use of tractor trailer trucks to move cocaine.”

A box of bones

Rodolfo Delgado had Soto’s mother in law convicted for organising two local gang-members to carry out the murder, claiming she was motivated by alleged disputes between Soto and her daughter. The accused claimed to have been forced into making confessions through subjection to sexual, physical and psychological abuse. El Salvador’s then Human Rights Ombudsman Beatrice Alamanni de Carrillo claimed that the case was marked by irregularities throughout, and supported the claims of the accused.

Delgado also investigated the July 2006 torture and murder of the parents of “Mariposa” Marina Manzanares, the voice of the rebel Radio Venceremos during the civil war. Manzanares had been receiving politicised death threats prior to the attack, and Amnesty International write that her parents had been sent a box of bones with a message: “This is how you will receive the bones of your daughter.” Manzanares saw the killings as the work of death squads tied to political forces and disputes the claims of the police that valuables had been taken from the house in the attack. She alleges that in a meeting with Delgado he warned her: “We have statements from several people in the community that suggest that you or the people you have worked with (the FMLN) were responsible for the deaths of your parents… You should be careful about what you are saying on the outside because it could interfere with the investigation… Do not continue to say that there is no political will to investigate the killings.” To “Mariposa”, Delgado “has been known for being part of a structure that is primarily characterised by ensuring impunity when those involved in, or responsible for, serious crimes are linked to the structures of economic and political power.”

And so, despite the Cabañas convictions, for some the shadows persist. From their obscurity, social histories have become known: four years after the murders, those killed have become known as the “martyrs” of the mining movement, and their faces gaze down from posters in the offices of environmentalists campaigning for a nationwide ban on metallic mining. To the families of Ramiro and Dora, the mining company is directly or indirectly responsible, and the departed live on: “They are our consciences,” says Guevara.

Other motives for the murders

Yet given the impunity surrounding the deaths, there is a danger that other interests are using the mining conflict as a smokescreen to conceal other motives for the murders. Cabañas is known to host narco-trafficking routes from the Honduran border that head west towards Guatemala. El Salvadoran smuggling is dominated by the Perrones and Texis cartels: the Perrones originated in milk, cheese, and clothes-smuggling networks that have developed links to Colombian, Mexican, and Guatemalan groups; the Texis cartel is characterised by the socially elevated, apparently-respectable nature of its leaders.

The success of the Cabañas environmentalists in mobilising civil society could be seen to have presented a danger to the cartels’ operations, for once it threatened to overturn municipal decisions and to develop an electoral dimension, it began to undermine the stability of power relations on which largescale trafficking and money-laundering depend. Insight Crime, the Washington and Medellin-based institute that researches narcotics and organised crime, notes that: “Many of the Perrones’ leaders have been arrested and charged with various crimes, but the cases against them have fallen apart in El Salvador’s weak justice system… Los Perrones also developed deep ties to the Salvadoran government as they grew, penetrating local security agencies and political circles in the regions where they operate. The gangs are thought to be particularly close to officials in the eastern portion of the country, where the ARENA and National Conciliation Parties are prominent.”

Salvadoran Jesuit newspaper El Faro describes Jose Salazar Umaña, a leading businessman and president of El Salvador’s top football league, as one of the founders of the Texis cartel. Meanwhile Juan Umaña Samayoa, the mayor of Metapan, Armando Portillo Portillo, the mayor of Texistepeque, and Reynaldo Cardoza, a federal congressman from Chalatenango, are also allegedly active in the group’s leadership. Insight Crime writes: “Their political links, which are useful for sweeping those investigations that do exist under the rug, have allowed the Cartel de Texis to branch out into the security agencies, buying off police and soldiers, so as to ensure the integrity of their shipments, as well as judges and prosecutors, so as to further reduce the chances of charges against them.”

Cocaine shipments have been seized in Cabañas, including a $2.2m shipment seized in Villa Jutiapa in 2009, and Mayor Castellanos of Ilobasco was challenged by the country’s tax authorities after his income rose from $254,000 to almost $1.3m between 2008 and 2009. Members of local councils have occasionally been arrested for involvement in forms of trafficking: Juan José Acosta of the Sensuntepeque town council was arrested shortly before the January 2009 municipal elections for smuggling black-market dairy products into El Salvador from Honduras. There are reports that an anonymous source in the local police office revealed that Sensuntepeque Mayor Edgar Bonilla and Legislative Representative Carlos Reyes intervened on Acosta’s behalf and the circuit court judge released him without charge.

An unreleased police document obtained by the author of the Woodrow Wilson Centre report claims that “the reach of the Perrones extends to the national political level, as well as the senior levels of the police, the judicial system and the Attorney General’s Anti-Narcotics Unit. Evidence of the power of the organisation, law enforcement and intelligence sources said, was the fact that many of the cases against leading members of the gang were being dismissed or the charges reduced, while only a few low-level members have been convicted.”

Local allegations have been made that such cartel activity is at work in Cabañas, and together with the reluctance of the Attorney General’s Office to investigate claims that intellectual authors were behind the attacks on environmentalists, have supported a belief among many that powerful business and political interests are behind the persecution of environmentalists. It is not, however, the only theory that suggests there may be more powerful forces at play than the local community grievances suggested by Delgado. Asked to explain the contemporary lull in attacks in 2012, Berrios responded: “The threats and the persecutions have a lot to do with events in the political sphere such as elections for mayors, presidential elections, public consultations on mining, a specific activity that we as the resistance might be organising, or activities undertaken by the mining companies to create obstacles for us. So when the correlation of political forces is in question, when the outcome is in the balance, violence ensues.”

Oceana Gold under fire

Four days after an attacker fired at Alejandro Guevara in Ilobasco, the Australian-Canadian mining group Oceana Gold announced that it had bought Pacific Rim in a $10.2m share deal, and was looking forward “to working with our local community and government partners in establishing a roadmap to unlock the opportunity at El Dorado for El Salvador.” Oceana Gold owns the Didipio Mine in Nueva Viscaya, Philippines. The Philippine Human Rights Commission has recommended the revocation of Oceana’s mining license due to the illegal and forcible dispossessions and demolitions of properties, and the harassment of local people by security forces. The local government of Kasibu has also issued a closure notice on the mine due to non-payment of fees and human rights abuses by its security personnel.

The litigation against El Salvador was Pacific Rim’s principal asset, part of a rapidly developing dynamic in state-extractive industry relations. According to the IPS study Mining for Profits, in 2000 there were three pending cases at the ICSID related to oil, mining, or gas. By March 2013, there were 169, and while Latin America only accounts for 14% of ICSID member states, they make up 51% of those nations facing cases related to extractive industries. According to report authors Sandra Anderson and Manuel Pérez-Rocha, the litigations under bilateral investment treaties and free trade agreements “may not only render existing national laws insignificant, but may also have further implications in preventing countries from creating new legislation for fear of being sued.”

Anti-mining campaigners have raised fears that Oceana Gold’s acquisition of Pacific Rim was a means to exert pressure on legislators during an electoral season (presidential elections are due to be held in February 2014). The National Roundtable against Mining responded to the buyout on 23 October, warning: “Given the demonstrated relationship between political parties, national businesspeople and mining companies, it is not farfetched to suspect — and it merits further investigation — the closed door deals that could be taking place in the midst of the electoral campaign to put in place the conditions for metal mining.”

The financial and political pressure to allow mining to proceed, and to reform the laws and regulations with which mining companies must comply, has been accentuated by another case. Commerce Group is a Wisconsin-based company that operated the San Sebastian mine in La Unión department in eastern El Salvador. It used the Central American Free Trade Agreement to demand $100m from the government in compensation for lost potential earnings after the government cited environmental grounds in denying them a permit to resume operations. Its case has recently been discontinued by ICSID due to non-payment of fees on the part of the company, but the social, political and physical imprint left by the company remains.

The cyanide left by Commerce Group’s earlier activities still covers the dried silt and rocks of their abandoned operation, and the artesian miners now illegally working the tunnels warn of arsenic contamination in parts of the mine. The pollution from the company’s earlier operations played a role in swinging public opinion against mining: The Rio San Sebastian which flows from the site is laced with cyanide and affected by acid mine drainage — a process in which the sulphuric acid released by disturbed rock causes dangerous concentrations of heavy metals to be secreted in streams and rivers.

A 2010 analysis (1) of water sources close to the mine revealed levels of aluminium to be 1,580 times above permitted levels, iron 1,658 times above, and cyanide 18 times above; while levels of zinc, manganese and nickel were also in excess of safe levels for consumption. The pollution has been widely linked to the prevalence of Guillain-Barré Syndrome among local children.

A ban on mining?

Such are the concerns that motivate many Salvadorans — especially those living from the land downstream of Oceana Gold’s newly purchased claims — to continue to oppose mining, however the dispute between their government and the company is resolved. They will not do so without fear however. Alejandro Guevara notes that in his canton of Trinidad: “Just to speak about the mine reminds people of the assassinations.”

The stakes at play for both subsistence farmers and those in a position to access the millions in gold mining revenues are considerable, and such concerns led the then Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman Oscar Luna to call for a ban on mining, on the grounds that the state and society lack the capacity to peacefully resolve the conflicts of interests that metallic mining entails.

In Commerce Group’s home state of Wisconsin, the environmental regulations on mining in are among the toughest in the world, demanding that applicants for mining permits prove that a metal sulphide mine has been safely operated in North America without polluting the environment. So far the mining industry has been unable to present such a case and no permits have been issued.

The more limited actions of El Salvador — to not issue Pacific Rim a mineral extraction permit when its application lacked the required land deeds, to deny Commerce Group a new permit due to its record of pollution — are now on trial in a process which has already cost the state millions of dollars. A similar situation is arising in Costa Rica; in October 2012 Toronto-based Infinito Gold announced that it would sue Costa Rica at ICSID for over $1bn under the Canada-Costa Rica Bilateral Investment Treaty, after the country’s Supreme Court ruled against the company building an open-cast mine in the north of the country.

The exposure to such risks will factor into the decisions of financially poor states on whether to apply environmental restrictions to the operations of transnational mining companies. An increased reluctance to do so will ensure that activists raising awareness of environmental concerns will find political allies harder to find, and in areas characterised by impunity, will be at greater risk of being added to the grim and escalating statistics of those targeted by interests who remain in the shadows, and whose agents disappear into the dusk.

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