Salvadoran environmental defenders detained for decades-old crimes

Activists worry the arrests are a move by the cash-strapped government to open the country to now banned metals mining

Five prominent environmental defenders who played a crucial role in securing a historic mining ban in El Salvador have been detained accused of civil war era and gang-related crimes, in what rights groups fear is a ruse to restart mining.

Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega were detained on Wednesday in Cabañas in northern El Salvador, accused of killing an alleged army informant more than 33 years ago during the brutal civil war that claimed 75,000 lives.

Nayib Bukele, the authoritarian populist president who swept to power in 2019, has repeatedly blocked attempts to seek justice for civil war victims – the vast majority of whom were civilians killed by the US-backed dictatorship and rightwing death squads.

The military is accused of dozens of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in Santa Marta, the community where the five detained defenders live and work, but no one has ever faced justice.

Hundreds of national and international activists and organisations have condemned the detention as politically motivated.

In a statement, the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) said the government’s decision to arrest the five men while blocking justice in high-profile cases like the El Mozote massacre “raises questions about whether the true motivation is to attempt to silence these water defenders”.

Without providing details, prosecutors have also accused the five men of illicit association – a crime which has been widely used by the Bukele regime to lock up more than 60,000 alleged gang members since March.

Rights groups fear that the community leaders, who are being held at a police station in the capital, San Salvador, could languish in overcrowded cells for months before formal charges are filed in court. The ongoing state of emergency has suspended a wide range of civil liberties and led to widespread arbitrary detentions and other abuses, according to United Nations experts.

The detained men are renowned community organisers and water protectors, who helped lead the historic and successful campaign that convinced the Salvadoran legislature to unanimously pass a ban on metals mining in 2017 to save that nation’s rivers. Amid worsening drought caused by the climate crisis, El Salvador could run out of drinking water by the end of the century unless radical action is taken to rehabilitate its contaminated waterways.

Environmental organisations fear that the arrests were a calculated attempt to destabilise community opposition as the economically stressed government seeks to overturn the mining ban.

Bukele is under enormous pressure to find new revenue streams after his ill-advised embrace of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin failed spectacularly.

In recent months, local officials in Cabañas have reportedly been approached about mining projects, while unknown individuals have offered to buy land where former mines are located.

Detainee Antonio Pacheco, director of the Association of Economic and Social Development (Ades) and former guerrilla leader, had alerted officials and organizations about these suspicious activities.

“It’s clear that the arrests are politically motivated,” said Pedro Cabezas, coordinator of the Central American alliance on mining. “All five leaders were part of the anti-mining movement which started in Cabañas, where it’s clear the current government wants to restart mining.”