"We need the continued support of the international community to ensure that basic human rights, such as the right to due process, are upheld in El Salvador," said one local campaigner.
In the wake of right-wing Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele recent reelection, 245 groups from 31 countries on Friday renewed calls for his government to drop all charges against five Salvadoran water defenders known globally for their anti-mining work.
Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Teodoro Antonio Pacheco, and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega—who fought for a 2017 legislative ban on metal mining in El Salvador—were arrested over a year ago. They are accused of murdering an alleged military informant during a civil war more than three decades ago. While they were released to house arrest in September, the "Santa Marta Five" still face charges that critics call politically motivated.
In a joint statement published in English and Spanish, the global coalition pointed to reporting that Bukele's government is "considering overturning the mining ban" due to economic issues in the Central American country as well as his administration's "crusade to criminalize, persecute, and demobilize its political opponents."
"We call on the Salvadoran government to drop all charges against the five prominent water defenders and to protect, not undermine, the human rights of all Salvadorans."
"Rather than investigate or prosecute those responsible for the dozens of cases of human rights violations and crimes against humanity that members of the Salvadoran military committed against the Santa Marta community (including the murders of the Lempa River massacre in 1980, where 30 people were assassinated and 189 were disappeared), the government is now re-victimizing the community by targeting their leaders, who have been outspoken against the policies of the current government," the groups said.
"Over this past year, the Salvadoran government has produced no evidence of guilt for the five, and legal experts argue that the five are covered under a 1992 amnesty that was part of a National Reconciliation Law that passed that year," the coalition continued. "At the same time, hundreds of civil society organizations, elected officials from the U.S., Canada, and Spain, and U.N. special rapporteurs have called for their exoneration."
The Santa Marta Five are among over 75,000 people arrested during El Salvador's state of exception, a nationwide crackdown on gangs that began in March 2022. Human rights organizations say many of those imprisoned are innocent and have documented widespread abuse by security forces.
A U.S.-Canadian delegation visited El Salvador in October and last month released a report on their findings—in English and Spanish. In addition to highlighting the "tens of thousands of innocent people" imprisoned under Bukele and "compelling evidence" that he wants to violate the mining ban, the report states that the president "has taken a series of steps to reduce the independence of the judiciary, to violate basic human rights, and to suspend civil liberties and the rule of law."
The report also emphasizes that "representatives of the executive branches of the governments of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the European Union have chosen to ignore these massive violations of human rights as they drop their criticism of Bukele's actions and supply financial aid to his government."
Report co-author John Cavanagh is a senior adviser at the Institute for Policy Studies, which is one of the groups behind the new joint statement and in 2009 honored the National Roundtable on Metals Mining, a coalition the arrested water defenders helped build, with its annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award.
"We were shocked by the level of fear of arbitrary arrest among ordinary people in El Salvador today," Cavanagh said Friday. "We call on the Salvadoran government to drop all charges against the five prominent water defenders and to protect, not undermine, the human rights of all Salvadorans."
Vidalina Morales, president of the Association of Economic and Social Development Santa Marta (ADES), stressed that "at this time, when President Nayib Bukele has consolidated his dictatorial control of all the democratic institutions of the Salvadoran state, we need the continued support of the international community to ensure that basic human rights, such as the right to due process, are upheld in El Salvador."