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EL SALVADOR
Activists murdered
Edgardo Ayala
2/4/2010
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Police have not ruled out links between mine and activists´ murders.

Three anti-mining environmentalists were murdered in central El Salvador in the second half of last year. Police are investigating the killings. No suspects have been detained, but local residents are denouncing a possible link between a gold mine and the activists´ murders.

The local subsidiary of Canada´s Pacific Rim Mining began exploring for metals in the El Dorado mine in the central Cabañas department in 2002. Since then, environmental, religious, human rights and community groups have tried to force the mine out, fearing health and environmental damages from the use of cyanide to extract gold.

In December 2008, El Salvador´s government denied Pacific Rim rights to drill in the mine, just ahead of elections. Then-President Antonio Saca turned out the permit, in a failed effort to win votes to maintain his conservative Republican National Alliance in power.

The company went to the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, the World Bank´s Washington-based arbitration court, demanding US$70 million in lost investment from the denied drilling permit.

The victims
President Mauricio Funes, who took office last June, marking the first leftist government in El Salvador, has also denied the company the permits.

As Pacific Rim continued pushing for a green light for drilling in the mine, which it says holds 1.4 million ounces of gold, three activists were killed.

Thirty-seven-year-old Marcelo Rivera Moreno was the first. The member of the Friends of San Isidro Cabañas Association, a community group, and one of the most vocal activists against the mine, was found dead on June 30 in a well, 12 days after he disappeared.

Ramiro Rivera Gómez — no relation to Rivera Moreno, 53, of the Cabañas Environmental Committee, was gunned down while he was traveling on a rural road in his pick-up truck after men armed with M-16s opened fire on Dec. 20.

After an attempt on his life in August, Rivera Gómez began traveling with a two-officer police escort. They were not able to protect him, however.

His fellow committee member, Dora Alicia Sorto, 32,  was shot dead on Dec. 26, when she was returning home from washing some clothes in the river. She was eight months pregnant and her two-year-old son was wounded in the attack, but survived.

Environmentalists and community members say that the company is supporting the attacks with a terror campaign to quiet the activist, but no solid proof has been found.

"This is getting to extremes," Ricardo Navarro, director of the Salvadoran Center for Applied Technology, told Latinamerica Press during a vigil for the victims on Jan. 8. "We already have true environmental martyrs in Cabañas, and I personally hold that they are morally responsible," he said. "To me, it´s not about whether the company´s president ordered the killings, but that they came here to take gold and silver and they´re the ones who have generated this climate of violence."

Since the company arrived, there have been waves of homicides and other violence in the area that had traditionally been more peaceful than the rest of the country, which has a murder rate of 52 per 100,000 residents, according to police figures.

Crimes motives
The National Police had first attributed the deaths to domestic disputes, which was quickly rejected by the activists and community members, who saw the theory as a smokescreen to detract from any possible role by Pacific Rim.

Howard Cotto, the police force´s subdirector, told Latinamerica Press that the police is open to all possibilities and is not ruling out even the company´s involvement.

"Even if we suggest that the motive of all the crimes have to do with mining or not ... what is clear is that in all the areas where Pacific Rim began mining exploration, high levels of conflict occurred," he said.

"But it´s not right that we, as an institution, say one way or another if we don´t have the proof yet."

In an interview with The Real News Network reporter Jesse Freeston on Jan. 6, Pacific Rim´s president, Tom Shrake, denied any link between the company and the killings, and said disputes in the community were long present before the company arrived.

Gold fever
Refuge purchases of gold following the 2008 financial crisis drove prices up to more than $1,200, and fueled a gold fever in Central America.

In their book: "The Dark Side of Gold: The Impact of Mining in El Salvador," Florián Erzinger, Luis González and Ángel M. Ibarra note there are 29 mining exploration projects active in El Salvador since 2006 and 25 would be drilled by 11 transnational companies, and use up to 160 million liters of water, applying 950 million metric tons of cyanide, to extract 12 million ounces of gold and 78 million ounces of silver.
—Latinamerica Press.


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Local residents stand up against open-pit mining in their community. (Photo: Edgardo Ayala)
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