By Edgardo Ayala
SAN SALVADOR, Jan 27 , 2010 (IPS) - Environmental activists in El Salvador allege that managers of a gold mine owned by a Canadian corporation are implicated in the murders of three anti-mining activists.
The killings took place between June and December 2009 in the central department (province) of Cabañas, where the Pacific Rim El Salvador company, a subsidiary of the Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Corp, has been exploring for gold and silver since 2002.
In 2008 authorities in El Salvador refused to issue the company a mining permit for the El Dorado mine, 65 km northeast of the capital, after an intense anti-mining campaign by civil society organisations, local authorities and residents, and Catholic Church leaders.
Through a U.S. subsidiary, Pacific Rim is suing the Salvadoran state for 700 million dollars in compensation for lost investment, under provisions in the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the U.S.
The first activist killed was Marcelo Rivera, a 37-year-old member of the Association of Friends of San Isidro Cabañas (ASIC) and one of the leaders of the opposition to Pacific Rim's operations in the area. His tortured body was found down a well on Jun. 30.
The second victim was Ramiro Rivera (no relation) of the Cabañas Environmental Committee, gunned down on Dec. 20 by M-16 rifle fire in Trinidad, a village in the municipality of Sensuntepeque, the provincial capital.
Just six days later, 32-year-old Dora Alicia Sorto was killed in the same village and with the same type of firearm. She was also a member of the Committee. Sorto, eight months pregnant, was heading home after washing clothes in a nearby stream when her attackers struck. Her two-year-old son was also injured.
Héctor Berríos, a lawyer belonging to the Mesa Nacional Frente la Minería Metálica (National Working Group against Mining), said the motive for the murders was clearly linked to the victims' activism against mining in general and Pacific Rim in particular.
"The question here is who benefits from this terror campaign" against anti-mine activists, Berríos told IPS. But he acknowledged that it is very difficult to prove the alleged connection between the company and the murders.
In a Jan. 4 statement issued from its Vancouver headquarters, Pacific Rim said it "unequivocally denies these accusations" by Salvadoran anti-mining groups suggesting the company was involved in the murders in the Trinidad area, and called the accusations "false" and "wrongful" "misinformation."
"There is no evidence indicating these violent acts bear any relation whatsoever to the debate over mining in the country," the statement said, quoting local press stories that attribute these "tragic incidents" to "a longstanding feud between two local families," and calling on all parties to rely on the justice system to determine the true facts.
Ramiro Rivera, who had survived a previous attempt on his life on Aug. 7, was under police protection. But his bodyguards were incapable of defending him with their side arms against the M-16s wielded by the small group of assailants who attacked him.
Berríos said the strategy of intimidating anti-mining protesters is commonly used by powerful mining companies in other Latin American countries and around the world. "But violence will not put a stop to our struggle, which we are waging to protect the environment and people's health," he said.
Miguel Ángel Rivera, Marcelo's brother and a fellow member of ASIC, said the killings have spread fear in the anti-mining movement, but underlined that he intends to carry on, in spite of his worries about his wife and daughter.
"When my little eight-year-old girl goes off to school, I wonder how safe she will be," he told IPS. "And at night, if I hear a car driving by, I fear the worst," he added, at a vigil held in Trinidad to raise community morale and encourage the environmentalists after the two December murders.
Rivera says he will continue because "we know we are on the right side," and for him to give up the anti-mining struggle now would mean that his brother's life's work "had been in vain."
The Human Rights Ombudsman's Office criticised the National Civil Police and the Attorney General's Office in late December, saying their investigation of the activists' deaths was "negligent."
But deputy director of police investigations Howard Cotto complained about such allegations. "Not to hold an investigation would be negligent, or to rule out certain lines of enquiry, but that is not the case," he told IPS. The investigation is under way, and could take "days, weeks or months," he added.
He said that without evidence, the police cannot state there is a link between the murders and the anti-mining protests, although it is one of the possible leads they are working on.
He did, however, confirm that the two killings in Trinidad in December were the work of hired killers, using large-calibre firearms. But he said it is not clear who ordered the murders.
In the case of Marcelo Rivera, four suspects have been arrested and will go on trial in February, but no progress has been reported on finding the masterminds.
Since Pacific Rim began exploratory mining at El Dorado, environmental, religious and community groups have organised tirelessly against the company's activities, complaining about threats to people's health and the environment.
A book titled "El lado oscuro del oro. Impactos de la minería metálica en El Salvador" (The Dark Side of Gold: The impact of metal mining in El Salvador), by Florian Erzinger, Luis González and Ángel Ibarra, published by the Salvadoran Ecology Unit (UNES) in December 2008, says that Central America has been gripped by a "new gold fever" since the price of gold soared to 1,000 dollars an ounce.
Authorities in El Salvador have approved 29 exploration concessions since 2006, and the 11 foreign mining companies to whom they were granted have already requested permits for commercial exploitation in 25 cases.
In practice, however, denial of Pacific Rim's application for a permit has brought any further applications to a complete halt.
At first the government of President Antonio Saca (2005-2009), of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), was in favour of foreign companies bringing in investment to exploit the mining wealth of this country, the smallest in Central America and the only one in the region without an Atlantic shoreline, although it does have a Pacific coast.
But it balked at issuing permits, because of strong, widespread opposition to the mines, at a time when the country faced elections, which ARENA lost in March 2009 to the leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
Since President Mauricio Funes took office Jun. 1, 2009, he has firmly insisted that he will not approve any such permits.
"It's very simple: my government will not authorise any extractive mining project," said Funes Jan.11 in Sensuntepeque, at a ceremony to inaugurate the school year. He also said "we are going to clear up" the murders of the environmental activists, whose work he praised.
The study on mining impacts in El Salvador says that, taken together, the 25 projects applying for extraction permits plan to mine 12 million ounces of gold and 78 million ounces of silver. The extraction process would require 22 million litres of water, and 950 tonnes of cyanide.
The impact of mining on local water sources has been apparent since exploration got under way, as have the effects on health of the use of cyanide and other toxic substances.
The report's authors say the 25 projects could generate 10 billion dollars in revenues, and that Pacific Rim has already extracted 1.4 million ounces of gold under its exploratory concession. (END)