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SAN ISIDRO, EL SALVADOR—Death and violence are an unfortunate part of everyday life in El Salvador. Local and national newspapers, with their graphic photos of bloodied corpses, track the daily tally of homicide and crime in a country that has one of the highest murder rates in the world. But even by those standards Marcelo Rivera’s torture and death were shocking.
During the evening of June 18, 2009, the community leader and anti-mining activist disappeared when he was lured away from a routine trip a few kilometers from his home in San Isidro. Twelve days later, his body was removed from an empty well 27 metres deep. His body had no hair or fingernails, his trachea had been broken and the thumb of his right hand was stuck in his mouth like a baby’s, tied in place with a piece of rope around his naked body. He had been beaten and his face was unrecognizable.
Rivera was a respected member of the community. He founded a cultural centre popular with youth in San Isidro, and had been in charge of the finances of the local chapter of the FMLN, the country’s leftist and currently ruling political party. He had also campaigned vigorously against the El Dorado mining project in Cabanas, owned by Canadian company Pacific Rim Mining Corp.
Vancouver-based Pacific Rim is a publicly traded company that has subsidiaries in El Salvador and the US. The company is a junior exploration company that specializes in gold exploration. Pacific Rim has invested $80 million into the El Dorado project in about seven years. They claim to have invested several million dollars in social programs in Cabanas.
But the project has generated conflict in a region characterized by poverty and a dependence on remittances from family members in the US. Money provided by Pacific Rim for health and education is seen as a way of buying support from the people and tension is high between those for and against the mine.
The environmental effects of the mine, such as the contamination of soil and water sources like aquifers and wells, are a big worry among residents in Cabanas. Some community members have also complained about the displacement of communities to make room for the mine. On a social level, the arrival of Pacific Rim has generated conflict and violence in the area.
Apart from Rivera’s death, there have been two assassination attempts that seem to be related to anti-mining activism: In July, a priest who hosts a local radio show used as a platform for his anti-mining stance was run off the road. A few weeks later, the leader of a local community development association that is against the mine was shot eight times. Both men now have 24-hour police protection.
Rivera’s brother Miguel Rivera said his brother’s murder has caused fear among those opposed to the project. “People we work with who are against the mining project are afraid because someone has died,” he said. “They say, ‘I could be the second one. I could be next.’”
According to lawyer and activist Hector Berrios, Marcelo Rivera had already been the victim of death threats and at least one assassination attempt near his home in January 2009. “The question is,” Berrios said, “who benefited from Marcelo’s death?”
For his part, Pacific Rim CEO Tom Shrake said the company condemns violence and has spoken to employees to see if they know anything about the murder.
“They have assured us that they had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Shrake said in a telephone interview from his hotel in San Salvador.
“As far as they know—and I’ve heard this from the local police as well—his death had nothing to do with his mining activism. Now whether that’s true or not we’ll see. But we have no knowledge of it.”
That police theory—that Rivera’s death was related to a gang dispute after a night of drinking and not his anti-mining activity—didn’t make sense to Rivera’s family when they heard it. Rivera was not someone who associated with gang members and he didn’t drink alcohol.
“The police invented a scenario to be able to tell people something, because a lot of people were asking about Marcelo,” Miguel Rivera said. “The police theory was that he was killed the same day he disappeared, or early the next day.” But the doctors who examined Marcelo’s body told Miguel that his brother died about eight days after he disappeared.
That was just one of several inconsistencies in the case. Following a complaint they received from Marcelo’s family, El Salvador’s Public Attorney’s Office for the Defense of Human Rights found there had been negligence on the part of the police.
“We found some failures in terms of the lateness in mobilizing to do inspections in places where the body could be,” Gerardo Alegria, a lawyer for the Public Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights, said. “That includes where they found the body. The police had known for a few days already that the body was there.”
Alegria also said the police failed to gather information at the scene that would have helped solve the crime. His office is now keeping an eye on the investigation and Alegria said things have improved. Five adults and one minor have been arrested so far and are awaiting a hearing. But in this part of the world, there is a lot to be said about intellectual versus physical perpetrators of a crime, and questions remain about who was really behind the killing.
Meanwhile El Dorado has been at a standstill. The company stopped investing serious money into the mine about two years ago, when Tony Saca, president of El Salvador at the time, made public statements indicating Pacific Rim’s permits would not be honoured.
Pacific Rim has since filed for arbitration under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), although Shrake said he is confident a settlement will be reached.
As for local opposition to the project, Shrake said that is something that was expected all along. “There’s just a huge international industry that opposes any extractive industry anywhere in the world at this point. So if you don’t expect opposition to any extractive project, you’re living in a closet,” he said.
“You will have people who are emotional about it and are in your face about it but you have to act like Mahatma Ghandi. You cannot react in any way, shape or form.”
Gold mining, a practice that relies on cyanide or mercury for extraction, has long come under fire from environmentalists because of its potential for contamination. Pacific Rim markets itself as an environmentally responsible company that has “raised the bar for environmental protection.” According to Shrake, the El Dorado design will use two impermeable liners to prevent tailings from coming in contact with the ground. They’ll also use a process called INCO to destroy the cyanide used and they’ll build their own water reservoir instead of using groundwater, purifying the water before it goes back into the water system.
Environmentalist Luis Gonzalez works with the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES) in San Salvador. “It’s a concept, but on an industrial level, green mining doesn’t exist,” he said. “By definition what you’re doing is extracting a non-renewable resource.”
Gonzalez said the INCO process recycles only part of the cyanide and the rest goes into the ground. “Exploration is like exploitation on a smaller scale,” he said, noting people in Cabanas reported their wells and watering holes dried up after exploration activity by Pacific Rim.
Shrake said that was one incident involving some shoddy work on the part of a contractor and that it won’t happen again.
“Once we realized what had happened, within a day we set up a series of tanks so that they’d have water while we corrected the problem… We went back to the drill holes and cemented them from bottom to top and plugged up this disruption to the fracture system and the water’s flowing again, and has been flowing since we made the correction.”
While the future of El Dorado remains unclear, Miguel Rivera has gone ahead and set up the Marcelo Rivera Justice and Freedom Committee. He is holding out hope that his brother’s murderer will be brought to justice.
“He was my brother. Ever since we were little we spent a lot of time together and shared ideas. When we started finding out more about the impacts of mining we started spreading information to people. Marcelo was the person who had a relationship with the community.”
Dominique Jarry-Shore is a freelance journalist based in Chiapas, Mexico. She travelled to El Salvador with the help of a grant from the International Development Research Center in Ottawa. Click here to see a video memorial made for Marcelo Rivera.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.