El Salvador government arrests key activists who defeated OceanaGold ISDS case

January 23, 2023: On January 20, 251 organisations including AFTINET, from 29 countries, called on the Salvadoran government to drop spurious murder charges against five leading Water Defenders arrested on January 11, 2023. The five arrested are Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco, and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega, from the Santa Marta community in the north of the country. They now face six months of pre-trial detention.

These five were among leaders of National Roundtable on Metals Mining, 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 and fresh water supply.

During that struggle, a Canadian – Australian gold mining company, OceanaGold, used Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions in the US-Central America Free Trade Agreement to sue El Salvador for US$250 million for future lost profits. This was a huge threat to a poor country, amounting to half of its annual education budget. The case dragged from 2009-2017, costing El Salvador US$12 million to defend, and in the end the international tribunal found that OceanaGold had never had a permit to mine in the first place.

Today, thanks in part to 2021 decision to make Bitcoin a national currency alongside the US dollar, the Salvadoran government is under enormous pressure to find new revenues. The government is reportedly considering overturning the mining ban, and allowing environmentally-destructive mining. Environmental and human rights organizations in El Salvador see the arrests as an effort to silence these Water Defenders and to demobilize community opposition at this critical moment.

The five are accused by El Salvador's Attorney General of an alleged murder over 30 years ago during the brutal civil war in El Salvador that claimed the lives of 75,000. Water defenders and other activists have in fact been victims of repression and murder which were being investigated by the courts under the previous government. The current government has blocked those investigations.

Over the years, hundreds of groups around the world worked with the Salvadoran Water Defenders in the successful campaign to save the country's rivers from toxic gold mining.

The 251 organizations are now demanding that the Salvadoran government drop the charges against the five Water Defenders and otherwise release them from prison to await their trial.

These groups are based in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Ireland, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand Aotearoa, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States.