Title media by
Lina Petronino

CW: Imperialism, war, violence, mass death

Five men were arrested Jan. 11 in Cabanas, El Salvador  on charges of murder and illicit associations – but the murder of the victim, María Inés Álvarez García Leiva, took place Aug. 22, 1989, and most of the men have alibis. The men arrested were Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García and Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, leaders of the Santa Marta, Cabañas community; Teodoro Antonio Pacheco, the director of the Association for Social and Economic Development of Santa Marta (ADES) and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega, lawyer for ADES. 

These men are known as the Santa Marta Five  — prominent members of their historic community of Santa Marta and strong forces in the anti-mining campaign that resulted in a revolutionary 2017 complete metals mining ban. Despite desperate claims made by President Nayib Bukele, the men have no relationship with gangs, but are effective community activists campaigning against mining in their country. 

The five water defenders are now being prosecuted for Leiva’s murder, which took place during the nation's bloody civil war from 1979 to 1992, by a specialized tribunal set up by Bukele to investigate war crimes. Leiva’s body was never found, and there is no evidence linking the Santa Marta Five to her disappearance.

The Santa Marta Five are vital community members fighting for the right to clean water, who now face discouraging results in the justice system. According to community members, the Five are now being held in isolation with no contact with their families, little time with their lawyers and limited access to medical care. They are kept in adverse conditions: the lights are kept on all night, and they are forced to sleep on concrete. 

According to Canadian Dimension, Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado has asked that the trial be conducted behind closed doors, which means that there would be no public updates on the case. Only the lawyers and the relatives of the accused would be aware of any developments.

Bukele is also the first president to be outspokenly in support of resuming mining in the country since the 2017 ban. It is no wonder, then, that the people of Cabañas suspect that the arrest of the Santa Marta Five is a political move and not one motivated by justice.

The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) is a national network that supports the peoples’ struggle for social and economic justice. 

According to CISPES, the community "finds it outrageous and suspicious that ... more than 40 years after the atrocities committed against the civilian population of Santa Marta ... [the Salvadoran state seeks to] re-victimize the same community in something that seems to all appearances to be a political vendetta."

El Salvador was the first country to ever impose a blanket ban on metals mining, largely due to community organizers like the Santa Marta Five. The legislation made history as the government of a small, impoverished country prioritized environmental interests and the health of its citizens over the economic interests of the giant mining companies Pacific Rim and OceanaGold

Starting as a grassroots campaign in the early 2000s, communities located near a growing mining industry in northeastern El Salvador were already seeing the negative effects of mining on the environment. 

Robin Broad, professor of international development at American University, and John Cavanaugh, an American activist and economist, have been instrumental players in organizing the nation’s anti-mining effort since 2009. They describe the effects of mining on the environment in their book The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed. 

“There we learned about the sulfides in certain mines that turn into deadly sulfuric acid every time it rains,” Broad and Cavanagh write. “As a result, minerals leach into the land and water, and on some days the spring water below this closed mine turns rusty orange. Other times the water appears cranberry red.” 

Any new mines threaten to pollute the Lempa River, which is an important source of drinking water for most Salvadorans as well as a place of deep historical significance. 

The United States provided extensive support for the side of El Salvador’s government during the Civil War, including military training, weapons and other support. Yet the United States has not faced any repercussions despite the fact that during the majority of war crimes were committed by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government, and President Bukele has not conducted any investigations into the military massacres.

The people in the community of Santa Marta, many of whom were fighting in the FMLN resistance, had to flee their homes during the 1981 Civil War because they were being hunted by the Salvadoran military. 

After several days of walking at night and hiding in holes during the day, entire Santa Marta families attempted to cross the river March 17, 1981 to enter Honduras, while being shot at from both sides by the Salvadoran and Honduran governments, and bombed by helicopters overhead. The Rio Lempa massacre is one of many of the horrible crimes committed against the people of El Salvador by the Salvadoran military during the war.


Kruz Morales, formerly from Santa Marta but now living in San Francisco, said that the United States should question the funding the United States directs towards El Salvador, which fuels these kinds of conflicts. 

“I think an important message to Americans is to be conscientious and ask how the U.S. has used our tax dollars [for] military financial aid that the U.S. continues to allocate [by the] millions towards El Salvador,” Morales said. 

Bukele did not celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Chalpultepec Peace Accords this year, which were signed Jan. 16, 1992 to mark the end of the Civil War. Traditionally, Salvadorans celebrate this anniversary with marches in the streets of San Salvador, but the President has done his best to prevent such celebrations. In fact, Bukele has referred to those accords as a “farce.” 

Bukele has established a culture that demonizes environmental and human rights defenders in El Salvador, as Omar Flores, from the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining explained.

“In general, Nayib Bukele utilizes a narrative of hate and stigma against human rights defenders, including environmental defenders, as they oppose his extractivist economic agenda,” Flores said. “The use of hatred by the president is replicated by all the institutions of the state apparatus and has become the hegemonic narrative of all public officials.

El Salvador faced financial trouble when the mining ban was first enacted in 2017, but the government valued the health of its environment and its citizens above mining revenue. The country is again struggling financially, in large part due to Bukele’s adoption of  bitcoin as a federal currency, which a large section of the population opposed. The currency has lost 60% of its value since this investment, resulting in a loss of $60 million for the country. 

The U.S. government has already imposed sanctions against the Salvadoran government after members of Bukele’s cabinet were found to be associating with members of the MS-13 gang, presenting even more difficulty for the country’s struggling economy. 

Bukele’s pro-mining stance is well known, and despite vocal opposition, there are concerns that mining will move forward once again in El Salvador. Farmers in Cabañas have reported strange men coming up to them and offering to lease their property for large sums of money, as well as offering funding for municipal social programs in the region. Two mayors from the Cabañas mining region also said they met with officials of the Exports and Investment Promotion Agency of El Salvador, who told them that mining will soon be reintroduced.

Though it may not feel like it, this attempt to stifle grassroots organization affects all of us, as would the restart of mining in El Salvador. The environmental impact of mining would be widespread due to its contribution to climate change. The threat against human rights and public opinion would similarly undermine all democratic structures elsewhere.

“Mining contamination does not respect international boundaries,” Broad and Cavanaugh wrote.

As Americans, we have a direct debt to the citizens of El Salvador who have long suffered from the effects of U.S. imperialism. We must speak out against Bukele’s government as it cracks down on dissent and exploits its country to escape from its own mistakes. Our financial support goes a long way, and CISPES has a donation page for the legal funds for the Santa Marta Five.