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Journalists Targeted for Death in El Salvador as Environmental Disaster Looms

August 5th 2011

Latin American Topics - Water is worth more than gold, no mine
"Water is worth more than gold: no to the mine" - graffitti in El Salvador

In 2005, with the United States facing resilient resistance in Iraq, Newsweek reported that officials in the Pentagon were debating the use of the “Salvador Option,” referring to the US-supported death squads that terrorized El Salvador through the 1980s as part of the first ‘War on Terror.’

These groups were notoriously barbaric, using random violence, decapitations, torture and committing atrocities in order to spread terror. Independent media outlets were targeted and essentially silenced in the early 1980s by intimidation, attacks, kidnappings and murder. The violence and widespread repression were justified as part of a civil war against leftist groups that had taken up arms against the junta. The result was more than a million refugees and as many as 70,000 people killed over the course of a decade.

In an ominous echo of this dark period in El Salvador’s history, a radio station in the Cabañas region of the country has been receiving death threats from a self proclaimed ‘grupo de exterminio’ (death squad). Radio Victoria, which is largely run by young people, is one of the many small stations that emerged following the 1980-1992 war, providing local communities with an alternative source of information to the corporate and politically dominated mainstream press. The station has been a prominent voice in supporting the struggles of the people of the region, opposing human rights violations, electoral fraud and the detrimental activities of mining companies.

The threats began in 2006, and while their source is unknown, they appear to emanate from a nexus of political and business interests.  Many of the messages refer to the station’s support for the local community in their efforts to prevent the exploitation of their land by Pacific Rim, a Canadian mining company. In an interview with Reporter’s Without Borders, Radio Victoria journalist Ludwin Iraheta explained:

There is a lot of gold in the department of Cabañas. We do not know who is responsible for these threats, but there are a lot of interests at stake in the mine – political and business interests. A few years ago, Pacific Rim offered us 8,000 dollars to shut up, but we refused.  The main problem in Cabañas is water.  The mine uses powerful chemical products. And 32 per cent of the country’s water is already polluted. The water had been polluted here too ever since there have been mines. Thanks to the campaign waged by the community, the mining activities have stopped for the time being. But the people want a law banning mining.

Pacific Rim has had a presence in the region since 2002 but was denied a mining permit in 2008 based on the damage its operations would cause to a nearby river.  The company left the country as a result but has been fighting to re-open the mine ever since. Facilitated by provisions contained in the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement, Pacific Rim has filed international arbitration proceedings through the World Bank’s International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes in an attempt to sue the Salvadoran state for $77 million.

Environmental activists working in the region against the damage caused by mining operations have been abducted, tortured and murdered.  In 2009 a prominent environmentalist, Marcelo Rivera, who was active in the movement against Pacific Rim, was murdered.  Following an anonymous phone call to his wife, Rivera’s mutilated body was found at the bottom of a well, displaying clear signs of torture reminiscent of earlier death squad killings: his nose, fingernails, scalp and lips had been removed.  The local police claimed the death was a result of a drunken argument and refused to search for an intellectual author of the killing.

Rivera had also worked to denounce the opposition political party for corruption and electoral fraud. Since 2009, El Salvador has been governed by FMLN, the political arm of the groups that fought the Junta during the war.  The primary opposition is ARENA – a right wing party founded in 1981 by death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson – which held power from 1989 until 2009.

Rivera had received threats from ARENA members themselves, and when journalists working for Radio Victoria defended him they also became the victims of letters, phone calls and text messages threatening their lives. One message to a journalist stated all the staff at Radio Victoria would be killed for “confronting ARENA,” another warned to “keep out of Pacific Rim’s way.”  Many of the recent threats refer back to Rivera’s killing, warning journalists that they will face the same fate unless they leave or stop their reporting.

ARENA members have also openly criticized Radio Victoria.  During the municipal election campaign in 2009, the mayor of Cabañas publicly referred to the station as “guerrilla radio” and claimed they were linked to the FMLN.  The official even declared the station’s building was actually a clandestine arms depot. 

On June 3rd of this year, another environmental activist, 30-year-old Juan Francisco Duran Ayala, disappeared. Ayala, a member of the Cabañas Environmental Committee (CAC) campaign, had spent the previous day demonstrating against Pacific Rim, putting up banners calling for the approval of a law that would ban mining in the region.  His body was found on the 14th with two bullet wounds to the head.

Discussing these developments, Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, an independent research organization focusing on Latin America, told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, "We’ve been receiving a growing number of reports that an alarming grid exists linking foreign mining firms located in El Salvador to a number of security officials and well-placed politicians.  It is now being charged that the Canadian mining company, Pacific Rim, has become increasingly bold in trying to pressure Salvadoran officials to acquiesce to the company’s attempts to expand its mining efforts in the country, in spite of the health dangers that are known to exist as a result of dangerous practices being carried out there."

According to Birns, “the increasing power of the Death Squads provides the glue” for this connection between business and politics. He also points out that likewise during the war in the 1980s, “evidence was found that foreign corporations were involved behind the scenes.”

There are other worrying similarities.  Throughout the conflict members of the clergy were particularly targeted for their attempts to help the poor and oppressed.  One such priest was Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in 1980 one month after he had requested the United States stop supporting the ruling Junta.  Recently, a Catholic Priest, Father Luis Quintanilla, received a threat stating: “Since you like to talk so much about Monseñor Romero and Father Rutilio Grande (a Jesuit priest assassinated in 1977) we will make sure you go and keep them company!”

Despite their targeted and calculated nature, the national police have routinely claimed the killings and intimidation are not related to the work of activists or journalists, and are solely isolated criminal acts. The intimidation against Radio Victoria has also continued despite an overnight police presence at the station’s premises, and there have been incidences of reporters being harassed by the police themselves.  According to the staff at the station, this is a result of the close connection between the mining company and the local authorities.

The response of the government repeats a sad pattern throughout the Americas, where state intransigence breeds impunity and further intimidation.  Amnesty International and others are now urging the Salvadoran authorities to take measures to protect the journalists at Radio Victoria and have requested an independent investigation into the threats.

In a commentary that could easily have been written about El Salvador 30 years earlier, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange noted recently that, “As human rights such as freedom of expression and thought are coming to the fore, new methods of silencing human rights defenders are being developed.”

After the war, the atrocities of the death squads and the state created what one Jesuit report termed a “culture of terror,” which contributed to “domesticating the expectations of the majority vis-a-vis alternatives different to those of the powerful.”

Two decades later, the struggle against the return of this culture may be approaching a crucial point. According to Birns, “The long-lived potential for El Salvador to brew a fatal concoction is very near at hand. It is composed of a fearsome brew of an unregenerate military high command, record rates of crime, a particularly notorious police force, and a landed aristocracy that yearns for the good old days, together with a powerful conservative element of the country’s population for a return of the ultra conservative ARENA party to power.”

This “fatal concoction” includes renewed US interference.  In May, leaked cables revealed the US embassy in El Salvador had attempted to influence elections in the country to favor the ARENA party, which would guarantee support for US-backed economic policies.   The cables express the worry that a loss for ARENA, which has “the deepest pockets thanks to the private sector,” would be detrimental to “commercial and economic” relations between the US and El Salvador.

On World Press Freedom Day this year, Radio Victoria publicly condemned the threats and lack of official response, and called a press conference in front of the General Attorney’s office to draw attention to their situation.  The threats have subsided since, but throughout June many of the journalists noticed continued suspicious activity, including the presence of unknown men outside their homes.

In July, correspondents of the American Association for Radio Education visited Radio Victoria in a display of support and solidarity. Emphasizing the similarity of the struggles across the region, Honduran participant Rommel Gomez stated, “As in El Salvador, Honduras does not want to be left without water, forest and land.” 

Speaking with the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, Cristina Starr, a journalist with Radio Victoria, said that as a result of the killings and intimidation, “we must accept that our lives have changed and we live with a high level of uncertainty.”  But the mood at the station remains defiant: “As social communicators we continue working to defend freedom of expression and human rights for everyone in the community. We see these incidences as not linked only to Radio Victoria, but as a threat to those who are engaged in truly alternative and critical forms of communication.”

Ross Eventon is a guest scholar at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, from where this article is adapted.


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