El Salvador: Body of Young Anti-Mining Activist Exhumed from Common Grave

The body of murdered fourth-year university student and active member of the environmental movement in the area of Ilobasco, Cabanas, Juan Francisco Duran Ayala, has finally been returned to his family in San Salvador. Juan is the fourth person active in the anti-mining movement in the department of Cabanas to be murdered in the past two years.

Cemetery workers unearth Juan Francisco's body.Investigation into latest assassination begins

The body of murdered fourth-year university student and active member of the environmental movement in the area of Ilobasco, Cabanas, Juan Francisco Duran Ayala, has finally been returned to his family in San Salvador. On June 24, 2011, the family gathered together with members of civil society and representatives from government agencies to exhume his body from a common grave in the Bermeja Cemetery, where he had been buried by the National Civilian Police. Juan Francisco, who lived in Ilobasco, left his home at 9 a.m. on June 3 to attend his classes in San Salvador and never arrived. His body was found on the same day by the police, next to a basketball court in the community of Amatepec in metropolitan San Salvador, with two gunshot wounds to the head.


Juan Francisco’s cousin and a designated family representative, Norberto Hernandez Ayala, claims that because the cadaver had several tattoos, the coroner’s office labeled it as an unidentified person and probable gang member, and buried it in a common grave. Juan Francisco had a tattoo of Che Guevara on his abdomen, and another two of the Barcelona soccer team and a favorite U.S. basketball team on his side and back, respectively.
His body was identified on June 14 by his father, Jose Benjamin Ayala, in photographs provided by the coroner’s office. Logistical negotiations between the attorney general’s office and the family slowed the process of exhumation ten days. Juan Francisco was laid to rest in a funeral on Saturday June 25, 2011.
Though there exist various theories about the motive for Juan Francisco’s assassination, in a press conference today, Hernandez Ayala confirmed that the primary hypothesis is the young man’s involvement as an environmental activist. The victim’s mother, Marta Duran, added, “What is clear here is that they’re killing innocent people. My son was only a student, dedicated to his studies. I just want justice for my son.”
The afternoon before he disappeared, June 2, Juan Francisco had been seen putting up fliers around the Ilobasco area where he lived, as an active volunteer for the Environmental Committee of Cabanas (CAC.) The messages on the fliers included an open invitation to a public forum on mining, phrases promoting respect for the environment, and a demand for the controversial Canadian mining company, Pacific Rim, to retire its operation from El Salvador. (Pacific Rim is one of two mining companies that have sued the Salvadoran government for a total of almost $200 million, for refusing to grant them permits to conduct metallic mineral mining in several regions of the country.)
Juan is the fourth person active in the anti-mining movement in the department of Cabanas to be murdered in the past two years, and the third victim from the CAC specifically. In a press release published by the CAC, the committee declares, “This assassination comes only two years since the kidnapping and assassination of the anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera and the assassinations of two of our members, Ramiro Rivera and Dora Alicia Sorto. We believe that if these cases are not cleared up with an investigation that leads to the intellectual authors, impunity will continue reigning in Cabanas, and the intimidation, violence and assassinations will continue.”
A secondary hypothesis of Juan Francisco’s murder is that he was yet one more victim of the constant daily violence that plagues this nation of only 6 million people. According to data from the National Civilian Police, the current daily murder average is 11, and on the date of Juan’s killing, four other unidentified partial-or-complete corpses were found. That number does not include the identified victims of that day. In fact, if the violence continues at this pace, the homicide total for 2011 would be more than 4,000. The local organization Voices on the Border points out that this is an astoundingly high number when compared to New York City, whose population size is higher than El Salvador’s and reports only 412 homicides for the entirety of 2009. The environmental movement discards this theory, stating that Juan Francisco’s involvement with the movement was too public and too recent to his sudden murder for these things to be unconnected. They also cite the continuing string of assassinations involving anti-mining activists.
Local environmental activists call on the National Civilian Police and the Attorney General of the Republic to conduct exhaustive investigations of the string of violent crimes in the department of Cabanas. They cite corruption and illicit trades within three local mayoral offices—facts they claim to be well-known to the local population, and which they list in today’s press release—as well as ties between the aforementioned authorities and the mining company Pacific Rim, as possible motives for the violence. As Francisco Pineda, President of the CAC and recent recipient of the internationally recognized Goldman Environmental Prize, asserts, “We can make a good guess about who are the intellectual authors of this crime given our lived experiences here, but that’s not our responsibility. The attorney general and the police have the obligation to investigate and determine the guilty parties.”
On June 24, the attorney general’s office informed Juan Francisco’s family that they had appointed them a lawyer. On the same day, the police also assured them that the investigation had begun. Hernandez Ayala says that the family trusts that what they’ve been told is true, and that justice will take its course. However, a lingering concern is the Salvadoran court system’s lack of precedent in completing exhaustive investigations. A United Nations Development Program report from 2007 found that only 14% of cases enter the judicial system, and only 3.8% are ever fully prosecuted, with the guilty party brought to justice. Speaking specifically of the anti-mining struggle, in all four previous assassination cases, material authors were quickly rounded up and prosecuted, but there exists significant evidence to suggest that they were hired assassins. In none of these cases — of which Juan Francisco is simply the most recent, and the movement fears will not be the last — have intellectual authors been identified by the authorities.

Juan Francisco’s family remembers him as humble, respectful and optimistic. His university professors say that he stood out for his willingness to work together with his peers and his dedication to his studies. He was thirty years old at the time of death, and would have graduated next year with a degree in Linguistics from the Technological University of San Salvador.