Pacific Rim Silent in Wake of Violence Against Anti-mining Protesters in Cabañas, El Salvador

A wave of violence targeted at anti-mining protesters has ripped through Cabañas in north-eastern El Salvador, and Pacific Rim Mining Corporation, the mid-size Canadian company which has spent millions in its effort to exploit the area’s ample gold deposits has remained curiously silent on the attacks. A wave of violence targeted at anti-mining protesters has ripped through Cabañas in north-eastern El Salvador, and Pacific Rim Mining Corporation, the mid-size Canadian company which has lost millions in its effort to exploit the area’s ample gold deposits has remained curiously silent on the attacks.

Last month, Marcelo Rivera, a prominent anti-mining activist, community leader and FMLN member was forcibly disappeared by unknown assailants. Though many organizations immediately denounced his disappearance, police failed to act quickly enough to alter his fate. Rivera’s disfigured body was found dumped in a well two weeks after he was last seen alive.

Rivera was well-known in Cabañas. He headed a local community center and founded Amigos of San Isidro, an organization that formed part of the main coalition of groups that opposed the re-opening of the El Dorado mine, where Pacific Rim intends to set up shop. According to the Salvadoran daily, Diario Co-latino, Rivera’s funeral was attended by hundreds of “children, youth and elders…all crying at the same time.”

"He fought against the mining threat from the perspective of a teacher, a cultural promoter, a director of a community organization, and as a political leader", says Francisco Piñeda, a local environmentalist, also quoted in Co-latino.

Instead of merely sending a signal, Rivera’s murder has marked the start of an open season against anyone openly opposed to the El Dorado mine. On Monday July 28, parish priest Father Luis Quintanilla was traveling from Victoria to Sensuntepeque after his weekly radio broadcast when his vehicle was forcibly pulled over by three men wearing ski masks. According to published video testimony, Quintanilla and narrowly escaped under a nearby fence after his assailants were distracted by Quintanilla’s own inadvertently (or not?) triggered car alarm.

Before the roadside assault, Quintanilla had already been the target of threats. The priest had received a volley of cell phone text messages, one of which read: “Extermination: you’ve been warned to stop f**king around. You better shut your mouths if you don’t want us to shut them once and for all.” Another said:”Extermination > you mother-f**kers better stop stirring people up if you don’t want to end up like Marcelo. We’ve got eyes on you.”

Last week, the government’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Oscar Luna, held a special press conference to denouce threats made against three reporters at Radio Victoria, a community-based radio station out of Cuidad Victoria. News gatherers Ludwin Iraheta, José Beltrán, and Vladimir Ayala, ages 17,18, and 20 years old respectively, received messages over the course of the past month stating, “you’re on the list,”and “you’ll be next.” The most threatenening stated, “Be careful, because they spoke too much in San Isidro,” a direct reference to the Rivera assassination.

The Radio Victoria staff have been among the most prominent voices to denounce the proposed gold mine plans, and they were the first to denounce their friend Marcelo’s disappearance. After his death, they are calling for a full investigation.

Rivera’s assassination, the assault on Father Quintanilla and the ongoing threats accent a already tense climate in a place which saw voting suspended in San Isidro during January’s legislative election after allegations emerged that Mayor José Ignacio Bautista from the ARENA party was contracting voters across the nearby border with Honduras to stack the polls in his favor. When a re-vote was held a week later, Bautista won. Rumors of fraud fell to a murmur in this isolated rural town of 10,000, but open scars remained in the wake of the election battle.

Mining Rights, Mining Wrongs

The prospect of re-initiating gold mining-as-economic-development-strategy in El Salvador has stirred passions on both sides of the debate. Mining advocates mostly hail from the ARENA and PCN political parties—heirs of the deathsquad-sponsoring governments of the 1980’s. The two parties rule 100% of the Mayor’s offices and Municipal Councils in the Cabañas Department. Together, they carry big sticks in the national Legislative Assembly, where PCN deputies have been the chief sponsors of revamping the El Salvador’s relatively restrictive mining laws. Ex-President Francisco Flores’s environmental ministry issued a series of exploration permits to two gold mining companies in 1996—the first such permits to be issued in decades.

But last year, cracks in ARENA’s traditional rural power base emerged when ranchers in Cabañas noticed that the plentiful springs they used to water crops and livestock were mysteriously drying up. Upon investigation, ranchers found what local people long had suspected: the exploratory drill holes utilized by Pacific Rim to estimate gold deposits were re-channeling underground streams and drastically impacting the aquifer. Under its exploration permit issued by the Saca government, Pacific Rim drilled hundreds of holes, each one carefully documented by the company itself, with meticulous data made available for stockholders (and anyone else) to see on its website. This, aghast residents asked, and the company hasn’t even begun mining?

The movement opposed to Pacific Rim’s presence in Cabañas had been active since 2005, but as the truth about exploratory holes began to ripple through Cabañas, participation in anti-mining events burgeoned. Residents became active through a combination of community and faith-based organizing. They spoke about the impacts of the holes, and explained the dangers of cyanide leach mining on the water table. The leap was not a hard one to make for folks who had already seen their water disappear. Soon, the conservative Archbishop of San Salvador, Fernando Saenz Lacalle, was declaring, “Not one drop of cyanide should enter El Salvador.”

“"We are a very small and densely populated country that has already suffered enough."

In response, Pacific Rim attempted to buy public support—or at least quell resistance with a PR campaign touting the virtues of "Minería verde," or “green mining” campaign touted the benefits of mining projects on local development. Worried about the potential effectiveness of such a campaign, the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining was born.

Word crawled up the political ladder, and ex-President Tony Saca and the ARENA leadership were caught in a bind. Behind in the polls to a charismatic TV host named Mauricio Funes and facing the most contentious election in 25 years, a virtual mutiny was taking place in ARENA circles. The party’s leadership was forced to decide between issuing mining permits to Pacific Rim and risking a fissure in its well-oiled Cabañas electoral machine. The other option was to abandon the party’s traditional pro-business stance and suture the ecological and political wounds inflicted by Pacific Rim to preserve the possibility of electoral victory.

Saca banked on the electoral victory. One week before the election he announced that no new excavation permits would be offered to Pacific Rim. (Note: late enough in the campaign that no offended donor could recoup any donations…)

Amid rumors that Pacific Rim would sue El Salvador under foreign investor protection rules outlined in the Central American Free Trade Agreement, Saca responded soundly: “I would rather pay the $90 million than issue the permit.” (A defeatist attitude, considering that no suit had yet been filed. Meanwhile, the San Salvador-based Center for Trade and Investment Research, CEICOM, declared that the government had the evidence to defeat any case brought against it, and that win or lose no payment should be made.)

Saca’s new found role as bulwark against foreign corporate intrusion and defender of the public interest may have surprised some who had followed his politics during the course of his five year term. After all, Saca’s own 2004 campaign was predicated on reaping the benefits of international investment that CAFTA would rain on El Salvador. But Saca’s turnaround on mining only highlights the severity of the political crisis he and the rest of ARENA faced (and still face) in Cabañas generally and San Isidro specifically.

Pacific Rim, for its part, has been facing its own crisis before and since the election. Much of the company’s business model was built around the promise of return on its El Dorado holdings. With public opinion, the Catholic Church, and the current government opposed to El Dorado, the company is now banking on a $77 million dollar arbitration claim in the CAFTA courts. The company recently announced its third straight loss year. Its shares on the NYSE are trading at 22 cents. Pacific Rim liquidated its holdings in another mine to gain cash. The company’s FY2009 report glibly revealed that the COO and CEO have been released. The President and CEO have taken large pay decreases.

The Current Wave of Violence
With the election firmly in rearview, mining advocates in Cabañas have little incentive for good behavior. The current wave of violence and politically motivated assassination is equivalent to a form of social cleansing—an extra-judicial form of exterminating the political enemies of Cabañas’s ruling elite. It is unclear what role Pacific Rim has had in the recent wave of violence, but the company’s curious silence and it’s refusal to denounce violence against anti-mining activists has led people in Cabañas to wonder whether the company, in addition to its arbitration suit, is not also seeking other forms of retaliation.

“We want a professional investigation. These [perpetrators] are people paid for by those in power and economic interests like Pacific Rim are present,” said Elín Jordan, a member of the Community-radio Network, ARPAS.