Threats and Violence Continue against Salvadoran Environmentalists

Violence and intimidation continue in El Salvador against environmental activists and human rights defenders who have publicly opposed metallic mining. The latest round of threats targetted a Salvadoran Catholic priest, Father Neftalí Ruiz, and a community radio station, Radio Victoria.

From left, David Pereira, Fr. Neftali Ruiz, and Bishop Monsignor Francisco Sol speak to the press at the conference on Jan 24, 2012.Violence and intimidation continue in El Salvador against environmental activists and human rights defenders who have publicly opposed metallic mining. The latest round of threats targetted a Salvadoran Catholic priest, Father Neftalí Ruiz, and a community radio station, Radio Victoria.

Fr. Ruiz, the Secretary of the Board of Directors of the Cabañas Environmental Committee and a member of the National Working Group against Metallic Mining (“The Mesa,”), was attacked on Jan. 20 when he opened his home to a group of supposed university students who had expressed interest in his work. The two young people then tied him up at gunpoint and proceeded to search the files on his computer. They left the home with the computer and media storage devices, but did not take anything else of value. The young men stated numerous times during the assault that they were looking for information and made several calls to a third party while searching the computer to report their findings.

Environmentalists detailed the events and their evaluations of the continuing violence against the community at a press conference held by the Mesa on Tuesday. “These acts are meant to intimidate us so as to weaken our resistance,” said David Pereira of the Investment and Commerce Investigation Center (CEICOM).

Alluding to past cases in which the Attorney General and police have blamed cases of death threats and violence against activists on common delinquency, gang violence or interpersonal conflict, Fr. Ruiz declared that he knows no one with a motive to hurt him for any such reason. “The only work I do is to defend Mother Nature, to preach the Gospel, and denounce injustices.”

In the five murder cases to have hit the environmentalist community, material authors were quickly rounded up and prosecuted, but there exists significant evidence to suggest that they were hired assassins. In the most recent death, in which an environmentalist college student named Juan Francisco Duran Ayala was executed on a community basketball court, Fr. Ruiz served as a spokesperson at the exhumation of the young man’s cadaver. In none of the cases of aggression against the community — which the community fears will not end with last week’s attack on Fr. Ruiz — have the intellectual authors been identified by the authorities.

The robbery and attack on Fr. Neftali is not the only recent case of violence and repression against human rights defenders, members of Radio Victoria in Cabañas are also receiving a wave of death threats via email. Radio staff, who have been adamant in defending human and environmental rights through their work in community media, have also been subjected to multiple rounds of death threats throughout the past few years. According to the press release published by the Mesa, this latest round seems to be connected to party politics. “Last week the mayor of Victoria put up a large ARENA party flag in the middle of Santa Marta, which made a lot of people angry because of past history; ARENA’s connections to death squads, military force and repression as well as implementing policies that favored big businesses and the wealthy elite during the 20 years they ran the government,” explained radio founder Cristina Starr in an email to radio supporters last week.

A few days after three bus-loads of residents of Santa Marta protested in Victoria, Radio staff began to again receive threats via email and nocturnal visits to their remote rural homes. “You all can imagine how this wears on us,” Starr wrote. “Radio members cannot go and stay in their homes, they cannot be with their families and they always have to be wary and careful wherever they go and whatever they do.”

There is concern among the environmentalist community that the pattern of superficial investigation will hold true with these most recent cases as well. “We are demanding that the Attorney General of the Republic and the PNC (Civilian National Police) investigate (these cases) seriously. I say ‘seriously’ because there have been other attacks and even assassinations with which we’re unsatisfied with the investigation results presented by the Attorney General,” explained Pereira. The concerns of the activists are substantiated by the outputs of the Salvadoran justice system: a United Nations Development Program report from 2007 found that only 14% of cases enter the judicial system, while only 3.8% are ever fully prosecuted, with the guilty party brought to justice.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes recently asked for forgiveness for past human rights atrocities and called for a “peace with justice,” during the recent celebration of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the Salvadoran Civil War. Yet the cases of Fr. Ruiz and Radio Victoria present continuing human rights violations are left unresolved in the country’s current justice system. The environmentalist community believes that this situation leaves human rights defenders vulnerable. “We have shown that in our country, it is a crime to defend the interests of the vast majority,” stated Catholic Bishop Monsignor Francisco Sol in yesterday’s press conference.

As they continue to resist metallic mining and promote human rights despite the threatening climate, activists question how long the impunity will reign. “I ask the National Civilian Police and the Attorney General, what are they going to do in this case? Since 2008…I have reported death threats,” said Fr. Neftali at Tuesday’s press conference. “What are they waiting for? For there to be more deaths, more bloodshed?”