Salvadoran student killed in struggle against toxic gold mining

When Gustavo Marcelo Rivera was a little bicho (young boy in Salvadoran Spanish) growing up in El Salvador, he saw the suffering and injustices of that country's civil war, and the vast inequalities that helped start the conflict. Decades later as an adult, he and his brother Miguel started organizing the youth and community to fight poverty. They founded the Friends of San Isidro Cabañas (Spanish: Asociacion Amigos de San Isidro Cabañas, or ASIC).

No one knew that he would end up a victim of the same system he sought to fight against.

But this story isn't about Marcelo.

This story isn't even about all the other community activist victims - the mother Dora Alicia Sorto, Ramiro Rivera and Rivera - who have been suspiciously killed in Cabañas, El Salvador, in the last two years.

This story is about the most recent death, Juan Francisco Duran Ayala, who was killed just two months ago on June 4, his body identified 10 days later.

Ayala was a university student who, like others, was a committed anti-mining activist fighting against the Pacific Rim corporation and its plans to mine for gold in the region.

Pacific Rim is a transnational corporation headquartered in Canada, with a subsidiary in Reno, Nevada. Recently, Pacific Rim has explored the region of Cabañas and has found 1.4 million ounces of gold deposits, potentially bringing in $1.3 billion in gains.

Ayala was last seen distributing anti-mining fliers in Ilobasco, a small town in Cabañas. He worked for the Environmental Committee of Cabañas for the Defense of Water and Culture.

It's not just the community and fellow environmentalists that are aware of the dangerous affects of the mining. Head of the National Civilian Police, Howard Cotto, has come out publically and said that the recent killings of activists is directly linked to the mere presence of the mining projects. 

Miguel, his brother Marcelo and other community members first found it suspicious and alarming how much water Pacific Rim was using in exploring the region for gold. After conducting some research and reaching out to other people that have dealt with the effects of mining, they concluded that gold mining utilizes a lot of water and poisons, most notably cyanide, to separate gold from the rock.

Alexis Stoumbelis, executive director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, said groups like ASIC and other environmentalists, non-governmental organizations and community groups have been working to pass a mining ban in the entire country.

"The NGOs have been working to pressure the legislative assembly in passing this ban on mining. The FMLN [Salvadoran's leftist political party] has been the only party to support this ban. Basically, it's sort of sitting in the environmental commission. The FMLN has put a proposal forward but other political parties have not supported it," Stoumbelis said.

Ayala was last seen putting up posters in support of the mining ban around the community. Although the government has launched an investigation into the killing, many like Stoumbelis are pessimistic that the attorney general will dig deep enough to uncover who is organizing the assassinations.

"In reality, it's really unclear who is behind the murders. The attorney general has been investigating the murders and charged who actually carried out the killings, but who hired them? Who were the intellectual authors? Marcelo wasn't in a gang and he was killed by gang members. The attorney general isn't going deep enough," Stoumbelis said.

Stoumbelis said that international support has been a critical source of solidarity.

"There's been a lot of international organizations that have gotten involved. Canada has gotten involved and put pressure on the attorney general. Right after Marcelo Rivera was murdered, we put pressure on Hillary Clinton. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., was at the attorney general's office in El Salvador and met with different people in the government. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, has also been involved around Juan Francisco's [Ayala] death and the community. There has been a lot of threats against radio stations and journalists in Cabañas as well."

Stoumbelis urges readers to visit cispes.org to read more on the anti-mining struggle, and to send faxes, emails and call the attorney general's office in El Salvador to provide protection to activists and journalists in the area.

Stoumbelis points out that Pacific Rim is in El Salvador because of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. The Funes government has said that it will not authorize mining permits. In retaliation, and under the pretext of the free trade agreement, Pacific Rim has filed a suit against the country totaling $7 million.

During the funeral procession of Marcelo Rivera on June 11, 2009, a group of youths carried a banner in commemoration to the murdered activist. On the banner among other slogans were the poignant and defying words, "You can kill people, but you cannot kill ideas."

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  • "The declarations made by the Director of Investigations of the National Civilian Police, Howard Cotto, in 2009 are public knowledge. Sotto signaled that the spiral of killings and threats against defenders of environmental and human rights in CabaƱas are directly linked to the presence of mining projects and mining companies in the region. " Taken from cispes.org (http://www.cispes.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=844&Itemid=1)

    Perhaps you are referring to this article by IPS 9http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=50127):

    "But deputy director of police investigations Howard Cotto complained about such allegations. "Not to hold an investigation would be negligent, or to rule out certain lines of enquiry, but that is not the case," he told IPS. The investigation is under way, and could take "days, weeks or months," he added.

    He said that without evidence, the police cannot state there is a link between the murders and the anti-mining protests, although it is one of the possible leads they are working on. "

    I used indrect quotation to attribute what was said in the cispes article by Cotto.

    Thank you William for reading People's World.

    Posted by Luis Rivas, 09/16/2011 12:14am (3 years ago)

  • You have quoted Howard Cotto wrongly in your article. He has never linked the presence of mining with the violence in the country in either public or private comments. This is a fiction that those opposed to mining want to perpetuate but is simple not true.

    Posted by William Gehlen, 08/04/2011 2:14pm (3 years ago)

  • It is truly sad to see what the good name of Canada has become. A bully to smaller countries. Thank you Harper, thank you make us proud Canadians.

    Posted by John Smith, 08/04/2011 12:41am (3 years ago)

  • It's very sad that these deaths have occurred, yet I doubt that the perpetrators were Pacific Rim people, if there is a link, then look to El Salvodorians who have vested interests in seeing a working mine.

    It is entirely ludicrous to link excess water usage with the dangers of cyanide. Cyanide leaching uses minimal water. Further cyanide is easily destroyed by oxidation--easily and safely, if responsible methods are used. Throughout Canada, the US and other countries cyanide has been used and water testing in these former mining areas where cyanide leaching over the past few decades will return zero cyanide--zero!

    Why not put some energy into ecologically responsible demands? Are the El Salvador people willing to do without metals? Are they willing to throw their cell phones, their cars, their electricity away? Do they need no jobs?

    Yes, fight for responsibility and absolute safety, but at least get your facts in order, otherwise to an outsider like me, it appears that a group of anti-mining/anti-everything simply wants no mining ever. So be it, but walk the walk, not just talk the talk and chuck your cellphones, your electric lights, your watches and cars.

    Yet I do sincerely hope that the perpetrators are found, proven to be responsible and punished.

    When any one group becomes intransigent nothing good comes of it.

    Posted by Steve RN, 08/03/2011 11:51pm (3 years ago)

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