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Free the Santa Marta 5, environmentalist political prisoners in El Salvador

By staff

June 11 press conference demands the Salvadoran government free the Santa Marta

Santa Marta, Cabañas, El Salvador – On January 11, 2023, five environmental activists and community leaders from Santa Marta, Cabañas, El Salvador were arrested on bogus charges in a clear case of political persecution. They are still detained five months later and the movement to free them is growing around the world.

The men arrested – Antonio Pacheco, Saúl Rivas, Pedro Antonio Rivas, Alejandro Laínez and Miguel Gámez – are prominent leaders of the grassroots movement that won the world's first ban on metallic mining. The organization they’re part of, the Association for Social Economic Development (ADES), organized for years until succeeding in 2017 to get El Salvador to implement a country-wide ban on metallic mining due to the environmental damage it causes just to enrich multinational corporations.

There are strong signals that the current Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who also controls the country’s legislative assembly and the courts, wants to overturn the ban on mining. The arrest of the Santa Marta 5 appears to be an attempt to weaken the organized opposition to overturning the mining ban.

The Santa Marta 5 are facing dangerous conditions in El Salvador's prisons, and there has been a growing movement in El Salvador and internationally demanding their immediate release.

On June 11, the five-month anniversary of their arrest and detention, ADES released a statement saying, “For five months the Salvadoran government has mercilessly detained these five humble and brave fighters for social justice; the same heroes who saved the country from the horrific outcomes of metal mining in rural communities that was directly threatening the water, environment, agriculture and the continuity of life. Their work was key to demonstrating the infeasibility of metal mining and in approving the law that prohibits it in El Salvador. They deserve to be rewarded, not punished...Our colleagues have not been here for five months. We are overwhelmed by sadness of their absence, but also our fighting spirit to demand their freedom grows every day.”

Salvadoran President Bukele declared a “state of exception” in March 2022, which allows the government to arrest and hold anyone without due process or trial, among other severe restrictions on civil liberties. This was ostensibly to combat street gangs that have plagued El Salvador for decades. In the past year, Bukele’s government has arrested more than 68,000 people under the state of exception and has created the largest prison in Latin America to hold all the people being arrested and detained.

While his crackdown on gangs is popular in the country, Bukele is also taking advantage of that popularity to widen the net and politically persecute his perceived political enemies. He has mainly targeted people and organizations on the left but has also lashed out against some on the right who haven’t gone along with his leadership.

Bukele particularly has carried out a vendetta against the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), El Salvador’s main leftist political party, with both former FMLN presidents of the country, Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sanchez Ceren, in exile in Nicaragua to avoid political persecution, and many other FMLN leaders and members facing very serious trumped up legal charges.

In that vein, Bukele’s government has also gone after the Santa Marta 5, jailing them on ridiculous charges dating back to the country’s civil war in the 1980s. The five were members of the FMLN during El Salvador's civil war, who fought against El Salvador’s U.S.– backed right-wing dictatorship. After the war, many FMLN members, including the Santa Marta 5, continued organizing for social justice in El Salvador.

The Santa Marta 5 are targets of repression because of their leadership in the anti-mining struggle and other popular struggles that confront Bukele’s government.

Additionally, at least 16 union leaders have been arrested and held indefinitely under the state of exception, since many unions continue to organize and fight against Bukele’s anti-worker policies.

The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), which has organized solidarity with the Salvadoran left and popular movement since the country's civil war, is asking people to email their U.S. Representative and Senator, calling on them to speak out against the unjust detention of the Santa Marta 5:

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