El Salvador’s Newest Martyr?

Jamie Moffett, director of The Ordinary Radicals, traveled to El Salvador to film the documentary Return to El Salvador. He had gone to learn about the massacres of the 1980s and ’90s, but what he found was a through-line of violence linking that era to the present day. He learned of the torture and murder of Marcelo Rivera, an anti-mining activist. As the story began to unfold, Moffett realized he had a much larger and more complex story to tell, one that had significant connections to the United States.

What sparked your interest in making Return to El Salvador?

Back in 1999 I cofounded The Simple Way with Shane Claiborne. Shortly thereafter, Ruth and Alex Orantes from El Salvador came to stay with us. Later on, three members from The Simple Way went to El Salvador. Layer by layer, I began to find out about how US policies had influenced this country’s civil war. Currently, (if you include undocumented workers) approximately one out of every hundred people in the United States come from this tiny country. As a taxpayer, I am more connected to this country than I thought I was. So, I wanted to go down to El Salvador to learn how this all started.

What did you discover upon your arrival?

When we went to the forensics lab in El Salvador to learn about the massacres that occurred in the 1980s and early ’90s, we learned about the level of violence that’s occurring today. For example, the day we flew in to El Salvador, we learned there had been eighty murders in four days. A couple of days later, we met with David Morales, who is part of a legal organization that’s still prosecuting crimes that occurred during the civil war. He showed us an article about a recent disappearance of an activist who was in an anti-mining campaign.

How did you become aware of Pacific Rim’s mining presence in El Salvador?

Through reading a number of articles, I learned that learned Pacific Rim is the company that for years has been actively prepping for mining the El Dorado mines in El Salvador near the town of San Isidro in the northern department of Cabañas. If they succeed in their efforts to mine this region, they stand to make a fortune, as there is an estimated 1.4 million ounces of gold at that location. As of the close of trading on July 17, the price of gold is currently at $937.70 per ounce—making the potential value over $1.3 billion USD.

What are the dangers of mining at El Dorado?

This area has a long and disastrous history of mining. When cyanide is used to leach gold out of rock, it goes into the local water stream. This mining has sickened or made sterile many people and livestock. Also, a significant earthquake occurs every 20 years in this region. So no matter what controls you put in to stem the flow of poison, there’s no guarantee that they’ll withstand the impact of an earthquake. That’s why there is no support for mining in this region from either the government or the people who live in this area.

Why is Pacific Rim taking the country of El Salvador to court?

They are suing the country of El Salvador for 77 million dollars under Chapter 10 of CAFTA, which would allow Pacific Rim to invest in exploring for gold in their El Dorado mine, but not delivering the permits necessary to actually extract the gold.

El Salvador still does not have a law that specifically prohibits mining, and most likely will not for the next three years, given continued right-wing control over the legislature. Therefore Pacific Rim’s overriding interest, despite lacking adequate government permissions, is to carry out the mining activity.

How have their efforts to mine El Dorado been impeded?

Their work toward acquiring the necessary extraction permits from the government of El Salvador were largely thwarted by a collection of environmental and anti-mining activists known as the National Working Group Against Mining in El Salvador (La Mesa), combined with staunch opposition from the institutional Catholic Church, the former president (Tony Saca-ARENA) and current president (Mauricio Funes-FMLN) of El Salvador. The leading locally based anti-mining organization is Friends of San Isidro Cabañas (ASIC).

What is this Canadian company’s connection to the United States?

Pacific Rim’s press release on their suit explains how this Canadian company uses its US subsidiary in Reno, Nevada (Pacific Rim Cayman LLC) to take advantage of CAFTA; as Canada is not party to the agreement. This subsidiary has not been active since Pacific Rim sold their only Nevada interest in October 2008. An additional US connection to this story is the list of Institutional Shareholders of Pacific Rim Stock.

Who is Marcelo Rivera?

He was ASIC’s director and cofounder. He was last seen alive the afternoon of June 18th in the neighboring town of Ilobasco. His body was discovered 12 days later at the bottom of a 60-foot well in a neighboring farm. His shirt and keys were found in a small vacant farmhouse 100 feet from the well. This article from SHARE describes most of the information currently available in the press.

What did you learn when you went to his funeral?

After attending and filming the funeral of Marcelo Rivera and speaking with a people close to Marcelo and the case, it has been communicated to me that a six-figure sum of money was paid to a group of people, including inactive gang members, to silence Marcelo.

How do officials claim he was murdered?

The official police and attorney general’s word is that he got drunk and engaged in a bar fight with a bunch of gang members. Supposedly they hit him with a hammer and that’s what killed him. But Marcelo Rivera didn’t drink. Also, forensic evidence from the Legal Medicine (Medicina Legal) department in San Vicente establishes that the two marks on his head were made postmortem. They concluded that he was tortured for 10 days and then killed by strangulation. Four of the supposed material authors are in custody.

What are the suspicions surrounding his murder?

Despite the fact that the National Civil Police and the Attorney General have evidence incriminating Pacific Rim through its employee (the Mayor of San Isidro, Ignacio Bautista) in the assassination of Marcelo Rivera, the Police and Attorney General have publicly discarded this line of investigation and have attributed the crime to common delinquency.

From our research, the only individual or entity capable of providing this sum of money with anything at stake in the death of Marcelo would be the Pacific Rim mining company. Given Marcelo’s profile as a political opposition figure, the carefully planned and brutal modus operandi of his murder, and the impunity which has followed the crime, his murder precisely reflects the elements of a death squad-related assassination. This is according to the 1994 report by the Working Group on Politically Motivated Illegal Armed Groups in El Salvador, led by the ONUSAL.

How would Pacific Rim benefit if Marcelo Rivera were out of the picture?

Even if they were to win the 77 million dollar CAFTA lawsuit, they would lose out on 1.2 billion dollars worth of revenue if they were not able to actually mine El Dorado. So in order to execute the mining at El Dorado, Pacific Rim needs the support—or silence—of the local population in San Isidro. In the most likely scenario, Pacific Rim evaluated that it would be a good business investment to eliminate the key opposition figure in the local resistance movement to their El Dorado mining project, Marcelo Rivera.

Why should this story be of particular interest to people of faith?

This is the land of Oscar Romero, where the Maryknoll sisters and Jesuit priests were killed as well. These religious figures were murdered by people who were trained at the School of the Americas (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) at Ft. Benning, Georgia. We turned a blind eye to what was happening in the ’80s and now these murders appear to be happening again.

This awareness of the connections between present and past helped shape the last part of the film. People of faith admire these martyrs’ stories but how will they respond to today’s tragedies?