07.12.11

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On Violence Against Antimining Activists In El Salvador

As Prepared For The Congressional Record

Madam President, I want to speak briefly about some troubling developments in El Salvador, which should concern us all.

On June 14, 2011, the body of Juan Francisco Duran Ayala was found with a gunshot wound to the head in the Soyapango Municipality of San Salvador. He was reportedly last seen alive on June 2 in Ilobasco, Cabanas, posting flyers critical of gold mining in that area, the day before he disappeared. In addition to studying at the Technological University in San Salvador, Mr. Duran had volunteered for the Environmental Committee of Cabañas in Defense of Water and Culture. His death is one of a shocking number of instances of violence against antimining activists in Cabañas.

In 2009, Gustavo Marcelo Rivera went missing for nearly 2 weeks before his body was found on June 30 in a well with signs of torture. Mr. Rivera was the cofounder of the Asociación Amigos de San Isidro Cabañas, and was a vocal leader in the anti-mining campaign in San Isidro, Cabañas. Since Mr. Rivera's death, at least eight other members of the antimining community in Cabañas have reportedly been killed, including Mr. Duran, and yet it is still unclear who is behind this pattern of deadly violence.

There have also been recurrent threats against the lives of journalists at Radio Victoria, which broadcasts in that area.

Cabañas is located in the north central part of El Salvador and has a long history of gold mining. Pacific Rim Mining, a Canadian company that acquired a large mine named El Dorado, was the subject of Mr. Rivera's and Mr. Duran's protests. Now that their voices have been silenced, people in that community are demanding thorough, credible investigations of these crimes, both to obtain justice for their families and in order that future activists can exercise their right to speak out peacefully without losing their lives.

Unfortunately, El Salvador is a country where criminal investigations rarely result in arrests, and those that do almost never result in convictions. Impunity and corruption within the police are common, as in many other countries of the region. Some accuse local police and municipal officials of complicity in the harassment and threats against antimine activists and the radio station, and point to the fact that no one has been punished for these crimes.

To compound the problem, judicial independence, already fragile, is under threat in El Salvador. On June 2 the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly approved a decree which requires the five members of the Constitutional Court to rule unanimously instead of with the previous four person majority. The law was approved with the support of a broad spectrum of political parties.

The vote was reportedly in response to a number of unpopular decisions by the Court over the past 2 years. The passage of the decree threatens judicial independence in a country where the Court has only recently demonstrated a willingness to act as a check on executive and legislative power. That is the role of the judiciary in a democracy, and the outcome of this impasse will have profound implications for the country.

El Salvador has been through a difficult history. The 1980s civil war polarized the country and those who suffered most, the rural poor, are still struggling to recover. The country's democratic institutions are weak, particularly the judiciary. The country is coping with rampant violent crime, and the infiltration of well financed criminal gangs into all sectors of society.

In the midst of this, the brutal slayings of people like Juan Francisco Duran Ayala and Gustavo Marcelo Rivera might be regarded as little more than a grim statistic, soon to be forgotten. But we have not forgotten them. All indications are that they did nothing more than act as the voices of people in their communities who are concerned that their way of life, and the land they depend on, is being destroyed.

We know the Funes Government is coping with many problems. We are helping, by providing tens of millions of dollars to support programs in health, education, economic development, and to strengthen law enforcement. We provided additional funding to help the country rebuild from the devastating floods in November 2009. But there is no more important responsibility of government than upholding the rule of law. The urgent necessity of the message that would be sent to all the people of El Salvador by bringing the perpetrators of these crimes to justice cannot be overstated.

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