By Brendan Fischer on May 14, 2011

While a transnational corporation asserts its "right" to extract gold from El Salvador under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), a grassroots anti-mining movement fights for self-determination and its leaders are turning up dead. In recent weeks, death threats have also been sent to radio journalists at Radio Victoria, the sister radio station to Madison, Wisconsin's WORT-FM.

For almost ten years, the Canadian mining company Pacific Rim has been seeking to exploit El Salvador's gold resources. The corporation has encountered a surprising level of grassroots and political opposition as Salvadorans recognize the risks that cyanide-dependent gold mining pose to the environment and public health. Located near Pacific Rim's proposed mine, Radio Victoria has given voice to the anti-mining struggle in its reporting on community issues.

During the early hours of Saturday April 30, 2011, a note was slipped under Radio Victoria´s front entrance threatening the lives of three employees. On the evening of May 2nd, threats were sent to two Radio Victoria journalists via text messages, including threats to one journalist's three-year-old daughter. Journalists also reported intimidation in the form of late night visits to their homes, many of which are located in very isolated and vulnerable rural areas. More threats were sent after a May 4 press conference. Update: on May 16, another set of threats was texted to a Radio Victoria reporter and a truck full of men visited his rural community and inquired into his whereabouts.

"This is not the first time Radio Victoria journalists have been threatened, and it probably won't be the last time," says Norm Stockwell, Operations Director for Madison, Wisconsin's WORT-FM, the sister station to Radio Victoria. "Radio Victoria journalists have won multiple awards for their coverage, both in El Salvador and from international bodies," he says, but have also faced years of intimidation and sabotage. The death threats last intensified in 2009, the same year three anti-mining leaders were murdered, and just after Pacific Rim initiated its CAFTA suit.

Gold Exploration Inspires Grassroots Opposition

There has been no large-scale gold mining in El Salvador since the start of its civil war in 1980, but applications for gold mining permits increased in the early 2000s as gold prices began to rise. Pacific Rim received an exploratory permit in 2002, and as it proceeded through the permitting process, alarm spread through local communities. The company's plans included using two tons of cyanide per day, and between 10 and 110 liters of water per second (more water than the average Salvadoran uses in an entire day), raising serious concerns that ore processing could further contaminate El Salvador's already-limited water resources.

Around 2005, local mining opposition had coalesced into a national coalition called La Mesa Nacional Frente a la Minería Metálica en El Salvador (The National Roundtable Against Metals Mining in El Salvador). La Mesa included local environmental and development committees and national NGOs, and in 2007, the Catholic Church of El Salvador joined the movement. The church issued a formal pronouncement against mining, citing damage to water, the environment, and public health. In 2008, the conservative government of then-President Tony Saca announced a moratorium on mining permits until the legislature could study the environmental impacts of proposed mining contracts and reform mining law.

Saca was no populist -- he was a close ally of U.S. President George W. Bush, supported Bush's Iraq War with Salvadoran troops, and was a strong supporter of free-trade agreements. But for El Salvador, a small, densely populated country the size of Massachusetts with limited water resources, gold mining's potential harm was too great even for its neoconservative leader to bear.

Can Corporate "Investor Rights" Trump Self-Determination?

In a tiny country struggling to build a functioning democracy after years of civil war and devastating natural disasters, anti-mining activism suggests that democracy can thrive in El Salvador. Communities, churches, and civil society have united over common ends, communicated their concerns through democratic channels, and received positive responses from elected officials.

Faced with this grassroots resistance and political opposition, Pacific Rim brought suit under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from one of the hemisphere's poorest countries. The company claimed the Salvadoran government's refusal to issue a mine exploitation permit violated its "foreign investor rights."

Under CAFTA Chapter 10, foreign investors from one signatory country can privately enforce the CAFTA treaty by directly suing another signatory country's government. Pacific Rim, though, is a Canadian corporation, and Canada is not a CAFTA signatory; to get around this, the company reincorporated a Cayman Islands-based subsidiary in Nevada as "Pac Rim Cayman LLC" (Pac Rim) in December 2007. In April 2008, the company brought suit against El Salvador in Pac Rim's name.

"Pac Rim" alleges that El Salvador capriciously halted approval of the proposed mine for political reasons. The Salvadoran government asserts there is no automatic right to a mining concession, and that Pac Rim had not taken the necessary steps to obtain a permit. Instead, El Salvador alleges, the company is using CAFTA to remove the Salvadoran government and people from the approval process.

Among other CAFTA claims, Pac Rim alleges a violation of Article 10.7, which guarantees foreign investors compensation if countries nationalize or expropriate their investments, either directly or indirectly through "regulatory takings." However, CAFTA includes an exception for a country's "nondiscriminatory regulatory actions" designed to "protect legitimate public welfare objectives, such as public health, safety, and the environment." According to Public Citizen, the Pac Rim-El Salvador case will be the first test of this exception.

Violence Escalates as Pacific Rim's CAFTA Suit Progresses

Local anti-mining leaders and Radio Victoria faced intimidation as the mining debate intensified through the mid-2000s. In 2007, Pacific Rim offered to buy Radio Victoria but the community refused. After Pac Rim brought suit in 2008 the threats and violence became more serious.

Marcelo Rivera, founder of an environmental and development committee near the proposed Pacific Rim mine, was kidnapped and murdered in June 2009. Police concluded that Rivera was killed after getting into a fight with a group of gang members he had been drinking with -- despite the fact that Rivera did not drink and had signs of torture on his body. In July 2009, three Radio Victoria community correspondents were put in safe houses after receiving repeated threats, and several other members of the radio's news and production teams received direct personal threats. The radio's transmitter was sabotaged or stolen on several occasions, leaving the radio off the air for days at a time. Also in July 2009, a Catholic priest, Father Luis Quintanilla, narrowly escaped an apparent assassination attempt. In August, anti-mining leader Ramiro Rivera Gomez was shot eight times on the way to milk his cows, but did not die. He was killed in December, along with a passenger in his vehicle, despite having two police guards. Also killed in December was Dora "Alicia" Recinos Sorto, another anti-mining leader, shot after washing laundry in a nearby lake with her young son. She was eight months pregnant.

What role, if any, Pacific Rim played in the murders and threats remains unknown. Tom Shrake, chief executive of Pacific Rim, said at the time "this has nothing to do with Pacific Rim. It's a local family feud. There are radical elements out there that would like people to believe it's about mining, but it's not true."

Local right-wing leaders who stand to benefit from mining investment in their community could also be responsible. According to Radio Victoria Coordinating Team Member Cristina Starr, the latest threats to the radio station came after the Santa Marta community held a protest outside the right-wing ARENA-party mayor´s office in the City of Victoria, criticizing him for lacking transparency and not supporting community projects. According to Starr, "although we don´t have hard evidence, we see the threats coming from those entrenched power structures in the department."

Still, many are questioning the degree to which multinational corporations use force to secure their investments in Latin America, especially in light of recent revelations about Chiquita's illegal quid pro quo payments to paramilitary forces in Colombia.

More International Recognition Needed To Stop Threats

Before President Obama's recent trip to El Salvador, nineteen House Democrats and over 140 environmental, religious, and human rights organizations sent a letter to the president asking that he denounce Pacific Rim's suit, reform trade agreements, and support a full investigation into the three murders. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) co-sponsored the letter, saying "the U.S. should applaud El Salvador's commitment to promoting the health and well-being of its citizens, and the protection of the environment. Instead, our trade policies enable North American mining companies to sue the Salvadoran government for upholding its legitimate right to protect its air, water, and soil."

In January 2011, Francisco Pineda, a leader of the anti-mining effort, was awarded a prestigious Goldman Prize, the "alternative nobel" for environmental campaigners. Pineda said in his acceptance speech, "we can live without gold, but we cannot live without water."

While there has been some international support for El Salvador's anti-mining struggle, President Obama failed to take a stand on the issue, and Pacific Rim's suit is proceeding through arbitration in Washington D.C. The limited international attention has not stopped the latest wave of death threats against journalists covering mining issues.

Nonetheless, WORT's Stockwell says that bad actors will respond to directed attention from the international community. "Any time we shine the light of day on these issues, it gets the people initiating the threats to back off," he says. "This is an ongoing, recurring problem, and now more than ever we need to show our support for journalists and demand their protection."

Take Action!

Through this Change.Org petition, you can send a request to El Salvador's Attorney General asking that his office investigate the threats and protect the threatened journalists.

If you speak Spanish, you can also call Salvadoran Attorney General Romeo Barahona at 011-503- 2230-6350 and express your support, or send an email to his assistant at hector.burgos@fgr.gob.sv. And, contact your congressperson and ask that they support self-determination and press freedom in El Salvador.

Click here to take action!

This article was updated on May 16 with quotes from Cristina Starr.

Brendan Fischer

Brendan Fischer is CMD's General Counsel. He graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin Law School.