Fake criminal charges, mining justice and solidarity in El Salvador

My friend Antonio Pacheco, renowned leader of a community development group in northern El Salvador, was arrested with five other men on Jan. 11 and charged in connection with a war-time death that happened more than 30 years ago. They are also charged with “illicit association,” the accusation that has led to detention of more than 60,000 alleged gang members by the government of President Nayib Bukele. 

The charges, say friends and allies, have nothing to do with achieving justice for any of the 75,000 people who died during the civil war, and everything to do with the government’s drive to re-open metals mining in El Salvador in the wake of its Bitcoin cryptocurrency failure.

Antonio Pacheco observes an ADES greenhouse in Santa Marta in 2009. Photo: Jim Hodgson

Pacheco and members of the Santa Marta Development Association of El Salvador (ADES) were leaders in the successful effort to stop a gold mining project in Cabañas department, and part of El Salvador’s National Roundtable on Metals Mining that achieved a ban on metals mining in 2017. 

During the civil war in the 1980s, Santa Marta was targeted by the Salvadoran military and most residents fled to Honduras. Successive Salvadoran governments have not investigated the dozens of cases of human rights violations documented by the people of Santa Marta against the armed forces (including the Lempa River massacre in 1980, where 30 people were murdered and 189 others disappeared). 

The arrests last week drew global attention, including articles in The Guardian, the German news service DW and TeleSUR, and solidarity statements from the U.S. Institute for Policy Studies, the Honduran group COPINH, the U.S. Sister Cities network, and others. “Antonio Pacheco has struggled almost his entire life to build a country that seeks social, economic and cultural well-being and who is a friend to the causes of the Honduran people,” said COPIHN (the organization led by Bertha Cáceres until her murder in 2016).

I came to know Antonio, ADES and many other people the rural communities of northern Cabañas during the 20 years of my work with The United Church of Canada. I wrote about him several times, including a profile published in the United Church’s Mandate magazine in February 2011:

“A Life-Long Passion” (excerpt)

A child grows up in El Salvador in the 1960s. He asks: “Mamá, why are there poor people?”

Decades later, the question still animates Antonio Pacheco, executive director of ADES….

“I hardly ever talk about this,” Antonio said, smiling over his coffee in the food court below the United Church general council office in Toronto. “I had this intense curiosity. I asked lots of questions. I read, and read some more. I read the Bible, or tried to.”

In the sixties and seventies, Christians in Latin America began creating “base communities” to provide space for questions like those of Antonio and to share the Word of God among neighbours.

“One word caught my attention: solidarity. I began to understand why Jesus was taken to the cross,” Antonio said. 

“By the time I was 11, I understood that I wanted to work for the people. I wanted to be a doctor so that I could help.”

But as Antonio entered high school in the mid-seventies, El Salvador was in political upheaval. The base communities and church leaders became targets of repression. Antonio emerged as a leader of the student movement in his high school in San Salvador, and joined the revolutionary movement in 1977. Political and education work took him to Santa Marta for the first time in 1979, and by 1982 as the civil war raged, Antonio worked with the community directly in its education efforts. But aerial bombing grew so intense that the entire community fled into exile in Honduras in the mid-1980s.

It was after the return to Santa Marta in October 1987 that Antonio’s community development work really began to bear fruit. Even though a final peace accord was not achieved until 1992, the people of Santa Marta sought and found international help to rebuild. The United Church of Canada and the Anglican Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund were among the first partners. In 1993, ADES was born to secure and manage development funds. Antonio has served as executive director since 1998.

Today, formal education is one of Santa Marta’s great successes…. ADES continues to lead in agricultural development and training in northern Cabañas, but a number of programs have spun off in varying degrees of autonomy: a micro-credit program for market workers, a community radio station in nearby La Victoria, and an AIDS education program for rural youth that works on both sides of the border.

Now in the 2020s, ADES is working with support from the United Church and the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation to expand ecological agricultural practices in Cabañas.

“David defeats Goliath”

With the mining victories in 2016 and 2017, Mandate published a short interview that I did with Antonio. At the end, I asked what he would say to Canadians about their responsibility to regulate their mining companies

“The Canadian people should be aware that Canadian companies operating outside the country have practices that fail to respect the human rights of the people in communities, and that they fail to repair damage to the environment. For those reasons, it is necessary and urgent that their actions abroad be regulated in Canada.”

Left: Mandate, February 2017. Right: Jim Hodgson with Antonio Pacheco, August 2006. Photo: Presbyterian World Service & Development.

Summit of the Americas: U.S. can’t break old habits

That the White House announced Canada’s planned response to the flow of refugees in Central America said a lot to me about the way the Biden administration mishandled the Summit of the Americas, held in Los Angeles last week.

Canada will welcome 4,000 additional migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, the White House announced on June 10. That number is insignificant compared to the size of the challenge: 

  • Mexico reported apprehending 307,679 undocumented migrants in 2021. About one-third were deported; another third sought asylum in Mexico. The main countries of origin of those apprehended were Honduras (41%), Guatemala (26%), El Salvador (8%), Haiti (6%), Brazil (5%), Nicaragua (5%), Cuba (2%), and Venezuela (1%). None of the leaders of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador chose to attend the summit – and Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela were told by Biden not to come. It’s hard to solve problems when you’re not talking to people who can do something about them.
  • As of February in the United States, about 164,000 (Reuters) or “just under 179,000” (Axios) migrants are currently in alternatives-to-detention programs managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement  (ICE). This is “roughly double the total on Sept. 30, 2020, before Biden took office,” Reuters reported, and doesn’t include dependents – or the people actually held in detention.

The White House announcement of Canada’s support included commitments from other countries on migration issues, and was reported by Canadian Press in an article widely shared in Canadian media (CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, among others).

“The agreement also includes a pre-existing Canadian commitment to bring in an additional 50,000 agricultural workers this year from Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean.” (Those are temporary workers whose rights are limited.)

To its credit, the government (via the Prime Minister’s Office, not Global Affairs Canada) also announced an additional $118 million for “progressive initiatives” aimed at improving the lives of people where they already live in Latin America and the Caribbean. That includes $67.9 million to promote gender equality; $31.5 million in health and pandemic response spending; $17.3 million on democratic governance and $1.6 million for digital access and anti-disinformation measures. It will also spend $26.9 million to address “irregular migration and forced displacement” in the hemisphere.

Washington “still trying to dictate” to neighbours

But it was the exclusions and boycotts that drew most attention. Because Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua were excluded by the host country, Mexico, Honduras, Bolivia and some Caribbean leaders chose to stay away. Leaders of Guatemala and El Salvador did not attend because of issues with U.S. treatment of allegations of corruption and abuses of human rights in their countries. In the end only about 20 of potentially 35 heads of state or government attended.

Apparently modelling the art of understatement, Reuters reported: “Hosting the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, Biden sought to assure the assembled leaders about his administration’s commitment to the region despite nagging concerns that Washington, at times, is still trying to dictate to its poorer southern neighbours.”

The presence of the unelected prime minister of Haiti, Ariel Henry, drew fire. During a panel discussion on “journalistic freedom,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had the good grace to seem embarrassed when challenged over Henry’s presence. As Alterpresse pointed out, “not only does Henry govern without a mandate in violation of the Haitian Constitution, he is also implicated in serious crimes, including the death of a Haitian journalist in February 2022 by Haitian police.” (Two other journalists had been killed in January in a gang attack.)

In the tradition of each Summit of the Americas (including the teargas summit in Quebec City in 2001), a People’s Summit was held, gathering more than 250 community organizations, social movements, trade unions and other progressive groups. “In the ‘richest country in the world,’ 140 million live in or near poverty. The US government is addicted to militarism and war and will spend over $800 billion in 2022, on death and destruction,” said the final declaration. “Instead of preparing for war, society must be organized to meet human needs. We want a future without evictions, police violence and mass incarceration, deportations, sanctions, and blockades. We say: no more!”

Salvadorans remember peace accords, celebrate martyrs, dream of a different possible world

by Jim Hodgson

This is a historic week in El Salvador. January 16 was the 30th anniversary of the Peace Accords that ended the country’s long civil war. And this weekend, four Christian martyrs will be beatified – a step toward sainthood – by the Roman Catholic Church.

The commemorations take place in a political and social context that is not what we hoped for when we watched news coverage showing the government and the rebels sign the accords at the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City in 1992. The president today, Nayib Bukele, has dismissed the Accords as a “farce.” The country is on the edge of insolvency; Bukele flirts with cryptocurrencies that no-one understands; between 200,000 and 300,000 people leave the country each year.

Sometimes looking at the past can offer some signs for the future, and that’s why the celebration of the lives and witness of the martyrs this weekend matters.

Beatification of the Servants of God, Saturday, Jan. 22. Celebrant is Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez.

Best-know in the group is Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who was driving with 15-year-old Nelson Rutilio Lemus and 72-year-old Manuel Solórzano, to the small town of El Paisnal to join the town’s celebration of the feast of St. Joseph when they were gunned down on March 12, 1977, in Aguilares, 33 km north of San Salvador. 

The fourth man celebrated is Father Cosme Spessotto, an Italian missionary priest of a Franciscan order who had served in El Salvador since 1950, and was murdered on June 14, 1980, as he prepared to celebrate an evening Mass in his parish church in San Juan Nonualco, La Paz department. Like other church leaders, including Saint Oscar Romero (the archbishop of San Salvador, slain March 24, 1980), he had denounced the crimes of the military junta in the 1970s including the murder of Fr. Rutilio, thus drawing threats against his own life.

Fr. Rutilio’s death came as El Salvador’s civil war was beginning. Over the next dozen years, at least 75,000 people were killed; about 8,000 more were made to disappear; a million people fled. In 1993, the United Nations Truth Commission report attributed at least 85 per cent of the killings to government security forces and related paramilitary death squads. 

Salvadorans recognize many martyrs, among them the four U.S. church women who were killed near the San Salvador airport in December 1980, and the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter who were killed in November 1989 at their home in the University of Central America (remembered in the photo above). May they all be recognized soon too! As James T. Keane wrote in America magazine this week, “We need more dangerous saints.” Photo: Jim Hodgson (2019).

It’s important to remember what the martyrs represent: a persistent witness to life as experienced by people long oppressed, marginalized, landless, impoverished, unemployed, violated on a daily basis. Their sacrifice amplifies the cry of the poor, and I believe influenced the negotiations that produced the Peace Accords in 1992.

The Peace Accords brought about a new legal regime in El Salvador. One of the negotiators for the Farabundo Martí Liberation Movement (FMLN) at Chapultepec was Nidia Díaz, who spoke recently with Jacobin magazine:

“All those laws that oversee the new institutions that are the product of the peace accords were made in COPAZ, the National Peace Commission. They weren’t a whim. In COPAZ, you had the FMLN and the government as parties, and, as observers, the Catholic Church and the UN and the parties that were in the legislature at that moment. All the laws — the law for the National Civil Police, the army, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Human Rights Ombudsman, etc. — were made in COPAZ and sent to Congress. There was a debate process. 

“Now Bukele comes along and says, ‘I don’t agree with these responsibilities and powers,’ and he tries to annul the laws and the constitution. He’s dismantling the democratic process that permitted his very election.”

Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro speaks at a Romero memorial event, March 24, 2009. Photo: Jim Hodgson

Another prominent defender of the peace accords is Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro of Emmanuel Baptist Church (known by its Spanish acronym, IBE). Speaking with the newspaper Diario Co Latino this week, he said:

“There is a lot of criticism of the Peace Accords and an attempt to diminish their value. I think we have to commemorate them, and why not celebrate that the Accords put an end to the armed confrontation? Of course there are various sectors, particularly in the city of San Salvador, and perhaps in other cities where people did not live the intensity of the war as it occurred in other parts of the country. We saw so many people suffer, our brothers and sisters in those communities, places where the war was very harsh and caused greater damage: those people celebrated the end of the war with much joy. And that cannot be hidden.

“And there’s more than one reason that it is important to commemorate and to give thanks to God for the end of the armed confrontations: it’s to say to our sons and daughters that we do not believe in hatred or in confrontation. The Peace Accords give a place for us to say to our younger generations that we want peace, a peace that reaches everyone and a peace that is the hand of justice.”

He was asked what his message would be on this 30th anniversary of the Accords:

“We say that there are two things that we have not been able to accomplish since the Peace Accords. As churches, really there are two themes: on truth, because we have not been able to close the chapter on the Accords without knowing the facts behind the conflict. That’s important; the United Nations recognized it. The second is reconciliation, because you can’t talk about Peace Accords without reconciliation. The church in that has a great responsibility, but it is also an ethical, more and spiritual debt with our people.

“Supposedly we were to go towards reconciliation, but there was an agenda of priorities and the theme of reconstruction was in first place, when reconciliation should have been the principal theme. Apart from whether we lived a conflict or no, the call of God is to see each other as sisters and brother, to build a spirit of family nation, where everyone of us makes an effort so that all of us have lives of dignity. It’s humiliating that every day people leave because there are no conditions here for that life. Something is going wrong.”

The model of reconstruction imposed after 1992 resulted in shopping malls and fast-food restaurants, not sustainable and participatory development or comprehensive land reform.

Even in the face of the current crises in Central America – violence, migration, the impacts of climate change – what gets proposed derives from tired models from the past. Social movements have a different vision.

In the United Church’s Mandate magazine (summer 2020), I reported on a conversation with Miguel Tomás and youth peace-makers in his church: