Common Frontiers along with thirty-seven Canadian organizations call on the government of Canada to speak out & demand for the release of the Santa Marta 5 water defenders.


The Arbitrary Arrest and Detention of the five Water Defenders of ADES Santa Marta Represents a Dismantling of El Salvador Peace Agreement: Canada Must Act

Ottawa, April 25, 2023 – The undersigned organizations representing Canadian human rights, international development, faith, trade, environmental and solidarity organizations express their deep concern regarding the arrest on January 11, 2023, and the ongoing detention of five human rights and water defenders from the organization the Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES), and the community of Santa Marta, El Salvador:  Antonio Pacheco, Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega, Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, and Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez. We call for the release of the ADES Santa Marta 5 from the squalid conditions in pre-trial detention, and that the charges against them be dropped. Consistent with international standards for prisoners, we demand that while in detention, the 5 have consistent access to their lawyer and family members, medication, adequate food and sleeping conditions, and freedom from any form of abuse or harassment.

Our concern is based on knowledge and deep respect for the work of ADES and the historical accompaniment of the community of Santa Marta that dates back to its exile in Honduras. Moreover, women, small-scale farmers, youth, and the most vulnerable from Santa Marta and the surrounding communities have benefitted from ADES’s work in human rights, sustainable agriculture, water resources management, education, health, community organization, and popular participation over its 30-year history of environment and human rights work.

The criminal charges against the ADES Santa Marta 5 must be dismissed as they violate the 1992 Peace Agreement and National Reconciliation Law

These arbitrary arrests are deeply concerning as they violate El Salvador’s internationally recognized Peace Agreement and National Reconciliation Law, both signed in 1992. The five water defenders were FMLN combatants during the civil war in El Salvador (1980-1992). They have now been charged without evidence for one specific case of murder, unlawful deprivation of liberty, and unlawful associations that allegedly took place 33 years ago (1989) during the civil war. This case and alleged crimes are not part of the UN’s Truth Commission Report of cases, which are outside the framework of the 1992 amnesty Law.

Indeed, these arrests contravene El Salvador’s National Reconciliation Act adopted by congress one week after the historical Peace Agreement, which is still in full force to this day. This law was passed as fulfillment of the commitments signed by the Government of El Salvador, the FMLN, and the United Nations Secretary-General, with the full support from governments such as Canada, the United States, Mexico, Spain, Colombia and Venezuela. It is critical that the Salvadoran Peace Agreement be upheld as it has greatly shaped subsequent peace accords in the region and around the world.

These arrests are politically motivated to demobilize opposition to mining in a context of judicial and human rights crisis in El Salvador 

The five human rights and water defenders detained played a key role in the historical ban on metals mining in El Salvador in 2017 that saved the nation’s rivers and ecosystems and caught world headlines as being the first country in the world to do so. Recent reports seem to indicate the government’s interest in resuming mining in the country. 251 environmental and human rights organizations from 29 countries have expressed concern that the arrests are in fact politically motivated and a strategy to demobilize community opposition to mining at this critical moment.

This is confirmed by  the lack of information, evidence, and secrecy that has accompanied the detentions. Information from statements of the prosecution to the press in the immediate days after the arrest indicates that there is little real evidence to connect the five Water Defenders to the alleged crimes. The lack of evidence, together with the fact that the Attorney General’s Office obtained complete secrecy for the proceedings, plus that the five arrested water defenders remain in pre-trial detention  indicate that they (plus a sixth detainee) were in fact arrested, detained, and charged in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner, for political reasons related to their opposition to mining. This is in stark contrast to any of the few cases being slowly tried by the Salvadoran judiciary, all against members of the military and paramilitary organizations until this case.

Furthermore, the warrant includes an additional accusation, that of the five stated individuals’ alleged affiliation to illicit groups. This accusation is of great concern given the consequences that such a term carries under the current “régimen de excepción” [state of exception] in El Salvador. We reject the implication that those arrested are associated with gang activities. This attack on human rights defenders, leaders of respected civil society organizations and communities, signals a disturbing new development in the “regimen” in El Salvador. It revives the practices of political persecution and arbitrary detention of civil society organization leaders not seen since the end of the civil war. This is immensely disturbing, as we mark the 1 year anniversary of an ongoing state of emergency that has suspended a wide range of civil liberties and has led to massive human rights violations, including thousands of arbitrary detentions and violations of due process, as well as torture, ill-treatment, and other abuses as reported by United Nations and Amnesty International experts.

Canada must uphold El Salvador Peace Agreement and demand for the release of the Santa Marta 5

We call on the Canadian government to

  1. Advocate for the continued implementation of the Peace Accord as a key actor in facilitating the historic agreement. By continuing to detain and prosecute the 5,  the Salvadoran government risks violating an agreement that ended one of Central America’s bloodiest civil wars, establishing a harmful  precedent for international peace;

  2. Live out its commitment to promote and protect human rights, and use all the tools possible to engage the Attorney General of El Salvador to secure the release of Santa Marta 5;

In particular, we ask that the Canadian Embassy in El Salvador to:

  1. Implement the “Voices at Risk: Canada’s Guidelines on Supporting Human Rights Defendersthat recognize the key role played by human rights and environmental defenders in protecting and promoting human rights, water, and the environment and strengthening the rule of law, often at great risk to themselves, their families, and their communities, and to the organizations and movements they represent;

  2. Request the withdrawal of preliminary detention of the accused so that they can be sent home immediately;

  3. Advocate for the dismissal of all charges against the accused, pursuant to the 1992 National Reconciliation Law;

  4. Make a public statement expressing concerns about the inconsistencies in the judicial process, asking for the consequent withdrawal of preliminary detention, the dismissal of all charges and strong concerns about the conditions in which the 5 are being held;

  5. Attend all upcoming trials as international observers;

  6. Visit and accompany the community of Santa Marta to hear directly from the families impacted by these arbitrary arrests and work done by ADES;

  7. Publicly express concerns that this case revictimizes the victims of the civil armed conflict rather than advancing justice for victims as recommended in the UN’s Truth Commission Report following the 1992 Peace Agreement.