By Edgardo Ayala
Like the rest of the staff at Radio Victoria, journalist Marcela Ramos has received death threats. But what has most distressed her is that the threats are now targeting her two-year-old daughter.
“Now they’re directly threatening my daughter,” Ramos told Latinamerica Press. “It’s very painful that we’re still dealing with this and [the authorities] haven’t given us any concrete response as to who is doing it.”
In early June, a week after she spoke with us, Ramos fled El Salvador, fearing for her and her toddler’s safety.
Radio Victoria is a community radio station located in its namesake town in the Cabañas region, 95 kilometers northeast of San Salvador. For the past two years, its staff has been receiving death threats in letters, over the telephone and by e-mail, by a group that calls itself “Exterminio,” or “extermination,” that has warned “Shut up, or you’ll find yourselves dead.”
While the letters and phone calls rarely mention which topics they should stop covering, several of them have referenced coverage of metallic mining. The department is home to the polarizing El Dorado gold mine, a project owned by a Cayman Island-based subsidiary of Canadian company Pacific Rim. The company last year filed a suit against the Salvadoran government after President Mauricio Funes refused to let the company begin production there. Pacific Rim is seeking US$77 million in lost investment, arguing that the project was protected under investment clauses in the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, even though it is run by a Cayman Island subsidiary.
Fighting mining contamination
Community radio stations started to sprout up in El Salvador in 1992 after the civil war, as a means for the poorest communities to have a voice. The stations were a source of information that was not aligned with the commercial and political interests, unlike traditional media outlets in the country.
Some 20 community radio stations comprise the El Salvador Association of Radio Stations and Participative Programs, an umbrella interest group.
Journalists at Radio Victoria believe that the threats are an attempt to change the station’s editorial line, which strongly criticize mining projects, especially Pacific Rim’s El Dorado mine. Funes’ decision to prohibit construction of the mine, which critics said would cause irreversible health and environmental damage, came after the climate toward the industry in El Salvador began to change. In 2009, then President Antonio Elías Saca (2004-2009) of the right-wing National Republican Alliance denounced mining for its environmental and social threats.
Pacific Rim now wants the Salvadoran government to pay US$77 million for the company’s lost investment, according to the suit filed two years ago in the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement Investment Disputes.
Radio Victoria had reported on potential water contamination from the use of cyanide in gold extraction.
Journalists Pablo Ayala, Maricela Ramos and Manuel Navarrete were the target of death threats earlier this year, receiving unsigned letters that were slipped under the radio station’s door.
In addition to environmental issues, Radio Victoria also reports on social issues, such as human rights, women’s and children’s rights, as well as politics, ahead of the municipal and legislative elections next year.
“For me and my other colleagues, they have given us just hours to leave the Cabañas region, or get killed,” said Manuel Navarrete, a journalist at the station.
Some of the coverage included criticism of Victoria’s mayor, Juan Antonio Ramos, for failing to move forward with community projects.
Still, authorities have not publicly released any leads on who is threatening these journalists.
The Attorney General’s Office, which is in charge of the investigations, never released a report on the messages’ origin. Attorney General Romeo Barahona only said that he understood Radio Victoria’s staff’s worry, but that that would not speed up the investigation.
Little trust for protection
Last year, the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said El Salvador’s government must provide protection to the threatened radio journalists and some other journalists given the violence against opponents of the mine.
In 2009, Marcelo Rivera, a member of the National Roundtable against Metallic Mining, was kidnapped and his body found days later with visible signs of torture. Rivera’s murder was followed by the killings of Cabañas Environmental Committee for the Defense of Water and Natural Resources members Ramiro Rivera Gómez and Dora Alicia Sorto Rodríguez, who was eight months pregnant.
The crimes appeared motivated by the activists’ stance against the El Dorado mine, since that had received death threats ordering them to stop their work and campaigns against the project. But the police tied the murders of Rivera Gómez and Sorto Rodríguez to community members who were in favor of the mine. In July 2010, the police captured nine people accused of participating in their murders. Six of them were sentenced in 2010, three to 40 years in prison and three years apiece for the others.
Even though the radio station is usually guarded by police, the staff doesn’t trust them.
Óscar Beltrán, another Radio Victoria journalist, has 24-hour police protection and is suspicious.
“They have a log of every thing we do during the day, even the people with whom we meet, and some of them have said to us that if the threats were real, someone from the office would have already been killed,” he said.
In June, Juan Francisco Durán Ayala, an activist working with the Cabañas Environmental Committee for the Defense of Water and Natural Resources, was killed. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Durán Ayala was seen hanging flyers calling for a law against mining. Two days later his body was found with two bullet wounds to the head.