The Lempa River reservoir in El Salvador

In late June 2009, the two of us received deeply disturbing news: Marcelo Rivera had been disappeared. We had never met Marcelo, but we had been looking forward to doing so. He and four other “water defenders,” as they would become known to many, were scheduled to travel to our city, Washington, DC, to receive a human rights award.

At that point, we had never been to Marcelo’s home country, much less to his hometown or the old house he was renovating. Nor did we have any plans of going there. To be honest, we did not know the difference between a tortilla and a pupusa.

For nearly two weeks, Marcelo Rivera’s family could not find him. Then, on June 29, they received the phone call they had been dreading. The anonymous caller was brief. There was a body in an old, abandoned well just west of the Rivera hometown of San Isidro, Cabañas. The well was near the spot where Marcelo had last been seen some twelve days earlier, getting off the bus at a turnoff to the capital city.

During those twelve days, Marcelo’s family and friends had been at wit’s end, searching frantically, desperately, for him. They had spread news of his disappearance in all the barrios of San Isidro and nearby towns.

They had called the police for over a week, to no avail. The Rivera family had even filed a formal complaint with El Salvador’s attorney general, pleading for him to conduct a search and an investigation into Marcelo’s disappearance. But another poor person gone missing up in the rural north meant little to the authorities.

After the anonymous tip to Marcelo’s family, the police finally acted. They pulled the remains of a body out of the dry, thirty-meter-deep well. So extensive was the torture that the body was unrecognizable. The face was grotesquely disfigured—no jaw, no lips, no nose. The fingernails had been ripped off. The testicles bound. The trachea had been broken with a nylon cord. In the assessment of the coroner, the death had been caused by asphyxiation. The public prosecutor disagreed, concluding that that death had come from blows to the head by a hammer. Whatever the cause of death, the torture bore eerie similarity to that inflicted by right-wing death squads during the twelve years of El Salvador’s gruesome civil war in 1980–92.

Thus Marcelo Rivera became the first of several water defenders to be assassinated in the twenty-first-century fight over mining in northern El Salvador.

Though we never met Marcelo, we have been haunted by him and the circumstances of his death ever since. Who killed Marcelo? And why?

* * *

We first heard of Marcelo in May 2009, just a month before his murder. He was a thirty-seven-year old teacher who directed his hometown’s cultural center, an avid reader, a person who loved theater and the arts and a good practical joke. We heard his name because he was a leader of the main coalition of Salvadoran groups opposed to mining—the National Roundtable on Mining in El Salvador, or La Mesa. The roundtable was not well known outside of El Salvador. But we learned of it because the group had been chosen to receive a prestigious human rights award from the Institute for Policy Studies where John works. In 2009, the institute selected the roundtable to honor its opposition to mining companies eager to exploit the gold deposits near El Salvador’s major river.

On a warm night in October 2009, just months after Marcelo’s body was pulled from that well, hundreds gathered at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, DC, to meet and applaud the Salvadoran water defenders. Among them was Marcelo’s youngest brother and best friend, Miguel. Miguel had come in his brother’s place, and his grief marked his face.

Accepting the award on behalf of Miguel and three other roundtable leaders was a farmer and community leader from the heart of gold country, Vidalina Morales. Vidalina looked small behind the podium. The US congressman who presented the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award towered over her, making her look even smaller. Dressed unassumingly in an orange blouse and red skirt, her long dark hair pulled back in a simple ponytail, her face free of makeup, she at first appeared hesitant. Nervous before the large audience. Fragile even.

Then she began to speak. Her words filled the auditorium, almost as though she did not need the microphone. For nearly twenty minutes, Vidalina held the crowd spellbound as she relayed the saga of El Salvador’s water defenders standing up to Big Gold. The Lempa River, she explained, winds through the country like a snake, providing water for over half the population. Water for drinking, for fishing, for farming. Water for the cities as well as well as the rural population. But the project of the Canadian-headquartered Pacific Rim Mining Corporation at its proposed El Dorado site in Miguel and Marcelo’s hometown posed serious threats to the Lempa River. Key among the dangers was the toxic cyanide that Pac Rim would use to separate the gold from the rock.

Vidalina ended her acceptance speech with a seemingly audacious demand: that the government of El Salvador stand up to giant mining firms and choose water over gold by banning the mining of all metals. All.

Before this she had urged the audience to follow a related legal thriller unfolding four blocks to the west of where we sat, just past the White House, the site of a little-known tribunal in Washington. There, as Vidalina explained, Pac Rim had filed a lawsuit against the government of El Salvador right before Marcelo’s murder. Pac Rim claimed that El Salvador had to either allow it to mine or pay it over $300 million in costs and foregone profits from future mining. Vidalina invoked the “upside-down” world summoned by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, in asking why it was not El Salvador suing Pac Rim, since the mining company threatened the water and well-being of her country.

But that upside-down world is the reality of global corporate power and economic rules that affect people around the globe. And, as we think back to that evening, we must admit that we each, separately and silently, found it just as far-fetched to imagine a national legislature passing a law to end mining as it was to conceive of this tribunal siding with Vidalina and the rest of the water defenders. Her demands just seemed implausible. So many had tried for so long to right that upside-down world, with relatively little success. But this reaction we kept to ourselves—we did not even tell one another.

Instead we shared what seemed like a more important and immediate reaction: being equal parts mesmerized by Vidalina and her words, and utterly outraged by Pac Rim and the prospect of the lawsuit.

At the reception following the awards ceremony, we huddled with Marcelo’s brother, Miguel. Miguel was soft-spoken and gentle in his manner, understandably a bit shy as he asked for help. After all, we had just met. He seemed both incredibly focused on the details of what to do next and shell-shocked by the chain of events—by his brother’s murder and the lawsuit. But his appeal was urgent, direct, and heartfelt: “We don’t know this tribunal or how it works. We don’t know what to expect. Can you help us find out about this lawsuit?”

The suit had been filed by Pac Rim at the luxurious and sprawling headquarters of the World Bank, one of the global institutions set up after World War II by the United States, the United Kingdom, and other leading powers. We had done decades of research on the Bank. Robin had written a book and many articles on the World Bank in the Philippines and other countries, and John had pulled together researchers to examine impacts of its policies on poor people around the world. We knew the Bank well, yet so hidden was this tribunal that we did not realize it was officially part of the World Bank Group. At that point, we did not know that its cases could drag on for seven years. We did not know that most of what transpired was done in secret.

But we did know that Pac Rim’s claim—that a government could not adopt environmental rules that deprived a corporation of future profits—could well stand up in that court. We knew that such lawsuits could be initiated against El Salvador or Canada or even the United States. We also knew that global corporations typically prevailed in their lawsuits against governments like El Salvador. And, given this reality, that governments often caved in under the financial costs of such suits, settling outside of court either by paying the corporation or removing the problematic regulation.

More to the point, we knew that we could not say no to Miguel.

On that balmy evening in October 2009, who could have guessed that Miguel’s questions and Vidalina’s call to action would pull us two—and thousands of others around the world—into the vortex of three intertwined unknowns for nearly a decade to come?

First, there was the on-the-ground mystery: Who killed Marcelo and why? Not just who carried out the brutal killing. Who was the mastermind? Second, there was the mystery at the national level: Could El Salvador possibly become the first nation on earth to ban mining—or at least move closer to that goal? Or did all this hoopla about stopping mining simply mean, as many assumed in 2009, that Pac Rim had not paid a high enough bribe to top officials in the national government? And, finally, the global legal thriller: Could little El Salvador possibly prevail against the gold mining industry in Washington, DC? Would El Salvador, a poor country, even have enough money to pay for its legal and related costs? To hire a lawyer savvy enough to take on what would undoubtedly be a top corporate law team hired by Pac Rim?

We had no idea then how these mysteries would play out. But, as we joined the hundreds of people who streamed out of the National Press Club after the award ceremony, we knew we were hooked. We knew we needed to find out more about this tribunal—at least a day or two of research to answer Miguel’s questions. And we were intrigued by the prospect, however unlikely, that a poor country might actually choose to halt mining to save its water. Perhaps the one thing we felt fairly certain about was that the question of who had killed Marcelo would be unraveled by others in El Salvador within months or, at most, a few years.

* * *

The more we spent time with Miguel, Vidalina, and ordinary people in northern El Salvador, and the more we learned about the dangers of mining and the rules rigged in favor of the mining firms, the more we found ourselves confronting daunting questions whose answers appeared as elusive as they were compelling. These questions also brought home to us the relevance of this story to communities in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.

The popular wisdom on the environment is that it is wealthier people in richer countries who care the most. The poor, it is often argued, cannot afford to worry about the environment. What then led Marcelo, Vidalina, and other ordinary, poorer farmers to become water defenders, to lead the charge to protect watersheds in El Salvador?

This question led us into deeper discussions with mining proponents and mining opponents about a set of related queries: What is “progress?” What is “development?” To phrase that differently: what constitutes a better life for oneself, for one’s community, and for one’s country? We found strongly felt and divergent answers to this essential question. These conversations often reminded us of discussions that are consuming—and often dividing—communities across North America, debates about whether “progress” or “development” can be catalyzed through fracking or tar-sands pipelines or big-box stores or public subsidies to supposedly job-creating entities such as Amazon.

This story began several years before Marcelo’s disappearance and murder, in a small town in the northern mountains of El Salvador when “white men in suits” arrived. The unknown men said they had come to talk about mines. As a local farmer who became a town official recounted, when the men in suits started trying to talk about mines, it created some confusion for him and his fellow townspeople: “We told these white men in suits that the United Nations had already come through and taken out all the mines—that is, the land mines from the civil war. There were no more land mines. But the men in suits said: ‘Oh, no, we’re looking for another kind of mines, ones with gold, silver, and iron.’ That is when the companies’ lies began. That is when our struggle against mining began.”

Excerpted from The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed, published by Beacon Press.

Robin Broad and John Cavanagh

Robin Broad and John Cavanagh, authors of The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed, are a husband-and-wife team who have been involved in the Salvadoran gold mining saga since 2009. Broad is an expert in international development and won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship for her work on this project, as well as two previous MacArthur fellowships. A professor at American University, she served as an international economist in the US Treasury Department, in the US Congress, and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Cavanagh is director of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies, an organization that collaborates with the Poor People’s Campaign and other dynamic social movements to turn ideas into action for peace, justice, and the environment. Previously, he worked with the United Nations to research corporate power. With Broad, he helped build the network of international allies that spearheaded the global fight against mining in El Salvador. They have coauthored several previous books together.

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