Communities Demand Immediate Release of Jailed Water Defenders
On November 29, seven community leaders from Hacienda La Labor, Ahuachapán, faced a judicial hearing on charges of “violent occupation of communal, residential or workspaces,” following arrests last week. The leaders are members of the local community water board who have organized ongoing public demonstrations against an urban development project that would put the water supply of the communities in the area at risk. In the early morning of November 25, three of them, Jorge Zúniga, David Escalante, and Rosa Cinco, were arrested during a raid carried out by the National Civil Police (PNC) and the Office of the Attorney General.
At the end of the hearing, the Second Peace Court of Ahuachapán ruled that the four defendants who voluntarily appeared could continue the judicial process “in liberty,” while the three defendants captured by the PNC would remain in prison until the investigation phase. Inhabitants of the La Labor communities were present at the judicial headquarters to demand the release of their representatives.
Over the last year, residents of Hacienda La Labor have carried out various actions against an urban development project by the company Fenix S.A. de C.V. which has planned construction of 1,500 homes, affecting approximately 40 blocks of the protected area and putting at risk the water reserve in the area that supplies close to 10,000 families.
Luis González, from the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES), explained that the company Fenix S.A. de C.V. "is also responsible for the destruction of the Tacushcalco archaeological site and contamination of the Ceniza River in Sonsonate." For decades, Salvadoran environmental movements have fought against extractive megaprojects, such as the Valle El Ángel urban development, widely denounced due to the risk it poses to the environment and the populations of the area. Read the UNES statement in Spanish here.
González also highlighted concern over how the State "maintains this attitude of criminalization of environmental leaders," prioritizing the needs of companies over the defense of the environment.” He adds that “There was no justification for these comrades to be imprisoned and yet they were kept in provisional detention.”
Water Boards are organizations made up of residents within communities who self-manage drinking water systems. Relatedly, environmental organizations have denounced that the new Law on Water Resources promoted by the government denies recognition of these boards and increases fees for these community water systems.