On July 8, DNA tests confirmed that a body found in a well in Cabañas department, El Salvador, on June 30 is that of prominent community activist Gustavo Marcelo Rivera. The body was found by community members who had organized a search for Rivera, missing since June 18. Witnesses reported that the body exhibited signs of torture techniques generally tied to targeted political assassinations. However, initial reports coming from the National Civilian Police (PNC) state that gang members were responsible for the murder.
The victim’s brother, Miguel Rivera, dismissed the gang violence explanation. “Saying that my brother died at the hands of gang members is an unbelievable story and becomes a mockery for my family. My brother was tortured. He was alive for nine days after his disappearance. His trachea was broken by a nylon cord that strangled him, pushing his arm up to his face. This is not an act of gang members. It is torture.”
Rivera was director of the Casa de Cultura in San Isidro, and was active in social justice and environmental struggles. Friends and family members report that he received many threats in response to his public denunciations of San Isidro Mayor Ignacio Bautista of the ARENA party. Rivera was vocal in his stance against attempted fraud in the municipal and legislative elections of Jan. 18, which led community members to shut down the town’s voting centers, forcing a make-up election to be held the following week. Rivera was also active in the national movement against mining projects that threaten El Salvador’s principal watersheds.
Civil society organizations Coordination for Peace, Dignity, and Social Justice (CPDJS), the Foundation for the Study of the Application of Law (FESPAD), and the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining all denounced the murder as politically motivated, and called on the PNC and Attorney General to carry out an exhaustive investigation to determine the intellectual authors of the crime. In a joint press conference, the groups stated: “Marcelo was being threatened by members of the ARENA party in San Isidro and by those that impose death projects in the area [a reference to the proposed mines], which Marcelo always opposed, and for this he was defamed and denigrated.”
Social movement organizations argue that a thorough investigation in this case is impeded by the ongoing vacancy in the office of Attorney General. The Legislative Assembly has remained deadlocked on the question of appointing an Attorney General since the outgoing official’s term ended three months ago. Adjunct Attorney General Astor Escalante has taken on the responsibilities of the office, despite the Salvadoran Constitution’s requirement that the Attorney General be elected with 56 votes in the Assembly. Critics have denounced Escalante for usurping the position, and worry that his close ties to the ARENA party make it likely he will carry on the office’s history of allowing impunity for politically-motivated crimes. (CISPES, July 17)