Guest Publication

State of Deception

A fact-finding report on El Salvador’s detained water defenders, the potential return of environmentally destructive mining, and the state of human rights under the Bukele administration

Report Co-Authors: Alejandro Artiga-Purcell*, Robin Broad, Pedro Cabezas*, John Cavanagh*, Bernie Hammond*, Manuel Perez-Rocha, Angela Sanbrano*, Heather White*, Ross Wells*, Scott Wright*
(*denotes delegation members)

A year ago this January, five water defenders were arrested in El Salvador.

The “Santa Marta Five” led a successful national campaign to ban environmentally destructive mining in the Central American country several years ago. We believe their arrest signals both a crackdown on civil society under the increasingly authoritarian president Nayib Bukele and a signal that Bukele may seek to resume metal mining operations — in part to offset costs incurred by his own disastrous economic policies, including the adoption of Bitcoin as a national currency.

From October 15 to October 20, 2023, several of us joined a U.S.-Canadian delegation to El Salvador. We held 19 meetings with leaders of civil society groups, human rights groups, lawyers, economists, a member of the legislature, and others in the country.

The delegation visited organizations in the department of Cabañas, specifically in San Isidro, Guacotecti, Victoria, and Santa Marta. The delegation also participated in a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the human rights organization, Tutela Legal Maria Julia Hernandez, and to present that organization with the 2023 Institute for Policy Studies Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award.

Overall, we were shocked at the level of fear, suffering, and corruption in the country amid Bukele’s “state of exception.” Our interviews in El Salvador indicate that the country is now a police state. With elections just a month out, the government of El Salvador has moved systematically in the direction of becoming a dictatorship — with the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of the Santa Marta Five only the tip of the iceberg.

This is a report of the delegation’s findings, which are available in full in both English and Spanish. 

An English-language summary is available on the website for the Institute for Policy Studies.