On the evening of August 9, Joel Ernesto Ramírez Acosta, mayor of the small southwestern town of Tacuba, El Salvador, was arrested after running through a police roadblock. He was apprehended, charged with driving under the influence, in the possession of two illegal firearms, and in the company of alleged gang members.
The incident made national headlines. But for Tacuba residents, Mayor Ramírez has bigger crimes to answer for. For over a decade, the mayor has been locked in a battle with seven Tacuba communities over the ownership of a local water system that provides potable water to 1,000 inhabitants.
“It’s about time that he was arrested,” declared 66-year-old Tacuba resident José Gabriel Amaya in an interview after his arrest. “Anything could happen if he’s not in his right mind. Imagine what he could do to us with those weapons.” At a press conference held outside the Attorney General’s Office in the capital city of San Salvador just days after the mayor’s arrest, Amaya called for justice. “They’ve treated us like terrorists for defending the human right to water,” he told the media.
“All across the country, there are conflicts over water,” said Karen Ramírez of the San Salvador based non-profit PROVIDA, a part of the national Water Forum coalition, which has been accompanying the Tacuba communities in the courts, the media and the streets. “In the end the people resist, they struggle. That’s the case of the communities in Tacuba: they’ve been imprisoned and through a difficult process with their families.”
The struggle in Tacuba occurs in the legal vacuum generated by decades of deregulation in El Salvador, where organizers are campaigning for a nation-wide Water Law to defend the increasingly scarce resource from privatization, contamination, and depletion. It also unfolds in the wake of environmentalists’ recent historic victory that made El Salvador the first country in the world to enact a national ban on the metal mining industry, just months after the Salvadoran government defeated a transnational mining giant (Pacific Rim, which was bought by Australia’s Oceana Gold firm) in the World Bank’s controversial investor-state dispute tribunals. The anti-mining campaign was a battle for the value of water over gold.
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