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"Were you there?"
Protesters from Latin America clash with a mining company's lawyer.

Steve Watrous (left) and John Machulak (right)

In the end, salad dressing was not poured onto the sidewalk. Steve Watrous, a sociology instructor at MATC's Downtown campus and one of the activists who organized Monday’s protest outside the law office of Machulak, Robertson and Sodos, couldn't remember the exact variety demonstrators had selected – Newman’s Own, something with garlic. What mattered most, for the splatter factor, was its color, a mucky red as it oozed out of the bottle held aloft by Esmeralda Villalta (a Salvadoran who had traveled to Milwaukee for the demonstration) and into an ice cream bucket set aside for the big splash. A piece of paper pasted over the dressing bottle original’s label read, “Toxic Water™ by Commerce Group,” and the possibility of the demonstrators actually goo-ing the doorstep of the law office of Machulak, Robertson and Sodos hung in the air until the mining company’s counsel, John Machulak, came out of the house on Farwell Avenue and embroiled the scene in a debate.

Until then, Monday’s press conference had gone off as planned. Villalta gave a Spanish language interview to a reporter from CBS/Telemundo and then spoke through a translator to denounce metallic mining. Commerce Group owns a gold mine in El Salvador that environmentalists in the U.S. and residents in a nearby town blame for polluting the San Sebastian River and surrounding water table with arsenic and heavy metals, turning the stream a color like cranberry juice. “All they have left is environmental destruction and health problems,” said Villalta, who repeated that local residents suffer from high rates of renal failure and a rare paralytic disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome.

A coordinator with the Oxfam organization accused Commerce Group of acting with a “depraved indifference” toward the people living in the gold-rich region, where some still mine the mountains a rock at a time.

For much of its existence, Commerce Group has persisted as an inactive participant in the global mining industry. The Milwaukee-based company ran the El Salvador mine until 1978, when a Civil War forced the outfit run by the late Edward L. Machulak to flee the country. Son (and current lawyer for Commerce Group) John Machulak said on Monday, soon after coming outside, that the company hasn't mined at the site since 1978, which is partly because the Salvadoran government denied the mine a permit amid a national freeze on metallic mining that followed the election of a left-wing president, Mauricio Funes, in 2009.

Commerce Group subsequently sued the national government under the Central America Free Trade Agreement for $100 million in lost profits, an action that likely came to an end on Aug. 28 with an order from the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes discontinuing the case’s most recent chapter. Commerce Group had failed to pay $250,000 to cover “the remainder of the proceedings, including a hearing, the Committee’s deliberations and the drafting of the decision,” said the finely detailed, 10-page order.

Esmeralda Villalta (left) and Alexandra Early (right), a translator.

Mining is a hot topic in Wisconsin these days with Gogebic Taconite's efforts to establish an iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills region, and State Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) spoke briefly at the presser. “We can see how destructive this is,” he said but left before the protesters climbed the law firm’s steps to deliver a 550-signature petition. Perhaps he was thinking of the confrontation that was to erupt.

“I hope you don’t mind us covering up your sidewalk,” Watrous said when Machulak came down.

“I don’t mind,” the lawyer said, greeting the group, “if you just gave us a little advance notice.” After taking in the TV camera and reporters standing to one side, he explained that the company has not mined on the site since 1978; and then he referenced a report that concluded the biggest pollutant in the area was, in fact, stray human and animal feces.

“If you want to come in, and you want to go through the reports, then come in,” he said, adding that Watrous had already met with him, in his office. “This is absolutely uncalled for. This is just like a campaign.”

One of the translators said a 2012 report from the Ministry of the Environment found not fecal matter or mercury – used in the artisan mining cited by Machulak as another pollutant – but high cyanide levels. She handed some papers to the lawyer, who began looking through them and asked, “Where is the group? Usually it’s commissioned by a group.”

The translator repeated that the national government had produced the report, and there was more arguing. “Were you there?” Machulak asked.

“We are Salvadoran!” the other translator exclaimed, “and we've been there as of May of this year.”

After Machulak left, the protesters stood around a bit before decamping to a speaking engagement at Carroll College. Representatives of the "Sister Cities" network and the Association for the Development of El Salvador, the demonstrators said they had already been to Austin, Texas, and had plans to visit Madison, Chicago, Michigan, St. Louis and Kansas while in the country.

The first translator looked taken aback. “It’s amazing that he actually came out,” she said.

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