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Peace Brigades International (PBI) protects and aids Guatemalan Mutual Support Group (GAM), 1984-1989
From 1960 to 1996 Guatemalans endured a civil war in which the Guatemalan military and leftist guerrillas fought for control. In order to defeat the guerrillas, the government focused on controlling and depleting the potential guerrilla population- generally the Mayan Guatemalans. After a military coup in March 1982, the Christian Democracy Party candidate Elfrain Rios Montt assumed the presidency and promised to lift the state of siege by the next year, leading Guatemala into a “democratic opening.” He encouraged international organizations to participate in the new Guatemala.
In March 1983 Peace Brigades International (PBI) entered Guatemala with the goals of, “supporting and protecting the social movement and to distribute information about Guatemala to the exterior… based in the criteria of non-partisanship and non-violence.” PBI volunteers began continually moving in and out of Guatemala depending on how much time they could devote to the campaign. The volunteers were women and men from dozens of various countries. Most were in their mid-forties, had some college education, and were clergy, educators, or physicians.
After assessing the situation in Guatemala, PBI volunteers clarified their goals to serving, “continually as an international presence… giving moral support to those who really want a democratic opening… witnessing… providing technical support in nonviolent methods… [establishing an] organizing skills clearinghouse… and above all taking the lead from local groups.” They also clarified what they wouldn’t do; “PBI would not do political organizing or form groups, would not initiate activities that Guatemalans themselves could initiate, would not attempt to cover the entire national territory, and would at all costs avoid any indiscretion or disclosure of information that might put others in jeopardy”.
In 1983 PBI volunteers traveled through the Guatemalan highlands, building an understanding of their setting and helping people flee the country when necessary. They also communicated with solidarity groups and human rights organizations outside of Guatemala to establish a cooperative chain of communication which could pressure international politicians to act as needed to protect Guatemalan activists and PBI volunteers.
In 1984, PBI began to work extensively with widows and mothers who strove to hold the government accountable for the death and disappearance of their family members. PBI delivered recorded messages from the Salvadoran Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared (COMADRES) to Guatemalan women. These messages communicated the COMADRES experience as human rights activists as well as advice on how Guatemalan women and PBI volunteers could improve the situation in Guatemala. PBI volunteers helped the Guatemalan women navigate legal procedures, which could hold the government accountable for the loss of their loved ones.
PBI supported the women as they established a Mutual Support Group (GAM) of mostly Mayan women, who had lost family members during the many years of violence. PBI coordinated meetings between international diplomats and GAM members, provided organization advice, taught nonviolent tactics, and attended GAM meetings. PBI volunteers also directed traffic during the GAM rallies and marches. The PBI office location became a place of refuge for the women activists as well as a location for the women to communicate with international reporters and officials who sympathized with their cause. PBI volunteers would occasionally escort GAM members to their houses after meetings and visit family of GAM members to publicly demonstrate international concern for individuals in the community.
GAM members suffered severe government repression. Saturday, 30 March 1985, GAM activist Hector Gomez was tortured and assassinated. PBI hosted emergency meetings for GAM members. After one of the emergency meetings GAM founder and secretary Maria Rosario Godoy de Cuevas, her son, and her brother were found dead. After these deaths PBI volunteers saw the necessity of developing a new strategy of third party nonviolent intervention. PBI organizer Alain Richard began rounding up more international PBI volunteers so that Guatemalan activists could be escorted by unarmed bodyguards, around-the-clock. PBI began to support GAM by providing a physical international presence through accompaniment rather than guidance in organizing grassroots resistance groups or the development of nonviolent tactics.
As GAM memorials and marches for Hector Gomez and Rosario de Cuevas gained more and more support from the public, the government forbid PBI participation in the events. Despite government disapproval, PBI continued to accompany GAM throughout their activities. Meanwhile, PBI organizers in Washington, DC, USA corresponded between ambassadors and politicians to promote the cause of PBI and Guatemalan human rights activists. PBI focused their services on the accompaniment of the two remaining GAM directors, Nineth de Garcia and Isabel de Castanon.
PBI members began to more frequently experience repression. In July 1985, four men with guns threatened volunteer Didier Platon and pressured him to get into their car, but sped away once another PBI volunteer, Mary Morgan started to run to his aid. Although Guatemala was internationally recognized as working toward democracy, deaths, disappearances, and repression continued. Guatemalan embassy officials reproached PBI for illegal participation with GAM. PBI contradicted the accusations, defending their status as “international observers.” PBI volunteers continued to accompany GAM activists during their activities. In October 1985, GAM received the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award in Washington, DC, and the Canadian member of parliament Jim Manley visited Guatemala to publicly show solidarity and support for GAM.
Throughout November 1985, PBI volunteers faced intimidation from police and anonymous armed groups of men. Volunteers had difficulty renewing visas and some were expelled from the country. Alain Richard delayed PBI expulsions long enough to replace them with new PBI volunteers on tourist visas.
Vinicio Cerezo was inaugurated as the democratically elected president of Guatemala in January 1986. Assassinations and disappearances continued under his leadership and human rights violations slightly worsened. During protests, when the military intimidated GAM participants, PBI volunteers utilized a few strategies to make their presence as tourists and internationals visible. PBI volunteers took pictures of the military and created human chains to deter military induced violence. In a September 1986 GAM sit-in, GAM members disobeyed army orders to leave the palace. PBI accompaniments by default disobeyed military orders in order to continue accompanying GAM protesters. The next day, newspapers reported, “foreigners had entered the palace with the GAM and had counseled them not to leave.” Guatemalan interior minister Rodil Peralta withdrew his previously publicized support of PBI and threatened to expel the international volunteers. Americas Watch defended PBI, and Peralta’s threat was not implemented.
In 1987 GAM received the Carter-Menil human rights award, which funded the construction of a GAM office building one mile away from the PBI office. GAM was therefore able to develop more independently from the PBI volunteers, office, telephone, and workspace. The GAM office was repeatedly bombed and many members died due to continued government repression, but the organization persisted. PBI was a stable presence and resource for GAM for the next several years. In 1996, GAM leader Nineth Montenegro de Garcia, who PBI accompanied most extensively, was elected into Guatemalan Congress.
The new GAM office marked both GAM and PBI’s transition into development as independent organizations. By 1989, GAM was safe and stable enough on its own and PBI moved on to accompany new organizations in Guatemala. PBI began to accompany labor movement activists, those who refused service in the Guatemalan civil patrol, and other Mayan rights movement participants. In 1989 PBI extended the minimum length of volunteer stay to six months and provided less extensive accompaniment services to the new organizations they proceeded to serve. PBI took on more short-term missions providing physical international presence in offices or with activists during the weeks after a threat was received and then proceeding to reduce the extent of accompaniment. By the early 1990s PBI was providing accompaniment services for dozens of Guatemalan organizations.