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Peace Brigades International protects human rights activists in El Salvador, 1987-1992
In 1979 the United States of America (USA) supported a coup against Salvadoran General Humberto Romero in reaction to the deaths, disappearances, and torture that had reached international attention. The new Salvadoran government became a civilian-military “revolutionary junta” which used armed forces to suppress the Salvadoran population. Opposition forces acted, using nonviolent and violent means, in order to prevent their suppression. The government enforced a complete and violent repression against dissent.
During 1982, 4,419 Salvadorans had been assassinated and 1,045 had disappeared. The government reduced human rights violations after 1983 because of its effective suppression of opposition movements and concern about possible loss of US funding.
After 1985 groups from outside El Salvador began to visit to help Salvadoran grassroots organizations -- church groups, labor unions, and other humanitarian organizations. Salvadoran activists recognized the power of international opinion on Salvadoran government actions and enacted a new campaign to improve their safety during their work to transform Salvadoran government and protect human rights.
Assassinations and disappearances continued. Despite this, the opposition movement re-emerged by1986. Groups worked to counteract government suppression and human rights activists publicly criticized government violence. The National Unity of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS) emerged to protect workers’ rights. The Christian Committee for the Displaced (CRIPDES) and National Coordination for Repopulation (CNR) developed a process for bringing Salvadorans displaced by the violent military operations of 1980-83 back to their homes.
Leaders and participants in these organizations continued to be at risk of government-sponsored violence. They began to realize that if foreigners were killed in El Salvador the government would find US funding more difficult to acquire.
In 1986, the Nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (CDHES) partnered with a small northern California church-based solidarity committee, the Marin County Task Force on Central America (MCFCA). Members of MCFCA began to travel to El Salvador with tourist visas under alias names and accompany Salvadoran activists in their work for anywhere from a month to a few years. CDHES utilized 33 Marin volunteers’ accompaniment from the 1987 through 1991. Salvadorans conducted training and orientation for accompaniment. The Americans accompanied CDHES activists to their events and meetings in cities and in rural communities. They also drove cars for activists, worked in offices, on computers, and with translation.
In 1987 Salvadoran Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez invited Peace Brigades International (PBI) to provide accompaniment services in El Salvador. PBI worked to protect AMS (a women's organization), COMADRES (Committee of Mothers and Relatives of the Disappeared), CRIPDES (Christian Committee for Internal Refugees), and UNTS and FENASTRAS (trade unions). The international PBI members provided protective accompaniment to threatened Salvadoran organizations and returned refugees.
The benefits of this program can be understood in the statement of the Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez to PBI members:
“It is much easier to throw yourself into any commitment when you have someone with you, protecting you… you give us the force to be able to throw ourselves into our work… it is precisely because you have suffered with the people that you have been able to support them in building their resistance” .
Labor leader Humberto Centero was one of those accompanied. He said that when he went around “with someone from the United States, Canada, or Spain- well, to kill us together would bring the state a heavy political cost.”
For two years prior to November 1989, some international volunteers in El Salvador were harassed publicly by press and army, interrogated at checkpoints, detained, tortured, and deported. One volunteer described an encounter with threatening taunts as, “A feeling of being in the hands of someone who would like nothing better than to hurt you, and only held back- precariously- by some sense of political expediency.” Each attack challenged the power of accompaniment to prevent violence. But the Salvadorans being accompanied supported the program and continued to use the volunteers.
On 11 November 1989 an opposition party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), launched a military offensive against the Salvadoran government. In the midst of the violence, on 16 November 1989 the army killed four Spanish Jesuit priests. When the deaths were confirmed as the army’s action, there was momentous international outcry. The USA consequently imposed limits on military aid.
In order to regain control, the government began to detain and deport foreign citizens. The entire PBI team was sent into exile in Guatemala. Most accompaniment volunteers were tortured in prison but returned to ambassadors.
After the failed FMLN offensive, PBI began to undergo diplomatic negotiations with the Salvadoran government. Due to the continued demand for accompaniment, PBI installed a new team in El Salvador in April 1990.
PBI achieved legal status in El Salvador 1991, but that did not end the harassment that volunteers endured. In 1990 and 1991, the FMLN and the Salvadoran government signed peace accords, and 150 UN observers arrived in July 1991. In January 1992 a cease-fire marked the end of the war and the international accompaniment program was no longer needed.