Since the opening of PBI’s office in Chihuahua in 2013, we have established connections with various civil society organisations, including the Sierra Madre Alliance (Alianza Sierra Madre, A.C., ASMAC) which we have formally accompanied since 2018.
ASMAC works to accompany indigenous communities in a region where high risks permanently threaten the wellbeing of those who defend their lives and territories. Chihuahua is one of the states which has had, over the last decade, one of Mexico’s highest murder rates of human rights defenders (HRDs).
In recent years, PBI has opened spaces for direct interactions with international actors. In addition to increasing the recognition of ASMAC’s work, this has allowed organisations abroad to monitor and assess the implementation of the government’s measures to protect the life and integrity of Mexico’s HRDs. “PBI helps us do our work with greater confidence. Also, through collaborating with PBI we have seen a change in the attitude of the authorities, and an increase in their openness [to our work],” says Ernesto Palencia, ASMAC’s lawyer.
As part of a tour organised by PBI in March 2017, Isela González – ASMAC’s director – spoke before the National Human Rights (Comisión de Derechos Humanos, CNDH). She raised her concerns about the elevated risks experienced in Latin America by HRDs focusing on land and environmental issues. In addition, José Ángel Rivas, ASMAC’s field coordinator, participated in a tour to Washington, DC, in 2018, with other HRDs from Guatemala and Honduras. There, Rivas met with US senators, authorities and allied organisations. He explained to them the context impacting his work to defend land and territory rights in Chihuahua.
For ASMAC, these advocacy tours have meant that the issues faced by the Sierra’s communities are on the agenda of international public opinion. Their problems can be debated and monitored, and the organisation has been able to strengthen its links with its donors – which gives them a stronger sense of ownership in the fight for dignity and territory.
Although some ASMAC members have measures authorised by the Protection Mechanism, they have not seen convincing actions taken to resolve the structural causes of violence against HRDs. For this reason, the organisation believes the presence of international observers is fundamental to “give the work visibility, and also for the media presence; for the opportunity to be recognised by private and public organisations, and institutions within Mexico and abroad,” as Ernesto Palencia puts it.
Despite their exhaustion and the dangers they face, according to Isela González, “the presence and accompaniment of civil society organisations are fundamental for the Sierra’s communities.”
It is also important to consider that changing routines in order to protect themselves, as those who defend the communities’ dignity have to do, “creates uncertainty and psychological stress”, according to Susan Navarrete, coordinator of ASMAC’s organisational development.
Despite the difficulties and risks of their work, the ASMAC team continues to hold ambitions whose development will be supported by PBI. One is to contribute to the implementation of the principles of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition for the relatives of HRDs who have been assassinated, as well as the serious human rights violations against indigenous communities. Others are to “achieve the recognition of the communities’ ancestral lands”, as Palencia says, and to support the communities in exercising their autonomy as a guarantee of their self-determination.