In the year 2000, at a time when there was still no international presence in the state of Guerrero, PBI began its first accompaniments to local human rights organisations. Five years had already passed since the first petitions for accompaniment were made to International Service for Peace (SIPAZ), located in Chiapas since the Zapatista uprising in 1994. In December 2003, PBI started accompanying the members of “Tlachinollan” Human Rights Centre of the Montaña (Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña “Tlachinollan”) in their new office in Ayutla de los Libres. Abel Barrera Hernández, anthropologist and Tlachinollan director, spoke to us about PBI’s arrival in Guerrero and these 17 years of shared work.
What was the public-order situation in the state of Guerrero in the 2000s?
They were critical times for Guerrero. We saw a supremely violent panorama where the army was taking control. We observed many cases where the army tortured members of the general populace in the belief that they were members of the guerrilla groups. In 1998, the Charco massacre occurred: 11 young indigenous people executed by soldiers in Tlatlaya. It was a context where State violence was becoming institutionalised and the authorities needed to understand that they couldn’t use force that way.
In this context, how was the permanent presence of an international organisation in Guerrero received?
PBI’s arrival disconcerted the state authorities: they didn’t understand the importance of an international human rights organisation in terms of the security situation for human rights defenders (HRDs). They considered it an intrusion in public life and an inconvenient presence.
Did the Tlachinollan team have any concerns about PBI’s arrival?
We didn’t, but the local intelligence [department] were very crude and said that NGOs [non-government organisations] financed violent groups – they stick to that line until today. We observed [them take] a position that broadly disqualified international NGOs, which they accused of interference. There were several campaigns to discredit international organisations.
What was PBI’s role in Guerrero during those years?
Being in the field, being a direct witness and documenting human rights violations. At that time, Valentina and Inés1 and the OPIM were facing many obstacles as they sought justice. They faced serious risks in denouncing the army – the army was (and continues to be) untouchable.
On an internal level, Tlachinollan held regular meetings with PBI that provided a lot of feedback: within our network of human rights organisations in Guerrero, we succeeded in constructing a new narrative. We managed to show another perspective in the struggle for human rights. PBI’s lived testimony helped others to understand that our work wasn’t about confrontation with the army but about fighting for dignity and life.
How did PBI offer support to Tlachinollan?
PBI helped us establish contact with State authorities. From the beginning, we saw PBI’s presence in Mexico City was important to conduct advocacy at a national and international level. They documented our accompaniments in Chilpancingo, Tlapa [de Comonfort] and the Costa Grande and transcended the borders of Guerrero and of Mexico. The international tours were very important for disseminating our work. We felt protection and increased awareness of our work in Europe.
What contributions has PBI made over these 12 years of accompaniment?
We held many work meetings in Chilpancingo, but there was also a lot of sharing and friendliness. We had a comfortable, fluid relationship. We shared important moments, like birthdays, and that way [the PBI volunteers] experienced our food and festive spirit in the state of Guerrero.
We also haven’t forgotten that it was former PBI volunteers who opened Tlachinollan’s international team. PBI has played an important role for us in terms of the struggle for justice and truth, but because we feel like family.
1 On 16 February 2002, Valentina Rosendo Cantú, a 17-year-old Me’phaa indigenous woman, was raped during an interrogation by Mexican army personnel in her community of Barranca Bejuco. One month later, Inés Fernández Ortega, also a Me’phaa indigenous woman, was also sexually assaulted when soldiers invaded her home in Barranca Tecuani.