When Peace Brigades International accompanied Rigoberta Menchú in Guatemala
Rigoberta Menchú is a Mayan k’iche’ human rights defender who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 when she was 33 years old.
In the late 1980s she was accompanied by the Peace Brigades International-Guatemala Project, which had been created in 1983.
And as Green Left Weekly notes, “Menchu credits PBI with her survival in Guatemala, because of their work in escorting her around under threat of the regime’s death squads.”
The Nobel Women’s Initiative provides the background: “In 1960, ethnic and socioeconomic tensions engrained since colonization spurred a brutal civil war against the Mayan people. The military dictatorship, under the leadership of Efraín Ríos Montt, and rich landowners initiated the bloodshed. Rigoberta and her family mobilized Guatemalans during the war to denounce government-led mass atrocities.”
During this war, Rigoberta’s father, mother, two brothers and cousin were murdered.
In 1981, at the age of 21, Rigoberta went into exile in Chiapas, Mexico.
In the book Unarmed Bodyguards, Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren write about Rigoberta’s first trip back to Guatemala on April 18, 1988.
They note, “Her delegation was the first to use international accompaniment strategically for a visit from exile.”
“The delegation was met at the airport by three PBI volunteers; dozens of national and international reporters; a crowd of hundreds of Guatemalan students, unionists, and GAM members – and a battalion of 500 policemen on the runway.”
“Despite the heavyweight accompaniment, Rigoberta and her colleague, Dr. Rolando Castillo, were whisked into police cars the instant they stepped off the plane.”
“PBI volunteers and the rest of the arriving delegation rushed to the airport pay phones to start an international human rights alert. In the next few hours, President Cerezo was barraged with telephone calls from the international and diplomatic community.”
Several hours later Rigoberta and Dr. Castillo were released.
Mahony and Eguren comment, “Accompaniment alone did not prevent the arrests, but international pressure reversed them.”
Rigoberta left Guatemala in late April 1988 but returned again in May 1989.
PBI volunteer Patty Mutchnick was accompanying Rigoberta on that visit when she received anonymous Mother’s Day bouquets with threats on the cards.
Mutchnick recounts that experience: “Rigoberta knew as well as I that when I went out to scan the street for snipers and dangerous men behind tinted windows, the actual physical protection I offered was absurd, and to myself in that moment, laughable. I was absolutely vulnerable, and so [was she].”
Rigoberta left the country within days.
Overall, as highlighted by Jackie Smith in the book Transnational Social Movements and Global Politics, “Peace Brigades International (PBI) escorted Rigoberta Menchu to Guatemala on five occasions prior to her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.”
PBI-UK has noted that in 1999 the Rigoberta Menchú Túm Foundation awarded Peace Brigades International its Medalla Comemorativa de la Paz for its contribution to promoting the peace to which the foundation and its founder Rigoberta Menchú are dedicated.
Rigoberta has stated, “PBI’s work demonstrates that supporting victims of authoritarianism, intolerance and state violence is invaluable and necessary. It makes the fight for human rights more effective and makes the dream of democracy a reality.”
More recently, as reported in this Prensa Latina article, Rigoberta addressed a high-level forum of the United Nations General Assembly the obstacles that impede the development of a culture of peace including the extreme concentration of wealth, the nuclear arms race, climate change, hate speech, and actions against migrants on the U.S. border.
Photo: Rigoberta Menchu accompanied by PBI volunteer Liam Mahony (in white shirt) in Guatemala in 1988. Photo by Marlyse Gehret.