Thirty year anniversary of the grenade and knife attacks against PBI-Guatemala

Published by Brent Patterson on

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The Peace Brigades International-Guatemala Project was established around March 1983, less than two years after the founding of PBI in September 1981.

This was during a time of intense political violence in Guatemala.

Patrick Daniels, co-chair of the Guatemala Solidarity Network, has written in The Guardian, “At the height of the bloodshed under Ríos Montt [1982-1983], reports put the number of killings and disappearances at more than 3,000 per month. Such was the extent of the violence that in 1999 the UN commission concluded that it constituted acts of genocide.”

Roger Powers notes in Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women’s Suffrage that, “PBI’s Guatemala team provided especially significant levels of accompaniment over many years to Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM) (Mutual Support Group for Families of the Disappeared and the Detained), and to Consejo de Comunidades Etnicas ‘Runujel Junam’ (CERJ) (Council of Ethnic Communities ‘Everyone Equal’), an organization of Mayan farmers who resist forced service in the military’s civil patrols.”

And Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren write in Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights, “International accompaniment was vital to the popular movements and a major hindrance to the extreme Right. It was only a matter of time before attempts were made to remove this hindrance.”

Then, as Anne Manuel writes in Messengers of Death: Human Rights in Guatemala, November 1988-February 1990, in January 1989 the army held a media conference in which they presented “guerilla deserter” Miguel Angel Reyes Melgar who alleged that several international human rights organizations were connected with the guerillas, including PBI.

Mahony and Eguren specify, “Reyes named a former PBI member as a guerilla member and accused PBI of relaying messages between guerilla contacts in Guatemala and Europe.”

“Reyes could prove none of his assertions. Public-relations officer Colonel Isaacs later admitted to Americas Watch that the army had no corroborating evidence.”

Despite this, “[The accusations legitimized by the government] expanded the political space for right-wing attacks against the named targets – the GAM, CERJ, and PBI.”

Grenade attack

Manuel writes in her book that on August 15, 1989, just after 7 pm, two grenades were thrown at the PBI house in Guatemala City.

Manuel notes, “The grenades were thrown over the front [garden] wall, one landing outside the living room window and another in front of the kitchen windows.”

“The explosions shattered windows at the house, but did not injure residents, who were eating in the dining room at the time of the attack.”

PBI volunteer María Gabriela Serra recounts, “We were about to have dinner, we had already gathered around the table and, as usual, we shook hands for our daily minute of silence, as a way to thank everything we had during the day, feel the energy of the whole team, the will to continue being a peace brigade… Then the noise rang, all the glass on the facade of the house broke and we saw the broken pieces scattering everywhere, then the terrifying silence … we were all well, nobody was damaged, a miracle…”

Mahony and Eguren add, “The explosions jolted the house, filling the air with smoke and glass. Everyone instinctively jumped under the dinner table. The force of the blast shattered most of the windows in the house, but luckily, the table was protected from the flying glass by a dividing wall. No one was injured.”

Manuel also notes, “The device, which landed near the kitchen, barely missed hitting two one-hundred pound tanks storing cooking gas just outside the window.”

“[National Police] agents told PBI that the entire block would have been blown up had the grenade hit the cooking gas tanks. A demolitions expert from the police told PBI the explosives were U.S.-manufactured grenades.”

A Defense Intelligence Agency secret cable (Document 33) notes that U.S. military intelligence sources indicate that the Guatemalan army’s Directorate of Intelligence (D-2) Special Operations Section was responsible for the attack on the PBI house. But it is not known if it was the army, other state security services, or right-wing paramilitary forces.

Knife attack

Manuel also writes, “Shortly after 7:00 p.m. on December 20, 1989, three PBI volunteers were assaulted and stabbed by two young men as they were walking to the PBI house [just two blocks away] on Mariscal Street, in Zone 11 of the capital.”

“Meredith Larson, a [23-year-old] U.S. citizen, was stabbed in the chest and arm and was hospitalized for one night in Guatemala. (Larson subsequently returned to the United States for treatment for nerve damage to her left forearm.)”

“When Canadian citizen Mitchell Goldberg tried to intervene, the assailant slashed his hands and forearm. The second attacker chased Canadian citizen Rusa Jeremic stabbing her in the arm and chest.”

“At no time did the assailants attempt to rob the victims, even though one of the women [Larson] dropped her purse on the road.”

Mahony and Eguren add, “The week after the attack, PBI published an ad defending its work in every major Guatemalan newspaper.” The ad was signed by many people including Members of Parliament in Canada.

“The PBI team in Guatemala moved into a more secure house in April 1990 [and with the high profile attention garnered from the incidents] the violent attacks against PBI stopped.”


While the presumed motivation behind both of these attacks was to drive PBI out of Guatemala, PBI did not leave.

PBI volunteer María Gabriela Serra, who was in the PBI house at the time of the August 15, 1989 grenade attack, comments, “The following days we talked a lot, we were afraid, sometimes a lot of fear, but in our hearts there was a conviction that this ‘warning’ was a sign that our work was worth it.”

Mahony and Eguren note, “Guatemalans made jokes about ‘who is protecting whom?’ but they respected PBI’s steadfastness and kept asking for PBI accompaniment.”

“If the bombing and knifing temporarily reduced the sense of protection that PBI’s accompaniment offered, this was more than countered by the long-term increase in confidence in the organization [from Guatemalan human rights defenders].”

And they conclude, “The attacks against PBI may have been symptomatic of an overall increase in violence and the closing of space for popular action. Within this changing context, everything was more dangerous, but accompaniment could still offer some protection to a threatened activist who chose to continue organizing.”

PBI continues to be present in Guatemala.

As highlighted in the 2018 Annual Report, “Ten international volunteers accompanied members of 11 organisations and three HRDs working on environmental and land rights, impunity and globalisation, and women’s and gender rights. Volunteers are based in Guatemala City from where they travel to other regions of the country.”

Photo of Prensa Libre, August 17, 1989.

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