PBI-Guatemala accompanied the historic GAM protest march on October 12, 1984
The Peace Brigades International-Guatemala Project was established on March 21, 1983 when it opened its first headquarters there in a vacant home in Guatemala City.
This was a time of intense political violence in Guatemala.
By August 8, 1983, Brigadier General Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores had replaced the dictatorship of President José Efraín Ríos Montt in a coup d’etat.
Under Mejía Víctores, there were 2,883 reported kidnappings from August 1983 to December 1985. Between January 1984 and September 1984, there were 713 extrajudicial killings and 506 disappearances.
A US Department of State report from that period stated, “The security forces and paramilitary groups are responsible for most kidnappings. Insurgent groups do not now normally use kidnapping as a political tactic.”
It was during this extremely dangerous time that PBI-Guatemala accompanied the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM), the Mutual Support Group for Families of the Disappeared and the Detained.
GAM’s clear and immediate goal was to find their loved ones.
Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren write in Unarmed Bodyguards, “Feeling that they had exhausted every other available option with no visible results, members organized the GAM’s first direct protest.”
“On October 12, 1984, hundreds of Guatemalans walked from San Lucas to Guatemala City in a silent march for peace, the first mass protest in years.”
“The twenty-mile march was accompanied by a team of peacekeepers trained by, and including, Peace Brigades volunteers.”
“The police, who had promised to provide security, were nowhere to be seen. PBI volunteers found themselves directing traffic around the marchers. The day passed without incident, but within a week several students at the University of San Carlos who had attended the march were abducted, and more family members flocked to GAM.”
The 40-year-long war in Guatemala (1960 to 1996) resulted in 200,000 deaths and up to 50,000 people forcibly disappeared.
The majority of the casualties were Maya Indigenous peoples.
The Commission for Historical Clarification found that the Guatemalan government was responsible for more than 90 per cent of the deaths, disappearances and other human rights violations during the war.
In August 2018, The Guardian reported, “Land reform has been painfully slow since the Guatemalan civil war, which ended in 1996 with a peace agreement that promised to return land to indigenous and peasant farmers, from whom it had been taken over 200 years before. Instead, there has been only a trickle of cases and it remains one of the world’s most unequal countries.”
“Mario Minera, former head of mediation at the government’s ombudsman’s office, said there were at least 1,000 land conflicts raging in Guatemala.”
Minera says, “The whole country has been opened to concessions for mining, sugar cane, palm oil to provide exports. Rivers have been diverted, others are drying up. Access to land and water is denied. The resources are in the hands of a very few people. It is a predatory model of economic development which is penalising the rural poor and does not benefit communities or the common good.”
In January 2019, Front Line Defenders reported that 26 human rights defenders had been killed in Guatemala and that the killings of human rights defenders in that country had increased by 136 per cent compared to 2017.
PBI continues to be present in Guatemala.
As highlighted in the 2018 Annual Report, “Ten international volunteers accompanied members of 11 organisations and three human rights defenders 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: GAM demonstration with PBI volunteer observing at top left. Photo by Edith Cole. Source: Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights (p.23).