PBI volunteers present when Salvadoran police raided the CRIPDES office in 1989

Published by Brent Patterson on

Photo: On April 19, 1989, PBI volunteers (seated) observed outside while Salvadoran police prepared to storm the CRIPDES office with 60 people inside, including PBI volunteer Eva Scarfe. Photo by Carolyn Mow.

As Peace Brigades International approaches its 40th anniversary in 2021, PBI-Canada is looking back at some key moments in our shared history.

In the book Unarmed Bodyguards, Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren recount a dramatic moment when PBI accompanied human rights defenders in El Salvador. The following are excerpts from their passage on what transpired one day:

CRIPDES worked with refugees and the rural displaced populations, aiding in their resettlement to the areas they had been expelled from by the scorched-earth strategy of the army. Since many of these resettlement areas were contested by the FMLN, the army was extremely belligerent with CRIPDES. PBI maintained a regular presence in the CRIPDES office and traveled with activists outside of the capital.

On the morning of April 19, 1989, Attorney General Jose Roberto Garcia was assassinated by an FMLN commando unit. The security forces immediately encircled the offices of three popular movement organizations, CRIPDES among them.

At CRIPDES, the door was barricaded, with sixty people inside [including] Australian PBI volunteer Eva Scarfe.

The military encirclement of the CRIPDES office lasted over eight hours. Salvadoran and foreign journalists arrived, as well as members of other Salvadoran organizations and three more PBI team members.

Eva Scarfe remembers, “Anti-riot police arrived as reinforcements, and they started preventing journalists from getting close enough to see what was going on…”

PBI volunteer Carolyn Mow was outside: “By 11 at night, many of the press had left, but we were still there.”

A little after 11 pm, the soldiers forced the door open and put everyone inside into a military truck, which took them to treasury police headquarters. Eva Scarfe was kept standing up for sixteen hours with no food or water and then handed over to the British consul.

Eva recalls: “A few times I was threatened, for instance one man said to me, ‘If I were the president of this country, old women like you would not exist.’ …The hate, palpable in a way I had not experienced before. A feeling of being in the hands of someone who would like nothing better than to hurt you, and only held back – precariously? – by some sense of political expediency.”

The rest of the Salvadorans were released a few hours later, except for six members of the CRIPDES directorate, who were tortured and imprisoned for four months.

Miguel Mejia, a CRIPDES member, believed that PBI’s presence was important, despite the arrests: “When they captured us, I remember the woman from Peace Brigades. We could see that when she spoke with her tormenters, she was very brave. She asked why they were doing it, and she explained to them what respect for human rights meant.”

Whereas other offices had been broken into at once, at CRIPDES, the military had delayed entry for eight hours, probably calculating the cost of the international and media presence. As night wore on and the press left, the calculation changed: PBI alone was not sufficient.

Nevertheless, Eva’s presence throughout the process of arrest and detention made a difference. Even during the standoff, PBI supporters all over the world sent hundreds of messages to the authorities. This pressure – from other urgent action networks as well – continued until everyone captured was released and accounted for.

In fact, after Eva’s release, the treasury police published a list of those still detained. The list omitted the name of CRIPDES leader Inocente Orellana, and it was feared that he might be disappeared. Eva’s testimony that she had seen him in custody contributed to minimizing this risk.

This event strengthened the relationship between PBI and CRIPDES. PBI volunteers visited regularly those who were imprisoned.

In addition, despite the apparent failure to deter arrests, the remaining CRIPDES members were even more appreciative of the ongoing presence.

According to Carolyn Mow, “After the capture, they went right back the next day to clean up the ransacked office, but first they came up to us and said, ‘We’re going back. Are you coming with us?”

For more, please see Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights by Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren.

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