I arrived in Guatemala in January 2014. The PBI Guatemala field team was made of ten global volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. We were based in the capital city and accompanied organisations in the departments of Quiche, Jalapa, Chiquimula and Alta Verapaz. It was great to work with such a diverse group of people, with everyone bringing their own perspectives and experiences but all of us working together with the common goal of protecting human rights defenders at risk in Guatemala. There was a real unique bond of solidarity that forms among volunteers.
Over the course of the first two weeks, we volunteers spent most of our time taking part in the orientation programme: receiving presentations about the organisations that PBI accompanies and getting a deeper insight into the PBI principles and unique way of working.
Volunteering with indigenous communities
My first trip outside the capital was accompanying the “New Day” Ch’orti Campesino Central (CCCND), an indigenous-campesino group that accompanies indigenous Maya Ch’orti communities. We travelled by bus out to the east of the country, travelling by pickup truck the next morning up to the indigenous community in the mountains. Being welcomed into the indigenous village and meeting the community members was an incredible experience and a good initiation to the 38-degree heat.
After a few months, the human rights situation in Guatemala began to deteriorate significantly. In 2014, the Unit for the Protection of Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) registered 813 attacks against human rights defenders; this figure was up from 657 in 2013. These attacks included threats, smear campaigns, physical attacks and assassinations, amongst others. This dramatic worsening of the human rights situation in the country was reflected in our accompaniment work.
Working against a culture of impunity
Throughout the year the Guatemala project had to react to numerous emergency situations and a high number of calls for accompaniments from organisations and individuals at risk. The CCCND, in particular, suffered over 100 aggressions between March and November 2014. Members were jailed with spurious charges being brought against them, and also suffered death threats and intimidation in their struggle to register their indigenous communities and oppose the construction of hydroelectric dams on their ancestral lands.
The dangers faced by the members of the CCCND are compounded by the fact that the murder of local human rights defender and union activist Carlos Hernández remains unpunished. He was shot on 8 March 2013 as he was returning by car from Honduras. Two people accused of his murder were released from jail in 2014. The impunity, in this case, is a denial of justice for the victim and increases the risk to other human rights defenders. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon as there is almost total impunity for attacks against human rights defenders in Guatemala.
From cleaning toilets to meeting with the UN
A year spent as a global volunteer with PBI doesn’t just involve accompaniments; the daily routine can be extremely varied. A typical day could involve a meeting with the UN in the morning then cleaning the toilets in the afternoon before heading off on accompaniment to a remote indigenous village in the highlands.
Despite the country’s grave human rights situation during 2014, spending a year with PBI Guatemala allowed me to get to know some incredible human rights defenders, hear their stories and observe them carry out their incredibly valuable work. The contact with the human rights defenders is a great privilege and it was inspirational to meet these normal yet extraordinary people who continue to carry out their work despite the violence they face.