It is late January 2019. I’m in a taxi accompanied by my new colleague, making our way to what will be my new home for the year. I have finally landed in Chihuahua, Mexico’s largest State. The city has welcomed me with one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. Cliché, I know. Pink candyfloss clouds are contrasted against a palette of purple, red and orange skies. I was unaware then, but those sunsets would be the backdrop of my year working for PBI. Looking out of the window at the city, arid mountains circling us, I become unnerved at the lack of people on the streets. I begin to ask myself, “Where is everyone? Why does the city look so empty…?” Flashbacks of my relatives’ reactions to the news that I was moving to Chihuahua whizzed through my brain: Femicide. Forced disappearance. Torture. Narcos. Extra-judicial assassinations. Ciudad Juárez.
I began my time as a ‘brigadista’ a month after Andres Manuel López Obrador took office. His historic victory was juxtaposed against the fact that I was only a few hours’ drive away from Trump’s America. I knew this would be a very interesting time to be in Mexico, but I had no idea how the following months would unfold. As I start to find my feet, I am quickly reminded of the stark reality that I am now a part of. Three months prior to my arrival, Julián Carrillo, a Rarámuri community leader from the Sierra Tarahumara who defended his ancestral territory from illegal mining and logging, was assassinated in cold blood. He was a beneficiary of Alianza Sierra Madre, an accompanied organisation that works alongside indigenous communities in this remote, deprived and lawless part of the country.
Before I know it, I am attending meetings with State Officials at the Government Palace to highlight our observation of the investigative procedures surrounding Julián’s case. Side by side, I am observing Isidro Baldenegro’s court case, another Rarámuri community leader who was assassinated in January 2017. I then travel to Coahuila’s mining zone to accompany Organización Familia Pasta de Conchos, where I have the opportunity to meet some of the widows affected by the 2006 mine tragedy and bring their concerns to local authorities. Concurrently, Paso del Norte, our accompanied organisation in Ciudad Juárez is experiencing one security incident after another. Acts of intimidation, unexplained phone calls, suspicious behaviour by unknown men are occurring more often than not. And why, you ask? Because they dedicate their lives to finding justice for victims of torture and forced disappearance committed by state actors in a context of rampant impunity.
Fast-forward to five months later and our team is dealing with emergency after emergency… Members of the migrant shelter Casa Migrante Saltillo are being threatened and intimidated by authorities in a series of worrying incidents. I am now seeing the consequences of the USA’s inhumane immigration policies and the new administration’s response to them being played out right before my eyes. Not long after, I travel to Piedras Negras in Coahuila, a city along the US border alongside our accompanied organisation, Fray Juan de Larios. Here, I am observing exhumations of unidentified bodies with families who are missing a loved one, being drastically introduced to the reality of forced disappearance. Seeing bodies dug up from the ground was an experience I am unable to put words to at this moment in time, but it is safe to say that I never looked at Mexico’s landscapes in the same way again.
As a woman, coming to the State that inspired the term ‘femicide’ was not a decision I took lightly but I trusted that our beige waistcoat would exempt me from becoming a victim to such a crime. I joined an all-female team, which was an empowering experience in itself, and was surrounded by incredible female human rights defenders. For me, my time with PBI was about utilising my privilege as a foreigner to facilitate human rights defenders in Chihuahua and Coahuila to continue their work with less risk.
Five days after arriving back in London, I hear the news that Isabel Cabanillas, a young feminist activist from Juárez, was shot to death. Despite not having met her, this was difficult for me to deal with. Not only because she was a similar age to me but because she didn’t have a government that protected her, or a beige waistcoat or a foreign passport like I do. It is a crying shame that the world works this way, but we cannot turn a blind eye. This is why the work carried out by PBI is so important; we look at repression directly in the face, whilst standing side by side with human rights defenders, a clear demonstration of defiance and international solidarity.
Find out more about becoming a field volunteer with PBI.