International accompaniment for relatives of disappeared people, who face indifference or hostile reactions towards their struggle for justice, strengthens their process of empowerment and their capacity for resilience. 

During almost two decades of working in Mexico, PBI volunteers have witnessed time and time again how important their presence is to the relatives of the disappeared.   PBI are seen as international observers and allies who listen to the relatives’ testimonies and accompany them.  Their presence reinforces the relatives’ efforts to be heard.  The PBI volunteers bear witness to their pain, their fight for justice and how the relatives are often disregarded or ignored, and they too experience a process of reflection and personal development by accompanying the relatives.

In 2003, PBI began to accompany relatives of disappeared people in the Mexican state of Guerrero through AFADEM (The Association of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Mexico). PBI was one of the first international organisations with a presence in Mexico to acknowledge the rights of relatives to demand justice and to support them by means of international accompaniment.  AFADEM’s members have been trying to get information of the whereabouts of their disappeared relatives since the 70s. This action has lead them to be branded as sympathisers of the guerrilla movements. 

In 2004, two PBI accompaniment volunteers witnessed the first formal hand-over of the remains of victims of enforced disappearances to take place in Mexico . The experience had a profound impact on them:

“The journey took place in January with Tita Radilla and Mr Chon, to collect the identified remains of two victims of enforced disappearance, Mr Chon’s son and another victim. We travelled with them from Atoyac in Guerrero to Mexico City.  We spent the day waiting outside the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic (PGR). We were told that they could not return the bones due to a technical problem.  In the presence of reporters they threatened to withhold the remains.  Mr Chon grew desperate.   He said they had stolen his hope again.  Finally, they were handed remains in cardboard boxes, the kind used to store documents in an office.   As night fell we returned with them on the 8-hour journey to Atoyac.  The boxes of bones were in the boot of the car. It was a very emotional day, we witnessed the pain of the relatives.   Mr Chon had stress-related gastric problems.  Tita said it was as if in reality his son had died that day.   Before he was missing, today he was dead.  We were cold and hungry.  I was astonished by the lack of emotion shown by the PGR officials who also travelled to Atoyac, who acted as it they were discussing carrots and onions.  In contrast was the warmth of Mr Chon and the sister of the other disappeared victim.

It was an accompaniment that highlighted a double victimisation. After 32 years, the remains  of their loved ones were returned, but it was done it in a darkened office, after making the relatives wait outside in the cold, for hours, uncertain…just waiting…. The officials made them repeat time and time again the facts surrounding the disappearances, distrusting them, forcing travel costs on them and unnecessarily prolonging official processes…… and finally they returned the remains in a way that denied them, once again, their dignity and their pain. And there were Mr Chon and Tita, putting up with it, a lesson to us all in perseverance, the power of the truth, the value of their fight for the right to reclaim their dead, to discover the truth and achieve justice.   We were witnesses, and we were part of these people’s struggle to stand up to a state that wanted to silence them, to silence their demands for truth and justice for their disappeared victims.  We had been with them all this time, we felt that we had to be present. For us it was an unforgettable experience. "  Pilar Romeva and Riccardo Carraro (PBI accompaniment volunteers in Mexico in 2004).

In 2012, after receiving petitions from several human rights organisations in northern Mexico, PBI conducted an exploratory visit and met with groups of 40 relatives of disappeared victims in Coahuila who shared their experiences.  When the PBI representatives  tried to explain that they were only collecting information, the relatives answered that that was enough, that they needed to feel heard, that people knew what they were going through. They felt empowered by the meeting itself and by being able to give their testimonies to people from an international human rights organisation who had travelled to meet with them. 

The director of the Fray Juan de Larios Diocesan Centre for Human Rights, the organisation advising the victims’ families in Coahuila, reflected on the beginning of PBI’s accompaniment in 2014, about the process of empowering the relatives, and the role an organisation like PBI can play in accompanying them:

“A crucial element is the energy of the relatives. The majority of those seeking disappeared relatives are women.  It is a strength that enables us to breathe and motivate ourselves to look for hope.  The families grow during the search. Socially, relatives of the disappeared are stigmatised, as questions exist around why their relatives were taken, and they are therefore isolated.  For the majority, relatives and neighbours distance themselves because they are scared and suspicious.  To change this we make use of the mobilisation and visualization of the problem.   This has enabled us, little by little, to contact sectors of society and give our interpretation about the problem of disappearances. "

People aren’t disappeared because they are bad, instead, in a crisis like the one we face, anyone can be the victim of enforced disappearance.  And there, little by little, we gain awareness and solidarity.   With PBI’s presence we hope to gain more attention from the international community for our plight.” Blanca Martínez, Director, Fray Juan de Larios Diocesan Human Rights Centre

By Susana Nistal