Volunteer experience - an Irishwoman in Northern Mexico

On 29th January 2017 I set off to Mexico to join PBI as a volunteer. It was my first time in Mexico and I was a bundle of excitement, nerves and curiosity. Following a week of training in Mexico City I could not wait to get to Chihuahua where I would spend a year as a member of the Northern Team.  I was not sure what to expect as I arrived to my new home and I could not have predicted all that the year would bring and all that I would take from it.

The Northern Team in Chihuahua is one of two field teams in PBI Mexico (the Southern Team is based in Oaxaca). The office is based in Chihuahua and the team covers the northern border states of Chihuahua and neighbouring Coahuila where it accompanies five local human rights organisations and works closely with many more. These organisations work on human rights issues which include impunity and access to justice (including handling cases of disappearances and torture), migrant rights, and land, territory and environmental rights.  During the year I was fortunate to have the chance to visit each of the organisations that we accompanied which involved travelling to the border city of Ciudad Juárez and the Sierra Tarahumara in Chihuahua, and in Coahuila to the cities of Torreón and Saltillo and to the Carbon Region. It was a year of incredible experience to travel across the two northern states and to have the opportunity to know the organisations who we accompanied on a professional and a personal level.

The situation for human rights defenders in Chihuahua and Coahuila is extremely challenging as they face huge risks and potential retaliations for the peaceful and legitimate work that they carry out. Both states have experienced huge violence and human rights violations, much of which can be attributed to the presence of powerful drug cartels and a recent history of state violence as a result of the crackdown on these cartels. In the last year civil society organisations have presented reports regarding alleged crimes against humanity suffered in Chihuahua (presented in June 2018) and Coahuila (July 2017) before the International Criminal Court in the Hague. During my year with PBI I witnessed the incredible bravery of human rights defenders and an undistinguishable determination and hope. However, it was also a year very much marred by the violence and risks that they face. I arrived in Mexico the month that two prominent human rights defenders, Goldman prize winner Isidro Baldenegro López and Juan Ontiveros Ramos were killed within two weeks of each other in the Sierra Tarahumara in Chihuahua as a result of their human rights activism. Human rights defenders and journalists face constant threats, intimidation, physical violence, harassment and criminalisation when the vital work that they carry out for the protection of human rights is seen to threaten the interests of the perpetrators, in a context of the deep-rooted reality of near certain immunity for those responsible.

While there have been encouraging developments in terms of the protection of human rights defenders, including the Federal Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists and in Chihuahua the Early Warning and Contingency Plan, which came about following a petition from civil society organisations for the protection of human rights defenders and journalists, the violence against them persists. Many therefore rely on protection measures from national and international entities. While the creation of these platforms for the protection of human rights defenders are important advances, and have crucially included the participation of civil society representatives, it is now essential that what has been agreed is implemented.

When asked about my highlights from the year, it is not easy to single out one but what really made the year special is the chance to work closely with human rights defenders, see first hand the incredible work that they are doing and to learn so much from those moments. It was a year of opportunities, challenges, teamwork, creativity, laughter and tears but above all a year during which I had the honour to work alongside incredible and inspiring people and organisations, and to witness their endless determination and courage to continue in the face of ever-present risks and challenges.

Without overlooking the challenges that come as part and parcel of the work of PBI, it is an experience that I am very grateful to have been part of, both on a professional level, as well as on a personal level for the growth and beautiful moments I take with me. A year that is impossible to sum up but which I describe as challenging, emotional, absolutely rewarding and, above all, thanks to the people and organisations that PBI accompanies, incredibly inspiring.