Peacebuilding en Las Américas began supporting the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) in Guatemala in 2007. AVP Guatemala works with youth, teachers, personnel in prisons, community leaders and police officers in nine municipalities across seven of the country´s 22 departments. Many of the workshops represent alliances between AVP Guatemala and educational, community and governmental organizations.
The overall impact of violence in Guatemala has been devastating with 200,000 deaths in the last thirty years. The United States has been complicit in these deaths with # billions of dollars in military aid to Guatemala over the same 30 year period.
At present, violence has increased with society plagued by crime, extortion, robbery, kidnapping, and drug trafficking. The eternal problems of urban violence are exacerbated by youth groups, called maras (gangs), reflecting the lack of opportunities for young people and the state of urban anarchy. The problems of course go beyond mental health and have historical, structural roots. Currently, Guatemala has an average of 13 violent deaths per day.
The Peace Schools Project is an AVP Guatemala project with the goal of reaching at-risk students by partnering with local schools and implementing AVP into the curriculum. The project piloted in Esperanza (Hope) Educational Project, an alternative middle school in a neighborhood of Chimaltenango in 2013 and has since offered basic and advanced workshops in 2016 for 66 youth of Cackchiquel Indigenous and Mestizo background, ages 12 to 19. Located in a high-risk neighborhood marked by gender violence, intrafamilial violence, bullying, extortion, theft, assassinations and organized crime, the School has lost four of its students to the violence since 2012. For this reason, AVP has become essential to creating a safe haven for students not only to learn, but to form community based on dignity, respect and joy. Students complete six workshops over the three years of their schooling, and some go onto become Facilitators when they graduate.
AVP helps us think before we act, utilize communication before using violence, be polite, nicer, more attentive and tolerant. I was a very violent person, everything resulted in punches, shouts, or mistreatment…When I received my first AVP workshop, it changed me a lot. – Jennifer, twelve-year-old student
AVP Guatemala partnered with the National Civil Police Chaplain´s Office in 2017 to work with recent police graduates after 14 officers committed suicide in 2016. Since this partnership began, AVP Facilitators reached over 500 National Civil Police Officers, offering 16 workshops with officers, chaplains and students, approximately half of whom were women.
When facilitators began workshops with officers, they quickly realized that they were traumatized, under resourced, underpaid and lacked the training and tools needed to de-escalate conflicts in Guatemala City where an estimated 100 deaths a week occur.
“There is a lot of violence thrown at them daily. Many times they arrive at a crime scene and don’t know if they will leave alive,” Escobar explained. “Sometimes they find a woman cut into pieces. They don’t even see (others) as human anymore. They have to desensitize themselves, but the trauma never stops because they live through something new every day.”
Workshops help Officers see their own humanity and learn important tools to transform situations of conflict in both their work and personal lives.
AVP Guatemala partners with Guatemala Village Health, a Guatemalan NGO that works in several remote villages across the country, responding to health and social needs. Facilitators are introducing AVP to the communities strategically by offering workshops first to schoolteachers and community leaders. AVP Guatemala carried out its first workshop in the Mayan language Q’ekchi in 2016.
Guatemala is home to a 40% indigenous population (6.3% Q’ekchi) with 23 different Amerindian languages spoken. In 2016, AVP Guatemala carried out its first workshop in the Q’ekchi language. The workshop was held with people who escaped the violence of the civil war in Coban Municipality by resettling in remote, mountainous villages of Isabal Municipality, accessible only by foot or horse, where most residents do backbreaking agricultural work growing cardamom. In partnership with Guatemala Village Health, AVP Spanish- Q’ekchi bilingual facilitators offered a basic workshop with women, schoolteachers and community leaders in the hope of building social awareness and stronger community bonds. AVP helps so people can be not only physically healthy, but also mentally healthy…so they can go forward economically and improve communication among themselves, explained Facilitator Vladimir Melgar. PLA hopes to translate the basic AVP manual into Q’ekchi for greater outreach and impact.