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.

Guatemala is a country with high levels of violence, social injustice, racism, sexism and exclusion. Guatemala is home to a 40% indigenous population (6.3% Q’ekchi) with 23 different Amerindian languages spoken. The indigenous population has been the target of centuries of genocidal violence from colonial times through the civil war of the 1980s and 90s.

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 students by partnering with local schools and implementing AVP into the curriculum. The project piloted in 2013 at Esperanza (Hope) Educational Project, an alternative middle school in Chimaltenango. By 2016, 66 youth of Cackchiquel Indigenous and Mestizo background, ages 12 to 19, experienced the basic and advanced AVP workshops offered.  Located in a neighborhood marked by gender violence, interfamilial violence, bullying, extortion, theft, assassinations and organized crime, the Esperanza (Hope) Educational Project lost four of its students to the violence since 2012. For this reason, Director and AVP Facilitator Hilda Vasquez included AVP in her school’s curriculum. She believes AVP is a tool for students to form community based on dignity, respect and joy and become leaders. 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 are women.

When facilitators began workshops with officers, they quickly realized that many police officers were dealing with trauma. They heard testimonies of officers being underpaid and lacking 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,” Lorena Escobar, AVP Guatemala National Coordinator, 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.”

According to narrative reports, the 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. Staff members trained as AVP Facilitators and are introducing AVP to schoolteachers and community leaders in areas where they work.

Through this partnership, AVP Guatemala carried out its first workshop in the Q’ekchi language in 2016. Q’ekchi is one of 23 languages spoken in Guatemala, home to a 40% indigenous population (6.3% Q’ekchi). Workshop participants included people who escaped the violence of the civil war in Coban Municipality and resettled in the remote, mountainous villages of Isabal Municipality, accessible only by foot or horse. Most residents do backbreaking agricultural work growing cardamom.

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.

The Peacebuilding en las Américas (PLA) Peace Baskets Project (PAN PAV) is successfully underway in all five countries where PLA works: Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Ecuador. The project was designed and proposed by national partners to address the multiple pandemics they are facing. Covid 19 is accompanied by what partners call a hunger-violence pandemic. Violence has increased not only in the domestic sphere but also in the public sphere as States implement increasingly militarized approaches to the public health crises. There is hunger for food, for peace, for hope. The Peace Baskets aims to fill these hungers, offering a light in the midst of many shadows.

Since the Coronavirus quarantine began in mid-March, national coordinators have been reaching out through phone calls to share positive messages of peace and nonviolent conflict resolution to neighbors, AVP facilitators and workshop participants. Scarce internet access rules out zoom conferencing. Together, they are devising creative ways to address the parallel crises of the health emergency, food shortages and family violence. They know their AVP skills and community strength is more important than ever now to respond to those in greatest need.

Since permission is granted to leave the house only in relation to food and essentials, the coordinators plan to frame their project for those families in need around food, which will be delivered as a peace basket to include food, disinfectant sanitizers and also messages of peace. Delivery of the basket will allow coordinating teams to determine any additional emergency needs of the family, to offer motivation, and to provide support contacts and emergency telephone numbers.

In Guatemala, youth 11-17 who have participated in AVP workshops are being forced daily to choose between buying an internet card ($1.50) for on-line school classes or buying food. Their recently unemployed parents have encouraged them to take informal jobs on the city streets washing car windows or carrying bags of groceries home for others; an average day of work earns them approximately $1.50. The Peace Baskets have eased the burden temporarily and brought them a new sense of connection and hope for a better future.

Recent News from our Guatemala Partners

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