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In Guatemala, working with authorities to prevent violence

Javier Reyes, the author, leads a training on conflict transformation for public sector representatives who deal with mob violence in Guatemala.  Photo: Guatemala / AFSC

By Javier Reyes

Guatemala is a country immersed in violence. Shootings happen daily in many areas, and local gangs often terrorize neighborhoods.

During the past 15 years, we’ve seen a rise in incidents involving lynchings and mob violence in rural and urban areas. This social phenomenon requires attention and multidisciplinary approaches from state security institutions and civil society.

In 2015, at least eight lynchings—and five lynching attempts —were registered with local authorities. These events are blind to gender, age, or social class. On many occasions, children are spectators. We’ve seen that in some cases, children exposed to this violence may eventually accept and normalize these destructive practices, rather than feel empathy for the victims of these tragedies.

As part of our efforts to promote civic engagement in urban areas, AFSC works with public sector institutions to strengthen their relationship with youth in their communities, creating spaces for dialogue to plan projects around community development.

Representatives from the Justice Department and Crime Prevention Commission learn about addressing the root causes of violence. Photo: AFSC/Guatemala

Since 2014, we have conducted training workshops for agents and officers of the Academy of the National Civil Police (PNC) and the Crime Prevention Commission, on issues such as peace culture, stereotypes and prejudices in the police/citizen relationship, violence prevention, and conflict transformation.

Recently, AFSC helped PNC officers and the National Committee of the Education Unit of the Judicial Body to develop an intervention manual for cases of mob violence. The manual was designed to help PNC field agents respond more effectively in such cases and has been validated by different departments within the PNC as well as outside individuals with a wealth of experience in this area.

We have also worked with agents and managers of the Crime Prevention Commission to sensitize them to the normalization of this phenomenon and its characteristics. And we’ve provided them with tools of conflict transformation, including guidance on developing processes for mediation. A well-performed mediation can sometimes be the difference between life and death for people accused as well as for police officers in harm’s way. 

Photo: AFSC/Guatemala

By focusing on conflict transformation, we redirect our efforts, identifying and addressing the root causes of violence, rather than simply reacting to their effects with repressive and punitive responses.

Edgar Vasquez, coordinator of the educational area of the Crime Prevention Commission General Department of the National Civil Police, says: "It was important for the team and members of the Crime Prevention Commission, to incorporate conflict transformation, … changing the police focus [from] reaction to prevention, symptomatic approach to causal."

These interinstitutional efforts seek to raise public awareness and transform the collective imagination on violence, helping to prevent, we hope, this river of violence from turning into a cruel waterfall.

Javier Reyes is a field officer in AFSC Guatemala.