A first-of-its-kind program in Guatemala is helping young people in prison escape violence and build new lives.
By Javier Reyes
Carlos García’s* story isn’t unlike that of many other young people in Guatemala, a place where escaping brutal violence can seem impossible. The country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world for people under age 20, according to UNICEF, and deaths are often related to gang activities, including drug trafficking, turf battles, and extortions.
It’s no surprise that many young people like Carlos are recruited—voluntarily or involuntarily—by gangs, or maras. That’s often the only option for survival for youth struggling with poverty, lack of basic services, violence, and instability at home and in their communities.
When Carlos was 12, his involvement with a local gang landed him in a youth detention center. But unlike most other incarcerated youth, the time he served provided him with an opportunity to reimagine a new future for himself—and the tools to work toward it.
Carlos is one of 20 youth who took part in AFSC’s “There are No Barriers to Artivism” project while incarcerated in a youth detention center in Guatemala. Through intensive counseling and art workshops, this first-of-its-kind project in the country helps youth find healing, address personal issues, and gain the skills they need to rejoin and contribute to their communities outside of the detention center walls.
“I was a person who got angry very easily, and now I have learned to control that,” Carlos says. “I discovered that I have in my hands the power to control negative emotions. My fellow inmates and I started to put that into practice, and after a long time, I understood what they were referring to when they talked about living together peacefully.”
For well over a decade, Guatemala has relied on mano dura (iron fist) policies to crack down on gangs—further fueling violence in communities without improving safety. This approach has increased discrimination against youth, who are viewed with suspicion by local authorities and potential employers.
It’s easy to understand how young people get caught up in gangs when they don’t have the opportunity to develop their own aspirations.
AFSC is one of the few organizations in Guatemala working with young people to develop the skills they need to see nonviolent alternatives and create a better future for themselves and their communities. In several communities around the country, AFSC supports local peace networks—groups led by youth who meet regularly to reflect, build understanding among community members, and plan projects that promote nonviolence in their neighborhoods. Youth also receive trainings on peace building, democracy, human rights, and citizenship.
In 2015, AFSC expanded this work to reach incarcerated youth in Guatemala. “There are No Barriers for Artivism” is a unique model, using art as the main tool for transformation. Painting, dance, music, theater, and circus arts help to create a dynamic, participatory, and interactive environment where youth can to learn to solve situations peacefully.
“Through personal counseling, we work with youth on their self-image, self-esteem, and emotional intelligence,” says project facilitator Néstor Mijangos. “We also work to build a sense of community, helping youth understand and recognize social values and human rights for violence prevention.”
Transforming young lives
The impact of AFSC’s project can be seen throughout the Centro Juvenil de Privación de Libertad para Varones (CEJUPLIV II) Anexo Gaviotas detention center. The project has contributed to creating a more peaceful environment at the facility. Last year, it was the only detention center in the country where riots did not occur. Many more centers have expressed interest in bringing AFSC’s project to their facilities.
“Young people have shown a strong commitment to the process,” says Néstor. “Workshop after workshop, we have been able to observe small but constant changes in their attitudes and behaviors. At first, they behaved in a hostile and insecure way. As time passed, we could see that they gained trust in themselves, their abilities, and in their environment. In general, they improved the relationships with their fellow inmates and even with the staff of the detention center.”
“We work to build a sense of community, helping youth understand and recognize social values and human rights for violence prevention.”— Néstor Mijangos, project facilitator
Lasting transformation abounds in the stories of the youth who took part in the project. For Carlos, now 21, his involvement helped him prepare for family and community life. Like other youth involved in the project, he began to see a new path for himself and an interconnected relationship with his community.
Also, by participating in the project, Carlos reduced his time in detention. He was released 18 months ahead of schedule.
AFSC’s work extends outside the detention facility, too. AFSC organizes public art exhibits featuring participants’ work to show the success of the project and need to change the narrative on youth in the community. In 2016, a painting by Carlos was included in an art exhibition. And more recently, Carlos was invited by AFSC to sing at a community event, which was attended by the state social welfare secretary and other local authorities. These officials were moved by Carlos’ performance.
“Thanks to AFSC, I was able to get on a stage to sing the songs that I wrote, and that filled me with a lot of joy and satisfaction,” says Carlos. “When I felt sad and alone in prison, I found in hip hop a way to cheer myself up, to say and express what I felt but that I wasn’t able to express in other ways. It was a refuge during my stay in prison. Now, I can show my talent to other people.”
Carlos recently earned his high school diploma and now participates in a program to learn English, a skill that will help him find a better job. Next year he wants to major in psychology at the state university, so he can help others avoid his past mistakes.
“If someone had talked to me about managing my emotions, how to handle frustration and feelings of hatred, I probably would not have ended up in jail,” Carlos says. “I appreciate the support of American Friends, because now I can see things from another point of view and I want to share that with others.”
* We’re using a pseudonym for Carlos to protect his identity.