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Breaking silence

Guatemala community space
Neighbors gather on a sports field that was previously a garbage-filled ravine. Concerned residents transformed the space into its current use as a soccer field and community meeting space with the support of AFSC. Photo: Guatemala / AFSC
Guatemala Graphic
Diagram: Three steps toward neighborhood peace in Guatemala City Photo: AFSC

The violence didn’t end with the war. You could say that of many places, but perhaps it is especially true of Guatemala, where a 1996 peace accord ended 36 years of civil war, but left society grappling with a legacy of violence.

The country’s homicide, lynching, and mugging rates are higher than in 1996. An average of around 100 people are killed each week. Rural communities have used collective resistance to protest the environmentally degrading plans of mining companies. City dwellers have continued to live in fear of gang violence and extortion.

In Guatemala City, home to 5 million of the country’s 14 million people, silence and suspicion are required for survival in neighborhoods where speaking out can be dangerous.

“Violence has become our daily bread, separating neighbors, confronting them and turning into enemies, instead of making them collaborators for a better future in community,” says Oswaldo Joel Mendía Bonilla.

He is among the more than 200 young peace leaders who studied conflict transformation, the public policy cycle, and democracy through AFSC’s civic engagement program. In a country where the median age is 21, leaders like 20-year-old Oswaldo see power in their own potential to shape a future with lasting peace.

Making that power visible to others is one step toward transforming the community’s fear.

Traditionally, young men like Oswaldo have been stereotyped as lazy or violent, and young women have been expected to stay home. In addition, youth have been dismissed by their elders as unable to think for themselves or make decisions. These stigmas have kept authority figures—and sometimes other youth—from taking young people seriously as agents of peaceful change.

But thanks to efforts by Oswaldo and others like him, those expectations are beginning to change. For two years, youth have been forming peace networks through which they have transformed public parks, schools, and streets into safe spaces where neighbors can gather and children can play. Miriam Camas, Guatemala program coordinator with AFSC, says these activities change the way other community members see the youth: “They are legitimized in the eyes of the community—people note that they are doing good work.”

These same youth leaders are using their credibility and skills to advocate for peace and social justice at a policy level. Through the public-space recovery projects, they learned how to approach public authorities. “Now the youth leaders understand how democracy works,” says Miriam. “There is a structure above us that we have to respect and ask for help. [Those people are] obligated to respond to the community because they are public authorities.”

She says it is a huge change for youth to approach public authorities, and for public authorities to say yes. “Sometimes we need to accompany youth because they don’t believe it will work,” she says. “After the first time, it gets easier. The next time, the field staff won’t have to go.”

Learning side by side

In 2015, AFSC initiated a new avenue for youth and adults to build understanding. After community partners requested human rights training, AFSC worked with the education unit of the government’s Human Rights Office to set up a course with a local university that met twice monthly for five months. Youth leaders, community partners, and public authorities attended the course. Police were invited but were unable to attend this session.

Learning alongside one another, “the distance between public authorities and stigmatized youth fades,” Miriam says. The human rights course is proving to be empowering for youth and perspective-changing for public officials.

“When the authorities get to know youth, they say, ‘This is not a delinquent. They’re actually doing something in their community and are worried about the future like we are,’” Miriam says. “Sometimes these adults come to us and tell us they didn’t know the efforts the youth are doing in their communities because they don’t let them speak. When the youth speak in the diploma class, they understand that these youth are training themselves.”

“We all want the same thing: Police want communities with peace. The youth want peace. AFSC wants peace. We have to remind youth, community leaders, police, and public authorities that every day, every citizen can be an effective peace-builder.”

More trainings are planned to bring youth together with police and other authorities, as AFSC continues to focus on leadership opportunities for Oswaldo and other Guatemalan youth, who are redefining their country’s future. 

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