Encuentro para la Paz

Foto Final_3

La semana pasada tuve la oportunidad de participar como uno de los organizadores de un enceuntro llamado “El Papel de la Iglesia ante la Violencia en Mesoamérica: Modelos y experiencias de paz en contextos de conflicto y violencia.” Durante tres días se reunieron cuarenta personas de distintos ministerios y proyectos involucrados en enfrentar la violencia en su diversidad de formas en Mesoamérica. Abajo he incluido un par de párrafos sacados de la carta de invitación que mandamos de parte de las dos instituciones organizadoras–el seminario SEMILLA (con sede en Guatemala) y el instituto CLALS de American University (con sede en Washington, D.C.) explicando un poco sobre el contexto y el razonamiento de crear y prepara el evento:

Todos sabemos que nuestros queridos países han sido profundamente afectados por olas consecutivas de violencia de distintos sectores. En los años ochenta, los conflictos tomaron una índole política e ideológica. En los noventa y los 2000, la violencia y la inseguridad no se apagaron, sino que cambiaron de forma, renaciendo en el seno de los barrios pobres con jóvenes marginados y condenados por los demás. Actualmente la violencia juvenil compite con una nueva ola de violencia para controlar el narcotráfico y el mercado oscuro de productos ilegales y de migrantes. Para muchas personas—incluso para muchos miembros de nuestras iglesias y parroquias—la violencia es el problema más preocupante no solo para la nación, sino para sus propias vecindades.

 

¿Qué hace la iglesia frente a esta situación? En este taller-congreso exploraremos juntos, ¿Qué ha hecho la iglesia? Si bien es cierto que muchas iglesias han ignorado la realidad de la violencia, refugiándose en un espiritualismo alejado de la realidad social, también es cierto que hay otras iglesias y comunidades de fe que, desde su fe cristiana, han hecho aportes decisivos hacia el trabajo de promover la transformación de personas y comunidades afectadas por la violencia.

Honestamente, los organizadores no estábamos tan seguros si el programa — que consistía en darles oportunidad a cada participante a reflexionar sobre los logros, las sorpresas, y las lecciones aprendidos en el camino de trabajar en la construcción de paz — llenaba las expectativas o no de los invitados. Por eso fue muy agradable e inspirador encontrar que entre los participantes, existía mucho concuerdo en que la “nueva” violencia en mesoamerica y la capacidad de las iglesias de nombrar y enfrentarla sí es un tema de gran importancia.

Hubieron muchos momentos de aprendizaje y de inspiración pero quizas tres momentos que sirvieron de mucho fueron

  1. Cuando el Padre Dennis Leder, S.J., dio una reflexión sobre “Una espiritualidad para la paz.” Me dejó muy desafiado con su aclaración sobre las idolatrías de hoy. Dijo que, “Las idolatrías de nuestra época también piden su tributo de sangre.” En otras palabras, la adoración del dinero y el estatus siempre tiene un precio (un precio que se ve en los altos niveles de violencia generada por el avaricio del narcotráfico, la extorsión de vecinos y de migrantes por las maras, y el tráfico de sexo y en la falta de conciencia de todos los ciudadanos que no denuncian estas prácticas).
  2. Cuando los participantes de Mexico compartieron en una “Mesa de Reflexión” sobre la violencia contra los migrantes Centroamericanos en Mexico — tanto los que están en camino como los que se han decidido a quedar. Yo ya había oido sobre los abusos y las violencias que experimentan estas personas al cruzar el pais vecino, pero no estaba enterado de lo profundo y enraizado que están estas practicas y lo enraizado que estan dentro del sistema política de Mexico. Por otro lado fue alentadora saber del gran trabajo de acompañamiento y de concientización que hacen los religiosos y otros líderes de los albergues.
  3. Cuando los participantes crearon una “red” simbólica al pasar una bola de hilado de colores contando cada uno lo que había aprendido en el encuentro y también lo que llevaba. En el encuentro habían personas de iglesias protestantes, Menonitas, Pentecostales, y Católicos Romanos — cosa que no pasa con frecuencia en ésta región de competencia eclesial — y por eso fue impresionante ver a las personas compartir experiencias con transparencia y pasión.

Seguramente otras personas llevaron otras impresiones y desafíos. Hubo mucha oportunidad de ser impactado y desafiado por el trabajo y entrego de diferentes personas desde Mexico hasta Colombia. Pero quizás el punto más importante del evento era el darnos cuenta de lo entretejido que están las violencias en Centroamérica y el reconocimiento de la capacidad de personas de muy diferentes contextos en enfrentarlas con una diversidad de métodos y herramientas. Espero (y confío) en que ésto no será la última reunión de este tipo.

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A Truce in Guatemala?

On Friday, elPeriódico ran a cover story announcing that the Organization of American States has been pressing for a truce between rival gangs in Guatemala. The news is not too surprising since the OAS has been an outspoken supportor of the gang truce in El Salvador from the beginning–even going so far as to formally visit imprisoned gang leaders in that country. Today, several Guatemalan experts and/or important folks (like the president of the chamber of commerce) weighed in on the proposal, most of them expressing caution but some, like Emilio Goubaud, proposing optimism. The trouble is that even in El Salvador, the truce has been enormously controversial, oddly enough, even though police and health ministry officials report that homicides have fallen by 50-60% since the truce went into effect.

Although I have expressed some support for the Salvadoran truce, especially in the beginning, thoughtful people have raised some important questions about that process and the outcomes it has generated. (For example, Jeannette Aguilar has pointed out that in 2011, the year immediately prior to the truce, the Salvadoran police’s own crime statistics office estimated that no more than 26% of the homicides in the country were gang-driven. How a gang truce could cut the homicide rate in half is still an open question.) In addition, a very recent spike in homicides have raised even more doubts in the public.

Personally, I don’t think such issues are reason enough to dismiss the truce or the drop in violence (even if the lasting impact is a homicide reduction closer to 30%). But Guatemalan’s should keep in mind that the gang scene in that country is less organized than in El Salvador. My research in 2007 and 2008 led me to conclude that Guatemalan gangs were only loosely organized. It would surprise me to see a gang truce among Guatemalan gang leaders that could result in a measurable reduction of violence among gang youth at the level of the neighborhood clica. Thus, my advice to political and civil society leaders interested in pursuing a gang truce would be to aim their efforts at the local level and, as always, to provide individual gang members with realistic options for an honorable exit from a violent lifestyle. It may be necessary to have contact with the palabreros (higher-ups) in the gang in order to give local gang leaders and members the courage to move ahead, but the focus should generally be with local cells/clicas and those involved in the process should be individuals who are known in the community.

Finally, the only way a truce–be it local or national–can work is if individual gang leaders and members can have some level of assurance that leaving the gang or its violent lifestyle will not make them easy targets for enemy gangs or for social cleansing. Thus, if the government wants to encourage gang members to leave the gang it must provide some assurance that the killing of gang members will be investigated and that the public ministry will put forth real effort to bring  cases of murdered gang youth to trial. For as long as it continues to be “open season” on gang members or “suspected” gang members (i.e. anyone with a tattoo), and gang deaths continue to go uninvestigated, it will remain difficult to convince gang youth to renounce violence and turn over their weapons. After all, even the most “worn out” gang member knows that leaving the gang and/or its violence involves exposing himself to an angry society. In short, if we want them to stop killing each other, and stop extorting their neighbors, we need to provide them with at least a minimal guarantee of safety and the possibility of legitimate employment.

Review of Adiós Niño

In May of this year, Duke University Press finally released Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death. The book is written well–a quick read at just under 150 pages of text–and the author, Deborah Levenson, has plenty of experience with the topic. In fact, Levenson helped author one of the earliest empirical studies of the gangs of Guatemala City in 1988 when she worked at the AVANCSO center for the social sciences. One of the most important strengths of the book is its historical perspective. Levenson compares the gangs of the 1980s with the gangs of the 90s onward and concludes that the gangs she studied in the 1980s were vastly different from the far more violent gangs that affiliated with the transnational/Latino gangs of the M-18 and the MS-13. In the 1980s, Levenson argues, the gang members she intereviewed had found a sense of liberation in their gang identity and many attached a political edge to their gang activity. Not so with the gang youth of today, few of whom were willing to talk with the author as did the earlier gang youth. She calls these new “maras” the “gangs to die for”–a sharp contrast with the more locally-based maras from an earlier time–and she works hard to make the case that the civil war, which reached its peak in the early 1980s, was the key contributor to this metamorphasis.

It is certainly true that the gangs underwent a transformation in Guatemala during the early 1990s. Many of the ex-gang members I interviewed in 2007 and 2008 spoke of a gang “evolution” that brought an escalation of violence, the introduction of “la renta” security taxes, and, importantly, a narrowing of the possibility for leaving or “retiring” from the gang. It’s also hard to contradict the notion that the war contributed to the evolution of the gangs. Indeed, there is little in Guatemalan society that was unaffected by 36 years of dirty warfare. But Levenson seems, in my view, a little overcommitted to drawing a straight line from the war to the transformation of the gangs. After all, if the war–which had essentially been “won” by the military by the mid-1980s–were the most important factor in creating the hyper-violent maras of today, it is difficult to understand why Honduras should have what is by most estimates, a greater problem with gang violence. Sure the war made a difference–thousands of children were orphaned by the war and some of these orphans ended up in a gang. But I am convinced that other socio-historical factors were just as, if not more important to creating a situation in which nominally delinquent youth gangs gave way to seriously violent ones. Chief among these factors are the rise of narco-traffic (which occasionally employed gang members, paying them in product and obliging them to monetize such payment by creating a local market for crack cocaine) and the colonization of the local street gangs by MS-13 and M-18 members, including some deportees, but mostly among those coming across the border from El Salvador. Both the narcotraffickers and the transnational gang missionaries greatly enhanced access to small arms, which were pouring into the Central American market through legal and non-legal channels. True, some of the military’s weapons have made it into the hands of the gang members but I don’t believe this channel was nearly as important as simple proximity to the largest small arms producer in the world (the U.S.). 

Levenson also likes to critique Pentecostalism as a key culprit in keeping the Guatemalan government from addressing gang violence in ways that could be effective in the long run. She argues that after the Christian Democratic party tried half-heartedly and failed to address the nascent gang violence in the country, “the care of needy and troubled youth was turned over to Pentecostals” who then “assumed a role as social engineer” (107). This sentence, I’m afraid, greatly overstates the power and influence–not to mention the unity–of “the Pentecostals.” To her credit, the author does briefly acknowledge in the last chapter that some Pentecostal gang ministries appear to have improved upon their fire-and-brimstone harangues of the past–a caveat that makes room for the possibility that Pentecostals  may not be all alike, nor all completely in the thrall of former dictator and Neopentecostal Christian Rios Montt.

Despite my disagreements with the author on some of these issues, I think Adiós Niño is a worthwhile read and I will assign it in my course on Central America. One of my favorite features of the book is its use of photographs featuring youth both during and after their sojourn in the gang. Unfortunately, we learn that some of these youth have become victims of the violence. And as is typical, we will never know by whom they were killed or why. Such is the life–and death– of the “killable people.” In a country with a “justice” system that investigates precious few murders, and brings to trial even fewer, the death of a former gang member is very, very low on the public ministry’s priority list.