Before going to Guatemala, I wondered what it would be like to offer non-violence workshops in a country where violence is continually present as an undercurrent, and state-sponsored violence is rampant. Notably in this context, we had two police officers among the participants. The national police force is vastly underpaid and carries a history of violence against the people that was a legacy of US imperialism and was strongest during the genocide of indigenous people in the 1980s. In current days police are seen as either impotent or dangerous, or both. To say there is a lack of trust is a major understatement. There are reports of police involvement in petty as well as organized crime. Stories of police stealing from citizens during traffic stops are rampant. One friend told us that when he was stopped by the police he called his lawyer and told the police, “my lawyer is on the phone and is recording what happens here”, after which the officer sent him on his way without further questions.
I feared that personal safety would be a major issue. Guatemala continues to suffer from a high level of violence, related to the drug trade and to poverty in general. The history of the Guatemala in the 1980s continues to hang over the country, which has yet to bring the perpetrators to justice. This violence, referred to as the Civil War or the Genocide, depending on one’s point of view, resulted in 200,000 killed, and 40,000 – 50,000 disappeared. Of these, the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) stated that the state was responsible for 93% of the human rights violations committed during the war, the guerrillas for 3%. We were told that the region where we would be spending most of our time, the eastern city of Chiquimula, was afflicted by drug-related violence.
Our experience on the ground was mostly very peaceful. People walk and drive around day and night in Chiquimula without worries, and our hosts frequently left their door open during the daytime. Many participants said they have no violence in their homes, and indeed most of them are lucky not to have had anyone killed in their families. But all of them experience the effects of living in a country weighed down by a history of violence, from abroad and from within, including its colonial history of oppression by the light-skinned Spanish and continual oppression of its Mayan peoples, who constitute 50% of the population. In 2011, Guatemala’s attorney general was assassinated. The current president, Otto Pérez Molina, is a former general during the time of the genocide, and he denies that genocide took place. He was elected on a platform of law and order, and indeed there are reports that violence has declined under his administration. But reconciliation has not yet taken place, and random violence is still common. We observed some of the effects of the society-wide violence on our last day in Guatemala. On our way to the airport in Guatemala City, traffic was paralyzed as a result of the murder of two police officers elsewhere in the city.
There are efforts to clean up the police force and one of these is called “Valor y Servicio”, valor and service. This branch of the force is working to change the police force from within, and the volunteers for our workshops came from this branch. They participated in both the first and second level workshop over two weekends, with the result that the group became familiar with them. Strong societal differences between police officers and citizens broke down, and we all saw them as individuals. I noticed this most clearly on the last day, when we offered an exercise called Human to Human. In this exercise participants form pairs and one member of each pair closes his/her eyes, while the other one looks at his/her partner in compassion. When we first began the exercise, some of the participants had a hard time keeping their gaze on their partner. However, at the end, when both partners open their eyes and continue to gaze at each other with the acceptance of universal love, the faces had softened considerably. Many participants were teary. It was a remarkable experience.
Our workshop took place in a church in a tough neighborhood, where teen parenting and unemployment was rampant. The air was acrid with the smell of burning garbage, since the inhabitants cannot afford the fee for garbage removal. The concept of non-violence in personal communication would have been very foreign to most of the church’s neighbors. Our workshop participants came from the wider community, and they were very open to looking at the connections between violence in their personal communications and making peace in the larger world.
But what does non-violence mean in the context of a society nearly paralyzed by violence on a larger societal level? Can we really ask people to try to take a stand to make for a more peaceful nation, when they cannot trust the justice system? Or should we show people tools for communicating more peacefully in their personal lives and hope that this has a larger impact? As one observer visiting another culture and nation, I would not presume to tell anyone how to use the tools we offered in the Alternatives to Violence workshops. I can only offer the tools and pray that they will be useful in some way.