Thousands of families crowd into the tin-roofed shacks that serve as homes in this sprawling shantytown outside of Villa Nueva, a town about an hour's drive from Guatemala City. No family has running water and few enjoy electricity. For young people, whose job prospects are grim, the future seems as barren as the arid landscape around them. Many of them succumb to a life of drugs and despair, joining gangs either voluntarily as a way to boost their self-esteem and sense of belonging or because they are forced to.
Six years ago, several youths dared to break this cycle of poverty, violence and hopelessness. They invited a group of 15 young people from two rival gangs to take part in a theatre experience that encouraged them to share their hopes, insecurities and problems. The young men and women who took part discovered that they had a lot in common, despite their opposing gang loyalties. They began to see that many of their personal problems stemmed from circumstances they could change.
"We put on music, closed our eyes and tried to see what was hurting us," says Miguel, 29, who grew up in the neighbourhood and helped form the group. "After that, we saw that we could use theatre as a way to sensitize people about relationships with others."
Out of this experience grew Iqui Balam, a youth group that has brought rival gangs together, kept children off drugs and the streets, improved schools and other social services, and brought fun and the arts to young people's lives.
Iqui Balam, whose name comes from a Maya-Quiche creation myth, reaches out to hundreds of young people in poor neighbourhoods around Villa Nueva by organizing youth festivals of theatre, music and graffiti contests and by disseminating information about issues such as HIV/AIDS and discrimination. The 50 core members receive support and leadership training from UNICEF and are taking steps to become a registered non-governmental organization.
"Iqui Balam has kept me off drugs," says 13-year-old Jorge, who has been with the group for three years and writes lyrics for rap songs that he and others perform. "It's also helped me understand conditions around here."
Many of the songs and theatre pieces performed by the young people -- as well as videos made by Iqui Balam -- teach children and community members about their rights and give practical advice on health issues such as avoiding cholera or HIV/AIDS infection. Iqui Balam also works with government ministries and community members to improve social services, and was instrumental in getting two new schools built. They have trained 14 other youth groups to do similar community work and recently joined a network of youth groups from various shantytowns around the country called New Paths Youth Association (Asociacion Juvenil Nuevos Caminos).
"There are not many youth groups like this in Guatemala," says UNICEF Programme Officer Christian Salazar, one of Iqui Balam's most enthusiastic supporters. "After so many years of repression and civil war, the youth movement was dismantled. Support to groups like Iqui Balam is an important contribution to the peace process and to the building of democratic citizenship in young people."
Promoting peace is a key goal of the members of Iqui Balam, who use music and theatre to try to bridge differences between the area's two rival gangs. For example, they recently worked with the Villa Nueva municipality to sponsor a graffiti contest, inviting artists from the two gangs to make art on large pieces of cardboard in one of the parks. The event went smoothly and the graffiti is now on display.
But conflict resolution isn't always this easy. "It was hard at first," says Miguel. "Gangs didn't like the idea of people from different gangs working together. We've been kicked, threatened and had guns pulled on us." Even now, when they go to other communities to train youth groups, they first have to arrange access with gang leaders.
This can be difficult. Recently, for example, Miguel and several other youths from Iqui Balam visited a nearby community to make peace with leaders of one of the gangs, the Salvatruchas. But the leaders refused to let anyone associated with a rival gang in the neighbourhood take part in the planned activities, including some members of Iqui Balam.
"It took a lot of negotiating to get things off the ground," explains Miguel. "But eventually we managed to do some fun activities involving sports and music, getting across ideas about non-violence, refusing drugs and self-esteem issues." About 27 Salvatruchas members took part.
"The incredible thing," says Miguel. "Was that they liked it!"