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At a glance: Guatemala

Youths find an alternative to gang violence in Guatemala

© UNICEF Guatemala/2007/Medina
Young people learn about technology at Grupo Ceiba, which offers an alternative to gang membership and crime in Guatemala City’s most depressed and dangerous neighbourhoods.

By Blue Chevigny

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala, 7 September 2007 – One of the main things most people know from news reports about Guatemala City is that it’s violent, that people are robbed by gangs, that murder is rampant.

And in fact, young people here are particularly affected by this epidemic of violence – both as gang members and as victims of an estimated 80 per cent of the violent crimes.

But some of them, at least, have found an alternative path away from crime and violence.

Legacy of civil conflict

Manuel Manrique, UNICEF’s Representative in Guatemala, says there are very few opportunities for young people in the country. “There are gangs here that use adolescents because it’s a way to have a vast network to exploit,” he explains.

Mr. Manrique adds that gangs and related violence have grown in the last decade, despite the official 1996 peace declaration that ended more than three decades of brutal internal conflict in Guatemala.

In some ways, the gangs evolved out of the civil violence. “At the end of the eighties and in the nineties, young Guatemalan people began to return from the United States, mainly from Los Angeles, and they organized themselves into what we call ‘maras’ – gangs,” says Mr. Manrique. “And these maras imported methods of doing violence that were easily reproduced here, because there’s fertile ground.”

© UNICEF Guatemala/2007/Medina
Two girls studying in classrooms provided for at-risk youth at Grupo Ceiba in Guatemala City’s impoverished and high-crime El Limon district.

Breaking ‘the cycle of frustration’

In an attempt to combat this enormous problem – and to work toward a better future for Guatemalan youth – the non-governmental organization Grupo Ceiba offers alternative programmes in the city’s El Limon neighbourhood and other areas where gangs are most active.

The coordinator of Grupo Ceiba’s El Limon centre, Carlos de Leon Andrade, says its efforts focus on prevention. “We train them, so that they can avoid being on the corners and in the streets where they are searched out by gangs,” he notes.

In El Limon, like many zones in the city, poverty afflicts every family. It is against this backdrop that Grupo Ceiba works with hundreds of children and adolescents. One arm of the programme is a primary school with a research library that is open to the public. Another arm provides training for young people on a range of computer skills.

“Many of the [youths] have left school,” says Mr. Andrade. “They get expelled because they have serious problems with discipline. Then we open our doors to them so that they can continue with their studies. We break the cycle of frustration.”

One boy gets off the streets

Mynor Amilcar Vasquez, 18, lives across the city in another economically impoverished zone and travels to the programme each day by bus.

“I like the method that Grupo Ceiba uses. It’s different,” he says. “For example, in other schools they don’t use technology or computers so much. And maybe the style is stricter. Here, it’s also strict, but they always give you a chance.”

Students like Mynor choose from among computer courses such as graphic arts and website design, fix broken computers and even build their own robotic inventions. During the recess period at Grupo Ceiba, teenagers fill the halls, laughing and eating snacks of tortillas and salsa.

The energy in the building is palpable. It’s hard to imagine that dangerous gangs – very real threats to Mynor and his friends – are just outside the doors.

© UNICEF Guatemala/2007/Medina
Young people in El Limon, many of whom live in homes made of sheet metal, turn to Grupo Ceiba for a chance to learn and improve their future prospects.

“They are a huge problem,” Mynor says of the gangs. “Because since I’m not from here, at times when we go down the hill, they see us and think we are with rival gangs. And maybe because of this, they attacks us and are always following us. They waited for me once and when I left they took out a gun and told me to give them all my things.”

Mynor says he was frightened by the incident, but it didn’t stop him from returning to Grupo Ceiba on the bus the next day.

Advocacy for at-risk youth

In a country where half of all students who start primary school don’t finish, programmes like Grupo Ceiba can’t come close to meeting the need that exists. As a result, many children are falling through the cracks.

“Generally, the gang members is a young person that wants to get ahead, that wants opportunities, that wants to be listened to,” says UNICEF Guatemala Education Officer Justo Solorzano. “[Gangs] are the popular outlet for youth that have not succeeded in expressing themselves in other ways, because there aren’t outlets for youth to express themselves. In the gangs, they find an identity that they don’t find at home. They find security and respect.”

Before the national election that took place this weekend in Guatemala, many candidates took positions on the capital city’s complicated problem of violence and how best to handle it. For UNICEF, the rights of the child come first, and advocacy for better treatment of youth in the criminal justice system is one of its top protection priorities.

Still, there are far too many young people ending up in the system in the first place.

Mr. Solorzano says there is so much fear about the gangs that youth are becoming criminalized in the eyes of the police and judges, and UNICEF must fight to change this perception. At-risk youths “have many strengths, many ideas, a lot of creativity,” he says. “If we utilize that strength, I believe that youth gangs will change their own image, eventually, in the eyes of the Guatemalan citizen.”





August 2007:
UNICEF Radio correspondent Blue Chevigny reports on a group of young people who are following an alternative path to avoid gang violence in Guatemala City.
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