Guatemala--the Time is Now

Guatemala is a country about the size of Tennessee in Central America, surrounded by Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico -- with coasts in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Its name is Mayan -- Coactemalan -- and means "Land of Forests." An estimated 13 million people live in Guatemala. More than half are so-called mestizos (often called "Ladino," mixed indigenous & Spanish or "hispanicized" indigenous). The rest are relatively traditional Mayan tribal groups speaking in more than 20 different languages and dialects. There is also an important Garifuno group on the east coast, descendents of African slaves who were shipwrecked here during the Spanish colonial period.

An amazingly beautiful country, Guatemala has 18 of the world's ecosystems, the largest cloud forest in the world, and 37 volcanoes. It also has a violent and turbulent history. Most recently the country ended 36 years of civil war with peace accords in 1996 after more than 100,000 people were killed (mostly poor and indigenous people) and a million people were forced to leave.

Like the refugees of poverty and war in El Salvador -- and poverty and political upheaval in Mexico and Honduras -- during the 1980s, Guatemalans arrived to the United States in large numbers, landing in barrios of Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, and even in states like Delaware and North Carolina. I know because I've spoken in those areas and found many Guatemalans among new migrants from Mexico, Central America and other Latin American countries (once hearing Quiche Mayan being spoken in a laundromat in a rural part of Delaware).

Unfortunately, in the past 15 years Guatemala has been beset by a terrible increase in violent crime, gangs and drug wars. Presently Central America, including Guatemala, is reportedly a major transportation point for the huge drug cartels of Mexico and Colombia to US drug markets (which continues to be the largest in the world).

The United States, while always a major drug market, became known as the multi-billion dollar drug market it is today during the 1980s (ironically, soon after President Reagan initiated his so-called War on Drugs, which continues failing despite a constant influx of tax dollars). This happened at the same time that most industrial centers of the US lost massive steel, auto, stockyards, and aerospace industries.

The de-industrialization of US inner cities and the vast increase in the drug trade coincided to help create the most violent period in US history. Traditional street gangs--some, like in LA's Chicano communities, have been around since the 1920s--and new crews popped up as the most cohesive organized means to deal drugs (in some cases, becoming the main economic life) in their communities. In LA alone from 1980 to 2000, some 10,000 young people were believed killed in gang and drug violence. In fact, the largest manufacturing cities of the US--LA and Chicago--also had the greatest levels of gang violence.

Mexicans, Central Americans, Dominicans and other immigrants (including in smaller numbers from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Mideast) became integral to the rise of violence--although the media continually made this out to be a largely African American "problem." The fact of the matter is poor Latinos (including many immigrants) and poor whites also took part.

By the end of the 20th century, law enforcement agencies claimed there were 800,000 gang members in the country, most of them in Chicago and LA, and growing by leaps and bounds. In reality, the majority of poor communities, although racked by drugs and crime, were not involved in the drug trade. Many tried to survive by working whatever menial means existed (or creating their own micro-businesses to clean homes, sell food or CDs, and similar endeavors).

Also, by the late 1990s, crime began to come down (actually up and down, but mostly down in comparision to the growth in population). Yet, the media perception persisted in promoting the idea that crime and gangs "ruled" the mostly black and brown urban centers.

Because of this, the US government initiated some of the most draconian laws against gangs and youth, leading to the greatest growth in a prison population in the history of the world. Presently, the US incarcerates more people than any other country. And poor Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately represented in these institutions. California, for example, in the early 1970s had a prison population of 15,000 in nine prisons. Today there are around 175,000 prisoners in 33 prisons, 80 percent of which are prisoners of color.

In addition, Latino immigrants in the past ten years have been deported in vast numbers, including those allegedly in gangs and those convicted of crimes. Immigration prisons now dot much of the US Southwest. Some 700,000 so-called criminals have been deported, mostly to Mexico and Central America (but also Cambodia, Armenia, Dominican Republic, and other countries). This has completely altered the cultural and social life of countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that do not have the resources, capacity or, in many cases, the political will to adequately integrate such an influx of mostly US-raised (and for many, US prison-raised) deportees.

This leads me to my trip to Guatemala. Although there were street gangs in the country before 1996 (mostly called maras in Central America), the influx of US-based (mostly from Los Angeles) gangs like Eighteen Street and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) has become the most talked about concern of the people. Violence attributed to these gangs in Guatemala, like most of Central America, is quite horrific: grenade attacks, machete murders, devastating prison riots. But so has been the response. Presently, vigilante groups and death squads are hunting down and killing the highly tattooed and conspicuous-looking US-based gang members. Police have beaten, arrested, and even killed many so-called gang youth. Even ex-gang members are in danger.

I came to Guatemala as part of an independently organized effort by Homeboy Industries of Los Angeles (one of the leading gang prevention/intervention programs in the US). I was invited by Homeboys' staff members Fabian Montes and Pascual Torres, who have already visited Guatemala and other Central American cities. We came mostly to connect across borders and barriers to help provide a new vision and sense of hope in working with gangs and maras. We did not come to give the people here "the" solutions. In fact, the people of Guatemala are quite capable of providing their own solutions.

In our travels so far, we talked with and heard from various "Centros de Alcance" in extremely poor colonias in Guatemala City -- many of them in tin-roofed shacks along mud roads and sewer creeks. We found former gang members, including many US-raised youth, trying to change their lives in a "reality" show called Desafia Cien (Challenge 100). We visited a plastics factory owned by a far-sighted businessman that includes a non-profit Asociacion Manos Que Te Ayuden (Hands That Help Assocation), which hires former gang members and provides services to them when no one else will.

We spoke on TV and in various print media, including on two radio stations, about what Homeboy Industries does, but also about the need to see the humanity of these youth; what poverty, war and trauma can do to people; and how we should all cooperate to help them heal, find skills and work; and in the long run help them tap into their own innate purposes and gifts so they can contribute positively to their communities and country.

We also spoke to university students and participated in a memorial for a former gang member named Daniel "Panadero" Ochoa who was recently killed in a marketplace, although he was married and worked in his own micro-business.

In Guatemala, like many Central American countries, there are many people accepting "social cleansing" (in effect, the killing of homeless, troubled and gang youth). Many of these are Christians and decent people. The fears and confusions they face are often exploited by political forces.

We hope to reach out to them as well, to help provide a new vision and imagination to integrate and train the displaced youth--many of whom can be the new leaders, business people, fathers, mothers, and teachers in a country in need of these resources.

Guatemalans have so far been receptive, even in their disagreements. This is good--to spread the dialogue and provide a space for such concepts to be aired and related. We will visit a prison today and hope to go to other parts of the country tomorrow and on the weekend.

Meanwhile, we are here with many good prayers, thoughts and enormous respect of Guatemala and its people. The time is now for real change, balance, healing, and peace.

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