“I need you to help me,” said one participant, tears streaming down her face. She described to her fellow National Civil Police graduates how she applies the same anger and aggression to her family that she uses with thieves on the streets. “I am the same with my children. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
This woman is one of 90 police officers (23 women, 67 men) who took a Basic Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) workshop since January 2017 in Guatemala City. AVP Guatemala partnered with the National Civil Police Chaplain to work with recent police graduates after 14 officers committed suicide in 2016. By the end of July, all 90 of the same group will complete an Advanced workshop.
The National Civil Police force is infamous for being corrupt, violent, abusive, and arrogant. “When we see a police officer, we immediately think that they don’t have values or principles, that they believe they have power over people and can do whatever they want,” said AVP Guatemala National Coordinator Lorena Escobar.
After the first day of the first workshop, it became very clear to Escobar that each participant was living with ongoing trauma and didn’t receive proper training or support from the government.
“There is a lot of violence thrown at them daily. Many times they arrive at a crime scene and don’t know if they will leave alive,” Escobar explained. “Sometimes they find a woman cut into pieces. They don’t even see (others) as human anymore. They have to desensitize themselves, but the trauma never stops because they live something new every day.”
The typical National Civil Police Officer is underpaid and lacks updated weapons, technology, and crucial training to give them the skills to face widespread violence. The National Civil Police is hugely understaffed, especially in Guatemala City’s growing metropolis with an estimated 100 deaths per week caused primarily by gang violence, drug trafficking, and violent crimes.
Inside each uniform exists a human being that feels hunger, cold, sadness, loneliness, indignation, and also feels love. – Lorena Escobar, AVP Guatemala National Coordinator
“The gangs have better weapons than we do and much better coordination,” shared one participant. Others reflected how they had received threats from jailed gang members that they had captured. Just three weeks earlier, three of their fellow police officers were murdered, with the orders originating from the jail.
Escobar learned that many Officers come from disintegrated families and often have very low self-esteem.
“Many people in the police force became police officers not because they want to but because they want to escape their own violent homes,” Escobar explained. “They look for a refuge, a way out” of the violence at home and in their communities. “One woman told the group that it was a good thing that she landed in a place where she got to serve the country and not on the side of the gangs.”
“I like this workshop because I am learning how to use responsible messaging to say how I feel,” stated another participant. “I like using a positive name because it is the first time in my many years that I wasn’t hearing something negative about myself.”
Workshops help participants see their own humanity and learn important tools they can utilize to transform situations of conflict in both their work and personal lives.
“Listening to the testimonies of each participant,” commented Escobar, “I realize that each person is their own world full of experiences, and how important it is to open our minds and our hearts to the humanity of each person, in this case, to the authorities in my country. Inside each uniform exists a human being that feels hunger, cold, sadness, loneliness, indignation, and also feels love.”
Escobar stresses the importance of continuing AVP Workshops with the National Civil Police.
“The National Civil Police is an entity that is in charge of the national security. The workshops make Officers more efficient in their work because it gives them the tools to deal with their stress, fear, conflicts, low self-esteem, lack of teamwork, and lack of communication between themselves and their communities. AVP offers them the necessary tools to cope with the situations that they face daily. This benefits not only their own personal lives, but for all our citizens.”
- Offer an AVP workshop series with the rest of the recent police graduates.
- Train Officers as AVP Facilitators so they can carry out workshops with other police units across the country.
- AVP Honduras also plans to begin workshops with police and prison guards in La Ceiba
AVP Guatemala is a program of Peacebuilding en Las Americas (PLA) of Friends Peace Teams. Workshops with Guatemalan National Civil Police are made possible by people like you who provide donations to keep this work going.
Report Puts Guatemala National Police Under the Microscope, Insight Crime, 2014
Guatemala, Insight Crime, 2017
Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA Fact Sheet, The Guatemalan National Civil Police, 2010
Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities, International Crisis Group, 2012
Guatemala: Young Blood, Old Vices, International Crisis Group, 2016