“The impunity of the past is today’s corruption” – Lessons learned in Guatemala’s path to build sustainable peace

In 1996 the Peace Agreements were signed in Guatemala, ending an internal armed conflict that lasted 36 years between the government and the guerilla movement. Interpeace’s 25 years of experience has taught us that signing a peace agreement is not the end of the process of building peace, but really the beginning of a long process to transform conflict and build sustainable solutions. Twenty-three years later and Guatemala continues to face widespread violence. Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s first female Attorney General, from 2010 to 2014, indicates that “impunity is one of the reasons there is so much violence in Guatemala.”

On 17 March 2019, Interpeace co-hosted an event at the Geneva International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH), entitled “Guatemala: For Memory, Against Impunity” with the World Organizations Against Torture, Casa Allianza, the Geneva Solidarity Delegation and the Right Livelihood Award. The event began with a screening of the documentary Burden of Peace, directed by Joey Boink, which illustrates the work of Claudia Paz y Paz as Attorney General in Guatemala and her fight against impunity, as she seeks to bring justice and truth on the crimes committed during the civil war.

“We cannot ignore the violations of human rights and the only way of dealing with them is through truth and justice.” Throughout the documentary, Claudia Paz y Paz highlights the importance of healing wounds of the past in order to build peace. During her mandate, a genocide trial against General Efraín Ríos Montt took place in Guatemala, convicting him for his role in the massacres of Ixil Mayas in the 1980s. Although the verdict was annulled at the time by the constitutional court, this process marked a changing point in the country. Providing victims with the opportunity to share their experiences during the armed conflict, contributed to a process of restoring trust between the people of Guatemala and the justice system, “there are still open wounds, but maybe we can heal them through justice."

Building trust is essential in the process of building peace. Trust gives institutions lasting legitimacy and helps individuals and groups remain engaged in the process. Claudia Paz y Paz took important steps in this direction. She was one of the most effective attorney generals in the country, but despite her efforts, was forced to leave office seven months early. She mentions, “the impunity of the past is today’s corruption.” Currently the fight against corruption in Guatemala has given hope to the population but has greatly increased political tensions.

Arnoldo Gálvez interviews Claudia Paz y Paz via Skype at FIFDH event. Photo credit: World Organisation Against Torture

“How do we keep this hope alive?” asked Guatemalan journalist, Arnoldo Gálvez, Global Communications Manager of Interpeace, during an interview with Claudia after the screening of the documentary. “After I left office, Thelma Aldana and Iván Velásquez continued with the fight against impunity. It’s not a one-person job. I have faith in the prosecutors and human rights activists in my country…we cannot let justice take steps back” she answered.

During the panel event, prominent figures in Guatemala’s political landscape discussed the current situation on the eve of the presidential elections on June 2019 and looked back on Guatemala’s fight against impunity and corruption after Claudia left office in 2014.

“Since 2015, when the arrests were made against very high officials in the government, it gave young people hope. Hope that justice could be done and especially that Guatemala’s reality could start to change.” Lenina García, Secretary-General of the Student’s Association of San Carlos University in Guatemala, was one of the panelists at the FIFDH event. She acknowledged the impact produced when President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice-President Roxana Baldetti, were forced to resign and were later convicted on corruption charges. These prosecutions were led by Thelma Aldana, former Attorney General and Iván Velásquez, Head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG. Working in conjunction with Guatemala’s Public Prosecutors Office and the National Civilian Police, CICIG is an independent international body that aims to investigate serious crime in Guatemala, to strengthen the rule of law. Established in 2006 by the United Nations in response to a request for assistance from the Government of Guatemala, CICIG has helped dismantle drug cartels, money-laundering rings and death squads.

Photo credit: Arnoldo Gálvez and Lenina García. Photo credit: FIFDH/Miguel Bueno

The convictions against former President and Vice-President of Guatemala, began a long process of high-profile arrests made against prominent figures in politics and the private sector, demonstrating a significant change in the justice system in Guatemala. Commissioner Iván Velásquez was also a panelist at the FIFDH event. He recognized the crucial steps made towards building democracy in Guatemala, but also acknowledged that civil society must continue to demand transformative changes, “the indigenous communities and students in Guatemala play a crucial role in the fight against impunity.”

Along with building trust, fostering local ownership is equally important to build sustainable peace. As Iván Velásquez expresses, all sectors of society must participate in identifying the challenges and obstacles to peace and must work together to develop their own solutions. This in turn, will ensure the sustainability of peacebuilding efforts. Those who are traditionally marginalized from politics in Guatemala – women, youth and indigenous groups – therefore, play a key role in bringing change to the country.

Arnoldo Gálvez, Lenina García, Iván Velásquez and Juana Baca Velasco. Photo credit: FIFDH

Juana Baca Velasco, Director of the Ixiles Association of Women’s Organizations, was the third panelist at the event. “Justice has been managed by the interests of the government. There is very little will to solve the complaints made by the indigenous communities. There are hundreds of violations against indigenous women that have not been brought to justice.” Despite significant efforts in the past 5 years, Juana Baca Velasco reminds us that there is still much to do in Guatemala.

After 25 years of working to build peace in conflict-affected regions in the world, Interpeace recognizes that the process matters and determines the result. There is a need not only to focus on the end goal of building peace, but also on making sure that the process leading to it is managed in a way that allows for inclusion, constructive dialogue and consensus-building – rather than confrontation and power games. Guatemala has taken significant steps towards fighting corruption and impunity, which gives other countries hope that change is possible. Notwithstanding, it is important to recognize that building peace takes time and that long-term commitment is necessary for change to be sustainable.

Watch the livestream of the event held at FIFDH on 17 March, 2019.

Interview via Skype with Guatemala’s first female Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, begins in minute 2:36. 

Guatemala: For Memory, Against Impunity

Interview via Skype with Guatemala's first female Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, begins in minute 2:36. 

Panel event "Guatemala: For Memory, Against Impunity," presented at the Geneva International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) on March 17, 2019.  The event was co-hosted by Interpeace, the World Organization Against Torture, Casa Allianza, the Geneva Solidarity Delegation and the Right Livelihood Award.

After decades of civil war and despite a developing democratic process, Guatemala is struggling to cope with widespread violence and impunity in the country. The event began with the screening of the documentary Burden of Peace, which illustrates the work of Guatemala’s first female Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, and her fight against impunity, as she seeks to bring justice and truth on the crimes committed during the civil war. A short interview via Skype was conducted with Claudia before the panel event began.

The panel discussion included prominent figures in Guatemala’s political landscape who discussed the current situation on the eve of the presidential elections on June 2019.

The panelists were:

The event was moderated by Arnoldo Gálvez, Global Communications Lead of Interpeace.



Challenging the Conventional: Making Post-Violence Reconciliation Succeed

Reconciliation is a deeply complex process, which has gained increasing prominence on the agenda of post-violence peacebuilding. Yet reconciliation remains a contested and highly context-specific notion. In fact, there is considerable debate among scholars, experts and practitioners on the concept and practice of reconciliation, and how to best assess the achievements or limitations of reconciliation processes, especially in contexts where there are risks of re-emerging or transformed patterns and typologies of violence. Consequently, evidence is often lacking or disputed about interventions that are ‘successful’ in fostering reconciliation from the perspective of the people experiencing these processes.

Together with the Kofi Annan Foundation and with support of the Government of Finland et Robert Bosch Stiftung, we have developed a report entitled - Challenging the Conventional: Making Post-Violence Reconciliation Succeed, addressing the design and implementation of reconciliation processes, based on studies in Guatemala, Northern Ireland, DRC and South Africa. Our report argues that reconciliation requires a tailor-made approach and lasting attention from all segments of society: if we invest a fragment of what is spent in war on reconciliation, lasting peace might well be enjoyed by many more citizens around the world.

A New Partnership to Sustain Peace in Latin America

In 1994, Interpeace (under its previous name, the War-torn Societies Project), initiated a peacebuilding pilot project in post-conflict Guatemala. That work launched a series of peacebuilding processes that the organization would carry out in the region over the next 24 years.

Guatemala. Photo credit: Sandra Sebastian

One of the values that defines the unique nature of Interpeace is the commitment to ensuring that peacebuilding is locally-owned and locally-driven. This is done by strengthening local capacities to build peace, so that the people living in conflict are responsible for implementing and developing initiatives in their own context. In this same manner, Alianza para la Paz (APAZ) was established in 2015 as a result of Interpeace’s core value of strengthening regional capacities to build peace.

Today APAZ begins its independent work with a vision of “the Americas for the Americas”, which is based on trust, mutual understanding, dialogue and inclusion. APAZ and Interpeace are joining forces in a new partnership to explore peacebuilding challenges in Latin America. This alliance will build on a long track record of peacebuilding engagements in the region with a strengthened ability to link local action to global policy influence and resources.

Colombia. Photo credit: Interpeace

The new partnership agreement signed is for the benefit of the mission that Interpeace and APAZ share to sustain peace in Latin America. This exciting milestone is possible due to the commitment and passion of peacebuilders across Latin America and to the support of all those that have believed in our work.

Learn more about APAZ Cliquez ici.


From West Africa to Central America: Youth at the center of peacebuilding

Going beyond negative stigmas to transform youth’s agency

Today’s youth generation is the largest the world has ever seen: there are 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24[1]. This period in a person’s life is critical to their physical, intellectual and emotional development, largely defining their social and economic prospects for the future. Ceaseless energy and vitality describes this coming of age, where youth become pro-active members of society, many times assuming the role of providers and caregivers. According to the Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques (OCDE), one third of youth around the world, live in countries that have suffered a violent conflict, and 75 million of them are currently unemployed.

In many conflict-affected regions of the world, youth are blamed for the high rates of violence, failing to recognize that these forms of violence are symptoms of a greater problem. Illegal economy, organized crime, gang activity, and other forms of violence, are caused by an array of deeply entrenched social and structural factors, including: poverty, inequality and institutional fragility, where youth are the largest population of victims. The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that over 200,000 youth are killed between the ages of 10-29, which is 43% of the total number of homicides committed globally each year.

In regions like Central America, youth-related violence[2] has been dealt with by using repressive mechanisms that go from massive incarceration to extrajudicial killings, failing to identify the social and economic causes of conflict. In regions like West Africa, civilians lose faith in the authority’s capacity to protect them against youth-related violence, and in desperation communities organize self-defense actions that inevitably prolong violence.

As a result, in many countries around the world, youth have been stigmatized and marginalized as the main protagonists of criminal violence. Often viewed as dangerous and a threat to society, they are subject to negative stereotypes that perpetuate vicious cycles of violence. On the other hand, youth are also viewed as vulnerable and helpless. This predominant negative discourse however, has been challenged by recent policies and research, that acknowledge youth’s agency and positive role in society, and how their involvement in decision-making processes is crucial in developing sustainable and legitimate solutions.

It is vital that we stop fearing young people and start acknowledging them as partners in the development of society. As a peacebuilding organization, Interpeace has worked with youth groups in Latin America and Africa, for over 20 years, to try to better understand youth-related violence, identifying the factors that cause it, and subsequently developing strategies to help this vulnerable generation become positive agents of change in their communities.

Workshop in El Salvador. Photo credit: Interpeace

Identifying the root causes of youth-related violence

There is growing interest in young people’s engagement in new forms of violence, which are generally being analyzed through lenses of radicalization and violent extremism. As the international community seeks to eradicate this phenomenon, it is crucial to understand its structural and root causes.

Over the past few years, new forms of violence have started to emerge in Côte d’Ivoire et un Mali. In Abidjan, young men between the ages of 8 and 25 join organized youth groups, commonly referred to as “microbes” (germs). These boys are accused of violent robberies, and in some rare cases of homicide. In Mali, the reactivation of diverse armed groups, who claim to be inspired by a jihadist ideology, has increased the levels of violence in the region. As a way to cope with this crisis, Interpeace, with its local partners IMRAP et un Indigo Côte d’Ivoire, conducted a participatory research to understand the trajectories of young people towards new forms of violence. Over the course of seven months, with the support of UNICEF, researchers engaged with 741 people from a range of communities in Côte d’Ivoire and Mali.

The report “Beyond Ideology & Greed: Trajectories of Young People towards New Forms of Violence in Côte d’Ivoire and Mali,” was launched at the end of 2016, with research findings that truly urge people to challenge their preconceived ideas about the root causes of this social phenomenon. It is widely believed that unemployment and religious ideologies are pivotal factors that contribute to radicalization and violent extremism in West Africa, but the research findings show that these elements are, in fact, secondary. Research showed that the most important factor of youth’s involvement in new forms of violence is their need to find their place in society, to be recognized and valued in their communities. Therefore, young people engage in violent activities because these youth groups represent a structure where they can “be someone”. Moreover, the research identified a phenomenon of “professionalization of violence,” which describes how youth acquire social acceptance and value, through a positive recognition of the violence they perpetrate.

Therefore, after 10 years of working in Central America, we have arrived to similar conclusions: dynamics that push young people to join or remain in violent groups are often related to identity, opportunities for social mobility and the security of belonging that comes from being a part of a group.

Workshop in Côte d'Ivoire. Photo credit: Indigo

Implementing structures that provide positive sources of identity and recognition

A person’s identity is defined by their immediate relationships- their relationship with family members, friends, co-workers and their community. “Being someone” is determined by the recognition of their peers, and in turn, recognizing one’s identity determines a person’s place in the world.

In the life of a young adult, determining their place in society is an invaluable factor that greatly contributes to their actions and lifestyle. Finding a place in the world and most importantly in their immediate world, is of critical importance. Therefore, for vulnerable youth in conflict-affected regions like West Africa and Central America, their identity is built around the only structure that gives them the possibility to feel part of a group: violent youth groups. As a result, providing an alternative social structure that can enable youth to build an identity without the use of violence is necessary to help prevent and eradicate youth-related violence.

Central and South America have the highest homicide rates in the world; and gang activity and juvenile delinquency are two of the main factors that cause these high murder rates. Interpeace has been working in Latin America since 2007, leading participatory processes to develop comprehensive public policy proposals, to prevent youth-related violence, and implementing peacebuilding initiatives with at-risk youth. At the beginning of 2016, Interpeace began developing the programme “Comprehensive initiatives to prevent violence in El Salvador.” The project works with at-risk youth between the ages of 18 and 29, with the objective to help them build capacities for entrepreneurial activities. This programme entails three specific steps: the first is to provide young adults with the necessary tools and methods to peacefully transform conflict. The second step, consists on training these young adults in the field of entrepreneurship. And lastly, the third step involves overseeing the establishment of productive associations and providing seed capital, specifically for materials and equipment to enable the implementation of their entrepreneurial ideas.

Interpeace is aware that this project will not stop historical inequality and poverty rates in Salvador. Providing vulnerable youth with resources to build their own businesses, can help improve their living conditions, but this is not the ultimate goal. As indicated by years of accumulated knowledge in the region, vulnerable youth need positive social structures that can provide them with a sense of identity and belonging. In this sense, engaging in new trades and starting their own enterprise, is providing vulnerable youth with non-violent social structures that enforce social cohesion, social recognition and the possibility for social mobility. Therefore, the most important activity in helping provide job opportunities for youth is not the job creation itself, but rather the close accompaniment that ensures that having a job translates into gaining social recognition.

As a result, through these initiatives, vulnerable youth are provided with a sense of identity, confidence and solidarity, which are values that attract them to join violent groups, but in non-violent and non-criminal ways. Essentially, helping them develop their own business is providing an alternative, so that violence is not a vital part of their identity.

Workshop in El Salvador. Photo credit: Interpeace

Vulnerable youth as peacebuilders  

As research shows, young people’s need to feel part of a group and feel recognized, are the driving forces behind their biggest decisions and actions. Unfortunately for vulnerable youth around the world, the social structures that surround them are in many ways fueled by criminal and illegal activities. In turn, marginalization and exclusion continue to undermine their agency and their possibility to make positive changes in their community. This is the reason why youth are at the center of our peacebuilding initiatives in West Africa and Central America. Identifying root causes for youth-related violence and helping youth develop their identity through positive social structures will help trigger more legitimate and sustainable solutions.

Because the exclusion and marginalization of groups in society, sow the seeds for renewed violence, our peacebuilding programmes are designed to include participants from across society, engaging groups that are typically overlooked. This inclusive approach ensures that all social groups share a sense of ownership and responsibility for reconciliation and rebuilding their society. Working with at-risk youth therefore empowers this sector in society, to participate in defining their own problems and finding long-term, sustainable solutions.

“We need to stop seeing young people as a threat and make them part of the solution. That starts with engagement. We need to listen to their hopes and fears and make their voices audible in the debate on the present and the future.” Interpeace’s Director-General Scott Weber

Honduras. Photo credit: Armando García

[1] According to the United Nations Population Fund – UNFPA.

[2] Youth-related violence in Central America is understood as violence where youth are perpetrators and victims.

Systematization and proposal of a comprehensive rehabilitation model

This report systematizes the results collected during the project "Technical training for young people in prison" implemented at “El Boquerón” by Interpeace and the International Youth Initiative with the financial support of the Málaga City Council.

The report highlights the challenges of transforming the conditions of the Guatemalan prison system and also demonstrates the potential of comprehensive rehabilitation initiatives.