Following is a guest article written by Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action, José “Chencho” Alas.
Historically, El Salvador has been a very violent country.
In 1932, we had the massacre of 30,000 indigenous people at the hands of the army and the National Guard, ordered by General Maximiliano Martínez, who later became the country’s president. That began a 50-year military dictatorship characterized by successive massacres. In the 1980s, a war burst out that lasted 12 years with a death toll of 80,000. The Peace Accords were signed in January 1992 and immediately the United States began to repatriate Salvadoran gang members who were filling California prisons. This began the war in our streets, particularly among the young.
For the next 20 years the Salvadoran oligarchy was in power, which closed its eyes and allowed the growth of gangs for political reasons. Every time we had elections, they promised the people that if they voted for them, they would stop the violence. In 2009, representatives of the left, of the FMLN, won the elections, but by then the evil had been done. The gangs controlled territories of the country, imposed taxes on the population and killed and killed, not only civilians but also police officers, 58 last year.
It wasn’t until March 2016 and after demonstrations of political power by the famous gang MS-13 and by Barrio 18, that the different active forces of the country decided to put an end to crime by creating a plan called Secure El Salvador. Government, civil society, many churches and NGOs participate in this plan. The result is clear. Crime has dropped from 23 percent to 8.2 percent, but whether this can be sustained remains an open question. The plan is based on social prevention measures, youth education, creation of micro-enterprises and violent prosecution of crime.
It’s in this environment that we have begun to work, facilitating peace workshops for community police, youth and community leaders. We have chosen the department of Cabañas, El Salvador, one of the smallest departments, formed by nine municipalities. Its capital is the city of Sensuntepeque and it has a population of about 150 thousand people.
The concept of community policing is relatively new; little by little it’s spreading in Latin American countries. It takes as its starting point local communities’ needs and interests, both in the prevention of crime as well as in its prosecution and the well-rounded growth of its inhabitants. The mutual work is based on the trust generated by an environment of communication and support, not only in regards to denouncing and fighting crime and its perpetrators but also in the creation of projects of common benefit. The basic purpose is to achieve community coexistence in security, harmony and peace. The function performed by police officers is as peacemakers, a value that allows them to raise their own self-esteem.
Our workshops have three objectives:
1) to give to the participants a methodological tool that generates trust, positive relationships;
2) train in techniques of organization of groups and networks; and
3) work on projects that facilitate police interaction with communities and their respective organizations.
In regards to the methodological instrument, we are teaching the management of appreciative research (AI). The first phase of AI, the discovery of the existing positives at the individual level, in a community, organization or institution, is fundamental. It allows us to discover what’s already there; this becomes the basis for creating a powerful vision that, put into practice in projects, destines us to human growth and material well-being.
The creation of a vision and its projects cannot be achieved if we are not organized. Our objective is to facilitate workshops in each of the municipalities and then form a departmental network of community police, youth and community leaders.
In our first workshop on May 2, we had the participation of 17 middle-school students and leaders from various communities and 12 members of the community police. The project we chose was tree planting, a lovely experience that united us. We started with a nursery of moringa, a tree considered a marvel for its curative properties of 300 diseases, according to some university studies and popular lore. The cultivation of this tree, native to India, has extended to several tropical and semi-tropical regions of the planet. In India, people began to use its seeds and leaves more than 3,000 years ago.
We have the unconditional support of the departmental police commissioner and junior officers, as well as the support of the secondary education centers. We consider our work as something new, in the sense that we do not start by enumerating problems but by discovering and evaluating the positive that already exist in us and the others. Growing in the positive we resolve our problems. The police-youth-community leaders relationship is fundamental for peace.