This summer, as I was sipping coffee with a friend in downtown Guatemala City, I was introduced to a news reporter who agreed to take me with him as he visited murder sites. The next day I arrived at his office at 6 a.m. and immediately we received our first call: a young man with signs of torture had been shot and thrown down a ravine, his hands and feet tied. In the next thirteen hours, we received twelve such calls.
Guatemala is nowadays one of the most violent countries in Latin America, with an average of 45 murders per 100,000 people each year. (By comparison, the homicide rate in the US stands at about 5 per 100,000 and in Mexico it was 22 per 100,000 last year). Most of these murders are attributed to gang violence, especially males. This notion is supported by continuous reports of the brutality of gang violence and by the fact that 90% of the people murdered were males under the age of 29. Indeed, male youth in Guatemala are committing atrocious acts of violence, but blame now falls indiscriminately upon all youth. Tattoos, piercings and a fashion style that looks very much like US rap artists, are now considered the “markers” of violence. As a result, the youth in Guatemala suffer from a dangerous stigmatization that places them in a vulnerable position when confronted by the police and angry mobs. This prevents many of them from making their way into society and fails to acknowledge that these youth are victims to violence themselves. Moreover, it encourages police to use brutality with impunity and promotes a disregard for the legal process.
Guatemala is about to elect a new president this coming November, and the two people now contesting are Otto Perez Molina and Manuel Baldizon. Both candidates have centered their campaigns on the concern for public security and advocate a stronger government stance against crime. More specifically, Perez Molina proposes a program known as “Iron Fist,” which has already been implemented in El Salvador (where it’s known as “Super Iron Fist”) and in Mexico. The core of this program is to increase police and military involvement in the persecution of drug traffickers and gang members or people suspected to be involved. However, both in Mexico and El Salvador this caused an explosion of violence and murders, which Mexicans will often refer to as a “war.” Accordingly, indiscriminate violence amongst the youth as well as against them has increased. The programs put forward by both candidates can only have the same negative impact, because violence foments more violence. I am afraid that no matter what the outcome of the election is, the youth of Guatemala will suffer even more in the coming years.
In the context of this reality one would not expect the youth to organize nonviolent actions, workshops or, as we shall see, an academy that teaches the principles of nonviolence. Yet, if we were to take a stroll down Calle 12 and 6ta Avenida, of Zone 1 in Guatemala City, we would find a group of mostly young men who celebrate the spirit of nonviolence every day.
Trasciende, an organization founded in 2009 by a group of five B-boys (break dancers), is a hip-hop academy that offers art workshops as a means to draw the youth away from violence and into a peaceful environment. Mr. Fer, the head of the academy, meets regularly with those who attend the workshops to discuss the four values Trasciende promotes—Peace, Love, Unity and Enjoyment—and how these can bring about real social and political change if only we commit to them fully. Mr. Fer told me he thinks Trasciende is now transforming into a bridge for the youth, especially men, who live in “territories owned by enemy gangs. They are starting to understand the core of the problem: that they have been driven to believe in false differences between them.” When asked what he believes is the solution to the violence in Guatemala he responded, “I can help by not helping violence. I will refrain from feeding my own humanity to the pool of blood already existing. And I hope I can inspire more youth to do the same.”
Aware of the escalating demand for military interventionism in the problem of gang violence and the potential threat to the youth, Trasciende has started to organize more venues to encourage the youth to join this hip-hop movement: national dancing competitions, graffiti and emceeing workshops and scholarships to compete overseas. Trasciende has taken hip-hop, an art form associated to masculinity, and uses it to fervently argue that there are men, thousands of them, who strive to live a life of nonviolence, challenging the notion of masculinity as intrinsically violent. “It is not ironic,” Mr. Fer said, “that those who are most heavily stigmatized are the ones refusing to be violent. It is simply perceived as an irony by those who perpetuate it… But we will not buy into that irony; we will make sure everybody understands this.” In spite of the threat of increasing persecution of the youth and the number of advocates of this movement that have already been killed, Mr. Fer, Trasciende and the youth continue to insist that the best way to start solving the problems of Guatemala is to make the decision to abstain from being a part of the perpetual cycle of violence.