Reverence for the Sacred Land: Part 1 – Inadequate responses to endemic violence in Central America

In Part 1 of this post, MCCer Tobias Roberts, in Nebaj, Guatemala, explores his contrasting experiences with urban life in Central America, and the inadequacies of the dominant responses to daily violence. In Part 2, which will be posted in a few days, he describes alternative experiences that rebuild community space in urban contexts. This article was originally published in América Latina en Movimiento February 8, 2012.

San Salvador, El Salvador

For five years I lived and worked in the outskirts of San Salvador with an organization supporting marginalized families living with HIV/AIDS.  Though the agonizing combination of poverty and HIV formed a part of my daily experience, AIDS was not the main epidemic that surrounded my life.  The World Health Organization considers more than 10 homicides per 100,000 residents to be at epidemic levels.  From 2004 to 2009, El Salvador ranked first in the world with 62 homicides per 100,000 residents. After five years in San Salvador, having a pistol pointed at your head during an assault on the public buses became a common experience.

Every day after sunset as I returned to the small house I shared with my wife and her family, I went through the same apprehensive routine: Walk quickly through the streets; look constantly over your shoulder to see if you are being followed; sit near the front of a bus next to an elderly lady if possible (they always inspire shelter); don´t look at anyone, don´t talk to anyone; don´t trust anyone.

Nebaj, Guatemala

A year later, I find myself living in a quiet Mayan town in the highlands of western Guatemala.  Every day after sunset as I return to the small room that I share with my wife, I go through the same life-enhancing routine: Walk calmly through the streets; stop to chat with the local woman selling tortillas on the corner; pause in dark alley to contemplate the stars and the moonlight silhouetting the surrounding mountains; find a pick up soccer game in the park to join in on; look at everyone; talk to everyone; trust everyone.

The difference between these two daily routines—one marked by fear and violence, the other by trust and tranquility—has made me constantly question how violence evolves, how it becomes entrenched in the daily lives of communities, and most importantly, what is a real, effective response to this violence.

From my experience, there seems to be two main “answers” or “responses” that arise due to the endemic situation of violence: the apathetic response and the de-rooted response.

The Apathetic Response 

The apathetic response is a response generated by the genuine fear of impoverished, marginalized communities overwhelmed by the ever present hostility of their surroundings.   This response is characterized by an increased militarization of society, a generalized lack of trust, apathetic resignation to the inevitability of violence, and the loss of capacity to consider life sacred.

These characteristics are manifested in the recently and popularly supported political decisions among various governments to send out the military to patrol the streets, the resolve of certain political parties advocating for the death penalty, or by “hard-hand” laws that criminalize youth and “suspect” populations.

It is seen when, due to the constant killing of bus drivers for not paying extortion fees to gangs, most bus drivers in San Salvador put a sticker on their windshield reading “Only God knows if I´ll be back”, in essence resigning their fate to the luck of the draw.  It is heard in the conversations between people on the streets: “What happened over there?”  “Ahh, it´s just another dead person.” Fourteen murders a day in a country the size of Massachusetts numbs the inherent capacity we all have to appreciate life as the most sacred and precious of gifts.

This response is then propagated, expanded and exaggerated by the mass media and manipulated by government and business elites who prefer this simplified and superficial response to violence which is purely reactionary, while turning a blind eye to the underlying, systemic causes of this violence.  However, I do believe that though manipulated by mass media and elite sectors of society, and though this response has been shown to be completely ineffective in decreasing violence, it is an understandable reaction by communities affected by this unyielding aggression of violence.  Communities faced with daily homicides, rapes and extortions excusably opt for the myopic solution of the apathetic response as a type of survival mechanism.

The “De-rooted” Response

Then there is the “de-rooted” response; a response formulated by academic sectors, NGOs, and people more aligned with the political left.  It is a response that seeks to question not just the visible consequences of violence, but uncover the underlying causes of this violence.  This response argues that youth delinquents and gang members are victims of an unjust system that denies them educational and work opportunities.  It advocates for more policies aimed at re-inserting youth as productive members of society and condemns the militarization and “hard-hand” policies that are implemented by governments and championed by mass media.

Though this response by a sector of society is much more holistic and visionary; though it seeks to correct the causes of violence and not just attack its observable consequences; though it offers a much more realistic attempt to effectively reduce violence; there is one key problem.  This response is generally formulated and advocated for by sectors of society that live removed from the daily, callous reality of the violence that affects their country.

It is a lot easier to advocate on behalf of youth delinquents as victims of an unjust society when you´re not a victim of extortion, or when you don´t have to fear being assaulted on public transportation, or when you don´t live in a community controlled by local gangs and drug traffickers.  Ultimately this response, though well articulated and well-intentioned, is divorced from the deep rooted reality of the majority of the marginalized population.

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