IPJ’s Guatemala Legal Empowerment Project: An update from Quiché

Returning to Guatemala’s highlands always brings on mixed emotions – which usually end up making me want to stay here and work on justice issues for the rest of my life. Caught between knowledge of the unspeakable cruelty of the last 50 years and the vibrancy and resilience of people still working to achieve justice despite an egregious experience of repression, I find myself wondering: What can we realistically expect from our small project?

The IPJ is very fortunate to have been awarded State Department support to work with a local partner, the Barbara Ford Peace Center in Santa Cruz del Quiché. The Quiché department was the site of the worst violence during Guatemala’s civil war, and the legacies of impunity and violence are evident to this day. As we started our project in August, the regional drug lord was gunned down on the streets of Santa Cruz. The government of Guatemala has declared a state of siege in the department of Alta Verapaz, immediately east of Quiché, and deployed the army in Huehuetenango, immediately west of Quiché, to try to stem the drug violence encroaching southward from Mexico. Guatemala vies with El Salvador and Honduras for the highest murder rate in the world – significantly worse than Mexico – and 98 percent of crimes go unprosecuted. And this may get worse as we go deeper into a highly contested presidential election year.

Our legal empowerment project in Quiché has spent the first six months investing in planning and relationship building – and it is an investment because so many projects start with recipes developed in capital cities that have little to do with realities on the ground. We have been working with locals to define how best to address current justice challenges like rampant violence against women, abuse of authority and conflicts at the community level that often result in lynching.

We began with a baseline survey in August and September to define the panorama of justice needs according to the priorities of locals. The project then organized a participatory strategic planning process with key actors in the justice sector and civil society in November and December. Now we are ready to put an operational plan together.

As I sit down with the team at the Barbara Ford Peace Center, they have handed me a welcome surprise, something they hadn’t told me about beforehand: a seven-page draft of a work plan with 17 activities they have designed based on all our efforts to date. It may sound strange to be excited about a work plan, but the next few days are going to fly by as we shape an ambitious strategy into concrete initiatives. What could be more rewarding than the opportunity to accompany these people in pursuit of justice in Quiché?

To follow the progress of our Guatemala Legal Empowerment Project or see a summary of the Quiché baseline survey, go to www.sandiego.edu/peacestudies/ipj/field/guatemala/LegalEmpowermentinQuicheProject.php

Milburn Line is executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego and is currently in Quiché, Guatemala.

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