Strengthening institutions and promoting peace in Guatemala’s Western Highlands
By Janey Fugate
November 19, 2021
Departmental governments in Guatemala’s Western Highlands are on the front lines of addressing social conflict, relying on Departmental Commissions for Attention to Conflict and Security to respond to and resolve some of the most difficult and entrenched conflicts in the region.
Because the agencies are often under-resourced and poorly equipped, resolutions are often stagnated at the community level.
In response to requests from the CODESACs, as they are known in Spanish, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Peacebuilding Project (Tejiendo Paz in Spanish), along with Guatemalan NGO Fundación ProPaz, designed an intensive series of conflict transformation workshops that culminated in a formal commitment to peacebuilding. The workshops were tailored to strengthen CODESACs ability to respond to conflict.
“A key challenge for us is to increase coordination between the municipal and departmental agencies so that they have more fluid responses to social conflict,” says Norman Martinez, Tejiendo Paz’s Senior Institutional Strengthening Specialist.
Fostering inter-institutional collaboration is part of Tejiendo Paz’s broader vision to build bridges between the communities and the government authorities and agencies tasked with addressing conflict. Working in the Western Highlands, Tejiendo Paz gives communities tools to identify, address and mediate social conflict through trainings, creating networks of mediators, and fostering civic engagement.
On Oct. 12, the CODESAC of San Marcos became the third commission to complete the trainings, which bridge a symbolic commitment to renewed peace with the hard skills to make tangible progress towards reducing social conflict.
San Marcos, like other rural departments in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, experiences high levels of poverty and social conflicts related to land and natural resources with deep, historical roots. These workshops were designed to strengthen the CODESAC’s capacity to effectively address the causes of these conflicts.
“The process of these capacity building workshops took place over three months in which members of our commission gained tools to address conflict through dialogue, creating a map of actors and peacebuilding exercises,” says San Marcos’ governor via Facebook, Luis Carlos Velásquez Bravo.
In 2020, Tejiendo Paz signed agreements with four departmental governments: Huehuetenango; Quiche; San Marcos; and Totonicapán. These agreements set the stage for the project to work with the CODESACs and implement the workshops designed to bolster each conflict resolution agency’s capacity to resolve conflicts at the root of the issue.
A roadmap for addressing conflicts associated with distribution of electrical energy
A common type of conflict the CODESACs address is related to the distribution of electrical energy, which leads to tensions between communities and electricity companies frequently lead to protests and roadblocks.
In both Huehuetenango and Quiche, the Tejiendo Paz provides technical assistance to working groups, which are part of the CODESACs, created to specifically address energy related issues. Technical assistance includes conflict analysis and conflict mitigation strategies, such as early management, dialogue and transformation.
“The goal is to be proactive and preventative, facilitating dialogue and offering tools that can lead to solutions before the conflict culminates in a protest or demonstration,” says Luz Lainfiesta, Tejiendo Paz’s Deputy Chief of Party.
In a mediation session held in Quiche, ENERGUATE, the region’s electrical provider, presented the company’s key areas of concern related to conflicts around access to electrical energy and their plan to address these conflicts. The CODESAC presented their experiences in addressing energy conflicts, and the National Electric Power Commission presented on the legal framework of the electrical subsector in Guatemala. The meetings culminated in the development of a roadmap for addressing these conflicts.
Similarly, in Huehuetenango, the departmental delegate of Community Violence Prevention Unit of the Ministry of the Interior and the departmental government have been leading these working groups, ensuring ownership and sustainability. Members of the working group held an outreach meeting in the municipality of Santiago, Chimaltenango to address conflict associated with the distribution of electricity.
A top-down approach
Addressing specific issues like energy distribution give communities tools that can be applied to other conflicts and contexts. The workshops and mediation groups are designed to empower communities beyond the project.
“Thus, at the end of the project, four CODESACs will be left with a strengthened legal framework, with a manual of functions and protocols of handling conflict and with staff with greater capacity to address and respond to local conflicts,” says Martinez. “This ensures sustainability of the actions, beyond the life of the project.”
In addition to inter-agency coordination, the workshops also covered early warning and response mechanisms, how to more effectively activate the local response of the departmental governments in accessing relevant services and development programs, promotion of leadership and empowerment of local governments as well as productive engagement with the private sector.
“There isn’t a week that passes without a conflict being addressed, and these workshops provided by Tejiendo Paz have helped us a lot and have given us new tools,” says Rudy Mazariegos, Coordinator of the Departmental Bureau of Security and Attention to the Conflict of Huehuetenango, during the series’ closing ceremony held on Oct. 19.
The training sessions addressed critical and specific pain points experienced in each department. In all four departments, high levels of poverty, discrimination against indigenous communities and women and violence related to land and natural resource disputes hinder development and feed a cycle of conflict.
Faced with such challenges, often community development projects are stagnated due to unresolved conflicts at the community level, preventing CODESACs and other government agencies from functioning as designed. Tejiendo Paz worked to give the departmental commissions more tools in conflict transformation for the purpose of advancing other objectives.
“Our goal is to prevent discrepancies on different issues from becoming conflicts, and that conflicts are dealt with in a timely manner,” said Luis Velásquez, Governor of San Marcos.
For several of these departments, this was the first time they had undergone such a comprehensive training on conflict resolution.
Jorge Cabrera, Governor of Totonicapán, expressed his support for these efforts. “Without the support of Tejiendo Paz this [training] wouldn’t be possible. I believe we now have a great network in eight municipalities that allows us to better address conflict across the department.”
Since Tejiendo Paz has been working together with CODESACs, these have become commissions that not only work to settle conflicts and increase the security of their own departments, but are also initiating work for peace through inter-agency meetings.
Jorge Cabrera, Governor of Totonicapán, echoed support for the work. “We want to treat conflict not as a problem, but as an opportunity to promote development in the department,” he said.