Official methods to manage conflict are unable to contain Colombia's escalating levels of violence. Hernando Roldán is working with ex-vigilante youth to demonstrate an effective nonformal, voluntary, community-based alternative method of conflict resolution in Medellín, one of Colombia's most violent cities.
The New Idea
Hernando Roldán began with an insight into the dynamics feeding the violence now consuming Colombian society. He saw that much of the violence in society was in fact an attempt to resolve conflict through violent means. He hypothesized that if alternative nonviolent means were available, then this might reduce the recourse to violence. "Conflict is normal, even healthy," notes Hernando. "It is the absence of non-violent means to resolve conflict that is pathological and that leads to violence." Based upon his volunteer efforts as a mediator between the state and the youth vigilante groups operating in Medellín in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hernando also came to believe that the vigilante youth were "capable of becoming leaders in the fight against violence." Working with a dozen ex-vigilante youth, in 1995 he set up his first community conflict resolution center in one of Medellín's poorest, most violence-ridden neighborhoods. Staffed by rotating teams of volunteer youth and one older member of the community, little by little over a year-long period, the center proved its value to both local citizens and the police and became a major resource for conflict resolution for several neighboring communities in addition to its immediate environs.
Unlike other mechanisms to address conflict, this one was purely voluntary: parties to a dispute appeared of their own volition. But at the same time, the center staff were not shy to exhort recalcitrant parties to respect the beliefs, traditions and customs of the community.
With the demonstrable success of the first center, Hernando began to turn his attention to meticulously documenting the work of the center and to training people to replicate the centers throughout Medellín (five more centers were set up during the second year) and the rest of Colombia. By late 1996 the first six Medellín centers were each receiving an average of twelve complaints a day. Of these, they were consistently resolving more than 80 percent.
Colombia may have the dubious honor of having the most violent society in the world. In the countryside, endemic revolutionary violence clashes with indiscriminate military violence. Drug and arms traffickers also contribute to the climate of violence in both rural and urban areas. The wave of people fleeing the rural violence for the cities find that urban squatting offers little respite. Urban Colombia is overcrowded and characterized by sprawling informal settlements around poor neighborhoods. Municipal services simply cannot cope (or, worse, deal corruptly) with the new immigrants, who must fend for themselves in a live-or-die contest for food, shelter and means to livelihood. Most urban poor thus have simply no nonviolent ways to promote their own aims or to participate in society.In the past few years various conflict resolution initiatives have not met with much success. Made up of people from outside the community, operating under public authority and staffed by paid officials, these efforts are not able to utilize custom, family history, community leadership and local traditions in their work.
Hernando's strategy is to create a way for the youth leadership in the community to participate in well-structured nonviolent conflict resolution activities. The satisfaction that comes from resolving conflicts nonviolently is tremendous-for the volunteer conflict resolvers, the parties to a dispute and the wider community. Success draws in more volunteers, who in turn enable the program to expand.While at first one might suppose that community members, especially adults, would not accept an intervention from youth, in fact the approach has proven remarkably successful, something Hernando attributes to the actual experience of resolving a conflict. He trains the youth carefully before they are allowed to hear disputes, and the inclusive, voluntary character of the mediations stands in stark distinction to the violence that describes most conflict. "That the experience of a mediation is civil, respectful and even pleasant, is an important ingredient in our success," notes Hernando.
While the first center was started with a dozen ex-vigilante youth, the subsequent centers grew out of training programs that reached out through neighborhood groups, members of women's clubs, churches, sports clubs, etc.
Building relations with the police, military and municipal authorities was difficult, but a persistently open posture and demonstration of the clear community benefits has paid off to such an extent that now the authorities are referring people to the established centers and some officials are prepared to support Hernando's efforts to expand the program.
Education efforts extend beyond the training of volunteer conflict resolvers as Hernando believes that every citizen needs conflict resolution skills. Using the conflict resolution centers as a base, Hernando's trained volunteer conflict resolvers double up as community educators, offering "citizenship education" to the diverse social organizations in the communities and providing opportunities where everyone can participate and learn "common sense skills of living in a nonviolent society."
Conflict resolution itself happens six days a week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., when conflict resolution teams are "on call" at the centers to hear complaints. The teams sits at a "round table" and members of the community present their problems. An average of eight young people (equal numbers of women and men), from ages 15 through 22, participate in the centers per day. The conflict resolution teams themselves are made up of three youth and one adult conciliator. They hear and resolve complaints relating to conflicts ranging from property disputes to domestic violence. They help clarify and define the positions of the parties, encourage them to talk out their differences, try to smooth out their problems by creating spaces and boundaries for one another, use instruments to regulate conflicts and create fair alternatives. The idea is to work for peace to construct peace. Conflict resolution workers work in proactive ways also. They talk to violent gang members and drug traffickers in the community individually. Plans are worked out for violent members of the community to return to a peaceful life, and restitution is worked out for people who have suffered from violent acts. Often these reformed citizens are recruited as center volunteers and subsequently make the best conflict resolution negotiators.
Consistent with the nature of the program, the modest funding required is raised mostly through community-based activities such as raffles, food booths, door-to-door solicitation campaigns and small micro-enterprises. The center does not accept money for its services.
Hernando has methodically documented the experiences of the first six centers in order to systematize the way to spread conflict resolution throughout the country, a process commanding a growing proportion of his time.
When Hernando was twelve years old he founded a youth group to work in the poorest barrios of his community. His goal was to form children's action squads to upgrade houses made of cardboard and tar paper. In high school he was a student activist and served as a leader in the school government. From 1980-88 he worked as a mediator for labor union disputes between workers and employers. Eschewing involvement in political parties or even a particular doctrine, he was always looking for practical ways to work to resolve problems in communities. From the time he was at the university he was dedicated to investigating alternative rights and legal methods for resolving conflicts.His constant dedication to the problem has led him to work as community mediator in zones to the northeast of Medellín to resolve conflicts between the National Government and armed groups. He has also worked as a researcher and educator at the Popular Institute of Training in Medellín.
He resumed his legal studies and became qualified as a lawyer after founding the first community conflict resolution centers because he discovered that the status as a lawyer would help the project. He is now able to provide free legal representation when it serves the interest of the project, as it did when six of his volunteers were unlawfully detained by the police.
This is dangerous work and in the first few years several of the conflict resolution workers were shot and killed after interventions with violent gangs. Hernando's wife shares his commitment to the project as she knows that the violence engulfing Colombia must stop.