On his first visit to Mexico, Pope Benedict XVI arrives as a “Messenger of Peace.” Mexico has the second-largest Catholic population in the world – after Brazil – and violence has claimed the lives of more than 45,000 in the last five years. On this continental visit, Pope Benedict emphasizes the importance of peaceful resolutions to the violence in Latin America.
Catholic Relief Services has worked for many years on peacebuilding in the region. Rick Jones, Deputy Regional Director for Global Solidarity and Justice in Latin America and the Caribbean, explains the changes in violence in the region and CRS’ response.
How has violence in Latin America evolved?
In the 1980’s the violence in the region was mostly about civil wars, over land and democracy. Nowadays, violence is about controlling local territories–gangs controlling communities, cartels controlling drug routes. Central America is now considered one of the most violent regions in the world. Mexico is suffering a terrible wave of violence related to drug trafficking. Colombia has over five decades of armed conflict. These are important challenges.
What is CRS’ response to violence?
We are helping peacebuilding efforts, not just ending violence, but replacing that violence with something constructive that will give the people the opportunity to break the cycle and thrive, the opportunity to create flourishing communities. In Colombia for years we’ve helped people supporting human rights and advocacy efforts. In Mexico and Central America we are training different dioceses in conflict resolution, supporting victims and building a network to respond to issues of violence, to become active citizens and to foster new types of positive relationships. An example would be Youth Builders El Salvador, a program where we are bringing at-risk youth together to build community projects and in the process they are learning interpersonal skills, getting trained and placed in jobs.
What needs to be done to truly build peace in Latin America?
We believe that in order to build peace in Latin America we need to build communities’ capacity to resolve issues locally. Paying attention to marginalized communities and helping them develop so its residents can live a dignified life is an essential step towards building a true alternative to violence.
What is the biggest challenge to building peace in Latin America?
The Mexican bishops have described the violence as a public health crisis, meaning that you have to address the conditions and risk factors that give rise to it more than the symptoms. It is not something that can be solved easily through government negotiations or the military. That’s a great challenge. The shift in the kind of violence is another challenge. The peace accords in Central America, for example, were about overcoming conflicting ideologies and addressing structural issues and human rights. But the accords rarely dealt with the personal side of the story, the personal, emotional experience of the war. Those traumas were never addressed and we know that, sadly, victims of violence are likely to become perpetrators of other kinds of violence in the future. Another great challenge is the inequality, which is also an incubator of violence. In order to best respond to violence we need to address multiple levels from the personal to relationships to structural issues like inequality. That’s why we are responding to these challenges by implementing programs that give young people who live in violent communities the opportunity to get trained, get jobs, thrive and break the vicious cycle.
What do you think will be the significance of the Pope’s visit?
We think that Pope Benedict XVI will inspire people to continue to address the issues of violence, give people a sense of hope. Given the suffering in Mexico and the fear and mistrust that violence spreads, hope is very important. We also think he will affirm the work the Church is already doing to eradicate violence.