Grassroots Peacebuilding

Richard Salem

Former CRS Mediator, Chicago Office; Private Mediator; President of Conflict Management Initiatives

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: The notion of bottom-up is really interesting. Tell a little bit more about why that's important.

A: Well, because it comes from the communities themselves, it's what they want to do. You don't come in and say, I see you have this problem, here's how you solve it. You get the community group talking about their problem and expressing desire for assistance. That's how we got into the gang problem down there. They've got a lot of gang problems in El Salvador. In this particular region there were two gangs that were intimidating the community and terrifying people. At soccer games they would create disturbances and people were afraid to come out of their houses at night.

There was a meeting with these groups and some community leaders that was done through the community. And Mark Chupp led them through this exercise, some action research, working with the Coordinadora peace committee, working with people from that community. They went around to talk to the institutions, hospital, police, school officials, and they talked to families, knocked down doors to find out what the conflicts were that needed addressing, and they came away with a lot of concern about the gangs. So they decided to approach the gangs and they did.

They met with them in a church and they got a priest who had been giving Coordinadata a hard time in that community. Sierra Blanca was the community. They'd been giving them a very hard time. The Catholic church wasn't as supportive of Coordinadora as it could have been. Coordinidora is open, it welcomes Evangelicals as well as Catholics, it doesn't put restrictions on who it helps, it takes a broad community view, and as I say, it's not authoritarian. The bottom's up, and it's totally democratic and they won't tolerate any other approaches. But for other groups that might want to help, that's not always the way assistance is rendered. And those other groups--relief agencies as well as the church--had not been supportive. But in this community once that problem was identified, they did support it wholly, and the local priest helped on this project and gave this church. Police tried to break it up, police from another jurisdiction came in and tried to arrest one of the gang leaders. They did arrest him and beat him up in the back of the pickup truck, back of the van, and that led to some problems because it looked like they were being set up, which was not the case. So those problems were worked out.

Q: It looked like the police were being set up?

A: It looked like the gang leadership was being set up by our group.

Q: The police came in and got the gang, and then it looked like you were collaborating with the police to bring in the gang members?

A: Right, there was another police group from the local office who was in that meeting, and they were helping out, but this was police from another jurisdiction who came in [who were not involved in the meeting at all]. They had an outstanding warrant against this guy, this gang leader.

Q: That's a standard procedure [beating people up] for outstanding warrants [said in a bit of a sarcastic way.]

A: Right, after a peace meeting in the church. The beating was not unusual. I'm not sure how that came down finally, but they were able to continue working with the gangs and that led to the setting up of this art program. The gang members said, give us some training. We don't like to be in this position. Get us some training so we can get jobs. Help us have these tattoos removed. They have heavy tattoos on their face and arms and exposed all over their bodies. So they said, give us an opportunity to have these tattoos removed so we can get jobs, and our people down there are helping them along that path. So that's one of the highlights of the work down there. This art program is quite exciting because they have all these kids coming in. They give them paints to work with, acrylics and materials and they sit around tables with this instructor helping them. They had a competition, a juried competition. They brought in some artists from outside the region who were cooperating and helped select the best paintings and some of them were sold for some good money. And they're hoping to have an exhibit in Miami at a later date, bring the paintings to this country, where the instructor has some good connections, and see if they can't raise some money for the project that way and by selling the T-shirts, and that'll help support the project and the kids.