New Initiative Will Study Conflict Mediators in Medellin, Colombia

graffiti art in medellin

A new initiative from the Youth, Peace and Security program will explore how regular people mediate conflicts and de-escalate violence in their neighborhoods in Medellin, Colombia. Photo: Sarah Fecht

By Joán Lopez

So-called marginal communities find ways to deal with conflicts, as well as respond to structures of violence and systematic oppression. These responses can take the form of organized leadership that sets in motion strategies of affirmative and collective action. Case-in-point: the comunas of Medellin, Colombia.

Built during the late 1940s, 50s and 60s, mostly by people who were either victims of forced displacement or those looking to improve their lives, these comunas or barrios have been designated as marginal. The residents have experienced systematic oppression and have dealt with powerful structures of violence from insurgency groups and gang activity, to narco-trafficking, and state violence with its proxy paramilitary groups. Given this, the history of the comunas of Medellin is a history of violence and conflict, but, above all, a history of community building and collective responses to the dynamics of systemic oppression and structural violence.

Youth have been a positive central force between the constant clashes of conflicts and the community’s responses to these conflicts. Hundreds of youth collectives and community leaders have emerged in the peripheral neighborhoods of Medellin to claim and reclaim their own human dignity and that of their fellow neighbors. The AC4 Youth, Peace and Security project (YPS) has concentrated its efforts in identifying and understanding the origin, establishment, and best practices of youth leaders in Medellin. The YPS project has used its own practical and theoretical knowledge and experience to engage these youth leaders to identify and promote the innovative work they have been doing. Their work has called attention to their political activism, community and peace building, and leadership.

During the last few months, as a result of the implementation of two Social Labs in Medellin, another focus of analysis has emerged. In conversations with partners in the barrios and with researchers from EAFIT University in Medellin, new questions have arisen: who are those emergent conflict mediators that are not organized and therefore not recognized as community leaders in the strictest sense of the term? What about the corner store owner that at the time of indiscriminate shootings between rival gangs opened up the doors of her store to allow passersby to step in and take refuge? Or the grandmother that mediates in the conflicts of her grandsons’ gang activities, and thus de-escalates gang related violence?

Stories of these sorts are common in Medellin’s barrios, but the protagonists are seldom taken into consideration in conversations about peace building, conflict mediation and community transformation. In fact, at least in the last 40 years, social conflicts have been dealt with at multiple levels: that of organized leadership; and at the level of individual informal mediators who lack recognition. Those who take mediation efforts informally have not been taken seriously nor analyzed.

YPS researchers along with fellow researchers from EAFIT University and youth leader colleagues in the field want to explore such “organic forms of mediation,” and to define the profile of the “organic mediator.” We believe that by identifying and understanding the mechanisms of how these forms of mediation work, we can shed more light on the way social conflicts are mediated, as well as on the cultural dimensions that are implicit in the mediation and transformation of conflicts.

The results from this investigation will contribute enormously to the field of conflict resolution, peace building, and youth leadership, which will inform innovative theories and methods for practitioners who are interested in mediation, conflict management and transformation. YPS will launch this new research initiative in 2019.

Joán Lopez coordinates the Youth, Peace and Security program at Columbia’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity.  

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