Despite the relative isolation and calm of the Garifuna community, there are warning signs that Garifuna youth are not immune to the risk of becoming involved in gangs—a problem across much of the country. Meet the Guity family and see how a unique violence prevention program is drawing on traditional cultural strengths to support the family's two sons in reducing their risk for violence.

In an often overlooked minority community, the Honduras Proponte Más violence prevention program is a first

Wilson and Irvin Guity’s father Carlos has just returned home to the coastal Honduran town of Corozal for a visit from Panama, where he spends long stretches of time working construction.

While the boys’ father migrates for work, their mother Ronna Ballesteros picks up housekeeping jobs in order to provide for her sons and their two younger sisters.

“I shouldn’t have left, but I had to,” Carlos says. “Here, there aren’t opportunities.”

Despite the distance, the family is now growing closer – and, in the process, reducing Wilson and Irvin’s chances of becoming involved in gangs.

The Guity family is Garifuna – a minority group of Afro-Caribbean descent. Garifuna communities dot the northern coast of Honduras, including in Corozal, just outside the large city of La Ceiba.

The Garifuna and other indigenous groups have long been isolated from mainstream Honduran society by race, history and culture, and face discrimination and inequality in relation to land, justice and basic social services.

"The Garifuna community is a community very rich in culture, very rich in rituals, in traditions. And all of these traditions center on the family, just like Proponte Más does.” Tesla Quevedo, Proponte Más Regional Director for La Ceiba and Tela

In addition, they are affected by the same challenges playing out across the country: gang violence, job scarcity, migration.

In Corozal and elsewhere, these factors are straining family life and leaving youth at a high risk of joining gangs.

Based on an evaluation of nine risk factors at a family, peer and individual level, brothers Wilson, 11, and Irvin, 13, both fell into this high risk category and are participating in a crime and violence prevention project called Proponte Más.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International, the project is aimed at preventing the most at-risk youth from joining gangs through family-based counseling model.

Brothers Irvin (left) and Wilson (right) pose after a soccer game with their siblings in the yard. Photo by Gustavo Ochoa.

Proponte Más’ approach centers on strengthening high-risk youth’s family support system – the best asset for preventing young people from falling into gangs. More than 50 counselors have been trained to work closely with families in five of Honduras’ most violent cities, including La Ceiba, over the course of a year. The goal is to alter risky behavior and strengthen relationships that lower risk factors and build resilience to the lure of gangs.

Before the program, her sons often skipped school, fought with their siblings and classmates, and were disrespectful toward her and other adults, says the boys’ mother Ronna.

“They had the perception that because their dad was abroad, and their mom didn’t spend time at home, it was because they didn’t love them,” counselor Diana Flores says of Wilson and Irvin. “We worked out a strategy – we have to, in some way, see how we can try to create a little bit of closeness with mom and dad.”

Counselors like Flores work to help youth identify themselves first as a member of their family.  Strong family unity makes a young person less likely to seek out that sense of belonging from a gang, she explains.

To date, the approach has had success. After just six months of intervention, all 445 youth in the program showed a reduction is all nine risk factors for violence. Nearly 3 out of 4 youth lowered their risk factors to less than four out of nine, which places them below the threshold for “at risk.”

Community on the precipice

Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world, recently estimated to be about 60 homicides per 100,000 residents. Against this backdrop, crime and violence rates within the Garifuna community are relatively low.

Proponte Más relies on an empirical assessment to identify youth who are at the highest risk of engaging in gang activity, through a method known as the Youth Service Eligibility Tool. The tool evaluates youth across nine risk factors and looks for more than 100 behavioral indicators. School staff, coaches and other community leaders can refer youth for YSET evaluation.

Despite the relative isolation and calm of the Garifuna community, there are warning signs that Garifuna youth are not immune to the risk of becoming involved in gangs.

Ronna says a teacher first recommended Irvin for the program – since she was also having trouble with Wilson, Ronna asked if he could participate as well.

Using the YSET assessment, both were determined to be at a high risk, along with other young people in the Garifuna community.

The Guity family discusses their genogram, or family tree, with Proponte Más family counselors at their home. Photo by Gustavo Ochoa.

Tesla Quevedo, Proponte Más Regional Director for La Ceiba and Tela, says that because the Garifuna have been viewed as a peaceful community, they have not been a priority for violence prevention programs. But the results of the risk assessment called for action. In fact, Proponte Más was given special permission to work in these specific Garifuna communities a pilot.

“We are not alien to the structural and behavioral changes that our country is suffering. In this sense, the Garifuna population is also being affected by situations that lead their young people, their men, their women to carry out acts of vandalism, criminal acts, and that concern us,” says Quevedo.

The work of Proponte Más in the Garifuna community is part of a pilot program, working on violence prevention in communities that do not yet have high homicide rates but nonetheless exhibit risk factors for violence among their youth.

“We do not want to wait to be part of the national statistics, to appear on the front pages of the newspapers, for attention to be given to this problem,” Quevedo says.

“So this is the moment to be able to intervene, to be able to work. If we are talking about prevention, then we should prevent – because to do it later, to do it when we already have deaths every day, that won’t be prevention.”

Proponte Más is the first program of its kind to be established in the Honduran Garifuna community.

Focusing on families

Quevedo says that Proponte Más’ family-focused approach is fitting for the Garifuna.

“The other component that Proponte Más deals with and which really ties in with the Garifuna population is working with other generations and focusing on traditions, on the recuperation of customs,” she says. “The Garifuna community is a community very rich in culture, very rich in rituals, in traditions. And all of these traditions center on the family, just like Proponte Más does.”

Counselors work to strengthen family bonds, find solutions to behavioral problems and improve communication.

Family counselor Diana Flores regularly visits the families she supports. Here, she visits with Wilson, Irvin and their sister. Photo by Jillian Slutzker.

Carolina Guity, a longtime teacher in the area, says she has seen major improvements in the students referred to the program.

“The importance of these programs is that if you transform a family, you become a community. And you can transform a country, which is where we want to go,” she says.

“Currently the family is increasingly broken, and if the family changes, we will be in a much better country and the young people will become better parents, and we will obviously transform our community and our country as well.”

Both Wilson and Irvin say they have an improved outlook on school and life at home since working with Proponte Más. And their parents have noticed the difference.

“I spent a lot of time fighting with them so they would help me do things. But now, thank God, with the project it changed a lot,” Ronna says. “Now they do laundry without me saying anything, they even cook, wash dishes, make the bed for me – even my bed where I sleep, they make it. They have changed a lot.”

With reporting by Gustavo Ochoa and Jillian Slutzker in Honduras.