Article Detail

Restorative Practices in Latin America: Part 2
Joshua Wachtel

Posted 2011-08-05

Related Links
» Restorative Practices in Latin America: Part 2 (PDF)
» Spanish Version (LINK)


Video in English of an interview with Jean Schmitz, of the Latin American Institute for Restorative Practices.


Video in Spanish of an interview with Jenny Larrea Rivera, of IIRP Latin America.


Niños participando en un círculo de diálogo con la Fundación Amaneceres en Ciudad de Panamá, Panamá.Children take part in a talking circle with Fundación Amaneceres, in Panama City, Panama.

This is part of two of an article on how individuals in Latin America are implementing restorative practices in their organizations, schools and communities. There are now two IIRP affiliates Part one discusses Nicaragua, Panama and Colombia. Part two talks about Mexico and Peru and references work in Brazil.

There are now two IIRP affiliates in Latin America: the Central American Center for Restorative Practices (Centro de Prácticas Restaurativas para Centroamerica), headquartered in Costa Rica — website: cprca.iirp.edu, headed by Miguel Tello; and the Latin American Institute for Restorative Practices (Instituto Latino Americano de Prácticas Restaurativas), headquartered in Peru — website: ilapr.iirp.edu, headed by Jean Schmitz. The IIRP is moving toward translating all of its trainings, films and books into Spanish and Portuguese.

Throughout Latin America, there are growing efforts to confront the social consequences of poverty and violence. Restorative practices provides an outlook that is appealing to many who are working to bring people together to resolve problems and transform the nature of society.

Changes to the Mexican constitution in 2006 mandate a transformation of Mexico’s justice system within the next eight years. In the old system much of the legal process was conducted in writing rather than in an open courtroom. The legal status of someone charged with a crime was guilty until proven innocent. Under the new system judges, not juries, will continue to decide guilt or innocence, but now judges will have to face the accused eye to eye and hear oral arguments. As changes and new safeguards are put in place, there is increasing opportunity for restorative justice and restorative practices to be included in the new justice system.

Nancy Flemming coordinates a USAID-funded alternative justice project. Among many other endeavors, this project enabled 30 criminal and juvenile justice officials from 10 states in Mexico to attend an intensive immersion in restorative practices held by the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA, in April 2010 [see eForum article, “Mexico and New Orleans Learn About Restorative Practices” at http://www.iirp.edu/article_detail.php?article_id=NjY3].

Flemming is based in Baja state but works throughout Mexico to educate professionals in and promote the use of restorative justice and restorative practices. Through a translator Flemming explained, “Oaxaca state has the most developed restorative justice program, active since 2007. This practice involves teenagers and adults and is used for minor as well as serious felonies, including murder. By comparison, Baja’s program is brand new. They are doing a great job, but they have only been doing it for a few months.”

As part of the above-mentioned IIRP immersion, Flemming and the justice officials visited an IIRP model school for troubled teens operated by Community Service Foundation and Buxmont Academy. Seeing how effective circles and restorative practices could be for working with youth in a school setting, Flemming returned to Mexico determined to bring restorative practices to schools throughout the country. So far she has offered workshops to 350 teenagers to familiarize them with the philosophy and practice of restorative justice and restorative practices.

In Oaxaca a conference for elementary and high schools generated interested in 13 or 14 schools. “Directors, parents and teachers are very interested, and they will start implementing the program next year. It’s a huge program. I don’t want to do a small program. We’ll have circles, not just for discipline, but circles with students, parents, teachers and every combination. We’ll teach the whole philosophy. This will serve as prevention for felonies. Students will know how to deal with their problems. If it’s just used for discipline it won’t have the impact on society. Our primary goal is to transform society. We want people to see that they can resolve their problems simply through talking.”

Isabel Sepulveda Montaño, who also attended the April 2010 IIRP intensive immersion, is director of the Alternative Justice Center of the Judicial Branch for Hidalgo state. According to Montaño, the process of introducing restorative justice and restorative practices in Mexico began when increased trade with American and Canadian businesses necessitated faster dispute resolution. Subsequently, people in the criminal justice field introduced an approach to alternative dispute resolution called transformative mediation, which is currently being used in 28 of 32 Mexican states.

Said Sepulveda, “Transformative mediation and restorative justice have a similar philosophy. They transform the people, not the problem. It’s good to have some problems, because when you deal with them your relationships get better. We need to transform our relationships and our society, which is very violent.”

In the past few years, 20 Mexican states have initiated the use of restorative justice conferences, in addition to mediation. These programs are administered by Alternative Justice Centers, which work in cooperation with courts and public institutions. Whereas mediation generally brings together only the victim, offender and a mediator, restorative justice conferences also include families, friends and communities of support. Conferences began with youth but now are offered to adults as well. Representatives in the courts screen cases to decide which are eligible for mediation or restorative justice. In less than three years, said Sepulveda, her office has handled 9,000 cases in eight centers in Hidalgo state — 2,500 restorative justice cases and the rest mediation. Hidalgo state, said Sepulveda, is in the top eight states employing restorative justice in Mexico.

Sepulveda said the response has been great. “People are very pleased, even the victim leaves so happy. They say, ‘I thought [the offender] was a beast, but he’s a human being.’ You can see in these meetings the humanity and the honesty.”

Sepulveda hopes to institute restorative practices in the school system, too, saying, “Education is the root for the change.” She believes a change in society will come from a change in philosophy. “You need to have some philosophy of life: forgiveness. Maybe he isn’t a bad guy, but a good guy who has made bad decisions.”

Sepulveda also pointed out that universities, in Hidalgo and elsewhere, are currently using restorative practices in a number of ways. The mediation center at Universidad La Salle in Hidalgo, for example, brings people together to talk through conflicts and misunderstandings. In one case, said Sepulveda, a law student thought his teacher didn’t like him, but when the two sat down to speak, the teacher said that he was simply doing his best to teach him what his life will be like as a lawyer. As a result of the meeting the student decided not to quit school. In another instance, a university student was kicking and damaging cars on campus. His father, who was concerned, arranged to meet and talk with his son at the campus mediation center. It came out that the son believed his father, who could be very stern, did not love him. The son’s misbehavior seemed to be a call for help. Now the father and son attend psychological counseling together.

Jean Schmitz, who is originally from Belgium and lives in Peru, worked with the Foundation Terre des hommes, an international NGO based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and now works as a representative for IIRP in Latin America. Starting in 2002 Schmitz began working to include restorative justice approaches within the juvenile justice system. For the past five years, two districts in Peru, one serving 180,000 people and the other 110,000, have conducted projects that began offering mediation options between offenders and victims and then grew to include parents and small groups of others affected by a crime. Schmitz emphasized, “Our role was technical support. We supported local communities, but police, prosecutors, judges and others developed the specific programs.” Recently the attorney general, Mag. Gladys Echaíz, decided to extend the program to three large districts in the capital city, Lima, serving around 300,000 people each.

In fall 2010, funded by the U.S. Department of State, Schmitz and IIRP director of continuing education John Bailie held three video conferences (using a translator) to introduce restorative practices concepts to representatives from the Peruvian criminal justice system. Each conference involved 60-70 magistrates, including judges, prosecutors and juvenile justice officials who came to participate in the video conference at the American Embassy in Lima, with Bailie in Pennsylvania. His presentations were extremely well received. Since Schmitz learned about the proactive potential of restorative practices for schools, workplaces and communities, he has been developing projects in those areas. Schmitz has a major ally in Susana Villarán, a teacher and fellow member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, who was elected mayor of Lima on November 4, 2010. Schmitz believes that in 2011 they will be able to initiate a restorative practices pilot program in two to three public schools in Lima — both primary and secondary — serving 2,000 to 4,000 students each.

Said Schmitz, “There is a lot of interest. We will make a deep and objective diagnosis to find what the problems are, then conduct trainings and the pilot projects. The best thing would be a very open door to try this with teachers, disciplinarians and students, trying to involve all the actors. I want to include the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), with their huge experience, to have a link with this project and see what we can do.”

In conjunction with Jean Schmitz, Ted Wachtel, IIRP president, made a visit to Lima in February 2011, met with the mayor and her staff, visited two schools and two police stations and met with US Embassy staff, who expressed interest in assisting in supporting the IIRP’s efforts in Lima.

In Brazil, Dominic Barter began implementing restorative practices in Rio de Janiero’s shantytowns in the mid-1990s. He pioneered the use of a conferencing model, restorative circles, which involves three key participants: the author of a given act, the recipient of that act and the local community. That work has spread throughout the country, in schools, communities and justice situations. You can read an eForum article about Barter and this work at http://www.iirp.edu/article_detail.php?article_id=NjA2 and a keynote speech he presented at the 2008 IIRP World Conference, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, at http://www.iirp.edu/article_detail.php?article_id=NTY5.

To see the website for the Central American Center for Restorative Practices (Centro de Prácticas Restaurativas para Centroamerica) go to: cprca.iirp.edu. To see the website for the Latin American Institute for Restorative Practices (Instituto Latino Americano de Prácticas Restaurativas) go to: ilapr.iirp.edu.