This past year, we’ve completed six staircase projects and numerous Mobile Clinics in the community of Laderas de Nueva Esperanza, in large part thanks to the persistence of the community’s dirigente, or elected community leader, Nancy Helguera. Read more about how she is inspiring positive change in her neighborhood below:
Nancy came to Lima thinking she was going to retire. She had worked for years as a dirigente in her native Piura, where she supervised a number of public works projects and worked to reduce crime and help at-risk children and teens. When she arrived in Lima, she opened a small restaurant in Villa El Salvador, and planned to spend time with her grown children and grandchildren. But her calling soon found her again.
It was her daughter, Vanessa — who had moved to a new community called Laderas de Nueva Esperanza — who proposed the idea. Vanessa was serving as the secretary general there at the time, and told her mother about the problems the community was facing. “There were a lot of problems with stealing, embezzlement and corruption. People didn’t trust the dirigentes,” says Nancy. So she left the restaurant and moved in with her daughter in Laderas. Nancy found little resistance to her election among locals, who were tired of bad dirigentes and knew of her past experience in Piura.
But what Nancy found there was a harsh reality, with fraud, bribes, and other corrupt practices already in place. “It was very hard at the beginning, the damage had to be fixed from zero. That’s why I understand why people are distrustful, even now, saying that I steal,” she says. “But you have to understand, they were very hard times.”
Nancy accepted the challenge, but first she had to clarify a few things. “I was clear about how things work. I have my own way of working, and if they wanted my help, they had to accept my conditions,” she says. “Obviously they accepted; they did not have many other options.”
With five years of hard work in office, she’s overseen many finished projects and the community continues to grow each year. “Five years ago, we hardly dreamed of the stairs or playground that we have now,” she says. Nancy’s charisma and commitment got the attention of not only her community, but the municipal government as well.
Justice for the people
“Community conciliation” is a program that trains residents in communities underserved by the justice system to become conflict mediators. Because of their poverty and isolation, people living in settlements like Laderas don’t always have access to the police or courts when they have a problem. As part of the new program, when a serious conflict arises, they can see a conciliador, a mediator who will facilitate a dialogue between them in order to come to some kind of agreement. This system had already been working in some provinces in the rural interior of Peru, and in 2009, the government decided to try it in the districts of Lima that were most in need.
When a representative of the Ministry of Justice and the Municipality of Villa Maria de Triunfo knocked on Nancy’s door and asked if she would like to be a part of the program, she didn’t have to think twice. “There are many people who don’t know their rights as citizens, and that’s why I couldn’t say no when they asked me to be a conciliadora,” Nancy says. “This place has to move forward and this was the best opportunity.”
It’s now been three years since Nancy started working as a conciliadora, overseeing 10 different communities with more than 19,000 residents. She saw 73 cases just in the past year. Though her office hours are on Saturday afternoons, she says, people come to see her at all hours. “It’s understandable, because problems come up when you least expect them,” she explains.
Her job is to help people reach an agreement, without having to go to court. “There are simple cases,” she says, “like the dog problems. A dog urinates in the neighbor’s house. The owners start throwing punches and end up in the police station.” But then there are more serious cases, everything from marital disputes, to land trafficking, burning garbage, robberies, and custody agreements.
Nancy explains that these things must be considered with a “cold head.” When conflicts go to court, they can become more burdensome for all the parties involved. So what happens when they can’t reach an agreement through mediation? “If they can’t resolve it in three sessions with me, it’s my duty to direct the case to the competent entity, whether it’s the police, or the ministry of justice,” she says.
The programs have helped reduce conflict between residents, and in particular, they’ve helped open up better lines of communication. Nancy describes one recent example of a man who was handicapped by an injury he had received while serving in the military, but who wasn’t receiving a government pension. Looking through his official papers, Nancy found some irregularities; dates had been changed and relevant information was missing. She passed the information on to a lawyer for the district, who is now following the case.
Because of the wide variety of cases that conciliadores like Nancy see, they receive continual training, attending weekly workshops taught by lawyers from different disciplines. Conciliation is also important because it provides an alternative to the violent means traditionally used in conflict situations. One resident of Nancy’s community still recalls proudly how in the absence of police or other authority, thieves would be burned alive as punishment. Nancy listens with disapproval. “It’s not right,” she says. “How can a dead man defend himself? Everyone, absolutely everyone, has the right to defend themselves.”
She thinks that some of the problem of violence in the communities could be avoided if there were more conciliadores in these neighborhoods where the police have no access and never arrive in time. In a community where people don’t trust the authorities, they might trust conciliadores, their neighbors, who are familiar with their way of life, but also trained to make difficult decisions.
“This is true justice,” Nancy says. “Civilized justice, not savage justice. A justice close to the people. “