COMPASS Peacebuilders: Trying to End Hartford’s Wars

Connecticut Magazine’s August 2017 Issue

By: Michael Lee-Murphy

How do wars end? The common wisdom is that there are two distinct ways. The first is a complete victory of one side over the other. The second (and far more common) result is a negotiated settlement, in which combatants and victims are brought to the table, their input incorporated into the coming peace. The lessons from civil wars and ethnic conflicts in other parts of the world are clear: you have to talk to the people who fought. It is only those who fought the war who can build the peace.

The drug war — like any war — has its prisoners, its survivors, and its veterans. In Hartford, it has its own peace process.

In a community center on Martin Street in the North End of Hartford, the youth anti-violence group Compass Peacebuilders is gathered for a Saturday barbecue. The unexpected appearance of an unknown face, with a notebook and camera in hand, has created some unease among the young people on the block, but Diego Lopez has smoothed it out. He can do that because he has earned a certain credibility.

Lopez is a former Latin King and is now one of 11 youth development advisers (YDAs) with the Peacebuilders and the team leader for the South End, after doing some 16 years in prison. The male YDAs are mostly veterans of the Hartford gang wars of the 1990s between Los Solidos, Latin Kings and other gangs, when the city’s homicide rate was twice what it is now. Most of them have done lengthy bids in prison. The women have often lost sons and partners to the same violence.

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