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The Prevention of Youth Violence in Latin America: Lessons Learned and Future Challenges

Citizens throughout Latin America cited crime as the most important problem facing their countries. This has risen over the last decade.

Date & Time

Oct. 27, 2009
9:00am – 12:30pm ET

The Prevention of Youth Violence in Latin America: Lessons Learned and Future Challenges

In its 2008 survey of public opinion, the respected polling firm Latinobarómetro demonstrated the breadth of the problem. Asked about the most important issue facing their countries, citizens throughout Latin America cited crime (delincuencia) as the most important problem, followed by unemployment. Notably, the number of people citing crime as the most important problem has risen over the last decade. In countries such as Venezuela, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, and Argentina, more than twice as many citizens cited crime over unemployment as the most important issue facing their country. In 2007, fully sixty-three percent of Latin Americans reported feeling that their country was becoming less secure every day.

On October 27, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Latin American Program, in collaboration with Inter-American Coalition for the Prevention of Violence (IACPV), sponsored the meeting, "The Prevention of Youth Violence in Latin America: Lessons Learned and Future Challenges." Experts from throughout the region, including practitioners, researchers, and government officials, were asked to prepare short papers providing 1) a brief description of the problem of youth violence and its impact on overall insecurity in their country of expertise; 2) an overview of the policies, public institutions, and national and regional government projects to address the problem of youth violence; 3) experiences from civil society in the area of prevention of youth violence: successes and failures, achievements, challenges, and replicability; and 4) lessons learned and challenges for the state and civil society. These papers, along with executive summaries, can be found below.

The negative effect of violence in Guatemala and across Latin America has prompted a review of the country's national policies and programs aimed at reducing this harmful, sometimes deadly trend; a trend that has affected countless youth and forces adolescents into illicit black markets and precarious social situations. Marco Castillo of Guatemala's Grupo Ceiba, provided a critique of social programs aimed at reducing youth violence and drug abuse. Castillo's own organization, Grupo Ceiba employs a holistic approach, integrating projects that seek to reduce and eliminate the negative impact of violence by providing marginalized and affected youth with opportunities. Citing a disconnect between policy and practice, Castillo offered a blueprint for future policies aimed at reducing the deleterious effects of violence on youth, providing implementing government bodies with meaningful program objectives.

Fernando Martínez, an attorney with the Centro de Estudios en Seguridad Ciudadana in Chile, disagreed with the widely conceived notion that youth violence is something other than criminal activity. Rather, he argued, youth can be both victims and victimizers. Using quantitative data, Martinez demonstrated how an increasingly younger population is engaging in criminal and violent activity, and how these injustices have become progressively more egregious. The social ramifications of this trend have led to increased public support for stricter criminal laws, greater political and security leverage for lawmakers, and a lower incarceration age. As gangs and their ability to recruit youth increases, schools are facing higher desertion rates as well as increased availability and pervasiveness of illegal drugs.

According to Martínez, most violence between and against youth occurs in a school setting, and includes activities ranging from harassment and bullying to bringing guns to school. After painting a clear picture of the criminal and violent environment plaguing youth in Chile, the Martinez described a number of preventative programs being implemented by various public organizations as well as an analysis of the efficacy of alternative youth penal programs and school violence prevention programs.

Claudia Ocampo, coordinator for prevention strategy for Jóvenes Conviven por Colombia, a program run by the city of Bogotá, Colombia, presented a critical look at the diverse forms of violence, from narcotrafficing to paramilitary; the ubiquity of violence, both in urban and rural settings; and the impact of this violence on youth in Colombia. Citing various social, economic, and familial issues and catalysts that push youth into violent roles, Ocampo argued that the general concept of "youth violence" focuses too simplistically on the effects, when, in order to be effective, it must expand its focus to the causes. The burden of teenage parenthood, insufficient education, and the lack of access to basic government services are only a few of the causes cited by Ocampo contributing to the alienation of Colombian youth. These same issues are also integral to understanding the underlying reasons for the resulting violence.

Ocampo also examined the political policies aimed at curbing this tide, focusing on the programs initiated in the 1990's in Bogotá by the municipality and the Inter-American Bank. These projects, focused primarily on prevention and cohesion among peers, included initiatives emphasizing education and character building (life-skills) as well as greater youth unity through cultural festivals such as Rock en el Parque. Ocampo stressed the importance of defining parameters and goals for such programs with a realistic understanding of what can be done with the available resources. With sufficient resources and flexibility, Ocampo indicated that programs which are creative, diverse, support social networks, and that resonate and identity with youth will improve the public's perception of youth while providing necessary tools for the personal development of each adolescent.

Rebeca Pérez, area coordinator for youth and violence for Río de Janeiro, Brazil based Viva Río, discussed urban violence and its effect on Brazil's and more generally Latin America's largely urban youth population. This "new war" has reached "epidemic proportions," said Pérez, affecting issues such as youth unemployment, educational opportunities, social divisions, and early pregnancies. Pérez demonstrated how programs being initiated by the Brazilian government, most notably the Programa Nacional de Seguridad Pública con Ciudadanía (PRONASCI), are focusing on the social vulnerability faced by most young Brazilians. These programs seek to reduce violence in the interests of public safety, signifying a departure from the long held understanding of violence as a multi-causal phenomenon. Citing data for gun-related mortalities in 2005, Pérez demonstrated disproportionately high levels of deaths among youth, ages 15 – 24, in six different states compared to all other age cohorts of the population. Distancing itself from the public assistance programs of the 1980's, PRONASCI focuses on preventative social programs aimed at the root causes of conflict. Perez emphasized the need for basic government services and infrastructure in poor neighborhoods, the importance of basic education and social groups for youth, and the guarantee of human rights.

Alfredo Santillán, a professor and coordinator of the Municipal Studies Program at FLACSO-Ecuador, challenged the idea that Ecuador is an "island of peace." Citing a steady increase in crime rates since 1980, Santillán painted a picture of an ever worsening situation, now facing increasing ethnic polarization. The precariousness of the situation, he explained, has solicited public cries for an immediate response.

Throughout Ecuador, Santillán explained, homicide victims and assailants are primarily men between the ages of 15 and 40, with youth violence tied more and more to gang activity. Though there have been some successes with curbing youth and gang violence through innovative gang treatment programs in Guayaquil and Quito, Santillán criticized the approach taken by Ecuador's national and state governments as archaic, in large part because they fail to incorporate policies for prevention. Indeed, Ecuador's inability to deviate from past, principally mano dura, policies is perpetuating a system in which prevention and repression are indistinguishable. The short term objectives of the policies, continued Santillán, inherently inhibit long term reform, and, as a result of their ephemeral nature, are not able to be fully implemented on the national level. Santillán concluded that in order for policies to be effective, tangible results in crime reduction are necessary to raise public confidence and support for such programs. Moreover, both the costs and benefits of these programs must be distributed more equitably in order to generate the sense of public ownership necessary for prevention policies to be effective.

Verónica Zubillaga, a professor at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB) and adjunct scholar at the Laboratorio de Ciencias Sociales (LACSO) in Caracas, Venezuela, examined a series of alternative youth violence prevention methods, including pacification and youth character building vis-à-vis music, religion, and sports. Violence in Venezuela, as described by Zubillaga, is both urban and social, in that most homicides occur in cities where increased risks and economic differences are exacerbated by stark social inequality. Characterizing the situation in Venezuela as a state of "non-war" armed conflict, Zubillaga explained that the state's inability to control the violence is forcing private citizens, adults and youth alike, to find ways to protect themselves. As citizens sense the erosion of their social and economic rights, more individuals are taking steps to protect their investments and personal lives through private security firms and self-armament.

Zubillaga provided an analysis of two major projects which use social networking, as well as educational and economic opportunities to reach out to vulnerable youth. Although the projects have produced some positive results, particularly through the educational approach, Zubillaga argued that national policies, including the Ley Nacional de Juventud have been largely unsuccessful. Such policies, Zubillaga continued, do not conform to the actual environment in which most Venezuelan youth live, lack any type of preventative measures and policies, and simply fail to support the development of future policies aimed at preventing youth violence. She concluded that in order for the Venezuelan government to reduce youth violence, politicians must recognize the relationship between poverty and violence, and develop national policies that attack the underlying social and economic inequalities perpetuating the conflict.

Jeannette Aguilar, director of the University Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP) at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University in El Salvador, provided a critical analysis of civil society organizations in El Salvador. She reported that El Salvador has become one of the most violent nations in Latin America with a homicide rate of more than 50 per 100,000 inhabitants. More than 60 percent of these homicides are youth and are largely attributable to gang violence. In 2003, Aguilar explained, the Salvadoran government "declared war" on the country's gangs, strengthening penal laws with programs including, Mano Dura and Super Mano Dura, detaining, arresting, and prosecuting individuals even on the mere suspicion of gang involvement. Civil society has responded, she continued, by filling the gap left by the government's lack of attention to the link between youth, gangs, and the need for youth-group association. Government actions focused on violence prevention have been intermittent and uncoordinated with limited scope and beneficiaries; these programs have failed to gain the confidence of the country's youth. Furthermore, Agulilar stated the government's Mano Dura policies have hindered the efforts of civil society by enforcing penal actions through an inter-organization youth identification program, discouraging youth from availing themselves of these programs.

Aguilar believes that the positive methodologies being implemented by civil society in El Salvador can be replicated more broadly, but only if they are able to overcome certain obstacles. Aside from the common problems of funding and sustainability, civil society has struggled with communication, not only with the government and the police, but amongst themselves and with similar organizations working regionally and internationally. Moreover, these programs have traditionally portrayed youth as helpless beneficiaries; however it is becoming increasingly clear that youth must be engaged as contributors, as much to garner public support as to improve the development and progress of the youth. These programs, rather than transforming the nature of gangs in El Salvador, have found their strength in their ability to transform themselves to best meet the needs of youth gang members in the country, mitigating many of the negative effects of the gangs. Moving forward, Aguilar continues, these programs will need to continue to professionalize, increase their scope, capacity, methodology, and accountability. Successful cooperation between civil society and the government, including government participation and leadership in programs, is essential for the success and sustainability of this work.

Adriana Beltrán, an associate for organized crime and police reform for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), discussed initiatives for the prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation of youth gang members in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Washington, D.C. Youth gang violence, she stated, is a pressing issue, both in the United States and in Central America with many common elements between the various cases which must be shared and learned from. Simply put, government mano dura policies throughout the region have underscored that both civil society and local governments must develop and promote more comprehensive programs coupled with modern, smart policing tactics. Washington, D.C. has seen rapid influx of Latin American immigrants in recent years, and in Beltran's opinion, fortunately programs have come about that have been successful in coordinating activities and providing opportunities and support to this burgeoning community. The Community Mobilization Initiative (CMI) established by World Vision, continued Beltran, is a good example of government taking an effective role in resolving these issues. With help from local government leaders, this initiative arranges informal discussions between youth and former gang members, church leaders, and others; assists parents in confronting the realities of the situation; provides one on one tutoring; helps youth express themselves through music; and providing personal counselors to help youth who wish to leave gangs.

Moving from Washington, D.C. to Central America, Beltran focused her presentation on Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Paz y Justicia, affiliated with the Mennonite Church, conducts activities in Choloma, La Ceiba, and Tocoa, Honduras, and focuses on strengthening families, schools, and communities by providing services such as individual street accompaniment, counseling for youth and former gang members, sex education, training in violence prevention and conflict resolution for students and teachers. In Soyapango, El Salvador, with funding from the Catholic Church of England, Equipo Nahual provides street level outreach to youth gang members. The group, whose name is a reference to Mesoamerican folklore and means an individual who has magical powers, particularly the ability to turn him or herself into an animal, provides active gang members with athletic tournaments, skills-based and vocational workshops, informal talks on social topics, and group and individual therapy. Equipo Nahual engages in discussions with community groups over community concerns, cooperates extensively with the local Catholic and Episcopal churches and hosts community forums with police, local government, community task forces, and partner organizations. Finally, Guatemala's Grupo Ceiba, funded by international and multilateral agreements, as well as private foundations and extremely limited support from the Guatemalan government, has had success primarily by hiring program graduates as program staff. The programs profiled by Ms. Beltran all strongly emphasize the belief that youth can be productive and successful contributors to their communities. Beltran concluded that most successful programs are community based with local leadership, involving local municipalities and actors, and receive both support and funding from local government.

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