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Youth violence and organized crime: A research agenda

Markus Gottsbacher


Photo: Ryan Anderson, Interpeace
The actual or perceived lack of a future makes the search for social identities a priority for many youth.

The Caribbean, Central America and Mexico have been suffering increasing levels of insecurity, reaching worrisome peaks and seemingly still climbing. Part of this insecurity is caused by youth violence, which appears to be increasingly tied to organized crime. But more research is needed to develop comprehensive and long-term policy recommendations to address this situation.

In Central America and Mexico, public opinion polls show that security is regularly a top-ranking issue on the list of problems perceived at the national level. Much the same is true for Caribbean countries such as Haiti and Jamaica, where crime rates are of great concern for society. These regions are increasingly used as a hub by organized crime. 

Youth are at particular risk of becoming victims but also perpetrators of violence, especially in urban and suburban contexts. But the relationship among youth violence, public insecurity and organized crime is complex and research has to be further developed. More insight on these links and on prevention and mitigation strategies will be necessary to formulate policy recommendations for more sustainable approaches to this issue.

In Central America notably, youth has been used as a scapegoat for all tendencies of violence. The youth gangs called maras and other youth groups have been declared guilty for a vast variety of violent crimes by politicians and media, leading to politics of mano dura (tough hand). Such policies, which are currently under review in some of the countries, focus almost exclusively on law enforcement measures, entailing tougher sentences and overcrowded detention centres. Gross human right violations —extrajudicial executions and disappearances of youth are common in Central America— are followed by a criminalization of youth as a general tendency. Prevention of violence and integration of former members of youth gangs are rather weak and unsystematic.

These trends can be observed not only in the context of post-conflict societies, such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, but also in neighbouring countries and in some Caribbean countries. They are set against a background of scarce public resources and a lack of long-term policies to attend to social problems, and to create opportunities of development for youth. Structural violence, in the form of social exclusion, economic marginalization and lack of political participation is a reality, as is the disintegration of families due to factors such as migration or increasing levels of alcohol and illicit drug use. The recent increase in rates of deportations of illegal migrants from the U.S. to their lands of origin presents additional challenges.

The actual or perceived lack of a future makes the search for social identities a priority for many youth. Youth gangs often meet basic functions of social recognition and protection, which are denied and neglected by society. There are many such forms of youth culture, the vast majority being non-violent. However, there are also clear signs that violence inflicted by organized youth gangs is on the rise, some of it extremely brutal.

A second major trend in the region is the growing challenge posed by organized crime and its most violent expressions. The reasons and patterns for rising levels of public insecurity vary from country to country but there is no doubt that organized crime has a big share in these tendencies. Illicit activities such as drug and related human trafficking and assets laundering have reached alarming levels. As a result, armed violence is most alarmingly penetrating society. Organized crime often makes use of youth, their cultures and organizations, to carry out activities such as trafficking in drugs and human beings, extortion and kidnapping.

However, while some see a clear link to organized crime, and sometimes even portray youth gangs as terrorist groups, others would argue that such links are marginal and that organized youth networks have more of a cultural, identity-related nature and are generally non-violent. Correspondingly, the former group tends to advocate for policies to counter youth violence, while the latter argues that such policies are counterproductive and that the phenomenon is a symptom of other root causes. 

Although there appears to be more evidence to defend the second point of view, there also seems to be a strong tendency of increasing use of youth by transnational organized crime, especially for drug trafficking. Specific in-depth studies are few and much remains unknown. There is also a need to explore how the links between youth violence and organized crime could undermine the democratic governance of the countries in the region, and lead to more violent political mobilization and conflict. 

The relationship between gender violence and youth gangs, and its links to organized crime, should also be of special interest to researchers. Femicide is extremely high in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Especially cruel cases of violence against women involving maras have been reported, but more information is needed to link these atrocities to youth gangs. Trafficking in women and children is also of growing concern throughout Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. 

It is important to compare experiences across the region in tackling youth violence linked to organized crime. What is the role of community resilience and local economic development against these forms of violence? How can we better make use of cultural approaches to prevent youth violence? How can we strengthen youth as social and political actors? How can we improve policing, social policies and the justice system, and alternative measures for youth in conflict with the law? 

There is an acute need for comprehensive and long-term policy recommendations to address youth violence; this guidance should be context-specific, harness the knowledge of various actors and encourage the participation of the private sector and civil society. The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) together with its local partner institutions, the Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Penal Studies (ICCPG), Interpeace in Central America, the Interchurch Organization for Development Co-operation (ICCO) in Guatemala, Colegio de México and the University of the West Indies in the Caribbean, are currently developing several research projects to contribute to sound public policies on this subject in Central America, Haiti, Jamaica and Mexico. Several notable examples of policy uptake have already been achieved in Central America. Most recently on Aug. 12, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom launched a new national youth policy framework, including  substantive recommendations on youth violence prevention developed under IDRC partners’ project.These research initiatives will continue to provide much-needed policy advice for decision-makers at local, national and international levels, and will supply evidence based on promising practices of prevention and attention to this problem. blue square

Markus Gottsbacher is a Senior Program Officer of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

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