Youth Violence in Central America - Lessons from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras

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The Northern Triangle of Central America is currently the most violent region in the world. Youth in particular are bearing the brunt of this violence, the level of which is comparable to or higher than in the armed conflict settings of Iraq, Somalia, or Sudan. Young men and women are most susceptible to armed violence, and those living in marginal areas are particularly at risk. As a result of such exposure, youth can become both perpetrators and victims of the hostile environment. The hopelessness brought about by unemployment and the general lack of opportunities causes young people to become alienated from mainstream society and to turn to gangs and illicit economies as alternative sources of stability, identity and livelihood. This gang culture has stigmatized young people, leaving them to be seen as an unsolvable problem within their host countries, and their contributions to society are often considered to be irrelevant. This stigmatization is all the more accentuated by the “iron fist” approach, known as mano dura, which has been the dominant response to gangs by the Guatemalan, Honduran and El Salvadorian authorities. Mano dura responses tend to be reactive, pay little attention to root causes of violence or crime, and focus on punishment rather than prevention and transformation. To this extent, they are also responsible for many human rights abuses that occur within these countries. This Brief focuses on the role of gangs and their diverse influences on youth, and the practical lessons of policies against youth gangs. Overall, the Brief underlines the need for a more holistic approach towards youth violence. It calls for a more systematic partnership between international, national, regional, local and municipal actors as a means of advancing coordinated policy and practice on this pressing issue for Central America and many other regions worldwide.


Dagan Rossini, Isabel Aguilar Umaña

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