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What we know and what we don't know about youth gangs in Latin America

27 Sep 2018
What we know and what we don't know about youth gangs in Latin America

By Cirenia Chávez

*This blog post has been translated into Spanish: Lo que sabemos y lo que no sabemos sobre las pandillas juveniles en América Latina Gang violence in Latin America has become one of the central security concerns in some countries of the region, including the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America and more recently, Mexico. Gang members tend to join these identity-shaping groups during early adolescence, which has contributed to the continued stigmatization of this population group. Indeed, adolescence is a period of growth, of change, and of risk-taking (not necessarily always negative) — a fork in the road where choices can determine futures. Assumptions about youth gangs in Latin America are flawed. By discussing what we actually know, touching on involvement of gangs in violent crime, existing work and data gaps, and education, we can move towards addressing existing issues.

To what extent can gangs be blamed for violent crime?

This is still unclear. Media hype over gangs, referred to as pandillas in Mexico and maras in Central America, has given the impression that gang members are responsible for a large share of violent crime in some countries of the region. In Honduras — largely believed to be the country with the highest rate of gang membership in Central America, although estimates are not accurate  — former security minister Oscar Alvarez blamed the maras for a large share of crime in the country, yet the Honduran police have failed to release statistics to back up this claim. According to available data, less than 5% of all crime in Honduras is committed by people under 18 years of age, and it is this adolescent group that generally comprises a large share of mara membership. In the case of El Salvador, where gangs are considered to be one of the main problems facing the country according to its citizens, no precise figures exist to document the actual number of gang members in the country or their contribution to violent crime.

Not all gangs created equal

In fieldwork with adolescents and young men in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, once considered the epicentre of organised crime throughout the 'war on drugs' declared in Mexico in 2006, I found that having spent time with a gang throughout their childhood and adolescence increased the probability of participating in organised criminal activity related to the drug trade; but I also found that participation in serious criminality was conditional on other factors, including the type of gang that was joined, the type of activities the gang was involved in, with participants joining at an older age more at risk of engaging in serious criminality. In other words, associating in a gang was not necessarily nor forcibly conducive to participating in serious criminal activity.
No hay nadie que no pase por las esquinas
Extreme violence has historically been avoided in Mexican gangs, and it is only until recently that the social dynamics of gangs in Mexico have left behind their traditional logic and some have been associated to high impact and organised criminality, although the extent of their cooperation is not well understood or documented. As a local young man I interviewed made clear, being part of a pandilla, or a gang, is part of the culture amongst impoverished and disenfranchised youth in Ciudad Juarez. As he succinctly told me: 'No hay nadie que no pase por las esquinas'. In other words, no one manages to avoid the street corners - the traditional birth place of the gang.