Central American Youth in Danger

By Dialogo
April 01, 2011

The Northern Triangle of Central America — composed of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — has the highest murder rate of any region in the world, according to the U.N. office on Drugs and Crime. Many of the victims are children and adolescents. “We are burying kids all the time,” said José Manuel Capellín, the head of Casa Alianza, a children’s charity in Honduras, in a November 2010 article in the United Kingdom newspaper The Guardian.
Central American youth trying to escape family and socio-economic issues are willingly or forcefully recruited into gangs, where they become victims of drug-related violence, explained Rubén Rivas Pereda, child protection officer with UNICEF Guatemala, during an interview with Diálogo. “ You do this errand for me, or I kill your family,’ and here the murder threats are fulfilled,” said Rivas. A high percentage of minors who die violent deaths are those who have been forced by organized crime to commit illegal acts, according to the 2009 annual report of Guatemala’s Human Rights office. “It is the issue of Central America,” said Dora Alicia Muñoz Aguilar, protection consultant for UNICEF Guatemala, during a Diálogo interview.

Illegal drugs flow through Central America from South America and elsewhere to Mexico and the United States. Weapons flow south from the U.S. and north from the Andean region, ultimately circulating within Central America, adding to the violence. “The issue is that part of those drugs stay, part of those weapons stay, and then the issue of violence stays,” said Muñoz Aguilar. In El Salvador, the national homicide rate is high — 50 per 100,000 inhabitants — with more than 60 percent of youth deaths attributed to gang violence, said Jeannette Aguilar, director of the University Public opinion Institute, or IUDoP, at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University in El Salvador, citing figures from El Salvador’s Legal Institute of Medicine. In Guatemala, UNICEF data indicates that more than 300 minors died violent deaths in the first six months of 2010.
The presence of gangs in Guatemala is a serious challenge, according to Luis Fleischman, senior advisor for the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the nonprofit organization Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., in an article for www.offnews.info. Fleischman noted that gangs carry out the majority of extortion cases, kidnappings and assassinations as well as traffic in undocumented immigrants and drugs across the borders, with a focus on narcotics distribution. As drug transit continues, the presence of transnational organized crime entities also increases. The corresponding violence from illicit activities is causing the rise of youth homicides, according to Aguilar, IUDOP director. Aguilar echoes the fact that the gangs traffic drugs at the micro level — within neighborhoods — and youth deaths can be attributed to narcotraffickers’ personnel losses or settling scores, since they use these adolescents as cheap labor force. The problem of high youth death rates in the Northern Triangle of Central America is presently the focus of a number of government and non-governmental organization initiatives that address the gang problem from the law enforcement and social development angle.

SOURCES: Smithsonian Magazine, The guardian, Center for Security Policy, Inter Press Service, The Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences-Guatemala, U.S. Department of State

Prevention Programs
El salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have taken country-specific actions to offset the social dynamics that lead Central american youth to gangs. Each has implemented laws and programs for the prevention of gangs and the reintegration of gang members into society. They also have specialized training for police and judicial personnel.

El Salvador

Law Prohibiting Gangs, Association and Organizations of a Criminal Nature: Forbids the existence, legalization, financial support of the gangs or groups involved in criminal activities.
Juvenile Justice Law: Regulates the rights of minors who might have taken part in criminal activity; determines the severity of measures applied to minors involved in criminal activities.


Open Schools Program: Public schools are open over the weekend and provide workshops in art, theater, crafts and computer skills to provide children and adolescents with positive recreational outlets. This program was originated in Brazil.
Safe Schools Program: Increased police and security cameras around school zones. This program was initiated in Mexico.
Law to Prevent Juvenile Violence: A legal framework to promote a Program for the Prevention of Youth Violence that establishes educational, recreational, social and mental health models.


Education to Resist and Avoid the Maras: A gang prevention program for fifth- and sixth- graders.
Challenge: Gang prevention program for teenagers that explores themes related to drugs, sexuality and other influences.
Awake: A program specifically designed for parents to provide gang prevention information.
Basic Knowledge of the Maras: A course for judges, prosecutors and police to understand the basics of gang dynamics.

SOURCES: El Salvador’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security, Organization of American States, Honduras’ Ministry of Security, Government of Guatemala