The word of the day in Central America is prevención. A wide range of actors in the region—particularly in the “Northern Triangle” (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)— design and implement strategies and programs that focus on the prevention of crime, mainly aimed at youth.
The premise behind prevention is that rising criminal activity and violence linked to the drug trade is creating conditions for young people to be attracted to the flashy—but dangerous—world of drug trafficking.
The fast money and flashy lifestyles of drug traffickers glorified in the popular telenovelas are luring young people to become pawns in the bloody turf wars of organized crime and drug cartels. The economic downturn that hit the region, with its related high levels of unemployment and underemployment, has also pushed young people into a life of crime and drug consumption.
In Guatemala, its youth face a difficult situation. There are several risk factors on the road to their development. Generally, Guatemalans take pride in claiming that this is a “young country.” With a population of almost 15 million people, 2 out of 3 Guatemalans are 24 years old or less.
But these figures also represent an immense challenge for this Central American nation, particularly within the context of low rates of economic growth and traditionally low quality in health and education. The country’s inability to generate enough opportunities to absorb thousands of young people entering the labor market annually plus historical institutional weaknesses in justice and security paint a complicated scenario. In addition, Mexico and the isthmus have become both, the main transit route for narcotics heading North, and the main theater of operations for the bloody turf wars over control of the drug trade.
These factors have made the “Northern Triangle” one of the deadliest regions in the world. In Guatemala, the vast majority of victims are younger than 25 years of age. Similarly, 89% of aggressors are aged between 18 and 35 years.
The fact that youth are the main protagonists in the daily violence, both as victims and perpetrators, has led some researchers to refer to this phenomenon as the “criminalization of youth.”
To that end, the Guatemalan government has begun an unprecedented consultation process in order to enact a public policy on youth crime and violence prevention. This exercise in citizen participation seems promising. And, the government’s commitment on prevention is being matched by the donor community in Guatemala. International cooperation in this country also views prevention as a big part in the solution in the fight against public insecurity.
As Vinicio Gamarro, a sixth grade teacher in the village of Naxombal, asserted, young people need “to do good things so they won’t think about violence.”
Vetha Quej, a 20 year-old concurs with Gamarro. At a meeting of community leaders, civil society organizations, youth, and international donors working on violence prevention among youth at the local level, Vetha said that young people like her need “work instead of violence.”
To address these needs, USAID helps provide Guatemalan youth with productive options to turn away from gangs and other criminal organizations. Programs focus on youth employability, technical training for at-risk youth, internship programs, and a range of activities that teach young men and women values and life skill through sports and arts. It is precisely this type of pursuits that will give youth hope for a better future.