What do violent street gangs in the United States and Central America and extremist groups in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa have in common?
The answer to that question — which violence prevention researchers and practitioners are increasingly concerned with — could be the key to solving some of the world’s most intractable problems.
So far, group identity has been found to be a major factor in kids making the “irrational deliberative decision” to join a gang.
From the inner city streets of L.A. or Baltimore, to the rough barrios of Tegucigalpa or Guatemala City, to the violent post-revolutionary urban districts in Tunis, youth are getting involved in gangs or extremist groups in the pursuit of one simple thing: belonging.
A young Arab who once considered joining ISIS told USAID staff in Tunisia, “I just wanted to be part of something.”
The same feeling has been articulated by hundreds of disaffected youth in American urban ghettos, as well as in marginalized neighborhoods of Central America.
This was one of the themes addressed by experts at the USAID-sponsored L.A. Gang Violence Prevention and Intervention Conference, held in Los Angeles earlier this month.
At the conference, Robert Örel, a former neo Nazi, shared a similar yearning for joining the white supremacist group as a teenager in Sweden. “It was about forming an identity,” he said.
“The group helped me channel my anger and disappointment,” he added.
Fabian Debora, a former gang member in California, told the audience about the physical abuse he and his mother endured at the hands of a relative. As a teen, Debora said, the abuse made him feel angry, and so he wanted to take it out on everyone else.
This situation is forcing governments and civil society organizations around the globe to double down on prevention and counter-recruiting efforts. USAID supports such efforts in different corners of the world, including Mexico, Central America and North Africa.
For those of us who attended the Gang Conference from across the United States, Mexico and Central America, the personal testimonies of panelists—like Örel and Debora—sounded all too familiar.
The feelings of disconnect and hopelessness that motivate youth to join violent and extremist groups echo what I’ve heard repeatedly from at-risk youth in Guatemala on their reasons for pursuing lives of violence.
Similarly, Michele Piercey from Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI) — who led countering violent extremism programs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Tunisia — shared with us innovative strategies used in Tunisia to foster a sense of belonging in at-risk youth. The goal is to counter the despair many Arab youth experienced in the wake of the Arab Spring.
She showed us pictures and videos of youth who learned to express their feelings through art and music, such as rap and hip hop. USAID is pursuing similar strategies here in Guatemala.
Honduran Police Sub Commissioner Cesar Mendoza advocated at the conference for policymakers to invest more in prevention than in “reactive and repressive approaches.”
Yet, others emphasized the importance of family in reducing the risks for youth to engage in violent behavior, whether it is in street gangs or extremist groups.
Richard Ramos of the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership, hit the right tone when he said “you cannot replace parents with programs.” I agree.