Youth and minors are responsible for a rising percentage of violent crimes in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. They are also increasingly victimized in places such as Honduras and Argentina. The trends are region wide and troubling on many levels.

In Colombia, children and adolescents below 18 years old represented 11 percent of all arrests made last year, with the 29,943 arrests reported by police in 2013 representing a 33 percent rise compared to 2010, reported El Tiempo. Nearly a third of the minors, 8,222, were arrested for stealing. However, youth crimes also included homicide and extortion. Cali headed the cities for youth murders, with 87 of 409 youths arrested facing homicide charges, while Medellin led in extortion, and Bogota in theft.

In Mexico, the Interior Ministry (SEGOB) recently reported that youth are now the population most likely to be both victims and perpetrators of violence, reported El Economista. In 2013, 33.5 percent of homicides were committed by people aged 25 or younger. Meanwhile, the rate of homicide victims below the age of 18 increased more than 70 percent between 2006 and 2010 — from 2.1 to 3.6 per 100,000 inhabitants.

A third case highlights a different side of the problem: youth exposure to violence. In San Pedro Sula, Honduras, some 3,000 girls between the ages of 12 and 17 work as child prostitutes; another 5,000 under the age of 18 sleep on the streets, according to a report by the Honduran Institute of Childhood and Family accessed by La Prensa. According to the report, 3 out of 10 of these children become members of the country’s violent street gangs, popularly known as “maras.”

According to Gema Santamaria, the senior advisor on the recent Latin American development report published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP – pdf), youth homicides are one of the best indicators of youth involvement in crime available, as it is those involved with drug gangs and other criminal groups who are most likely to be murder victims.

Young males lead the charge. Between 1996 and 2009, around 20 percent of all murder victims in Latin America were males aged 20 to 24, while males aged 15 to 29 made up nearly half of all homicide victims, reported the UNDP. Young women and girls are usually victims of distinct forms of violence, particularly that which is associated with human trafficking and forced prostitution, or “femicide” — the targeted killing of a woman because of her gender.

Mexico’s war against criminal groups has led to a spike in homicides since 2007 among both females and males, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Males aged 20 to 24 have been some of the most affected, with the murder rate rising from around 20 per 100,000 to nearly 60 per 100,000 by 2009. Youth from 15 to 19 have also seen a sharp rise in murders, from around 10 per 100,000 to nearly 30 per 100,000 in the same time period.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

In Colombia, the youth homicide rate is among the five highest in the world, standing at 73.4 per 100,000 according to the UNDP. The country’s overall homicide rate is less than half of that, standing at slightly over 30 per 100,000 in 2012.

Youth homicide rates are also particularly high in El Salvador — 92.3 per 100,000 in 2011 — where the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gangs have a particularly strong presence. Last year, a representative of children’s rights body UNICEF said the majority of children and adolescents killed between 2005 and 2011 were gang members and had dropped out of school. As with criminal actors in Mexico and Colombia, the maras have been known to actively recruit children and, in some cases, force them to join.

Elsewhere in the region, other countries are starting to display similar tendencies, as organized crime gains a stronger foothold. In Argentina, 545 adolescents were murdered in 2011 — the highest number since 2003. Meanwhile, in Brazil the homicide rate for people aged 19 and younger rose 346 percent between 1980 and 2010. In both countries, these spikes have coincided with the evolution and spread of the local drug trade.

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Youth crime is far from a new phenomenon in Latin America where income disparities, urban shifts, and social exclusion have long led young people to commit what the UNDP refers to as “aspirational crimes.” These include theft and other crimes aimed at gaining money and status.

There are many factors that help contribute to youth involvement in crime and their susceptibility to violence in the region. Among the risk factors are social problems of the kind affecting the San Pedro Sula street children: coming from an impoverished background, with low literacy and little schooling; feeling socially excluded and bereft of opportunities. Over 30 percent of prisoners interviewed by the UNDP in Argentina, Peru, Mexico, El Salvador and Chile left their homes before the age of 15, and over 80 percent failed to complete high school.

However, these factors alone are not enough to explain youth involvement in crime, and particularly violent crime. Santamaria told InSight Crime that the involvement of youth in violent crime in the region is increasing, particularly in places where criminal organizations have a strong presence.

“The use of violence [in crime] is becoming more prevalent, and youth are particularly susceptible to being involved in these types of activities, particularly in the case of organized crime,” Santamaria told InSight Crime.

“The difference is the way in which organized crime manifests itself in these countries… in places like Mexico, organized crime has managed to escalate to an extent that it doesn’t only corrupt the system, but it also uses violence to compete with other criminal organizations, and that’s what makes youth more vulnerable,” said Santamaria.

Santamaria’s assessment may help explain why youth violence tends to be concentrated in certain countries and cities. Take the case of Cali, Colombia. As the Urabeños and Rastrojos criminal groups fought for power over the city, the two groups co-opted numerous teens into service. According to officials, the number of gangs in the city grew more than 10-fold between 1992 and 2012, with over 2,000 youth involved in Cali gangs by 2013

The phenomenon of child involvement in criminal organizations has long existed in Colombia. Criminal organizations and guerrillas like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) recruit by offering food, a livelihood and a uniform to children as young as nine who have little else in the way of opportunities. Both also engage in forced recruitment. 

SEE ALSO: FARC News and Profiles

In Mexico, minors have also long been used by criminal groups to traffic drugs, carry out surveillance operations, and work as assassins. They are considered cheap, expendable and plentiful labor, with so-called “ni-nis” (youths who neither work nor study) numbering as many as eight million in Mexico in 2012. They make ready foot soldiers for gangs and cartels, and as such are also frequent targets of violence, as SEGOB highlighted. While easy targets, children are not always willing recruits, with organized crime often resorting to coercion to push them into criminality.

Another benefit for criminal groups is that minors involved in violent crime often face much lighter sentences than their adult counterparts. They are also less likely to be suspected, and can thus pass undetected in places where others might not.

Though the phenomenon of youth crime is well-documented, governments have not yet figured out what to do about it. In some countries in the region there is debate over whether to stiffen penalties for youth who commit crimes. However, this strategy targets the symptom when the overarching problem is a lack of social, educational and economic opportunities coupled with the presence of organized criminal actors. What’s more, so-called “mano dura” (iron fist) or hard line policies against gang members, in which thousands of youth are rounded up based on physical appearance, have been shown to have a perverse effect on violence, turning prisons into breeding grounds for criminality, organized crime and street gangs.

In Mexico, strategies aimed at providing youth with skills and employment opportunities, through combined private and public sector efforts, have been shown to have some effect in reducing the attraction of gangs for youth.

However, as Santamaria explained to InSight Crime, strategies aimed at reducing youth crime will ultimately need to be differentiated to target the unique situation of each country, taking into account the makeup of organized crime and the principal social factors leading children to participate in criminality, in order for them to be effective.

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