PAHO TODAY   The Newsletter of the Pan American Health Organization

Gang Violence Requires a Preventive Approach

 Gang Member
A Honduran man sports tattoos identified with gang membership. Police in Honduras and neighboring El Salvador have captured hundreds of gang members in recent years, but gang violence continues. Experts argue for increased measures aimed at prevention. Photo © Daniel LeClair

Youth violence is a grave and growing problem in the Americas, but the response must be multifaceted and based on more than simple repression, presenters said at an international meeting on violence prevention at Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) headquarters in February.

"Gangs have arisen as a response to the social and economic situation of young people in the region," said Lainie Reisman, of the Inter-American Coalition for the Prevention of Violence (IACPV). "Prevention and rehabilitation programs must be designed with these realities in mind."

The conference, titled "Voices from the Field: Local Initiatives and New Research on Youth Gang Violence in Central America," was organized by PAHO, IACPV, the Due Process of Law Foundation, and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Alberto Concha-Eastman, PAHO's top expert on violence, emphasized that youth violence is a form of social conflict and must be addressed accordingly. What is urgently needed, he said, are social and development projects that provide educational and job opportunities for youths.

Participants pointed out that the chief causes of violence are family problems, economic difficulties and social exclusion. These root causes must be addressed in any efforts to reduce violence.

"One of the main sources of youth violence is lack of employment," said Ernesto Bardales, director of the Honduran nongovernmental organization Young Hondurans, Advancing Together (JHA-JA). Others emphasized the need to carry out educational reforms.

The conference focused primarily on Central America, which has been particularly hard hit by violence from gangs known as maras. WOLA representatives said gangs were a serious threat to public safety in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, as well as in southeastern Mexico and several areas of the United States. Gangs commonly carry out robberies, assaults and murders, leading to a pervasive sense of public insecurity. Some are also involved in drug and arms trafficking.

Eduardo Linares, of Homies Unidos, an organization of ex-gang members from El Salvador that tries to rescue current gang members, said, "These young people have neither jobs nor educational opportunities, and the only chance they have is to come to the United States."

The problem of Hispanic gangs has been growing in the United States in recent years. The Bush administration is currently developing an action plan for an anti-gang-violence initiative that will be spearheaded by First Lady Laura Bush. It focuses on increasing young people's opportunities for education, jobs and rehabilitation.

A number of participants emphasized the limits of law enforcement in suppressing gang violence. Anti-violence measures "must be developed with complete respect for human rights norms," warned Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, rapporteur on children's rights for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. "The abusive and sometimes arbitrary detention of hundreds of presumed gang members...can serve to increase the level of potential violence of each group."

He called on the Central American media to reduce the "disproportionate" amount of coverage they focus on gang violence, saying this tends to exacerbate the situation by raising the profile of gangs and strengthening their ties and their "symbolic self-image."

Other participants stressed the need to work with parents and teachers to strengthen social cohesion. Concha-Eastman welcomed the participation of representatives of the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. He said that lending institutions should raise awareness of violence as a social phenomenon that requires a response in the area of economic policy as well.

The meeting ended with an agreement to hold similar forums in Central America to raise awareness of the need for preventive, rather than just repressive, approaches to violence.

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