Youth homicides: Latin America’s public health problem

RIO DE JANEIRO – Fabricio Mendes remembers a time when just walking around his neighborhood was a matter of life or death. Drug traffickers roamed freely and guns were plentiful.

That was before Alemao, a gritty community of narrow winding streets lined with haphazard houses, was “pacified.” In late November 2009, the government announced that police would move into Alemao, one of Rio’s most notorious “favelas,” as Brazil’s low-income neighborhoods are known.

They swept through Alemao, seizing drugs and weapons, opened a police station, launched foot patrols, and began offering public services, such as mail delivery, that Alemao had lacked. Mendes says he and his neighbors can now walk around the neighborhood without worrying about getting caught in the crossfire of turf battles between drug lords.

The Rio de Janeiro government is gradually trying to expand that effort to other favelas. While some residents worry that the effort is aimed more at cleaning up the city’s image before the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics than creating long-term change, other observers hope it will help lower a depressing statistic: the homicide death rate among young Brazilians, which has doubled since the late 1990s.

Throughout the region, so many young people – especially young men – are victims of homicides that it is considered a public health problem. The youth homicide rate in Latin America is double or triple the rate in all other parts of the world except Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

“It’s a huge problem in Central America,” Richard Jones of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ aid and development agency, told Catholic News Service.

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which suffer gang violence, are seeing an increasing impact from drug trafficking, said Jones, CRS deputy regional director for global solidarity and justice.

In El Salvador, where Jones lives, the homicide level in the 15-25 age group is 90 per 100,000 young people – well above the rate of 70 per 100,000 in the general population, and nearly five times the rate of 20 that the WHO considers an “epidemic.” In Brazil, the youth homicide rate rose from 41.7 per 100,000 in 1996 to 52.9 in 2008, according to a new “violence map” published by the Sangari Institute and the Brazilian Justice Ministry.

In comparison, the rate in the United States is 9 per 100,000 – which is still higher than the rate in other developed countries, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure can be misleading, however, because the rate of 58 per 100,000 among non-Hispanic blacks is closer to the level in other parts of the Americas.

Besides the tragedy of young lives cut short and the economic cost of violence-related death and injury, homicide takes a heavy toll on families and communities.

Andres Marroquin experienced this in his native Guatemala, where he regularly saw police and ambulances retrieving bodies along public thoroughfares.

“I have friends who have been murdered,” said Marroquin, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin in Superior. “It’s a problem that affects us directly.”

The result, he said, is “paranoia – you’re afraid to go out of the house.”

His concern about the problem led him to study factors contributing to violence in countries around the world. In a statistical analysis, he and co-author Julio Cole found that some of the factors often blamed for rising violence – poverty, increasing urbanization, even income inequality – were not significant.

Worldwide, the most violent countries had more ethnic and linguistic diversity, lower educational levels and weak rule of law. The highest rates were in Latin America, he said.

Homicide rates in Latin America could be affected by the availability of guns, especially after the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, the long-running conflict in Colombia and Peru’s insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s. But efforts to calculate the impact of factors such as guns and drug trafficking are stymied by a lack of data, Marroquin said.

In his 2009 study of worldwide homicide rates, “the strongest variable is governance,” particularly the effectiveness of the judicial system, Marroquin told CNS. The implication for policy makers is that scarce resources might best be used to reduce corruption and increase effectiveness in a country’s legal system, he said.

Marroquin stressed that his study looked at worldwide factors in violence and that there is probably variation from region to region, between countries and even within countries. In Guatemala, for example, he has found that homicide rates in eastern Guatemala are three times those of the West. He suspects that could be due to drug trafficking routes, but lacks the data for detailed analysis.

“We know that drug trafficking affects” homicide rates, “but we don’t know how much,” he said.

In Mexico, where there have been high-profile killings of groups of young people, and even some children, many observers blame the high murder rate on organized crime associated with drug trafficking.

Bishops’ conferences in the region have spoken out about those problems. In a pastoral letter issued in 2010, Mexico’s bishops wrote: “Youth violence is not new, but it is becoming more acute. Drug addiction and gang-related crime are symptoms of the depth of the problem, which is the result, among other things, of the heavy dose of violence and aggressiveness which young people receive every day through the media,” which is not offset by education in ethical values.

“This is compounded by the lack of opportunities for employment and personal growth,” they wrote.

In Rio’s favelas, psychologists say, kids seek to emulate drug traffickers, who have money and flashy cars. They begin by running errands and gradually become dealers. Central America’s youth gangs are not necessarily tied to the drug trade, but they also recruit children as couriers, and the kids eventually get caught up in gang life.

“They seek out the most vulnerable kids,” such as those from single-parent families who have little supervision at home, Jones said. “You are somebody because you are a gang member. Then it becomes your family, and that’s why you stay. We’re (seeing) second-generation and potentially third-generation gang members.”

For prevention, “you need to get to the adolescents before they get involved” in gangs, he said, but it is also important to work directly with gang members and their families.

That kind of work is more difficult, but because church ministers are trusted and parishes are viewed as safe places, they could play a larger role in addressing youth violence and helping people grieve losses and deal with trauma, Jones said. Government efforts are also important. One local government in El Salvador cut the homicide rate in half by making it illegal to carry a gun in a public place, he said.

Keeping kids in school, making sure schools are safe and alternatives to incarceration for first-time offenders, so they do not go to detention centers where they must join a gang for protection, are also crucial.

“You have to have (everyone) involved pushing in the same direction,” Jones said.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.