Inter-American Development Bank
Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo (BID)
Departamento de Investigación
Working Paper #613
Social Exclusion and Violence Social Exclusion and Violence
in Latin America and the Caribbean in Latin America and the Caribbean
Inter-American Development BankInter-American Development Bank
Cataloging-in-Publication data provided by the
Inter-American Development Bank
Felipe Herrera Library
Social exclusion and violence in Latin America and the Caribbean / by Heather Berkman.
p. cm. (Research Department Working paper series ; 613)
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Marginality, Social—Latin America. 2. Violence—Latin America. 3. Youth and violence—
Latin America. I. Inter-American Development Bank. Research Dept. II. Title. III. Series.
HN110.5.Z9 B54 2007
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This paper examines how social exclusion contributes to violence in communities
throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Residents in socially excluded
communities cannot depend on those institutions designed to protect them, and
violence becomes an instrument to achieve certain outcomes, such as justice,
security, and economic gain. When conventional methods of obtaining and
working for increased social status, higher income, and wider influence are
limited, as they often are in marginalized areas, some feel compelled to resort to
violent acts. This paper discusses how social exclusion and violence interact in a
vicious circle that leaves the socially excluded in a very hostile social
environment where the borders between legal and illegal, legitimate and
illegitimate are often fuzzy and uncertain. In this environment violence is used by
a minority to acquire justice, security, authority and economic gain. The use of
violence by this minority, however, affect the lives of the majority of excluded
people that do not resort to violence. As youths are particularly vulnerable to this
issue, this paper also examines the relationship between violence and the plight of
Latin American youth gangs and street children.
1 This paper reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of the Inter-American Development Bank.
The author expresses gratitude to Gustavo Márquez Mosconi, Gustavo Beliz and Andrew Morrison for extremely
helpful guidance throughout the development of this paper, and to Sebastián Calónico for help with translations.
“This [violence and robbery] cannot be, we do not respect each other anymore.” 2
“There used to be clear rules: no one would steal in the shantytown. If and when they stole, they
would do it outside the shantytown. Now, they rob you in the shantytown and everywhere.”3
The past few decades in Latin America and the Caribbean have witnessed a series of economic,
social and political transitions that have changed the patterns of inclusion and exclusion.
Movements within the region, including migration from rural areas, related rapid urbanization,
institutional change, and the characteristics of modern sector growth reinforce the historical
reliance of many on informal mechanisms and transactions for survival. The judicial and law
enforcement systems have weakly adapted to new challenges and continue to leave large
segments of society without adequate access to justice and economic and physical security.
As Figure 1 shows, regional rates of homicide in some Latin American and Caribbean
countries reach levels typically only seen in areas ravaged by war. Yet such battles are taking
place within socially excluded communities in Latin America, fought not by soldiers and
guerillas, but by a minority that uses violence to fulfill their needs. Within such communities,
residents cannot depend on those institutions designed to protect them, and violence becomes an
instrument to achieve certain outcomes, such as justice, security, and economic gain through
means that disrupt the life of the community. Where justice is acquired through revenge, security
through violent assertion of authority, and economic gain through robbing, mugging, and
intimidation, the vast majority of law-abiding residents are left without options. In such
communities, people have come to recognize the person next door not as a neighbor, the
policeman not as a protector, the community leader not as a consensus-builder, but as a potential
threat. Many studies ranging from anthropological field work in the marginalized areas of
shantytowns, favelas, barrios and villas (Caldeira, 2000; Márquez, 1999; Goldstein 2003), to
advanced geo-spatial studies that record incidences of violence (Beato, 2002; Consejo de
Seguridad, 2006), report that homicide rates are much higher in these neighborhoods than in
middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. Violence is common not only on neighborhood streets,
but also in other areas where the working classes spend their everyday lives, including the
workplace or on public transportation (Caldeira, 2000).
2 Auyero (2000).
Social exclusion is a contributing factor to violent outcomes, regardless of whether
violence takes place in a developed Western European country or in a burgeoning Central
American state. Those who resort to violent acts most often lack access to legitimate economic
opportunities and the personal or social contacts required to obtain many of the services and
resources available to mainstream society. When conventional methods of obtaining and
working for increased social status, higher income, and wider influence are limited, as they often
are in marginalized areas, some feel compelled to resort to what the mainstream considers
illegitimate means, including violent acts (Reiss and Roth, 1993). Furthermore, the weaknesses
and failures on the part of judicial systems and security forces in much of Latin America has left
many in socially excluded communities in a complex situation. Either residents accept the lack
of justice and security and suffer at the mercy of those who step forward, or they take matters
into their own hands. Residents of socially excluded communities are well aware of the lack of
options available to them and the consequences of lacking the money to pay off corrupt police
and judges, the influence to avoid extortion, or the confidence to decline the invitation to join a
gang. For those with few or no prospects for economic advancement, profitable opportunities to
be gained through illicit and violent means serve as a deadly magnet. As state institutions fail to
provide security and justice, others—such as violent community leaders, gangs, or corrupt
police—may step in to mete out alternative forms of justice and revenge.
The issues of security, authority, justice, identity, and economics are tangible in the
violent acts used to secure them in socially excluded areas, beyond the influence of state
institutions and mainstream paradigms of conflict resolution. The consequences of such violence
are severe and further sap scarce resources from Latin American and Caribbean countries that
already face serious challenges in economic development and modernization of democratic
institutions. Violence eats away at the delicate social fabric that holds communities together
through difficult economic, social and political periods and shatters the trust, security, and
solidarity that take years to build. This paper aims to discuss how social exclusion and violence
interact in a vicious circle that leaves the socially excluded in a very hostile social environment
where the borders between legal and illegal, legitimate and illegitimate are often fuzzy and
uncertain. In this environment violence is used by a minority to acquire justice, security,
authority and economic gain. The use of violence by this minority, however, affects the lives of
3 Auyero (2000).
the majority of excluded people that do not resort to violence. For many reasons youth are
particularly vulnerable to this issue, as shown by the growing concern over violent youth gangs
throughout Central and South America and the relationship between violence and the plight of
Latin American street children.
The paper is organized as follows. Section 2 will discuss the relationship between social
exclusion and violence. Section 3 will discuss the role of violence within excluded segments of
the population and how it is used to achieve certain goals. Section 4 will continue by focusing on
youth violence and the recent surge of youth gangs in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the
final section shall conclude.
2. Violence Defined
Violence is generally described as “an intentional use of force or power with a predetermined
end by which one or more persons produce physical, mental (psychological), or sexual injury,
injure the freedom of movement, or cause the death of another person or persons (including him
or herself) (Concha-Eastman, 2002, taken from Rosenberg and Mercy, 1991). For the purposes
of relating violence to social exclusion, we shall focus on violence fueled by the need for power
and for economic opportunities. The importance of interpersonal and domestic violence should
also be noted, as such conflicts and experiences have indirect and direct external effects that
perpetuate violence throughout a community. As shown in Table 1, violence common in Latin
America and the Caribbean is most often perpetrated by family members, gangs, common
delinquents, assailants unknown to the victim, or familiar acquaintances. Other perpetrators may
include corrupt policemen and extrajudicial forces. Their victims—family members, street
children, acquaintances, the general population, rival gang members, or at higher levels,
government or civil society leaders—are victims of abuse, homicide, injuries, assaults, or
robberies (Concha-Eastman 2002).
A prodigious amount of research is available on violence, some of which has focused
specifically on Latin America.4 Those who study violent outcomes generally agree that an large
number of factors contribute to the problem. Various structural and cultural characteristics
4 Notable examples include Concha-Eastman (2002), Dowdney (2005), Morrison, Buvinic and Shifter (2003),
Reiss and Roth (1993), Fajnzylber, Lederman and Loayza (1998); Londoño, Gaviria and Guerrero (2000); Moser
and McIlwaine (2000, 2001), Rotker (2002); Riaño-Alcalá (2006), and Moser, Winton and Moser (2003), among
present in a community may interact with both individual and social factors to produce a set of
behavioral outcomes, both among individuals and throughout the community. Crowded housing
conditions, high levels of migration in and out of a community, increasing numbers of single-
parent households, and economic decline may all significantly affect the amount of violence in a
community by contributing to the breakdown of social capital (Morrison, Buvinic and Shifter,
2003; Reiss and Roth, 1993). Availability of guns, violence as portrayed in the media, the
aftermath of civil war, and cultural norms all play a part in inducing violence in a community
(Morrison, Buvinic and Shifter, 2003). Other factors, such as gender, age, socioeconomic level,
employment status, drug or alcohol abuse, early exposure to aggressive stimuli or violence, and
experience as a victim of or witness to physical or psychological abuse can also predispose
individuals towards violent acts (Morrison, Buvinic and Shifter, 2003).
Economic conditions factor into incidence of crime and delinquency, including the
average income of communities, the income distribution of a society, and the level of education
(Fajnzylber, Lederman and Loayza, 1998). Gender also has a significant effect on the level of
violence. Males may be predisposed to more violence for a number of physiological, cultural or
situational reasons, such as higher rates of alcohol and drug usage, and economic pressure to
provide for their families.
In socially excluded communities, including some indigenous communities, field work
has shown that these areas suffer more from violence than those of higher socioeconomic levels
(Caldeira, 2000; Heinemann and Verner, 2006, citing Borjas, 1995; Katzman, 1999, quoted in
Buvinic, Morrison and Orlando, 2002). Beato (2002), citing a study in Belo Horizonte, Brazil,
reported that a review of the spatial distribution of crimes over a two year period revealed that
socially excluded areas such as slums, in which “several social welfare and life quality
indicators…were considerably inferior to other of the city,” had higher numbers of homicides.
These areas had higher percentages of employment in the informal sector, higher child mortality
and illiteracy rates, and poorly developed urban infrastructure. Peixoto, Moro and Viegas
Andrade (2004) find that homicides in Belo Horizonte are concentrated in less developed areas
such as favelas and are correlated with ecological factors such as social and physical disorder.
Homicide rates are negatively associated with the level of infrastructure development and
positively associated with longer police response time. The Programa de Aprimoramento de
Informações de Mortalidade no Município de São Paulo (Pro-aim), which records death
statistics, reported in 1995 that those districts in Sao Paulo with the highest rates of murder
(between 75 to 96 murders per 100,000) were some of the poorest in the region, while those with
the lowest rates were located in richer areas (Caldeira and Holston,1999). Surveys of Bogota,
Mexico City, and Santiago de Chile show that the poorest and marginalized areas of the cities
report the highest homicide rates (Consejo de Seguridad, 2006, Fundación Mexicana para la
Salud/Centro de Economía y Salud, 1998; Lira 2000).
3. The Roles of Violence: Justice, Security, Authority and Economic Gain
In socially excluded communities in Latin America, violence emerges with diverse causes and
distinct aims. This section will address the aims of violence, including for what and how it is
used in these areas. An important note should be made here: while violence is pervasive in many
marginalized areas, and has a serious impact on the lives of most of the residents of these
communities, the majority of people living in these areas do not resort to and use violence. The
media, politicians, and residents of the middle and upper classes often sensationalize reports of
violence and label communities as dangerous (in what Moser and McIlwaine, 2000 and 2001,
call “area stigma”), leaving the impression that most, if not all, residents in these areas resort to
constant aggressive behavior. This is far from the case. Most residents, including young males,
try to avoid and ignore violence for fear of the consequences of becoming involved and
escalating the dangers present to them. Many residents succumb to the feeling that they have no
power to stop violence.
For those who do resort to violence, there are several contributing factors. In the absence
of a strong, legitimate and equitable state presence and opportunities available to mainstream
society, communities must locally construct alternative means of acquiring their needs and
ensuring a sense of order. When crime increases or employment opportunities decline, the
population suffers from a lack of physical and economic security. When this is combined with
the pressures of globalization, consumerism, and inequality, people may view alternative forms
of authority, work, and control as the means to assuage insecurity and may resort to taking
matters into their own hands (Caldeira, 2000). In some cases, residents of marginalized
communities have been able to work together to ensure public safety and the provision of public
services, such as the widely noted case of Villa El Salvador in Lima, Peru (Woolcock, 2005). In
other circumstances, however, those who take control do so with intentions or means not in the
best interest of the community. Members of socially excluded communities who employ
violence do so in order to achieve one or more of the following aims: asserting authority and
visibility, acquiring cultural identity, enforcing security, meting out vigilante justice, or obtaining
economic goals. In reaction to such measures, people tend to build literal and figurative walls
between themselves and their communities, utilize private forms of security, support vigilante
groups, or turn the other cheek with respect to private and illegal acts of extrajudicial vengeance
(Caldeira, 2000). Conventional standards of working in formalized labor sectors may be
abandoned, as the opportunities available to socially excluded people are substandard, unable to
provide a stepping-stone to better opportunities, or non-existent. Within this context, the use of
violence may be viewed as a superior method of obtaining certain tangible needs.
3.1 The Informal Privatization of Justice
A key aim of violence in socially excluded communities is the provision of justice, most often
through some form of violent punishment or castigation. The failure of the state to adequately
provide for a fair and functional judicial system, including adequate legal representation,
unbiased rulings, due process of law, and preservation of human rights may force citizens to
abandon justice through normative institutional means and instead take the law into their own
hands, or to depend on others to resolve conflicts for them (Concha-Eastman, 2002). For many
socially excluded members of society, courts, judges, juries and a fair trail are beyond the means
of their connections and expectations.
Even among the Latin American population as a whole, there is little confidence in the
judicial system. Figure 2 shows the results of the 2005 Latinobarometer report, which found that
two-thirds of those people surveyed claimed to have little or no confidence in the judicial system
in their country, while only 22 percent reporting having “some” confidence in the judiciary. Only
9 percent of respondents reported having “a lot” of trust in the judicial system. Given that this
survey included those of the middle and upper classes, who generally have adequate access to
judicial institutions, it may reasonably be hypothesized that the percentage of the population
reporting confidence in the judicial system would be even lower in socially excluded
When judicial systems fail to adequately serve certain segments of the population,
citizens may be inclined to form their own standards and methods of justice. An international
study conducted by Children in Organized Armed Violence (COAV) found that in those areas
characterized by a weak state presence, armed groups tended to oversee and judge disputes
within their communities, even among those residents unaffiliated with their groups (Dowdney,
2005). On the basis of her field work in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Goldstein (2003) describes
the use of revenge, homicide, and brutal punishment by various actors—gangs, bandits, police,
and individuals—as a substitute for an absent or non-functioning judicial system. When the state
fails to provide security and services in the favelas, gangs may intervene as a mediating force
and provide a form of justice that community members are willing to turn the other cheek to.
While these gang members engage in illegal activities and drug-trafficking, they also play the
role of the justice system, and this dual role often induces neighboring citizens to tolerate and
turn a blind eye to their actions.
Fieldwork in socially excluded and impoverished communities in Colombia also reveals
the use of vigilante measures and violence as the means to acquire justice. Through interviews
with young men, Moser and McIlwaine (2000) note their frequent utilization of force and
violence, often referred to as the “law of the strongest” and the “law of knives.” In many cases of
violence and force, residents felt that taking the law into individual or group hands was the only
means available to them, given the lack of available alternatives, their mistrust of state
institutions, and rampant corruption (Moser and McIlwaine, 2000). Statistics collected by
authorities in Bogota throughout 2005 reveal that the consistently highest reason behind
homicides is revenge, covering murder due to either honor or debt (SUIVD, 2006).
However, the presence of extrajudicial means of conflict resolution may have adverse
consequences on others in the community, as well as those actors who resolve conflict through
violence. High death rates of young males in socially excluded areas may be explained by
“cycles of revenge between gangs, between individuals in a personal conflict, and between any
two partners who do not see any other justice system taking over” (Goldstein, 2003). Community
residents who want to avoid violence and resolve conflicts through institutional means may be
afraid to, as it could put their own safety in jeopardy. One young woman in an Argentine
neighborhood expressed her concern about reporting drug dealers on the street to the police for
fear that she would suffer retaliation. She explained that she was “scared to talk to the police
because [she] could be killed,” and while she once thought of recording criminal acts with a
camera, “this would be [her] death or the death of [her family].” Given this fear, she instead
remained silent (Jovita, Fundacion SES).5/6
The lack of institutionalized forms of justice provides an opening for various actors who
may provide justice for a select few, provided such action is in their own interest. Those who
may be opposed to such actors, or have no or little access to a legitimate judicial system, are left
with few options. The failure on the part of the state to adequately provide justice not only
affects those who deserve legal rights and actions, but also forces community residents to
succumb to the adverse informal institutions created and maintained by vigilante actors.
Beyond the aims of imparting informal forms of justice, violence is also used in socially
excluded communities as a form of acquiring security. The absence of state-provided security
and the high degree of mistrust of the police subsequently forces communities to resort to
alternative sources of protection in many areas of Latin America and the Caribbean. The use of
violence is employed for resistance against competing actors and interests, including corrupt
policemen, extrajudicial forces, rival gangs or common vandalism in the community. In some
favelas of Rio de Janeiro, drug lords and gangs involved in organized crime provide security and
other services such as money to pay for food, medicine or child care to community members,
creating incentives for residents to refrain from reporting their actions to the authorities. Since
the state is unable to provide these services—and those state entities responsible for providing
such services act as a “corrupt,” “repressive,” or distrusted force—the participation of those
actors is valuable to residents who otherwise would not have adequate services or income
(Moser, Winton and Moser, 2003). Widespread mistrust of such institutions, such as the police,
is common throughout Latin America. Latinobarometer’s annual survey of public opinion in
Latin America consistently reveals that large percentages of respondents report that they had
little or no confidence in the police (as shown in Figure 3). Only a quarter of the population
surveyed responded that it had some faith in this institution, while only 12 percent reported
having a great deal of confidence. Interviews with residents of different Colombian
5 Author’s translation: “Yo tengo miedo de hablar con la policía porque puedo ser boleta de toque, porque yo veo a
los patrulleros, pensé en una filmadora, pero eso sería mi muerte o la de mi familia, por eso no denuncio porque
incluso yo misma veo a los patrulleros que vienen por el barrio.”
6 Interview with Jovita, Barrio Santa Elena, interviewed by Ana Lourdes Suárez y Carlos, 13 Oct 2006. Fundación
neighborhoods consistently expressed negative feelings towards police forces. Moser and
McIlwaine note that the police are the least trusted institution in many Colombian barrios, and
the police were considered untrustworthy and likely to exacerbate conflict (Moser and
McIlwaine, 2000). Fieldwork in Caracas, Venezuela also exposed similar perceptions of the need
to acquire security—especially to defend the community from the police forces. One Venezuelan
youth who had spent considerable time living on the streets of Caracas explains that while he
believed the police used to be less violent, “Now they catch you on the streets and in front of
everybody they throw tear gas at your face. They also beat and kick you. They kick you as if you
were a dog” (Márquez, 1999).
The lack of faith in and frustration with the police is also evident in a number of
interviews conducted in various neighborhoods in Argentina. Interviewed residents often
responded that the police rarely or only weakly responded to threats facing their community. One
17 year old male complained that “The police don’t come or they come and do nothing. There is
so much crime…I want the police to come and do something. Because they come, but they don’t
do anything.”7 8 The lack of faith in the police discourages many victims of crime from turning
to them for help. Latinobarometer’s 2000 survey asked interviewees to whom they turn after a
criminal or violent incident; as Figure 4 shows, less than half (44.6 percent) turn to the police,
while 40.5 percent do not report their victimization to anyone.
Given such lack of confidence in the police and the absence of institutions that
adequately ensure the security and peace within Latin American and Caribbean countries—and
more so in socially excluded communities—it is no wonder that there is friction within these
areas as others step in. When the police are viewed as no better than the criminals they are
responsible for impeding, this leaves citizens in these communities with no options but to either
remain silent or take matters into their own hands.
3.3 Authority through Visibility
Violence may also be used to assert authority in situations where it is lacking and to demand the
visibility of socially excluded individuals. In areas where state institutions are absent and police
are corrupt or perceived as having little authority, members of the community and various social
7 Author’s translation: “No anda la policía o no hace nada. Hay mucha delincuencia, se viven drogrando y los
mismos vecinos te roban...[quiero] “que pase la policía y que haga algo. Porque pasan, pero no hacen nada.”
8 Interview with Jonatan, 17, Barrio Primavera, Interviewed by Graciela Ramirez. 29 Oct 2006. Fundación SES.
groups may step in with the intention of exerting power, influence and control. Caldeira (2000).
reported through her field work in Rio’s favelas that “Crime is a matter of authority. The
people…think that the increase in crime is a sign of weak authority, be it of the school, family,
mother, church, government, police, or justice system.”
The need to vent frustration and to acquire a feeling of authority and visibility through
attention—albeit negative attention—may also induce certain individuals to resort to violence.
After a former street child from Rio de Janeiro took passengers on a public bus hostage for a
number of hours, an incident which eventually ended with his violent death (CNN, 2000;
Padilha, 2002), sociologist and former Brazilian Minister of Public Security Eduardo Soares
A boy with a gun can make us feel… fear… He can recover his visibility and
affirm his social and human existence. It is a…process of self-invention
mediated by violence, mediated by a gun. It’s a pact: the boy exchanges his
future, his life, his soul, for an ephemeral and fiery moment of glory. The small
glory of being acknowledged, valued, of praising his self-confidence (quoted in
Those who either assert their power in the absence of legitimate institutions, or those who
feel the need to externally force themselves upon society to assuage their feelings of invisibility,
use violence in order to establish their authority, power and influence. Riaño-Alcalá notes that
violence among youth in Colombia is directly related to social exclusion and the invisibility of
those who come from poor areas. Such youth have little connection with society and are
excluded from those mainstream areas and public spaces where social interaction generally
occurs. Instead, these invisible youth begin to engage in “territorial practices of civil protection
and policing,” which is in their own way a form of expressing their citizenship and establishing a
connection to the community. The aim of violence, as employed by youth, is to assert and
reinforce their connection to the community, thus becoming visible. In this context, violence is
used by excluded youths as a means of communication and participation with a community that
otherwise ignores them (Riaño-Alcalá 2006).
When segments of society are ignored, subject to prejudice, and unable to either benefit
from or contribute to society, the need for existence and recognition in the face of stigmatization
can have adverse consequences (Padilha, 2002). Socially excluded individuals lack visibility,
recognition, and authority within society in the way that they are treated and are able to treat
others. For the minority that uses violence, it may be seen as a method of reestablishing control
and authority in the face of social exclusion.
Beyond the needs to ensure security, mete out justice, and assert authority, the consequences of
social exclusion may induce some to use violence for economic gain. In communities where
residents have trouble meeting their needs through formal and mainstream mechanisms, the lure
of gangs, drug trafficking, or acts of individual violence such as robbery may be stronger. Latin
America is one of the most unequal regions in the world (Székely and Hilgert,1999). The
inability to acquire needed or wanted goods, and the awareness that hard work will rarely amount
to significant improvements in one’s quality of life may persuade some that violence through
criminal acts presents a more profitable outcome. The proliferation of organized crime and
increasing connections between neighborhood pandillas9 or naciones10 is a significant contributor
to the spread of criminal and violent activities; in many countries with organized armed groups,
crime is the number one form of economic gain, followed by drug dealing (Dowdney, 2005).
Violent acts, including armed robberies and kidnappings, are common methods of acquiring
economic profit among these groups, and the importance of territory as a space in which to
conduct illicit activities and to secure a profit often leads to violent disputes between rival gangs
The frustration felt by socially excluded individuals towards their lack of opportunities
and the wealth enjoyed by those in the upper classes is clearly reflected in a conversation with
one young man in a Rio favela. The man notes his admiration of figures such as Rambo, a movie
character played by Sylvester Stallone who notoriously resorted to violence to achieve his goals:
Brother 1: What I really like is to watch Rambo movies. I could spend the whole
day watching Rambo.
Caldeira: Why do you like Rambo?
Brother 1: Because he’s a violent guy…his role is to defend, to seek to have
rights respected, to…defend the poor and the good, destroy greed. You see that
9 Pandilla (or mara) is a common name for a gang in Honduras and El Salvador.
10 Naciones are gangs common in Ecuador.
he goes after greedy people and ends up well. It would be good if people would
get these rich men like that.… all these rich people are greedy” (Caldeira, 2000).
In contrast to the image of strength and action conveyed by Rambo, the economic situation of
many in marginalized areas may often be unstable, desperate, and exploited, and economic
opportunities are often limited and informal. Without skills or the means to acquire them, many
are forced to work in areas such as domestic service, factory line jobs, or street vending. Many
young men in Rio de Janeiro who joined gangs described their experiences working on the city’s
streets as a “degrading” experience. To them, “selling candy on the streets or on a bus, or selling
water at intersections…[was] seen as desperation, not as jobs that provided a solid sense of
identity and respect. In this context, invitations from gang-involved friends or colleagues
became attractive. For some young men, gang involvement was the only stable employment they
ever had, or the first or only opportunity to enter the “work” market” (Barker, 2005, Dowdney
2005). In Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, many young males felt “despondent about their prospects for
low-paying wage labor” and often felt that joining the local gang would provide them with better
alternative activities. Even though the gangs “rule through violence, fear, and terror, they often
provide the only economic stimulus available to poor communities” (Goldstein, 2003).
4. Youth and Violence
“Today, under democracy, dwellers of the villas are not so much afraid of the military…as of their own
neighbors, mostly of the young ones. Themselves victims of socio-economic exclusion, street corner youth
groups contest their vulnerability and redundancy by setting the tone of the shantytown’s public life”
Young adult males between the ages of 15 and 25 are generally the most violent group in Latin
America and suffer from the highest homicide rates and experiences with violence in the region
(Vanderschueren, 1996; UNICEF, 2006). Figure 5 shows the death rates from some form of
assault for various age groups within Latin America and the Caribbean. As the figure indicates,
individuals between 20 and 29 years experience the highest levels of deadly violence. Various
factors influence and foster the use of violence by youth; one study conducted in Honduras
revealed that being a victim of a threat, injury, or sexual abuse, being male, knowing other
delinquent youth, or living in a neighborhood where gangs operate all contribute to the
probability of committing violent acts. Conversely, those respondents who reported being in
school showed less probability of committing violent acts (Rubio, 2007).
The staggering numbers of street children and youth gang members in the region
underscore the severity of the problem of violence: the number of youth gang members in Latin
America is estimated to be anywhere between 50,000 to over 300,000 in Central America and
Mexico alone (USAID, 2006).11 Statistics on street children also vary widely; UNICEF reports
that there are around 100 million street children in the world, half of whom are from Latin
America and the Caribbean (World Bank, 2007).
Adolescents and young adults in any society face a number of challenges related to their
age and this transitional period of their life: they are finishing up their education and entering the
labor market; they are in a process of leaving their own families and support systems; and they
are beginning to form and provide for their own families. Youths who must deal with social
exclusion may find this transition even more difficult. As violence generally tends to have more
severe consequences on the lives of street children and youth gang members, this section will
highlight the experiences of these groups.
4.1 Social Exclusion and Youth: Families, Economics, and Institutions
Social exclusion may be perpetuated by the state, by the community, and even by one’s own
family. The state may fail to provide adequate educational opportunities or incentives to stay in
school; communities may use youths as a scapegoat for the area’s problems, while interfamilial
violence and intergenerational conflict between parents and youth damages the lines of
communications between generations. In a reaction to family violence, children may turn away
from their parents and seek sources of acceptance and guidance from outside their home. As the
connections between generations fail, older generations sometimes begin to blame society’s
problems on the younger generations, further exacerbating tension and alienation within a
community (Moser and McIlwaine, 2000). Intrafamily violence and mistreatment at home was
often cited as many Guatemalan youths’ reason behind joining a gang (Moser and McIlwaine,
2001), as well as in studies conducted in Ecuador, Colombia, El Salvador, Jamaica, and
11 A recent Washington Office on Latin America report disputes these numbers and for example, suggests that in
Honduras the official numbers are significantly smaller, to less than 5,000 members (Mencía, 2007). If similar
numbers were found in the neighboring countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, this would amount to
somewhere around 20,000 members.
Honduras (Dowdney, 2005). Guatemalan interviewees explained that youths join gangs because
they do not receive enough attention from or have trouble communicating with family members,
compelling them to look outside the family in search of confidence and a better life. As one
interviewee lamented, “Children grow up without love so they stay in the streets and look for
love from the maras; what their families don’t give them, the maras do” (Moser and McIlwaine,
2001). Other case studies in communities controlled by gangs revealed numerous instances in
which the local don12 or palabrero13 acts as a “substitute parent,” “mentor” or “protective figure”
responsible for the socialization of young boys (Dowdney, 2005).14 Conversely, those youths
whose parents are aware of whom they interact with and are active in their children’s lives are
less likely to have friends in gangs (Rubio, 2007).
Whether or not they turn to or from their families, socially excluded youths confront the
outside world with the awareness of their lack of access to goods and services available to the
middle and upper classes. The acute differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots” can
provoke feelings of envy and disenchantment with the inability to acquire certain desirable ends.
Many marginalized people in Latin America live in crowded spaces, endure lengthy and
uncomfortable commutes to work, and lack access to basic services. As they grow up in this
environment, many young men and women find the few options available to them unacceptable
and end up leaving their neighborhoods for other barrios or the streets in search of other
opportunities. Often, these young men and women engage in acts, violent or non-violent, that
make sense to them given their limited options and their awareness of the obstacles presented to
them (Márquez, 1999). Many youths from socially excluded communities experience intense
frustration with obstacles to social mobility, disparities in the quality of education, and lack of
job prospects. Younger generations may view the employment opportunities of the older
generations not as “honest work” but as “slave labor,” which increases the attraction of “easy
money” gained through activities outside the formal sector (Goldstein, 2003).
The divide between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” activities and what constitutes crime
is often a fuzzy gray area. A street child may resort to “legal” activities such as shining shoes,
collecting rags, and selling food on street corners, but other “illegal” activities such as robbing,
12 Common name for a gang leader in Jamaica.
13 Common name for a gang leader in El Salvador.
14 Dowdney notes that in other countries, such as Colombia or Brazil, interviewees noted a strong affiliation and
friendship with their gang, but did not report the sense of having a “surrogate family” through the gang.
selling drugs, or engaging in prostitution are common methods of obtaining money as well. The
difference between delinquency and subsistence may not matter to a hungry child out on the
street (Márquez, 1999). Often excluded, ignored, or invisible to society, street children may
move the line between legality and delinquency given the situation they find themselves in.
Márquez (1999) notes that although one street child she interacted with “was aware that theft is
illegal, because he was in such need, he did not regard breaking into a store in search of food or
clean clothes as wrong.” While many street children interviewed in Caracas often understood
the arguments behind “honest” work, given the higher profits to be gained through crime and the
use of violence, formal sector work offered fewer incentives. For many of these youths, it made
little sense to work hard in a formal setting when they could make the same amount, if not more
money in a few hours robbing or stealing (Márquez, 1999).
The prevalent and intense abuse and fear generated by the relationship between society
and socially excluded Latin American youth colors the way street children and youth gang
members interact with their communities and make use of their surroundings. Youths who sleep
outside of homes, with no protection from weather or enemies, must attempt to find places of
refuge away from intolerant police forces, violent vigilante groups, or other predators. One youth
who grew up on the streets of Rio de Janeiro was witness to the Candelária church massacre15
and described the fear and violence in which he and his friends lived during the nights, noting
that “Many of the kids didn’t like sleeping here. They’d sleep somewhere more protected.
Because at night cowards could come by and throw a stone. They were using stones to kill
people. They used cobblestones. They would wait until you were asleep late at night and drop the
stone on your head. Your brains would spill out” (Padilha, 2002).
The relationship between police forces, street children and youth gang members is
complex and colored by frustration on part of citizens who demand more security in their
communities, inadequately trained and corrupt police forces who must work with scarce
resources, inefficient judicial systems, and fear on the part of residents who do not know who to
fear and who to trust. More often than not, citizens will call for harsher measures and tougher
sentences in reaction to waves of violence, resulting in policies such as the mano dura law
enforcement strategies present in El Salvador and Honduras. In more extreme cases, some
countries have witnessed the emergence of vigilante groups or “death squads” that aim to
eliminate the “problem” of street children and youth gang members through murder (Scanlon et
al., 1998; Payne 1999).
Hard-line policies of incarcerating suspected youth gang members or street children and
pushing them through the judicial system only further stress already struggling judicial systems
in Latin America and alienate youth from the rest of society. Removing a street child or a youth
with tattoos from the street may temporarily satisfy an observing neighbor tired of violence in his
community, but once these youths are caught in the system, the odds are stacked against them.
On the streets, youths must deal with police forces or violent death squads; once inside the walls
of a jail or a juvenile institution, socially excluded youths must face judicial systems rife with
biases and discrimination against them. Their lack of connections, money, and influence leaves
them at the mercy of those who seek to extract whatever profit they can get while exercising
power over youth. The color of their skin, their access to money, their ability to make deals with
policemen or other officials all affect their treatment (Márquez, 1999). As one social worker in
Rio de Janeiro explains:
If a rich daddy’s boy gets caught with drugs, he won’t be arrested, because
daddy is going to pay the officer to let him off. If a poor boy gets arrested…he’s
going to end up in a reformatory, and nobody is going to get him out of there.
This discrepancy is very clear in the minds of poor children. They know that
[there are two] sets of laws….one set of laws is applied to the rich kids, and
another to them (Padilha, 2002).
Further complicating the problem is the lack of adequate prisons and rehabilitation programs in
many Latin American countries. When youths are incarcerated, they often are placed with older
and stronger men who are experienced with violence (U.S. State Department, 2007). Incarcerated
youths may be subject to abuse from these individuals; or worse, they may learn from them and
leave prison as more dangerous felons than they were upon entering. One Argentine social
worker explained, “youngsters with little experience end up in the penal circuit…jailed for
stealing a bicycle.” After spending time in prison, they leave more likely to “rob cars using
15 On July 23, 1993, a vigilante group attacked street children residing around the area of the Candelaria district in
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Seven children and one adult were killed, while others were injured (Bus 174; Scanlon et al
1998; BBC World Report 2001).
guns.”16 17 Evidence from Central American countries with youth gang problems reflects this
challenge. With mano dura policies that imprison youth for the offense of having a tattoo, many
young men and women with little or no history of violence and crime are placed in the same
areas as those with brutal criminal records. Many youths who enter jail with little criminal
experience leave the institution with knowledge gleaned from hardened criminals and pose a
greater threat to society than they did by sporting body art.
4.2 Social Exclusion and Youth Gangs
Youth gangs are prevalent throughout many Latin American and Caribbean countries, and their
use of violence and state-sponsored reactions to combating them has sparked attention
throughout the region, and a variety of institutions and NGOs18 have sponsored a number of
initiatives, programs and reports focused on dealing with the problem. The heterogeneity of
youth gangs should be emphasized, as described in Table 2. The use of arms, levels of violence,
relationships with the community, ties to organized crime, and responses to state-sponsored
institutions all differ among and within different countries. The maras and pandillas of Honduras
and El Salvador are different in many ways from the bandas delincuentes of Medellín,
Colombia, who are likewise distinct from the organized gangs perpetuated by the Comando
Vermelho in Brazil. Given such differences among gangs, policy responses must be tailored to
fit the types of action needed to prevent the spread of gangs and to encourage youths to resist or
Social exclusion and a number of related factors contribute to the formation of youth
gangs. Poverty, drugs, migration and disorganized urbanization, lack of private space, weak
educational systems, high levels of unemployment among youths, a widespread informal
economy, intrafamily violence, lack of security and low levels of social capital have all been
linked to gang formation (Rodgers, 1999; USAID, 2006; Mencía 2007, Mencía, 2007, citing
ERIC et al., 2004). Key contributing factors on the part of the state include the failure to provide
physical security through adequate police forces, functioning prison systems, and fair judicial
16 Author’s translation: “La realidad es que cuando los chicos más tempranamente caen en el circuito penal…caen
por un robo de bicicleta y salen por robo de automotores, disparo con armas.”
17 Interview with Ramón Pacheco, Subsecretario de niñez, adolescencia y familia. Interviewed by Ana Lourdes
Suárez. 12 Oct 2006. Municipalidad de Moreno cede de Acción Social, Argentina. Fundación SES.
18 Organizations include the IDB, the OAS, the WHO, the U.S. State Department, USAID, the UN, the FBI, the
Washington Office on Latin America, Viva Rio, and numerous other local NGOs.
systems (including police corruption and violence, extrajudicial killings, and prison
overcrowding), or the endowment of skills and education necessary to succeed and move up the
socio-economic ladder.19 Furthermore, the increasing strength of organized crime rings and drug
trafficking, whether operating independently or linked through dubious connections to the state
or the private sector, creates a set of parallel incentives and informal markets that attract youth
who have few options available to them. The impact of globalization and the influence of a
consumer culture, combined with high levels of inequality, also contributes to gang formation.
The desire for expensive American brands and the lack of opportunities to acquire them creates
economic incentives for youths to band together and resort to violence to acquire coveted goods
Those who have studied the long history of gangs in areas such as the inner-city areas of
Los Angeles and Chicago in the United States note that gangs often serve as a partial
replacement for missing crucial social institutions, such as families, schools, and labor markets
(Klein, 1995). Gang members often report the need for identity, solidarity, social networks,
security, and protection. In Rio de Janeiro, where violent youth gangs are widespread
throughout favelas, organized crime has reportedly increased among the lower classes due to the
disintegration of traditional juvenile socializing mechanisms and local social networks (Adorno,
2002). In El Salvador, gang membership has been linked to migration and population expansion
in urban areas, interfamilial violence, the privatization and reduction of public spaces, and lack
of positive role models (Guillermo Ramos, 2000). The emergence of Honduran maras is related
in part to youths in search of alternative family structures, friendship, protection, physical and
economic security, and their own youth identity (Mencía, 2007). Honduran youths who have
been victims of crime or violence in the past are 94 more likely than others to have some sort of
connection with a gang member (Rubio, 2007). U.S. deportation policies of sending convicted
felons back to their home country additionally contribute to the spread of gang culture
throughout the region; while some have debated the true extent of the effect of deportations,
there are undeniable parallels between violent gangs with roots in Los Angeles and the nature of
many gangs in Central America (Arana, 2005).
19 For example, in Honduras—a country with large numbers of gang members—only 30 percent of the population
has a high school education (Mencía, 2007).
Some studies have found that youth gangs provide a sense of community organization and
authority. Field work in Nicaragua in the late 1990s revealed that while gangs were “violent
organizations that contribute to the general insecurity of life”, they also maintained a level of
social structure and order (Rodgers, 2006a). In some neighborhoods plagued by insecurity and
social breakdown, gangs fostered a form of “collective social organization” that provided a sense
of order through “laying down practical and symbolic rules and norms”(Rodgers, 2006a).
Similar studies in Peru (Strocka, 2006) and Jamaica (Dowdney, 2005) have also noted strong ties
between gangs and the communities they reside in. These findings reflect the absence of
authority and power within socially excluded communities, which consequently may induce
younger members of society to provide their own alternative means of ensuring justice, security,
and social cohesion.
5. Concluding Remarks
Social exclusion inhibits affected citizens in a variety of ways, ranging from paltry economic
opportunities to more physical manifestations of violence. The lack of security, access to justice,
and economic opportunities in marginalized communities have contributed to the proliferation of
violence seen in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent years. As formal state structures fail
to serve certain segments of the population, other actors step in with the intention of asserting
authority and identity, providing non-state-sponsored acts of justice, or establishing informal
While social exclusion and related violence can have dire consequences for the general
population, the effect on youth, both as victims and as perpetrators, is even more severe. The
situation of street children and youth gang members, groups both excluded from and persecuted
by state institutions and communities, reflects the ease which with they fall victim to the cycle of
stigmatization, marginalization, and violence.
In order to combat social exclusion and consequential challenges of violence,
policymakers must find a balance between the need for control (including the state’s monopoly
on the legitimate use of force, the preservation of citizen rights and security, and the maintenance
of law and order) and the need to refrain from exacerbating the situation by threatening human
rights and alienating segments of the population. It is essential to tackle the underlying problems,
not the symptoms. Mano dura policies are such examples of failed state policies that responded
reactively to violence by imposing control in an effort to quench violence—but did so in a way
that excluded and threatened more people than created pathways to peace and rehabilitation.
In the short term, policymakers must respond to violence in these communities, which in
most cases comes through increased law enforcement and presence in affected communities.
Authorities in Belo Horizonte, Bogota, and Buenos Aires have begun using geo-spatial
information systems (GIS) to map out areas where most crime occurs and efficiently devote
resources to those areas. A number of programs, ranging from increased police presence in high
crime areas to monitoring high-risk repeat offenders by specialized police units, have been
shown to prevent violence in Latin America (Moser, Winton and Moser, 2005, offer a detailed
description of various programs which have been shown to be effective, ineffective, or
promising). While increased police presence may work to assuage the fears of those affected
by—or who are afraid of—violence, it also increases the potential for human rights abuses,
corruption, and increased insecurity as violent groups battle against police or military forces.
While concentrating on quick results in the short term, policymakers must also create programs
that will resolve the underlying issues fostering social exclusion and violent outcomes.
Such policies should target weaknesses in judicial, law enforcement and educational
systems and labor markets to provide access for socially excluded individuals, discourage the use
of violent methods to acquire certain needs, and protect members of marginalized communities
who are affected by the use of violence by others. With respect to police-community relations
and law enforcement, programs such as the “Youth and the Police” project in Belo Horizonte,
which sets up workshops and seminars between police and youth groups, have been shown to in
some preliminary evaluations to improve local police-community relations (Ramos, 2006).
Police forces should also be trained to show more respect to arrested offenders and youth, instead
of alienating and stigmatizing them. Parallel to improving law enforcement techniques and
relations, communities should be encouraged to set up policing programs coupled with
community town-hall meetings to set priorities (Moser, Winton and Moser, 2005). By placing
responsibility and power in the hands of community residents, this may work to increase security
and reduce feelings of vulnerability in those neighborhoods affected by violence
The weaknesses and disorganization of many Latin American and Caribbean judicial
systems must be addressed, especially with respect to providing due process of law and fair
treatment to those individuals without connections or money. The capacity and availability of
public defenders must be improved, granting access to socially excluded individuals to adequate
legal representation. Crackdowns on corruption within judicial systems is essential to ensure that
there is only one system for the population, and not a separate arrangement for those with the
money to pay their way out of trouble. The state of prisons and rehabilitation programs must be
addressed—some effective programs with respect to rehabilitation include those that train former
offenders in vocational skills, while others provide risk-focused treatments to allow these people
to successfully reintegrate into society (Moser, Winton and Moser, 2005).
With respect to youth, programs are needed to better equip them with the job and social
skills that will allow them to embrace constructive methods of conflict resolution, participate in
labor markets, and create positive family structures. The need for an adequate education that will
allow youth to embrace employment opportunities and increase their socio-economic status is
crucial. Without laws or incentives to encourage youth to stay in school, and without an
education that offers technical skills, socially excluded youth will be unable to effectively enter
formal labor markets. Parallel to this, policies that promote employment opportunities and
encourage formal labor market participation are necessary, for without available job
opportunities, there will be little incentive for youth to participate in an educational system that
offers skills with no practical purpose. The development of community-youth relations should
also be emphasized, and community leaders must take a more active role in including youth
through community-based mentoring programs, after-school recreation programs, and by gang
monitoring by residents.
The issue of youth gang violence is being tackled by a number of organizations, and
priorities should be based on finding and expanding those programs that have been successful
while discouraging the use of hard-line policies that incarcerate youth on suspicion of gang
activity or for minor offenses. Governments must crack down on vigilante “social cleansing”
groups that target youth gang members and street children and only encourage youth to band
together to protect themselves.
Policies to combat social exclusion and to integrate all members of society are difficult to
target and to implement. However, given the circumstances of exclusion and violence prevalent
throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, policymakers must strive to ensure that institutions
and policies work to include these vulnerable segments of the population and protect them from
the devastating effects of violence.
Classification of Violence by Motive, Type, and Actors in Latin America and
Motivation Type of Violence Victimizers Victims
with little or no
Male partners, fathers,
members of gangs or
Economic and power:
Source: Concha-Eastman (2002).
Table 2. Youth Gangs Prevalent in Latin America and the Caribbean
Area Name Urban/rural Estimated # members Level of
1970’s U L/N D/C/PE/LB
10,000 in Rio de Janeiro
10,000 armed actors from
all three types in Medellín
(Rio de Janeiro,
65,000 of both types of
groups in Guayaquil
10,500 estimated MS-13
and 18th St members a
14,000 estimated MS-13
and 18th St members a
36,000 estimated MS-13
and 18th St members a
6-10,000 of both gangs in
Kingston metropolitan area
Guatemala 1980’s U
Honduras 1980’s U
L/N/I 1 D/C
Nicaragua U 2,200 estimated MS-13
and 18th St members a
L 1 PC/C
1: not armed openly
1970’s U/R -- PC
C- crime (more
serious than petty)
I- international LB- legal
PC- petty crime PP- political
2: adverse, may openly show arms, may
prey on community
Source: This table draws extensively from Dowdney (2005), Rodgers (1999) and USAID (2006)
Notes: a. USAID estimates drawing from various sources
L- local PE- protection/
Figure 1. Homicide Rates per 100,000, Western Hemisphere, 1995-2002
0 102030 4050 6070 80 90100
Trinidad y Tobago
Homicide rate per 100,000 people
Source: Author's compilation using data from Pan-American Health Organization, and Rubio and Cohen, mimeograph
a. No data available for Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, and Peru for 2002
Figure 2. Public Confidence in the J udicial System
Number of respondents
Source: Latinobarometer 2005.
Figure 3. Public Confidence in the Police
0 1000 2000 30004000500060007000
Number of respondents
Source: Latinobarometer 2005.
Figure 4. After you have been a victim of crime, who do you
Number of respondents
Source: Authors' compilation using Latinobarometer survey 2000.
a Survey of 5,441 who responded with reply other than "Not applicable."
Figure 5. Death Rates by Assault, by Age Group, Latin America and the Caribbean
0 204060 80100 120140
10 to 14 yrs
15 to 19 yrs
20 to 24 yrs
25 to 29 yrs
30 to 34 yrs
35 to 39 yrs
40 to 44 yrs
Death Rate per 100,000 people
Source: Author's compilation using data from WHO Mortality Database 2006.
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