There is a problem that has yet to be intelligently approached by Latin American countries: youth crime**. The dynamics of organized crime, illegal economies, and economic or social exclusion has resulted in widespread violence in which teenagers are the main victims and perpetrators. A simplistic interpretation of this violence does not only generate an overload of cases on the systems of criminal responsibility for youth, but also does not improve safety nor deal with the real causes of the problem. Thus, the response to youth crime can no longer be the strengthening of sentences, the reduction of age of criminal accountability, or the expansion of measures for the deprivation of liberty.
Since the adoption of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, approximately fifteen Latin American countries have allowed the trial of youth involved in criminal actions under special rules. The logic behind the proceedings is the formation of subjects of rights through pedagogy and education. Thus, in theory, the privation of liberty is mostly restricted since it is all about replacing the punishment for violating the law with a better understanding of the realities of teenagers who come into conflict with the criminal system. However, in reality, many young people are taken to court with the sole objective of controlling crime and improving safety.
According to the United Nations, young people are the demographic group most affected by crime and violence in Latin America. At the same time, they are the most common perpetrators of these crimes. Thefts, micro-trafficking, extortion, and murder are the most common offenses for which teenagers enter crime circuits, seriously affecting citizen safety.
Societies shocked by youth crime statistics do not ask themselves what should be done in addition to trying the committed crimes. They are ignorant of the fact that the imprisonment of youth in specialized centers reaches disturbing rates in Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay, particularly if you take into account that the privation of liberty is a “last resource” measure and its effects. According to data by the Regional Observatory of Juvenile Justice, the imprisonment rate for eight countries in Latin America reaches 27 per 100,000 teenagers.
Low school enrollment, poverty, and the deprivation of opportunities are not the only factors that explain the increase of youth participation in violent crimes. According to InSight Crime, an underlying cause of youth involvement in criminal activities in countries like Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and El Salvador is the power of criminal organizations in rural and urban areas. In those spaces where the State remains absent or institutionally weak, the lack of access to education and decent work pushes youth to engage in high-risk jobs in illegal economies controlled by cartels, gangs, or criminal bands.
In reality, the authorities and the general public do not know how to respond to the violent crimes by adolescents. It is true that organized crime utilizes and integrates youth to perform certain tasks with the objective of taking advantage of the legal protection they have. However, the solution is to weaken the economies that propel these groups or avoid their recruitment, not to increase criminal repression on teenagers. Following the logic of poverty, exclusion, and organized crime, there will always be people willing to complete dirty jobs.
What should be done is to stop the desire to imprison anyone that commits a crime, initiate conversations with young people, and build trust through social programs. This is not an easy task, but it can bring more profound transformations than imprisonment does. Initiatives like the Legion del Afecto – Legion of Care in Colombia or the Tamarindo Foundation in El Salvador focus on youth in areas with high rates of violence and crime. Their objective is not only to give alternatives to organized crime, but to promote policies that reduce gun possession, gang involvement, and daily violence. These initiatives also involve the leadership of teenagers themselves. Concrete facts that would help to reduce insecurity rates, yet lacking an adequate study by policy makers working on public safety.
Those who defend the proposals of reducing the age of criminal responsibility are stuck not only in a punitive populism, but also ignore the broader realities of the Latin American population, in which criminal groups impose order and the State has a minimum or limited presence through its security arms (the military or police).
This type of programs in which adolescents are treated as subjects of rights welcome solutions to the rise of youth violence unlike the heavy-handed response of criminal responsibility. It would be worthwhile to pay attention to the efforts of civil society to counteract the criminal neighborhood phenomena, offering a greater understanding to the daily realities of many young people in Latin America.
* Luis Felipe Cruz is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).– @lfcruzo
**This text uses the words “youth”, “teenager” and “adolescents” synonymously. However, in some contexts these can be differentiated. Some studies on youth crime include statistics of people between the ages of 18 and 25. Here, I use these terms to refer to crime that is associated with those under the age of 18 and judged through special rules.