According to the ILO report “Exclusion from education and employment among the population aged 15 to 24 in Central America”, the region had 9.1 million young people in 2015, i.e. a quarter of the total population; a demographic potential that experts point out is now lost owing to violence, poverty and the lack of opportunities facing millions of young people, especially in the countries of the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala), where they are also more likely to be recruited by organized crime.

The inclusion of youth remains one of the great challenges in Latin American countries, as in most young people are marginalized from the economic, political, and social processes that are taking place in the region.

In Central America, the situation is alarming because of the high percentage of young people who are outside the field of employment and education, and, at the same time, excluded from any active participation in their societies.

The aspect that experts find most distressing, in addition to the economic gap that separates millions of young people from their societies, is the inability to exercise their rights fully.

“Leaving out so many young people has consequences, not only today (for example, youth movements that in some cases fall into patterns of violence) but also in the future, in the sense that there are entire cohorts that are not being educated or trained professionally”, explains Teresita Escotto-Quesada in her report “Central American youth in the context of insecurity and violence” drafted for ECLAC.

“A young man who is denied his rights can hardly be committed and be in a position to guarantee the rights of future generations” she continues.

The cycle of violence

In Central America, says Escotto, we also have the case of the “maras” and gangs that are responsible for violence toward young people, while also a refuge for those who are excluded from school, family, or community.

“Many young people join these groups in the hope of finding someone who will appreciate them, give them security in themselves and provide meaning to their lives… but ironically, the “maras” and gangs have become a threat to many other young people (the vast majority) that are being forced to migrate to other countries in search of better conditions; not only economic conditions but places where their lives are not in danger”, she explains.

The growing economic inequality, conflicts generated by years of civil war, violence, the lack of a sense of belonging, and migration are some of the factors that have served as a breeding ground for the emergence of violent gangs that attract thousands of uprooted young people and in which drug trafficking has been added as another ingredient of the dramatic situation of insecurity.

The fact is that Central America has become a key drug corridor for drug traffickers, which has led to an increase in local drug consumption and an additional risk factor for young people. “The growing presence of drug trafficking in Central America also contributes to weakening State institutions and governance that, in more than one case, are very fragile and vulnerable”, Escotto says.

To the violence that comes with exclusion and marginalization, we must add the direct violence (sexual, interpersonal) and the symbolic violence (through stereotypes and discrimination) which is systematically exercised toward the younger members of society.

In this sense, there is an eloquent study conducted by an employment business last year in Honduras, which stated that 23% of companies in that country check whether candidates have tattoos and 50% take into account their place of residence.

This is the reality (realities) facing young people in Central America. Consequently, the experts are highlighting the need to allow excluded young people to exercise their full rights in freedom.

This implies designing public policies focused on quality education and on decent and dignified employment, on a strong commitment to the integration of young gang members and returned migrants, and for young people looking for their first job.

A gang member against violence

One of these reintegration programmes provided Agustín Coroy with the chance to train and work. Coroy, who had been a member of the Salvatrucha gang in Guatemala, now goes around the world demanding integration programmes for gang members and telling his story, which is the story of thousands of young Guatemalans who, fleeing violent homes and extreme poverty, found a family and their place in the world in gangs: