Gangs present a vexing challenge for urban communities throughout the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – and the municipality of Escuintla in south-central Guatemala is no different. Last year, the city’s homicide rate was 59.4 per 100,000 residents, more than twice the national rate of 22.3 per 100,000, making it one of the most dangerous in the country. Recognizing the importance of reducing gang activity, improving economic opportunities, and strengthening government institutions to stem migration to the United States and other nearby countries, Tetra Tech is on the ground in Guatemala, implementing the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Urban Municipal Governance (UMG) project.
The project implements targeted interventions to prevent crime and violence in municipal areas that most need support. To do this, the project engages at-risk youth in Escuintla’s most violent neighborhoods by equipping them with life skills and educating them about their role in violence prevention and community leadership. This demographic is especially vulnerable to gang recruitment. Oftentimes, the only way to avoid joining a gang is to leave the community, which might mean migrating north. Gangs identify potential members based on certain risk factors such as whether they lack parental guidance or have a history of domestic violence and legal troubles. The project encourages these youth to stay in their communities, become engaged citizens, and find meaningful employment opportunities. It also combines life skill training with other activities such as school-based interventions, recreational activities, and vocational training, as these provide the fundamental tools to confront risk factors.
Juan is one such youth. After Juan’s parents divorced when he was nine years old, his family disintegrated. He found temporary relief in drugs and alcohol, hanging out with other young people in similar situations in the Colonia Modelo 1, or CM1 community in Escuintla. Without a family support system, many young people drop out of school, which causes them to lose out on employment opportunities and become more susceptible to joining gangs.
Juan’s neighbors, community leaders, and even his family considered him one of the “bad kids” – a label that stigmatizes many young people and can be difficult to overcome later in life. Although not yet a gang member, he fit the profile for gang recruiters. As well, feelings of alienation hurt his self-confidence and ability to communicate with family. Yet, within his tough exterior hid a wealth of courage and depth of character, just waiting to be discovered.
Despite the negative stereotypes that at-risk youth face, project leaders noticed that Juan was a young man capable of overcoming his many difficulties and challenges to become an effective leader. Recognizing his potential, the project invited Juan to join other at-risk youth and organize activities in the community. One activity included restoring a rundown public space that had been taken over by gangs and no longer served a purpose for the community.
Soon after, UMG helped establish the Youth Entrepreneurship Network. This network is helping Juan and other young people like him to build their self-confidence, discover their strength, and develop leadership skills. Juan’s involvement in the network is helping to reshape his personal narrative and leave the “bad kid” stigma behind. Today, Juan proudly serves as president of the network, leading a group of more than 20 peers from his neighborhood. With support from the project, the network has established a set of statutes, as well as a clear vision, mission, and action plan. As well, the network is an integral player in the community’s violence prevention plan. For example, it helps plan and raise funds for after school and weekend activities for youth; it ensures youth are represented in community planning meetings; and it helps equip parents to become more engaged in the lives of their children. “Without this network, my life would be very different. I might not be alive,” concluded Juan.
The UMG project is not only helping Juan and other youth to improve their lives by keeping them out of gangs, but it is also improving the quality of life in communities across Escuintla by reaching these youth before the gangs do. Plus, with reduced levels of violence, there is less need to migrate elsewhere in search of a safer haven.