LATIN AMERICAN YOUTH Anger and Disenchantment on the Margins

September 25, 2007

In 1992, during the Los Angeles riots sparked by the police beating of Rodney King, nearly 1,000 Salvadoran youths were rounded up by INS agents and deported to El Salvador. As the anti-immigration backlash deepened and public attitudes toward juvenile offenders became more punitive, the INS launched its Violent Gang Task Force, targeting immigrants with criminal records for deportation to their countries of origin.

Many of these deportees were members of L.A. street gangs. Once in ElSalvador, they began to organize local chapters of their parent L.A. gangs. Today, it is estimated that 30,000 youths are active in these gangs throughout the country. As Donna DeCesare points out in this NACLA report, young people who have grown up in exile or in the midst of war now face bleak prospects in a country which though formally at peace, has a higher homicide rate than it did during its 12-year civil war. It is not coincidental that crime rates, homicide rates and gang activity are extraordinarily high in countries such as El Salvador and Peru which have recently emerged from drawn-out internal conflicts. Dislocated by wars and ravaged by neoliberal social and economic policies, these countries have very little to offer most young people.

Nowhere are the contradictions of neoliberalism and its impact on youth more evident than in Chile. Young people from the barrios of Santiago, who are shut out of Chile's economic "miracle" yet confronted daily with images of the consumerist frenzy of the middle and upper classes, vent their anger through the seemingly anarchic and apolitical violence of the barras bravas, or soccer fan clubs. Yet, as Pedro Lemebel describes, their violence against the manicured landscapes of upper-class Santiago is an unspoken but powerful indictment of the injustices of the free market.

The media have played a crucial role in framing the way the public perceives youth today. Sensationalistic coverage of gang violence, barras bravas and similar phenomena employs the worst kind of victimblaming logic to portray youth as a dangerous social group that needs to be controlled and repressed. The youth portrayed by the media are not, of course, all youth—in the United States, they tend to be Latinos or African Americans, and in Latin America, they are poor mestizo or indigenous youth.

Latin American educational systems have always been highly segmented, with the poor consigned to underfunded public systems while the upper and the middle classes are educated in private schools. The neoliberal reforms that purport to remedy these inequities have in fact exacerbated them. Rather than focusing on expanding access and improving quality in education at all levels so that access to education is more equal for all, World Bank reforms have sought to get government out of the business of higher education and to allocate the tiny percentage of government budgets slated for education to primary schooling. In effect, the doors of university education have been slammed shut for poor youth, and the emphasis on primary education is a thinly veiled effort to educate the work force just enough to be efficient laborers but not enough to be a nuisance.

Young people shut out of jobs and university education have few places to go. In El Salvador, as Donna DeCesare reports, those who are lucky enough to get a job in the country's fastestgrowing sector—the maquiladoras— will earn about $4 per day, barely enough to ensure basic survival. In the wake of the virtual disappearance of educational institutions as places for the socialization and integration of young people into the world of work, policing has taken their place. Criminalizing youth represents an attempt to write off and control the growing anger and disenchantment of young people who live on the margins of a system which offers them few altematives.


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