“Young people in neighborhoods dominated by gangs need positive examples”: Enrique Roig

By Felipe Morales Sierra, El Espectador

May 27, 2020

This Q&A first appeared in Colombian publication El Espectador and has been translated to English. Click here to read the original.

Enrique Roig

In Colombia, one-third of the country’s prison population is made up of young people between 18 and 28 years old, and 68 of every 100,000 minors in Colobmia have restrictions on their freedom due to conflicts with the law. The recruitment of young people to criminal groups, gangs and other types of organized crime is a problem that the world has been trying to find answers for, and an initiative from Creative Associates International and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) seeks to look deeper into the reasons for recruitment to offer solutions from the ground up.

Through a study initiated this year in Colombia, they seek to determine what leads young people to get involved in crime. In an interview with El Espectador, Enrique Roig, Director of the Citizen Security Practice Area at Creative Associates International, details a pilot diagnostic that was done with minors involved in the juvenile justice system (Sistema Penal de Responsabilidad Adolescente). The diagnostic, Roig explains, stems from a public health approach, in which violence is understood as a disease whose transmission has to be stopped, and a focus on strengthening young people’s ties to the environments that protect them, such as their families and schools.

How was this tool for diagnosing the risk level of young people for becoming involved in crime developed?

The instrument was created by the University of Southern California to understand the individual risk factors that affect a young person’s vulnerability to being recruited into a gang or engaging with criminal activity. It first emerged in a project in communities of Los Angeles with a high prevalence of these issues.

Then, the model was brought to Mexico and Honduras, and we’ve adapted it to six countries. In Colombia, we formed an alliance with IOM to adapt it to the Colombian context and observe which factors are affecting youth here.

What does that adaptation entail?

We’ve performed a small pilot with IOM to adapt the interviews we do with young people, adjusting them to the Colombian context and also observing the different scales within the instrument to see how relevant these measurements are in Colombia. The model has risk factors and protective factors related to community, family, school, individual and peers.

What did the Colombia pilot focus on?  

For this sample, we performed 164 surveys in Bogotá, Cali, Soacha (Cundinamarca), Caloto (Cauca) and Ibagué. We need to expand the diagnosis to begin to adapt it to other contexts within Colombia, because we want this instrument to help ongoing and future interventions be more accurate in reducing these risks. Programs that work with young people at risk of being recruited by criminal gangs find it difficult to measure impact. Since interventions often include a little bit of everything, from soccer to theater to family counselling and therapy, in the end it’s hard to conclude if the risk level is being reduced or not.

Why, despite the recognized efforts of states in Colombia, are there so many young people involved in crime?

What we know from the evidence is that there is a series of factors that influence a young person’s involvement in crime. If programs had that information and knew exactly what behaviors have to be changed and how to do it through protective factors, they would have much more impact. The problem is that, without that information, work with young people is often done based on a hunch or anecdotes that it worked for a certain youth. What this diagnosis does is provide information to specify much more and say, for example, this program is costing a certain amount and the impact we observe is that young people are not carrying guns anymore and there’s a reduction in homicides.

Which factors lead a young person to get involved in crime? 

What we constantly observe from Los Angeles to Tegucigalpa is it’s a lack of supervision from parents, negative peer influence, use of drugs and critical life events. We can say that a critical event is based on how a young person perceives that event, It doesn’t have to be the death of a loved one; a critical event may also be an argument with a boyfriend or girlfriend. That combination of factors, from what we’ve seen, is the most influential. Certainly, there are also contexts of the community where they live, with factors such as dignity and poverty. It’s not that one risk factor is more important than the other; it’s a combination of several that make someone more susceptible to recruitment.

In other words, what you’re saying is that since risk factors that are present can’t always be avoided, the focus should be on working to strengthen protective factors.

Exactly. For example, within the family, much can be done to reduce risk factors. Our job is focused a lot on families and schools. Only things like improving communication or expectations can really influence relationships between young people and parents, which in turn change other behaviors, such as the parents knowing how late their child will be out and with whom.

What do you recommend to families whose youth are most vulnerable to getting involved in crime? 

Our job is focused on building better relationships, the flexibility of rules, adaptation to certain circumstances so that the family can know each other better, because sometimes they don’t talk. Once there are better relationships, not only with parents but with other family members, that can really help in building another vision for the youth and what he can do with his life. Because, in neighborhoods dominated by gangs, young people need examples from positive peers, and that is found within the family and in some school figures such as teachers. 

What can Colombia learn from the countries where you have already worked?

A lot. And Colombia also has a lot of experience in this field. What is really needed for this to take hold is commitment and the resources to do a comprehensive program. We already know that, throughout the world, the trend is that in a given neighborhood, 0.05 percent of young people commit around 75 percent of the crimes. If we can reach that group, knowing what their risks are and with programs that are really directed at them changing those behaviors, we can have a bigger impact.

Why use a public health method to address the issue of youth crime?

We see violence as if it were an epidemic. What we try to do is to stop its transmission. If we know that violence is occurring within a small group in a specific neighborhood, we have to reach them. That has to be the main intervention. But the challenge in Latin American countries is that it is thought that the problem can only be solved by the police, when a lot can be done with social programs. To implement those programs, however, we must be clear on where they are going to work, with whom, and what type of intervention they need. Without that, you end up with a number of programs that try to do a thousand things, but they don’t prevent the recruitment of young people or reduce violence.

When people push for incarceration or longer sentences, how do you advocate for a public health approach?

That happens in the United States, as well, because punitive measures are the easiest response. But the public health approach allows us to demonstrate that, when we can think about people and the contexts they’re in, we can have a greater reduction in violence. In addition, the impact ends up being much more sustainable than taking a punitive approach.

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