5.3 At-Risk and Gang-Involved Youth Benefit from a Proven Enterprise Development Strategy that Supports and Challenges Young People as They Transition to Employment and Positive Social Contributions

Throughout Central America, young people are vulnerable to recruitment into gangs. Once in the gang structure, criminal activities provide an opportunity to generate illicit income. YouthBuild, a U.S.-based international NGO that aims to unleash the intelligence and positive energy of low-income youth to rebuild their communities and their lives, and CRS adapted YouthBuild’s model which was developed in poor, urban communities in the United States to the Central American context. That model starts with the idea that youth can rebuild their community, using the construction industry as an economic starting point for young people. CRS found that economic opportunities are critical for youth seeking different pathways in life; however, enterprise development strategies need to be delivered within the context of a youth development program. Specifically, they learned that:

  • Gang involved youth are not homogeneous (see Box 5.3.1);
  • Personal and relationship changes are key for enterprise development; a structured environment with clear expectations can help facilitate those changes;
  • Monitoring is necessary for at least six months after start-up and should include technical and motivational support;
  • Staff training, as discussed in Section 5.2.1 is crucial to success.

5.3.1 Bright Ideas: CRS Gauges Levels of Gang Involvement

Determining young people’s levels of gang involvement is an important first step in recruiting participants for Catholic Relief Services’ program in Central America. While popular perception may hold that at-risk or gang-involved young people are in similar situations, CRS emphasizes that gang-involved youth are a heterogeneous group and that their participation in gangs or criminal activity constantly fluctuates. They devised the following system to classify gang participation:

  • Cold: At-risk youth who live in neighborhoods with high rates of gang involvement and who have had minimal to no involvement with gangs.
  • Warm: Young people who have had some involvement with gangs but minimal or peripheral criminal behavior.
  • Hot: Young people who have been gang leaders and responsible for serious crimes.

CRS targets “cold” and “warm” youth for their program. At times, “hot” youth do participate but only if their gang has broken up for various reasons. These simple categorizations aid the organization in ensuring that they are reaching the right young people without endangering the program by involving youth who are still active in gang activities and connected to gang leadership.

CRS also found that many young people were motivated to leave gangs and join the programs once they became parents. They also left if the gang leader had been killed or arrested, thus changing the gang dynamics, or if young people heard about the program and were interested in changing their life trajectories.