Children and Adolescents
as Victims

Public Perception that Adolescents and Young People are the Main Causes of Insecurity and Violence

Often, male adolescents from impoverished and peripheral neighborhoods are stigmatized and singled out as “dangers to society.” They are largely blamed for the lack of security in their communities. The reality differs from these perceptions and is much more complex:

Lack of Real Opportunities

The lack of real opportunities for adolescents in these communities to develop an independent life plan, as well as the challenges they face in being able to effectively exercise their rights, stem from structural social and economic exclusion that States have been unable to reverse. This has led to increased inequality, rights violations, the undermining of government institutions, crime, and violence.

Victims of Violence

The impacts of violence and infringement of rights during early childhood can have consequences later on during adolescence, and can even turn children into future adolescent aggressors. Indicators of violence and infringement of rights must not be viewed in isolation from each other during the different stages of the lives of children, adolescents, and young people. Adolescents who perform acts of violence usually have themselves been victims of violence or abuse, or else have witnessed such acts, or have had their own fundamental rights violated in some other way.

Photo Credit: Daniel Cima for IACHR


Pressure, Threats, or Trickery

Children and adolescents are constantly exposed to pressure, threats, or trickery to get them involved in criminal organizations.

Search of Opportunities

Other adolescents approach these groups in search of opportunities to generate income, recognition, respect, protection, and a sense of belonging, aspects which they would otherwise not find.

Drug Addiction

Getting children and adolescents to use and become addicted to drugs is one of the strategies used by traffickers to attract new recruits into micro-trafficking.

13 years old is the average age at which children are recruited by criminal groups in a number of countries

Quitting these organizations can mean risking life and personal integrity.

These criminal organizations are hierarchical with very strict rules. Any case of breaking internal rules or orders from above is met with violence, even in the extreme form of executions.

Photo credit: Amy S. Martin

Main Forms of Exploitation

In these organizations, children and adolescents are used and abused to serve the interests of the criminal organization.

Photo credit: IACHR

Adults consider them as interchangeable, throwaway pieces—the last link in the chain—and usually give them activities to do that pose a higher risk for their personal safety or risk of being detained by the police.


Activities linked to the production, distribution, and trafficking or sale of drugs and illegal narcotics.

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking and sexual exploitation in a variety of forms, including sexual tourism, child pornography, and child prostitution.

Labor Exploitation

Trafficking for labor exploitation.

Migrant Smuggling

Migrant smuggling associated with situations of abuse, violence, and exploitation at the hands of the smugglers.

Violent Activities

Other violent activities related to maintaining the interests of criminal groups.

Transport of Guns


Robberies, Extortions, Kidnappings, and Murders

Gender Violence and Human Trafficking

Conditions of discrimination and structural violence in society against adolescent girls and women are alarmingly aggravated in contexts of insecurity and in those where criminal organizations operate.

Adolescent girls and women fall victim to acts of extreme violence, such as sexual violence; exploitation; cruel, humiliating, and degrading treatment; disappearances; and homicides.

Sexual Violence

Girls are generally victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Many are forced to have sex with members of the criminal groups; they are sexually abused, trafficked, and exploited.

Drug Trafficking

Girls and adolescents are also taken and used as mules for trafficking drugs, thus becoming exposed to networks of drug traffickers; many of these girls are left facing criminal convictions for drug-related crimes.

Criminalization of Victims

Some countries still criminalize girls who have been victims of sexual trafficking and exploitation, claiming they have broken anti-prostitution laws, and fail to conduct serious and exhaustive investigations to identify and punish the individuals who subject them to violence and exploitation.

Photo credit: IACHR

Youth Gangs, Violent Youth Groups and Maras

The phenomenon of juvenile gangs is widespread in the Americas, and society for the most part associates it with violence and crime. The ways in which adolescents and youths typically socialize are often perceived negatively and tend to be stigmatized.

The gang phenomenon is diverse and heterogeneous. At times, gangs may be violent and may contribute, to a greater or lesser extent, to creating conditions of insecurity and violence in their communities.

Usually, there is an important underlying component of group identity and belonging that is very strong.

Controlled by Adults

The Central American maras are a source of grave concern to society because of the level of violence they trigger. Maras have been evolving and becoming more complex over time. Currently, almost all of them are controlled by adults and have generally become more violent.

Influence over Other Teenagers

They also exert influence over other teenagers or threaten them so they will collaborate or join the gang.

Prejudice and Police Abuse

Prejudice can be based on ethnic origin or skin color, socioeconomic circumstances, and other stereotypes relating to clothing, tattoos, physical appearance, language, and adolescent codes of communication. These stereotypes expose all children and adolescents living in violence-affected areas to monitoring, abuse, violence, and discrimination.

Some factors that induce children and adolescents to join these groups:

Spaces for Socialization

Gangs function as “spaces” for socialization among peers by providing them with a sense of identity and belonging that they do not find in other spheres in the community.

Free Time

The dearth of constructive alternatives for spending free time—such as in cultural, recreational, or sports activities in their communities—is another factor that induces children and adolescents to join gangs.

Self-Protection Mechanisms

Gangs also function as mechanisms for young people to protect themselves against the violence and pressures they feel in their environments, which may be exerted by their peers or by adults, or even by State security agents.

Feelings of Exclusion and Frustration

Feelings of exclusion and frustration tend to converge in many of the adolescents who join gangs. They perceive that they are not treated equally and not given equal rights and opportunities; they feel abandoned by government institutions, which they regard as impervious to their concerns and needs.

Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Migrant Families

There has been a marked surge in the number of unaccompanied migrant children and migrant families with children. Many children and their families leave their country of origin fleeing widespread violence, threats, and fear of gangs and organized crime; these factors sometimes converge with other causes related to lack of opportunities in their country of origin or family reunification in the destination country.

CIDH Visita frontera sur de Estados Unidos

Photo Credit: CIDH