Press Release

IACHR Presents Report on Violence, Children, and Organized Crime

April 6, 2016

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) presents a regional report on violence and other violations of rights to which children and adolescents fall victim in contexts in which organized crime and violent or criminal groups operate. The report identifies the leading factors that make the Americas the region with the highest rates of violence in the world, and focuses primarily on analyzing how children and adolescents are affected by different forms of violence in their communities, especially acts committed by members of armed groups but also by agents of the State.

Conditions of insecurity and violence in the region are significant factors of concern which involve serious violations of people’s human rights. The public often associates these situations with adolescents, who are blamed to a large extent for the climate of insecurity experienced by many communities. The focus tends to be on male adolescents from poor and marginal neighborhoods who belong to groups that have traditionally been excluded and discriminated against and who are stigmatized on a daily basis and singled out as “potential dangers to society” who must be brought under control. However, as the IACHR explains in the report, the reality is different from these perceptions and much more complex. Children and adolescents, in fact, represent one of the groups most affected by different forms of violence and rights violations, as well as by the actions of criminal groups and by repressive citizen security policies.

The inhabitants of some communities suffer the scourge of violence more intensely. The areas that are particularly hard-hit are the least developed neighborhoods where there is limited access to basic services, a lack of opportunities, and little State presence. These are areas with populations living in vulnerable conditions, in which their rights are not guaranteed due to structural situations of marginalization and social exclusion. These factors facilitate the emergence and expansion of criminal groups and organized crime. In addition, the enormous financial revenues associated with the illegal drug market have contributed significantly to the expansion of criminal groups that compete for this market and its benefits, unleashing spiraling violence due to clashes between criminal groups and State security forces. Easy access to firearms and the large number of guns in the hands of private individuals exacerbate the existing climate of insecurity and violence.

In the report, the IACHR observes with concern that the conditions for children and adolescents living in these contexts can be daunting. Many of them experience situations of violence, abuse, and neglect in their homes, communities, and schools, at the hands of adults, their peers, and even the police. The quality of education is poor, and there are many barriers to accessing higher education and access to job opportunities and decent employment. Children and adolescents are often subjected to pressure, threats, or trickery to get them to join these organizations; other adolescents seek out these groups in search of opportunities, recognition, protection, and a sense of belonging, aspects that they would otherwise not be able to find. Once they are within these structures, they are used and exploited by the adults for a broad range of activities, including surveillance, the transport and sale of drugs, robberies, extortions, kidnappings, and other violent activities related to maintaining the interests of criminal groups. Girls and adolescents in particular are the primary victims of sexual violence and human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Adults use them as disposable, interchangeable parts of criminal structures—the last link in the chain—with the average age of recruitment 13 years old.

State responses to these challenges are primarily based on policies that are strongly focused on aspects of coercive control by security forces and punitive repression through the criminal justice system. The common denominator of security strategies in the region has been the allocation of greater responsibilities to State security forces, along with a progressive militarization of the police and their operations and the participation of the army in citizen security tasks.

However, these strategies have not significantly eased the climate of insecurity; on the contrary, many countries have experienced a resurgence of violence, in addition to reported abuses, arbitrary practices, and human rights violations carried out by State security forces. In this report, the IACHR expresses its concern regarding the high rates of arbitrary detentions; excessive use of force and lethal force; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, even extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances, as well as sluggish investigations and high levels of impunity for these types of acts. Due to the social stigma they face, some adolescents from certain groups of society are often victims of these types of abuses and arbitrary practices. Among the situations it found, the IACHR has observed that the application of the crime of “unlawful assembly” or “conspiracy” or “belonging to a criminal group” has increased the number of arbitrary detentions of adolescents based on their appearance and on the belief that they may belong to a gang or a criminal group, without any evidence that a crime has been committed. Current drug policies have also contributed to an increase in the number of children and adolescents deprived of liberty for drug-related offenses such as micro-trafficking and possession of small quantities. In several countries of the region, adolescents who are poor, of African descent, or members of minorities are overrepresented among those detained by the police. The prosecution of crimes of “unlawful assembly” and drug-related crimes has also led to an increase in pretrial detentions and for longer periods, due to an overextended criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, States in the region tend to prioritize punitive and retributive responses to adolescent offenders, with incarceration the most widespread measure used. State responses have focused on proposals to reduce the age of criminal responsibility for adolescents, in some cases starting at age 12, and to lengthen prison sentences. In practice, this might mean that they would be locked up for their entire adolescence—a crucial phase for their personal development, growth, and education. Added to this is the fact that detention centers, where conditions are generally alarming in terms of safety, health, and overcrowding, have become factors aggravating adolescents’ vulnerability and exposure to violence and crime, which only worsens and reinforces the problem States are seeking to solve. The IACHR reiterates in the report that measures designed to hold adolescents accountable for their actions should be based primarily on a model of restorative justice and socio-educational measures, one whose purpose is to rehabilitate adolescents and reintegrate them into society.

In the Inter-American Commission’s judgment, current policies seek to show short-term results but do not adequately address structural causes or focus sufficiently on prevention or on social investment programs and promotion of rights. The current policies do not take into account the specific consequences of these environments for adolescents who are in an especially vulnerable and unprotected situation which puts them at risk of being captured and used by organized crime, becoming involved in violent and criminal activities, or becoming victims of such activities.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations to the States to address violence and insecurity through comprehensive, holistic public policies that take into account the centrality of human rights and effectively ensure the exercise of rights by children and adolescents.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 047/16