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Violence: The Americas’ new pandemic

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — From Argentina in the south to Canada in the north, violence is becoming an increasingly serious problem in the Americas, affecting all nations in the hemisphere. What makes this phenomenon especially worrisome is that children and adolescents are among its main actors, and victims. Violence affects children and adolescents from all social strata. Those from poorer or more disadvantaged backgrounds, however, are the ones who suffer the most. Although violence has always been a serious problem in the Americas, the economic and sociopolitical changes of recent years have caused it to increase. The cost in human lives and disabilities is staggering.

The causes of violence vary in different countries of the Americas. Its origins can be traced to internal wars, political conflicts, social problems, economic crises and poverty. In some countries, these factors can be linked to the consolidation of a power structure with strong connections to drug production and marketing. This last factor has led to a weakening of the judicial system, to the transformation of values and to a significant increase in corruption at all levels of society.

In the United States, although some of these causes are also at work, the easy availability of guns is perhaps the most significant etiologic factor. A 1990 survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control showed that approximately 650,000 high school students carried a gun during the month of the survey. It is estimated that over 600,000 people are victimized by handguns every year in the U.S.

One cannot disregard the influence of mass communication media on shaping children’s minds and behavior. Mass media, movies, TV and video games, create a world of unreality that children have difficulty in separating from the real world. This interplay of several factors, with different levels of importance according to divergent circumstances, as well as in different countries or regions within the same country, shows that violence in the Americas is a complex problem with multiple causes.

Homicides are the most evident and serious manifestation of violence. Statistics from the Pan American Health Organization reveal that in 1993 there were 456,000 deaths due to violent causes in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the U.S., it is estimated that 65 people die every day, and more than 6,000 are hurt as a result of episodes of interpersonal violence. Although in a few countries violent deaths are mainly the consequence of wars, in most countries they are the result of conflicts among civilians.

A significant characteristic of this homicidal violence is the involvement of adolescents and young people. In Cali, Colombia, more than one-tenth of homicides committed in the first half of 1993 were carried out by adolescent gangs, and one-third of all murders were executed by hired killers — called “sicarios” — most of whom were young people. In the U.S., from 1986 to 1991, murders committed by adolescents between 14 and 17 grew by 124 percent. Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, remarked in 1994: ” . . the crisis of children having children has been eclipsed by the greater crisis of children killing children.” The concentration of homicides in this young sector of the population represents a high social, public health and economic burden.

Although homicide is the most evident consequence of violence, it is not the only one. Violence can also leave physical and psychological consequences. Physical, because of those left with transitory or permanent injuries or disabilities. Psychological, because when violence affects either children or their families, it may alter the children’s growth and development.

According to the 1996 UNICEF report, “The State of the World’s Children,” in 1995, 10 million children were left with psychological traumas, 2 million were killed, 4-5 million were disabled, 12 million were left homeless, and more than 1 million became orphans or were separated from their parents as a result of wars and other kinds of violence.

Violence places a significant burden on health and rehabilitation and emergency services. A study carried out in Medellin, Colombia, showed that violence is the second most important reason to demand rehabilitation services. Increased demands on emergency units impair their ability to respond effectively to other emergencies. The number of children living in the streets, isolated from their families or from any other kind of social support system, has significantly increased throughout Latin America in recent times. It is estimated that more than 7 million children now live out of reach of social services in Latin America. They are particularly prone to abuse and exploitation.

In Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala, where the number of street children has soared in recent years, the threats to their lives and well-being have dramatically increased. In Brazil, street children are killed at an estimated at a rate of four children per day by the police or death squads, which at times act with the approval of the authorities, a fact repeatedly denounced by Amnesty International. Child killings, called by their perpetrators “social cleansing,” are usually carried out by police or private groups, a kind of vigilante justice carried out on street children or on those from poor neighborhoods, who are often perceived as criminals.

There is not a single strategy known to successfully deal with the problem of violence. However, the complexity of the phenomenon demands integral, comprehensive approaches. Governments need to increase resources to combat poverty, reform the educational, judicial and prison systems, more strictly regulate gun ownership, and assess and monitor the social responsibility of mass communication media.

One thing is certain. Violence, in its different forms, cannot be stopped by single, short-sighted actions. Another thing is equally certain. If new measures are not implemented soon, violence as a social pandemic will continue to cross geographic boundaries and become an uncontrollable international crisis.