"If we exist, it is because society has failed..." a prominent gang leader in Central America told me as we discussed why the "Maras" (a slang word for gang) are so important in the lives of young people today. "We're their family," he told me with pride.
Outside of active war zones, you are four times more likely to be murdered in Central America than anywhere else in the world. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, homicide rates in Honduras alone reached 90.4 per 100,000 people in 2012. By way of comparison, in the United Kingdom that would represent a murder rate of over 57,000 per year.
However, if we put the blame for this violence solely on the gangs, we are missing the point. The gangs are a symptom of a deeper problem, not its cause.
The gangs have become a sought-after social safety net for so many whose communities are left behind by society's promise of security, education and employment. This is especially the case for young people. And despite an average life expectancy of only twenty one years, membership in these gangs provides what society does not: an opportunity to gain status, power and employment, in other words, dignity and a sense of belonging, albeit at a cost.
But Central America is not unique.
We are witnessing political, social and economic exclusion of young people in many countries around the world. Frustration and resentment are mounting. They have burst forth in many forms, from riots and burning cars in the outskirts of Paris in 2005 and 2007, London in 2011 and Stockholm in 2013, to its most spectacular manifestation in unplanned and leaderless revolutions across the Arab world since 2011.
We feel the power of these young people. We fear their anger and their numbers. But we don't listen to what they are saying.
We need to stop seeing young people as a threat and make them part of the solution. That starts with engagement. We need to listen to their hopes and fears and make their voices audible in the debate on the present and the future.
Engagement will awaken us to a new reality and help us create much-needed "pro-youth" policies in such areas as security, education and employment. It is a fallacy to think that this would require great investment or even special expertise. What it does require though is a change of attitude from our leaders. Stop fearing young people and start seeing them as true partners in the development of our societies.
Ultimately, if we don't, the Maras and other such families will gladly fill the void.