Youth and violence at the urban margins
University of Oxford
Project title: Co-designing a participatory project on urban peace in Medellín, Colombia
Grant: £ 14,381, awarded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund
Supervisor: Dr. Annette Idler, Director of the Changing Character of War Programme
I have recently completed a Postdoctoral Knowledge Exchange Fellowship at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. Building on my PhD findings, I have collaborated with the Medellín office of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the local NGO Corporación Convivamos to develop a series of youth violence prevention activities in the peripheries of Medellín, Colombia.
University of Oxford
Thesis title: ‘We Are the Nobodies’: Youth violence, marginality and social cleansing in Colombia
Grant: over £ 37,000, awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council
Supervisor: Prof. Fernanda Pirie, Professor of the Anthropology of Law
I have recently passed my PhD defense (with no corrections) at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford. My research ethnographically explores adolescent trajectories into organised crime at the peri-urban margins in and around Medellín, Colombia. I have also been a Junior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, and a Visiting Scholar at the Faculty of Law and Political Science of the University of Antioquia in Medellin.
Despite having been proven largely ineffective, tough-on-crime policies are still widely implemented across Latin America. All too often, the targets of these policies are not criminal chiefs, but rather adolescents at the lowest echelons of the criminal ladder. But shutting these adolescents in prison will do nothing to debilitate crime, because they are cheap, easily replaceable currency for criminal organisations. But if being tough on these youths is not the way, what should we do with them?
Part of the answer is that we should stop viewing these adolescents as problems, and start viewing them as people instead. They are people who face troubles, challenges, and frustrations, but who also have ideas, energy, and resources. In short, we have to get close to them and try to understand them on their own terms.
This is what I have done in my doctoral research, by exploring the lives and perspectives of adolescents at the verges of drug-related criminal groups in the (peri-)urban peripheries of Medellín, Colombia. The central question I sought to answer is why and how some adolescents choose to engage in organized crime and violence, in the context Colombia’s celebrated and contested ‘transition to peace’. I conducted almost two years of ethnographic fieldwork between 2015 and 2019. During this time, I carefully negotiated access with a small group of adolescents who were moving their first steps in the criminal underworld, and was eventually able to build a solid relationship of trust with them. This allowed me to engage in repeated one-to-one conversations with them, and to observe their daily activities, ranging from dealing drug, to looking for jobs, to simply hanging out. I also got to know their families and friends, and, through repeated trips to the field, I kept track of how their lives progressed over time. Such in-depth engagement with these hard-to-reach young people allowed me to gain unique insights on their lives and worldviews in these crucial first stages of criminal engagement. On this basis, I propose that these youths’ involvement in crime and violence is shaped by the precarity and ontological insecurity that characterise their lives. Having been made to feel like ‘nobodies’, they see joining a criminal group as the only way of ‘becoming somebody’, in social, economic and moral terms.
Much of the research on and with people who engage in crime and violence in the region has focused on individuals who are or have been fully embroiled within criminal groups. Little attention has been paid to those initial months when adolescents are asking themselves ‘whether or not’ – as they phrase it – ‘to go down the bad path’. Understanding this critical decision-making phase is of the utmost importance for policy, because this is precisely the phase when it is easiest to stir young people away from crime and help them see alternative life options. A key finding of my research is that – at least during this initial phase – adolescents are much less sure of what they are doing than we may assume. Their narratives are full of doubt, contradiction, and uncertainty. We can productively tap into this self-questioning and invite them to think critically about what they do.
Another main finding of my research is that, over the first few years of criminal engagement, these youths never stop looking for alternatives. They are not content with a criminal lifeway, and constantly juggle between formal, informal, and illegal employment.They are inventive, creative, and – despite often stating the contrary – they always keep looking for a better life. But in this search for something better, many obstacles stand in their way. These are objective factors that keep them where they are, like job scarcity, socio-spatial segregation, and staggering inequality. But there are also subjective factors which prevent them from pursuing their dreams: most importantly, a deep-held conviction that mainstream pathways to social and economic advancement are closed off to them. In sum, for these young people, the realm of possibility is incredibly narrow, both in concrete and in imagined terms.
So, what does this leave us with? This micro-view of criminal engagement is only a small part of the picture, and clearly needs to be complemented with meso- and macro-level studies. But this zooming in is important, because – again – it allows to see these young people as people – rather than problems –, and to think about how we can work with– rather than onor against– them.
Butti, E. (2018). Involving Non-Organised ‘Outcast’ Youths in Peacebuilding: Existing Challenges and Lessons Learned in the Colombian Case. A contribution to the Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security mandated by Security Council Resolution 2250 (2015).
Butti, E. (2016). The Invisible Violence behind the Legal Façade: Challenges of and Strategies for Conducting Research in High-Risk Settings in Transitional Colombia. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Issue 1.
Photo series: Growing up at the margins. Medellín and San Carlos, Colombia, 2016.