Santiago Tobon001
May 22, 2023

Reshaping Aspirations for Kids in Medellín: Steering Youth Away from Gang Recruitment

A team is developing data-informed interventions to counter misleading narratives put forth by street gangs.

By Templeton Staff with Santiago Tobón

Street gangs in Medellín, Colombia are exploiting misinformed youth. By perpetuating false information about legitimate career paths, they compel recruits to take actions that make it difficult to leave the gang. With a grant from Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF), Santiago Tobón, Professor of Economics at Universidad EAFIT, aims to expand understanding of these dynamics, and to reduce the impact they have in vulnerable communities. 

We asked Professor Tobón to tell us more in a brief Q+A session.

What is your main focus of study? How did you become interested in the area of research related to your TWCF-funded project?

Santiago Tobón: Briefly, our study aims to understand the recruitment of young children into street gangs, assess the truth of different explanations for why they join, and test interventions to steer young people away from coercion and dangerous careers. We do so in the context of Medellín, Colombia, where roughly 350 violent street gangs control virtually every low- and middle-income neighborhood. In these neighborhoods, we estimate that about 10% of males aged 15-34 affiliate with a gang.

I became interested in this area of research because I grew up in a very violent context, even if my privileges protected my close ones and me. With violence, kids don’t go to school, youth don’t go to higher education, workers can’t commute to their jobs, and people seldom buy products and services. Peace, I would say, is a necessary condition for development. And cities such as Medellín, Rio de Janeiro, and San Salvador, to name a few, regularly face deep violent events. Rural areas all over the Global South also see such violent crises frequently. When you start to study this problem and learn more about the complex determinants of violence, I believe you become obsessed with understanding how to stop it. I think this is what happened to me.

What are some common misconceptions people hold about gangs in Medellín?

Santiago Tobón: In general, one could say that gangs in Medellín do not recruit youth into gangs using violent coercion, as is the case in rural conflict zones in Colombia or some African and Southeast Asian countries. Gangs here recruit people who trust them and will protect the gangs' businesses.

From what we've learned so far, the alternative is that gang leaders and members deceive youth, incentivizing them to follow a criminal career in a gang. This includes giving them incorrect information on their underage criminal responsibility, the objective probabilities of dying or going to prison, or their economic prospects. On the other hand, gang members and negative selection in vulnerable neighborhoods (where the most successful oftentimes move out) give youth a misrepresentation of the payoffs of a legal career.

What avenues are you exploring to counter these perceptions?

Santiago Tobón: We are working with a group of public and private agencies, such as the city's Secretariat of Education, SENA, the country's largest technical education provider, which has no student fees, and COMFAMA, a large private organization that manages payroll taxes to provide welfare programs. With these agencies, we are developing an intervention aimed at countering misinformation, correcting beliefs, and changing the aspirations and expectations of kids. Our intuition is that, on the margin, this should reduce the pool of gang recruits and help reduce the complexity of this problem. This is step one in our agenda, as we aim to improve interventions, develop and test new ones, and expand our understanding of how to reduce this problem further.

The team conducting surveys; A mural in a school that echoes the team's vision.
Pictured: The team conducting surveys; A mural that inspires the team, “You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.” -Zig Ziglar.

Do you envision your work impacting policy?

Santiago Tobón: We expect our work to have direct policy relevance for a variety of reasons:

  1. Implementing the research project itself requires tight commitment and collaboration with public agencies. For instance, we would not be able to collect data without the Secretariat of Education or develop ideas and interventions with SENA and COMFAMA. Collaborating with these agencies means that we'll have access some of the tools they have readily available---such as survey instruments and protocols for data collection on sensitive topics.
  2. Because of this collaboration, we expect that escalation is feasible within a short period if the evaluation returns clear positive results. All these agencies have a high implementation capacity, and part of their focus is precisely to give vulnerable youth good legal options for their future.
  3. We also engage with these agencies by training their staff in practical tasks such as developing survey questionnaires or conducting impact evaluations.

What are some of the data gaps you plan to address with your study?

Santiago Tobón: We are still at an early stage in our study. Nonetheless, we foresee that our results will be relevant to answer a variety of current gaps in the literature in economics, political science and related fields, providing answers to questions such as the following:

  • How many children join gangs each year, and at what ages?
  • What are the risk factors that schools and families could use to identify the children at highest risk of recruitment?
  • What tactics — forcible and non-forcible — do gangs employ to recruit children, and with what frequency?
  • Do children have accurate beliefs about the relative risks and rewards of gang life versus their alternative?
  • What alternative career paths do they perceive?
  • What factors do children weigh in deciding between alternative career paths?

We hope in a new version of the blog we can offer answers to these questions.

Santiago Tobón, PhD is Professor of Economics at Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Colombia.