Harnessing the Power of Soccer to Prevent Youth Violence in the Northern Triangle

  • Peter Stansbery

Young people are disproportionately affected by the insecurity plaguing the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. One International Republican Institute (IRI) program is working to build trust between at-risk youth and their local governments by tapping into the region’s most popular sport: soccer.

The Northern Triangle countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — continue to struggle to overcome the legacy of violence and fragile institutions that followed the civil wars of the 1980s. Today, the proliferation of gangs, narcotics trafficking, weak rule of law, extreme poverty and corruption all serve as drivers of migration in the Northern Triangle. Youth disproportionately deal with this insecurity. Tens of thousands of Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans have left their homes each of the past five years — many of them unaccompanied minors — with the majority bound for the United States. An estimated 508,000 people from the Northern Triangle left their homes and headed north during the first eight months of 2019.

Mitigating the push factors of this forced migration is important to long-term regional stability. That is why since 2012, IRI has been working with select municipalities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in municipal-led efforts to strengthen relationships between local governments and their citizens and develop violence prevention plans through programming funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), including the Unidos Avanzamos (United We Move Forward) program. One innovative way that the program has been connecting with at-risk youth is by harnessing the popularity of Latin America’s most popular sport: soccer. 

Soccer is an important part of the daily lives of many young people in the Northern Triangle and often serves as an oasis from life’s stresses, whether poverty or violence. Most importantly, by providing people with a sense of belonging, soccer engages communities as collectives. Working with Unidos Avanzamos, the municipality of San Manuel Cortes in Honduras organized a major soccer tournament to engage young people on June 22 that brought together some 100 youth participants from teams representing four diverse communities. The municipality also facilitated a post-tournament activity in which officials, using the training provided by IRI, promoted positive values and healthy living to address citizen security in San Manuel Cortes. This tournament provided local government officials with an opportunity to build relationships with at-risk youth and receive feedback on the municipality’s violence prevention efforts, which include community engagement activities and violence-prevention training programs.

The soccer tournament in San Manuel Cortes exemplifies the importance of providing social and cultural spaces where youth feel safe, empowered and heard. As a part of Unidos Avanzamos, IRI’s Violence Prevention Fairs in the Northern Triangle have also empowered youth and other citizens to provide direct input on proper violence prevention practices in their communities. On March 20, 2019, one municipality, Chalchuapa, El Salvador, brought together 300 citizens to discuss and collaborate on their Municipal Security Council’s violence prevention plan. During the fair, the municipality and co-sponsors also provided information to participants on governmental services, and there were opportunities to participate in painting a mural to rehabilitate a public space. Building trust between local government officials and young people gives youth confidence that their voices are heard and gives hope for a positive future within their own countries. Moving forward, IRI’s programs in the Northern Triangle will continue to employ new and innovative ways to bridge the gap between local governments and at-risk communities, including youth, through inclusive citizen security projects.

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