The challenge of youth violence discussed by sociologist Karen Nathalia Cerón Steevens, winner of the UNESCO / Juan Bosch Prize

The challenge of youth violence discussed by sociologist Karen Nathalia Cerón Steevens, winner of the UNESCO / Juan Bosch Prize

Karen Nathalia Cerón Steevens © UNESCO / C. Bailleul

The young Colombian sociologist Karen Nathalia Cerón Steevens was the winner of the first edition of the UNESCO / Juan Bosch Prize for the Promotion of Social Science Research in Latin America and the Caribbean. She sketches the outlines of the work on Central American gangs which won her the Prize:

The subject of my research is youth gangs, called maras in Central America. These types of youth groups establish their identity through specific tattoos and signs that make them feel part of a new family when they join a gang.

It is a highly complex social phenomenon, because the young people in question are increasingly associated with ever more violent criminal activities. In some cases they are more or less involved with drug trafficking or organized crime. We are talking about a phenomenon that has evolved considerably since its inception in the 80s and it has now become a threat to Central American society as a whole.

My research seeks to understand the complexity of this phenomenon and demonstrate how it derives from structural causes of marginalization and poverty.

I presented it in 2012 as my Masters dissertation at the University of Rosario in Bogotá and became Magister in social and political studies.

What lead you as a Colombian to do research on Central America?

I have always been interested in the gang phenomenon. Several reasons made me focus on Guatemala, among others because my thesis director, Roddy Brett, worked with the United Nations in Guatemala and contributed significantly to my research. In addition, my work is linked to another great ambition of mine, which is to try to understand complex phenomena arising from long-term armed conflicts, as is the case in both Guatemala and Salvador.

What does receiving the Juan Bosch Prize 2013 mean for you?

To begin with it is a great honor, but also a great responsibility. I tried to be rigorous in understanding this complex social phenomenon. But much more work will be required to master it, including the comparative analysis of similar phenomena in other Latin American countries.

What are your plans for future research?

My challenge is to continue researching the causes [of gang violence] in close cooperation with university colleagues and civil society, and with other young people to find integrated solutions to combat the problem. I wish to do doctoral research which will include a comparative study of the phenomenon of youth violence in Medellin (Colombia) and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). The study will also focus on Spain, because with migration, the issue of gangs is also present in the peripheral areas of many cities.


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The UNESCO / Juan Bosch Prize for the Promotion of Social Science Research in Latin America and the Caribbean was created in 2009 by the Executive Board of UNESCO. The Prize is named after the eminent author, politician, social analyst and fervent advocate of democratic values and a culture of peace, whose work contributed significantly to the study of social and political processes in the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean region. It rewards young Latin American and Caribbean researchers whose work has made a significant contribution to the strengthening of links between research and public policy in the field of social sciences, and is worth $10,000 and a diploma.

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