Nonviolent Youth in a Violent Society: Resilience and Vulnerability in the Country of Colombia

Article excerpt

Despite the ample literature on crime and violence, little research has been done outside English-speaking developed countries. Colombia has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. In order to identify individual factors related to resilience and vulnerability for violence and offending behavior in Colombia, we explored the life histories of 46 young men from high-risk families and compared those who had committed an offense to those who did not (resilient). The findings show that resilient men (compared to offenders) in Colombia have been less exposed to serious life stress, perceive stronger support from their families, narrate their past histories with greater detail and affect, and perceive greater degrees of control and coherence in their lives. The results are consistent with the existing literature and are interpreted within the framework of attachment theory.

Reviews of existing research (Pettit, 1997; Reiss & Roth, 1993) have identified an array of factors that might explain variations in rates of violence and crime ranging from biological determinants (i.e., familial antecedents, dispositional characteristics) to environmental factors (i.e., parenting, exposure to deviant peers, poverty, and culture). However, most individuals exposed to many of these risk factors do not grow up to be criminal or violent (Garmezy, 1983; Rutter, 1987; Werner, 1989).

Werner (1989) has used the term vulnerability to refer to the susceptibility to negative developmental outcomes under high-risk conditions. She has defined resilience as successfully adapting despite exposure to these high-risk conditions. Resilience implies the existence of protective factors or mechanisms that may have no effect in the absence of risk but have a buffering effect in its presence (Rutter, 1987).

Studies on resilience have identified three groups of protective factors: (a) personal attributes such as intelligence, self-esteem, cognitive style, or interpersonal sensitivity, (b) a warm, responsive and responsible family, and (c) extrafamilial peer or adult support and positive identification models.

However, most of the previous research has been done in English-speaking developed countries so that little is known about the determinants of crime and violence in other social and cultural contexts (Laub & Lauritsen, 1993). The purpose of this study was to identify factors related to resilience and vulnerability among a population with different social and cultural conditions from those studied previously. To this end, we collected and qualitatively analyzed life histories of young men exposed to adverse environments in Colombia, which has one of the highest reported rates of violence in the world (World Health Organization [WHO], 1994).

The Setting

Colombia, located in the most northeastern corner of South America, has a population of about 36 million inhabitants. It has become increasingly industrialized (80% of GNPis generated by the tertiary and secondary sectors of the economy), with a GNPper capita of $US 1,400 and a life expectancy of 69 years (World Bank, 1995). As happened in other countries in Latin America, Colombia has experienced in the past 30 years a process of massive rural-urban migration resulting in the creation of squatter settlements in the periphery of the cities characterized by high population density, insufficient and inadequate housing, lack of public services, "nuclearization" of families which are increasingly headed by women, and high levels of unemployment which have been related to the creation and tolerance of a parallel economic system commercializing in drugs, contraband and pirated goods, among other illegal products. This system has been a source of wealth and power for many individuals, by far exceeding the possibilities of social mobility through education and honest work.

Colombia's current epidemic of violence began in the mid-1980s and is mainly attributed to urban street violence associated with delinquency and interpersonal conflicts (Presidencia de la Republica, 1993). …