UN Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security acknowledges that young people’s involvement in violence and criminal activity is linked to social and structural conditions of inequality and exclusion. In Honduras, where many young people are involved in violence and criminal activity, poverty and social exclusion influence the way youth tackle the challenges they face every day. At-risk youth in Honduras have few opportunities to promote change for themselves or their environment. To them, the only way out of their current situations is often survival by any means possible. In many cases, youth feel they have no alternative but to migrate or join gangs as a means to survive, usually at a high personal cost.
Gangs are one way for young men and women in Honduras to feel like they belong but soccer fan clubs, called barras bravas, are another. Even so, these groups often turn violent, and members do not even know each other’s real names. The youth in these groups are subject to the same discrimination that other at-risk youth face in the Honduran job market, as employers are hesitant to hire them because of the stigma of violence. This stigma, in turn, further isolates these youth from society.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Honduras Workforce Development Activity, Empleando Futuros (Employing Futures), is addressing the social and economic isolation that contributes to violence in Honduras head on. Banyan Global works to create economic opportunities for Honduran youth while also working to decrease the levels of violence that contribute to instability and lack of access to sustained employment. The project targets at-risk youth living in seven Honduran municipalities with some of the country’s highest rates of violence and crime, as well as the highest migration rates.
In 2018, Empleando Futuros began exploring ways to provide employment and entrepreneurship training for youth who were either former gang members or had previously been in conflict with the law. As part of this pilot program, the project began working with members of barras bravas, soccer fan clubs with strong allegiances to a local professional club. In Latin America, these groups are often blamed for violence around soccer events, and some barra brava members are also closely linked with gangs. The youth in the barras bravas pilot program had previously been arrested and were completing alternative sentencing programs through the Honduran courts. Like the teams they support, the two groups in the project—Ultra Fiel, supporters of Club Deportivo Olimpia, and the Revolucionarios, supporters of Futbol Club Motagua—were bitter rivals and had to conduct their training activities separately.
In late 2018, 40 members of the two barras, 20 from each, began a comprehensive vocational training program consisting of over 900 hours of training and mentoring. At the start of the program, most of the participants, who had been long-time friends, did not know each other by their proper names, which led them to adopt the phrase, “Today we are building a new identity and leaving the past behind.” They began using their real names and exhibiting positive leadership within their barra activities.
The program facilitators and coordinators supported leaders from within each barra to receive extensive training from Empleando Futuros so that they can replicate the program in the future. Six barra leaders were actually certified as entrepreneurship facilitators by a Honduran government institution. As members of the barras themselves, the program leaders could call on the passion and unity that their members devoted to their soccer teams to guide the youth during the training hours and beyond.
When training concluded in mid-2019, 38 of the 40 youth had completed the program and 31 had started new businesses with support from program seed capital and entrepreneurship training. There are many examples of success: Walter started a small printing business and also went back to school to complete his high school degree; he plans to enter the university this year. Karen has overcome several personal challenges to start a rapidly growing printing and design business, and Juan sells cheese and other dairy products at a stand he opened in his community. Orlando buys bulk nuts and repackages them to sell in offices, at events, and in markets while also focusing on being a good father to his eight-year daughter and mentoring his younger brother. Altobeli and Ander started a successful lunch counter next to a government office complex that is getting rave reviews from their clients, and Leo opened a small shop where people can pay to play video games.
Through their follow-on program voluntarily led by the barras, each youth receives one-on-one counseling and guidance to register his or her business with the Honduran government. As they successfully complete their alternative sentencing programs, each youth will receive a “liberation letter” allowing them to once again live freely in Honduran society.
The long path to total reintegration and rehabilitation is not easy and not guaranteed. Not all of the program participants have found employment. And sport, and in particular the barras bravas, is still seen as source of corruption and violence in Latin America. However, there are leaders like those of Ultra Fiel and the Revolucionarios in Honduras who are working for change. They have extensive networks and support systems and are united by a passion for their teams. The Empleando Futuros experience shows how this passion can be a force for good. The results from the barras bravas pilot are now being documented so that the activity can be replicated with barras throughout the region in the future.