Moral Reasoning about Mara-related Violence: A Comparative Study of Children and Adolescents in Honduras and Nicaragua
Over the past ten years, Honduras has consistently had one of the highest levels of estimated homicide rates in the world for a country officially not at war (InSight Crime, 2015; Ransford, Decker, & Slutkin, 2016; UNODC, 2013). Linked to the high levels of violence in Honduras are gangs known as maras, such as M.S. 13, that are dominant in three countries referred to as the Northern Triangle: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador (Ransford et al., 2016; Seelke, 2016). These high levels of violence have led some to conclude that “violence is an everyday fact of life for people who live in San Pedro Sula, which has led to a social/cultural normalization of violence” (Ransford et al. 2016, p. 3). In contrast, other countries in the Central American region, such as Nicaragua, have had consistently low levels of reported homicide rates during the same time period (Homicide Monitor, 2017), and local youth gangs in the country have not transformed into more organized groups associated with intense violence and extortion as the maras (Portillo, 2012).The current study examined children and adolescent moral judgments and reasoning regarding acts of physical harm situated in the context of mara-related violence. Moral evaluations were examined from a social domain theory perspective (Turiel, 1983a). Morality is understood to be distinct from and not determined by social norms and authority, referring more specifically to concepts of welfare, justice and rights. Rules, authority and conventions organizing social relationships refer to the social domain. And personal concepts refer to areas of personal choice outside of rule contingency or moral concerns. The first aim was to examine how children and adolescents coordinate and apply moral and non-moral concepts in complex situations involving acts of physical violence. A second aim was to examine whether moral judgments and reasoning would vary as a function exposure to violence, age and sex. A third aim was to examine whether children and adolescents viewed particular acts of physical aggression as alright or necessary in general. A fourth aim was to examine whether differences in interpersonal relationships between the aggressor and victim would influence moral evaluations. The study included a total of 80 participants (50% female), with 40 children 10-11-years old (M= 11.0; SD= .50), and 40 adolescents, ages 14-15-years old (M=14.79; SD= .66). With the guidance from staff at Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo de Honduras (FUNADEH), 20 children and 20 adolescents from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, were recruited from neighborhoods marked by gang-membership, gang borders and widespread extortion. The comparison group of participants were recruited with the guidance from staff at the Fabretto Foundation from Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua. The dominant language in both Honduras and Nicaragua is Spanish, both countries share a national border, and both countries have ranked similarly high in multidimensional poverty indexes and low in educational indexes (UNDP, 2016, 2018). And Honduran children (M= 4.75) and adolescents (M= 7.80) shared similar formal education levels with children (M= 5.15) and adolescents (M=7.55) in Nicaragua. Participants from San Pedro Sula were classified as high-level risk for exposure to mara-related violence, and participants from Managua were classified as low-level risk. As expected, the findings from the general assessments and the non-mara (i.e., baseline) situation show that children and adolescents from both the high-risk group and low-risk group did not approve of unprovoked acts of physical harm in general. Support for the expectation of differences in judgments and justifications as a function of exposure group was limited. Contrary to expectations, few significant differences were found by age for both the gang-rivalry and non-gang rivalry situations, while some differences by sex were found. Lastly, as expected, the switch in social relationships interpersonal relationships between the aggressor and victim had an effect on the moral decisions of participants. Results from the current study showed that children and adolescents living in conditions of maras in Honduras did not fully embrace the acts of gang-related violence presented to them. The findings support a domain view of moral development in which children and adolescents discriminated between conventional rules, authority figures, and laws with concerns of wellbeing of individuals and family members in their moral deliberations across each context of non-gang and gang-related violence. These findings do not support the view that children internalize and passively accept violence as a function of exposure to violence as proposed by some from a social cognitive learning model (Ransford et al., 2016).