Covid-19 Shut Schools Across Latin America, and Children Joined Gangs

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Covid-19 Shut Schools Across Latin America, and Children Joined Gangs

PUERTO CACHICAMO, Colombia—The pandemic closed the only school in this remote hamlet, long a stronghold for Marxist guerrillas. With no internet connection for virtual classes, 16-year-old Danna Montilla told her family she was leaving to find work, but instead authorities say she joined a narco-trafficking rebel group.

Last month, Colombia’s military bombarded the group’s jungle camp, killing Danna, another underage girl and 10 others. Residents here said her death underscored a grim reality: Armed gangs have found fresh recruits from an ample pool of youths who, like Danna, have been out of school because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I ask myself, ‘Maybe if she stayed in school, had some way to keep her mind occupied, maybe we wouldn’t be at this cemetery,’” said her father, Jhon Montilla, after laying flowers over Danna’s grave on a recent day.

While the pandemic led to a global shutdown of schools, in Latin America the closures have been extreme. Stringent lockdowns have led children on average to miss far more class days than elsewhere in the world, according to Unicef.

The U.N. agency estimates that Latin American children missed 159 school days on average over the past year, compared with the global average of 95. Only seven out of the 35 countries in the region have fully reopened schools, leaving 114 million young people out of the classroom in what Unicef has called an unfolding “generational catastrophe.”

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