Mexico’s NiNis

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Young people rest on a sidewalk as a man cleans in Mexico City (Henry Romero/Courtesy Reuters).

Young people rest on a sidewalk as a man cleans in Mexico City (Henry Romero/Courtesy Reuters).

An OECD report released this September shows that seven million young Mexicans between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine are neither in school nor in the labor force. Among OECD countries, Mexico has the third largest “inactive” youth population, behind only Turkey and Israel. Mexico has been increasingly concerned about the security implications of  the vast number of  these “idle” youths — dubbed “Ni-Nis” (Neither-Nors). NiNis are thought to be especially vulnerable to recruitment by organized criminal groups, acting as lookouts, dealers, smugglers, or even hit-men.

Overall, the number of NiNis has decreased by more than 10 percent since 1990, questioning at first glance the ties to rising violence. But a more detailed breakdown of this rootless youth suggests these worries aren’t totally misplaced. Most of the decline reflects the changing prospects for young women – who are much more likely to work or study today than they were twenty years ago. For urban men – the population most likely to be recruited by gangs and organized crime groups – not as much has changed, as their share of the total NiNi population has only decreased by one percent over the past two decades.

A recent study conducted by investigators from CIDE and the Colegio de México shows too that NiNis are concentrated in Central and Northern states — including some of Mexico’s most violent ones. The largest proportion of inactive youths are in Chihuahua, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Guerrero and Zacatecas (and in cities such as Ciudad Juarez).  In municipalities in these five states the numbers have remained stubbornly high over the last twenty years. Also, while NiNis aren’t concentrated in the poorest states, they do come predominantly from poorer families. Seven in ten NiNis come from households earning below the national average. Their parents are also less educated than the average Mexican, suggesting a vicious cycle as they too spend less time in school than their occupied counterparts.

Some factors are working in Mexico’s favor. Demographics should lessen the challenge  a bit – as going forward each year fewer youths will hit the streets. A rebounding economy can help too – as unemployment levels fairly strongly affect the number of (particularly male) NiNis. But Mexico’s government and society still will have to find ways to engage these young people, to help them see beyond the next few years and offer them real alternatives to a life of crime.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.