Youth Gangs: Armed Rebels Without A Cause
ording to the latest figures, approximately a thousand youth are organized into some ninety gangs throughout the country, sixty of them in Managua. They are armed, disillusioned, and their numbers are growing. This obliges us to reflect on the phenomenon, since Managua's forty most active gangs were major participants in the social-political conflicts that paralyzed the capital last month.
José Luis Rocha
Historians, sociologists, anthropologists and other social scientists frequently point out that violence has been omnipresent in Nicaragua since the dawn of the Spanish conquest, and has affected all forms of organizing life in this country. The most recent manifestation of this violence is found in the phenomenon of neighborhood gangs. One cannot understand daily life in Managua's poor urban neighborhoods without taking into account the relatively structured violence perpetuated by these gangs. It is unlike anything seen in the past.
To make matters worse, the upper echelons of the two most powerful political parties, the FSLN and the PLC, have also developed a gang-like political style, as various political analysts have observed, from turf wars over institutions to the unconditional protection awarded gang leaders and members by the simple virtue of belonging to the gang. "He may be a crook, but he's our crook" is the reigning political reasoning. This gang style is beginning to be adopted by various social strata and is moving into institutions. It is becoming an illuminating interpretive category for understanding the behavior of certain politicians.
Ex-soldiers the first wave
The gangs began to appear in Nicaragua in the 1990s. It was the end of the war, and many young soldiers were returning to their neighborhoods¼ and to rapidly growing unemployment. Knowledge of weaponry and military tactics, combined with the need to recover the social status they held as defenders of their country, led many of these young men to establish themselves as defenders of their neighborhood, with a growing inclination towards delinquency. The gang was the form they found to assert their presence on a society that, after having demanded such great sacrifices from them, was now excluding them.
Gangs have evolved since those first years. They are constantly replenishing themselves, relying exclusively on the young as new recruits. They adapt to circumstances, transforming themselves into a multi-faceted institution that does more than just react to structural stimuli like unemployment or poverty, though these social factors certainly continue to influence them. The economic and social context molds the role that the gangs play. The first gang members wanted to recreate the dramatic experiences they had in the mountains. Today's gang members only know about the war and military service secondhand. And while some military knowledge, like handling arms and minimal combat strategies, has been passed down from generation to generation, the cosmovision—and the political positions—of today's gang members are quite different from those of their pioneering predecessors. Their desire for social status and prestige coincides, but their political involvement has different motivations. And the buttons that get pushed to propel them into action are also different.
What motivated the gangs?
In Nicaragua, gangs also figure in the street fighting between university students and police that traditionally accompanies parliamentary debate over the national budget. There they are, year after year, with their rocks, mortars and sticks. Putting their daring to the test against anti-riot police is but one more manifestation of having nothing to lose in a society that has very little to offer them, and 1999 was no exception. This year more than ever, the gangs were central figures, intermingled with the students. And a few days later, some of the best-known gangs in Managua extended their notorious assistance to the transport workers' strike.
While gangs are not counted as relevant players from a strictly political point of view—they are not a formally constituted social or occupational group nor do they have any ideological affiliation—the military weight of their participation is nothing to sneer at. It can define the duration of conflicts, thus increasing the bargaining power of groups that succeed in recruiting them to their side.
What role did the gangs play in the university protests and transport strike? Why did they get involved in these struggles? What buttons were pushed to launch them into the streets and who pushed them? What was behind the excessive violence of their interventions? These are still open, and not easily answerable, questions. To put us on the right track, we made use of an auxiliary tool.
Almost two years ago (August 1997, v.16, no.193) envío published an article titled "An Anthropologist in a Managua Gang," written by British anthropologist Dennis Rodgers, whose doctoral thesis for Cambridge University focused on Managua's gangs. In compliance with the anthropological methodology known as "participatory observation," Rodgers "became" a gang member for the purpose of studying and understanding the logic of these groups. According to this research model, the anthropologist must assume the social role he or she is studying, not only to observe people's behavior but also to experience their activities so they can make everyday life explicit and understandable. Rodgers was able to accumulate a lot of valuable information for us, because in his role as gang member he was able to observe the kinds of details that would ordinarily escape the eyes of an outside observer. We consider it fitting to look back on some of Rodger's findings, employing them to shed light on the participation of gangs in the current confrontations.
Hypothesis 1: a way to forge a social role
Rodgers stated that gangs arise "in the framework of a national situation in which they feel like a lost generation.¼ They themselves state that they don't have any future and that Nicaragua doesn't either. They are without work and without social respectability. They are also without any possibility of studying.... Faced with this dead-end prospect, the only way these teenagers can see to create their own social role is by affirming their presence through a gang that assaults, robs, fights and exercises other forms of violence."
Sociological theory points out that in societies that lack rites of passage from one stage of life to another—infancy, school, work—adolescence is a stage fraught with great crisis. This is why the turbulence of adolescents, while typical of certain societies, does not appear in all cultures. Many teenagers from poor neighborhoods lack events or activities to signal the transition from one stage of life to another. Either they have always been unemployed, or they have worked since they were children, and will always continue to work in the urban informal sector. There is no transition in relation to work, not even a change of trade, for these teenagers. Some form of underemployment is their permanent destiny.
Society is surprised, even shocked, when those who have been pushed to the sidelines make up their own rules and turn to illegal means to find their way. In her moving book Economic Horror, French intellectual Viviane Forrester highlights this phenomenon, writing about a similar group in a different context: "From those reprobates, those abandoned to a social vacuum, they still expect conduct becoming good citizens, with rights and obligations. This despite the fact that they take away from these individuals all possibilities of fulfilling obligations and deny them their rights, in themselves very limited. How sad, how disappointing to watch them violate the social norms, the rules of decorum of those who despise them, trample them, and push them aside."
The gang is an opportunity for gaining social esteem. Collaborating with transportation workers and students—or attacking them—elevates their position to national magnitude. The gang members had the stimulation of being a part of history for a few days, making the headlines, seeing themselves on television. Gang members from the René Cisneros neighborhood were triumphant as press releases and video images of their neighborhood circled the world through wire services and international television networks. To be filmed by television cameras in combat against the police converted these same youth into nothing less than urban warriors. The social stigma of "gang member," with all its negative connotations, was redeemable via participation in a social struggle.
Hypothesis 2: defenders of the neighborhood
Rodgers found that the gang members' duty and obligation was to defend their neighborhood. "This duty gives them the right to attack those from outside who dare to come into their neighborhood. The gang members have a strong sense of territory. Each gang identifies with its neighborhood and sees it as its turf. They also operate in other neighborhoods, but not with the same sense of relationship that they have with their own. It can be said that the gang members have a strong feeling of social responsibility, at least toward their own neighborhood. Subgroups of a given gang generally operate separately, but never fight among themselves. They also join forces when the neighborhood is in any danger, such as when it is attacked by a gang from another neighborhood, or to go mess with the crowds during big Saint's Day festivals such as Santo Domingo."
This has to do with two fundamental traits of gangs, both of which can be observed in the case of the René Cisneros gangs and their clash with the transport workers. The first is their feeling of territoriality, as illustrated by the following example. It started when the media publicized that the gang from that neighborhood attacked the transit workers. Immediately following, another gang, which sided with the transit workers, showered the Cisneros gang with mortars and rocks. When the gang members from René Cisneros later explained what had happened, they didn't say they had been fighting the transport workers, but rather another gang from the Hialeah neighborhood that had allied itself with the transport workers. For them, it was neither social nor political; it was a turf war. Identity has to do with neighborhoods, not political ideology. Political leanings determine neither gang membership nor behavior. Reinforcing this theory is the fact that both gangs include Sandinistas and Liberals. The gangs lack clear criteria about the national reality, and their natural boundaries are in the neighborhood. As one of the people we interviewed from René Cisneros said, "When the fighting starts, everybody jumps in. Nobody pays attention to political stripe." This casts doubt on the hypothesis that claims that Sandinistas dominate the gangs. Or Liberals. In Managua's most recent violent crisis, both the FSLN and the PLC could find gang members for hire.
On the other hand, there was also a lot of carnival spirit in the gangs' involvement. Just as the yearly Santo Domingo patron saint festivals in August are an excuse for gangs to become active, the transport strike did not only provoke tension and crisis. There was also a general atmosphere of holiday and popular celebration. The gangs did not want to be left out of the festivities, as the television scenes of constant water balloon fights among gang members attest.
Hypothesis 3: an expression of macho culture
Rodgers says: "A strong characteristic style of gang activity is to stand up to danger. This attitude fits well within the deeply rooted macho culture, which idealizes running risks and publicly demonstrating courage against all comers. When the police arrived, all the gang members would come out yelling, throwing rocks and running all over the place.... The gangs can thus also be analyzed as a crystallization of Nicaragua machismo, through the attitude of gang members toward danger, the premium they put on violence as a social expression, their almost exclusively male membership, the way they relate to women, and so on."
Belonging to a gang puts that little extra oomph in traditional male aggressiveness. Mixed in among the anything but gentle transport workers, the gang member can take things much further: more mortars, rock barrages, sprinkling bent nails around to puncture tires. The skirmishes can be more daring. When the Hialeah gang members stripped one of the PLC agitators in René Cisneros, they expressed the machismo that reigns in the gangs. This machismo is exploited by political leaders–also macho, for the most part—who encourage displays of force with fiery speeches that promise to crush the enemy. In Nicaragua, political leadership is based on, among other things, the ability to play the strings of established cultural machismo.
Hypotheis 4: a quasi-military structure
Rodgers states, "When gangs fight, they essentially do so with an organization that is virtually military in all its details. They organize into `companies' that protect each other; they have a rearguard; they generally draw up a battle plan with a strategy; and they carry out their retreats in a very orderly fashion. The weapons that each individual takes into combat are his own, but armed individuals are distributed among the different companies according to their weaponry, to balance them. The exception to that is when the need arises to organize what they call an `assault commando,' with a lot of firepower to achieve a specific objective such as wounding the rival gang's leader."
Although the gang members from René Cisneros organized themselves spontaneously when they found themselves under vicious attack by another gang, the gang members accompanying the transport workers had enough organizational capacity to retreat in such a way that few of them were hit. The tasks required in this confrontation were distributed in a matter of seconds. One of the leaders immediately came to the rescue with ammunition for the mortar throwers, which he picked up in the Pablo VI neighborhood, where they are sold clandestinely. In this same small-scale armory, he ran into the leaders of Hialeah, on a similar mission.
Hypothesis 5: a source of solidarity
Rogers maintains that "the gang members underscore the importance of solidarity within their gangs as strongly as they lament the atomization of their community. They point out that a gang member has responsibilities.¼ Gang members don't just help each other; they also trust each other a lot. And that trust is a value that is getting ever harder to find in the context of Nicaragua's current crisis. This trust and this loyalty are partly reactions to the social stigmatization that the gang members suffer, although at least within my neighborhood and probably many others, this stigma is ambiguous. The inhabitants are constantly criticizing the gang, but they never forget that its members are the ones who protect and take care of the neighborhood."
The gang members make up their own code of honor. They don't accept the rules established by society. It is common among gang members to make pacts to avenge the death of comrades-in-arms and friends. And while killing is socially condemned, it is justified under certain circumstances within the solidarity that keeps the group together. The residents of René Cisneros felt satisfied with the work done by gang members in their neighborhood.
The only thing they condemned was the damage done by the outside gangs. The community points out with pride that their gang members never harm people from the neighborhood.
Hypothesis 6: a potential destroyer
Rodgers says that "the weapons the gang members use range from their bare hands to AK-47 rifles and fragmentation grenades. Generally, however, they use rocks, sticks, pipes, knives and homemade mortars. Firearms—semi-automatic rifles and pistols—are mainly used for assault and robbery, but they also come into play when a gang fight drags out over time and each confrontation requires an escalation of weapons until each gang reaches the point of using the strongest thing it has."
This availability of weapons gives us an idea of what we can expect in the future if authoritarian tendencies and the violent, machista leaderships that dominate the political arena prevail. And if the PLC and the FSLN continue to buy—or rent—gangs. In this kind of context, more decisive police actions—or worse, army actions—could unleash a progression of violence. In the panic of being attacked, the gang members could resort to increasingly stronger and more dangerous arsenals, graduating to urban guerrilla methods. Thus, what might begin as a spontaneous or even organized manifestation of popular discontent, where some measure of delinquent activities is inevitable, could turn into a succession of armed groups out of the control of its financiers.
Hypothesis 7: expression of a quest
Rogers proposes that "this longing search for identity is intimately linked to the vacuum of other significant social roles and permits the assumption that if one could channel the gang members' energies and dreams toward other activities, they would perhaps find what they are looking for."
This is a key subject: who would take advantage of this search, and to what end. The political groups who linked up with the gangs in the recent conflicts do not appear capable of or even interested in translating this search into class consciousness, into a tool for political struggle or social commitment. This time, they gave ominous signs: they translated it into a mercenary struggle, and for drugs to boot. Instead of offering alternatives, the political groups utilized the weakest and most vile point of gang mentality—the need for money to buy drugs—as a way to manipulate the gang members for their own purposes.
Gangs: Sandinista or its opposite?
There is a quite generalized supposition that gang members are predominantly Sandinista. Some even tend to portray the gangs as direct heirs to the once virulent "turbas divinas," the now defunct youth mobs used in the 80s to sow fear among people who opposed the Sandinistas. But ideologically, they are not the same. It is possible that anti-Liberal sentiment does in fact prevail in the gangs, but not for ideological reasons; rather because Alemán's Liberal Party unleashed a repressive campaign against the gangs when it came into power. Gang members have not forgotten National Police patrolling neighborhoods considered "hot" in early 1997, for the purpose of arresting gang members. Every weekend a number of patrol cars would come into the neighborhoods to apprehend gang members and drunks. Add to this the abuse they were subjected to during detention and interrogation, the fines their poor families had to pay, and the fact that this kind of police behavior has still not changed, and it is no wonder that gangs would tend to be anti-government.
On the other hand, all activities of the gang members are "opposition," since they constitute a rejection of "respectable" society. Recognizing their disinherited position in the social order, gangs create their own opposition values, but it's a somewhat ambiguous opposition. In a country like Nicaragua, where government officials who steal from the national treasury are dismissed as mere "petty thieves" and pardoned by the President of the Republic, one can see how neighborhood gangs could come up short of reasons to feel like outlaws.
A country of youth with no future
Over the course of a few days, some Managua neighborhoods were turned into battlefields. Species of urban guerillas, primitively armed with rocks, sticks and mortars, took over streets, alleys and other crucial points of the neighborhoods. Gang members make good kindling for igniting a conflict. Both Liberals and Sandinistas know this, and both knew how to profit from the circumstances. The gang members plunged into the strike without much of a clue what the issues were. As Dennis Rodgers points out, "The ambiguity inherent to the human condition—which is significantly increased in the chaotic and anarchic context of today's Nicaragua—means that people often don't quite know what they are doing or the effect their actions could have." This is another reason it is difficult to explain the gang phenomenon in all its breadth, or the significance of gang involvement in the most recent conflicts.
Gangs are neither a journalistic invention, nor a catchall phrase for "youth groups." They are the expression of disillusionment. Gang members are armed with weapons but no vision. Perhaps this emptiness explains why, while they won't surrender, they can and will sell themselves.
Nicaragua is a country with a young population structure. According to the 1995 census done by the National Institute of Census Statistics, 72.5% of the population is under the age of 30; 45% is under 15; 20% is between the ages of 15 and 24, and 7.5% is between 25 and 30. Nicaragua is a country of young people, and has few opportunities to offer them. Various sources, both official and private, agree that 74-85% of Nicaraguans live in poverty. The only way out seems to lie in each group creating its own rules. Many choose the rules of crime. Penitentiary system statistics for 1998 indicate that over 8% of the nearly 5,400 prisoners incarcerated in the country's seven prisons were below the age of 18, but that is a misleading representation. Adolescents are frequently picked up for relatively petty crimes, held overnight and released the next day due to overcrowding and a complete absence of juvenile facilities.
Are crack users the kind of activists political parties want to recruit? Do transient disturbances pave the road to change? Manipulating despair and discontent with the system is a far cry from conscious political organizing. If the PLC and the FSLN opt for military opportunism, then we can expect to see the flames of protests and strikes—no matter how just the cause—being fanned by mercenary groups with names like Los Famosos, Los Come Muerto, Los Perros Cancheros, Los Medusas, Los Sangrientos, Los Diablos Rojos, Los Rokeros Satánicos, Los Pipianes, Los Fantasmas, Los Galanes, Los Panzones, Los Rampleros, Los Chungos and Los Mercaderos. Nothing will change. And the gang members' own desires, as well those of other young people, will continue to go unsatisfied.