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  Number 288 | Julio 2005
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Nicaragua

The Traido: A Key to Youth Gang Continuity

Traidos are grudges based on rivalry and ill will between individuals or groups, which can be taken to the ultimate consequences. They are actively at work in our politics and among our politicians. They also help us understand the continued existence of youth gangs over time, as well as the excessive violence they generate.

José Luis Rocha

The main character in Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, 15-year-old Alex, is the leader of a small group of kids who terrorize the streets of a timeless London in which the youth gangs sometimes join forces, forming armies for nocturnal war. Alex talks in a mixture of English and “nadsat,” the slang used by the youth gangs.

He and his droogs (friends) face off against other gangs, consume gallons of milk laced with drugs, dress in the latest fashion, savagely assault and tolchook (beat) elderly people, delight in making their victims gush krovvy (blood), and surrender themselves to a primitive and boundless hedonism.

Youth gang member turned “clockwork orange”

Written over forty years ago, this novel reflects with incredible precision the world of the youth gangs in today’s Nicaragua: abundant violence, theft, drugs, the use of a particular slang and an excessive interest in “original” clothes and tattoos.

In one passage from A Clockwork Orange, Alex recounts: “It was round by the Municipal Power Plant that we came across Billyboy and his five droogs. Now in those days, my brothers, the teaming up was mostly by fours or fives, these being like auto-teams, four being a comfy number for an auto, and six being the outside limit for gang-size. Sometimes gangs would gang up so as to make like malenky armies for big night-war, but mostly it was best to roam in these like small numbers. Billyboy was something that made me want to sick just to viddy his fat grinning litso, and he always had this von of very stale oil that’s been used for frying over and over, even when he was dressed in his best platties, like now. They viddied us just as we viddied them, and there was like a very quiet kind of watching each other now. This would be real, this would be proper, this would be the nozh, the oozy, the britva, not just fisties and boots.”

The police end up catching Alex. He is sentenced to eight years in prison, but the sentence is ultimately commuted in favor of a new Pavlovian-style treatment that makes him feel violently sick in the presence of even the most trivial display of violence. This new condition leaves Alex at the mercy of all of his former victims. He has become a clockwork orange, his vital juice feeding mechanisms that force him into socially acceptable behavior. Never mind the suppression of free will. The perfectly legitimate objective of ending delinquency justifies any means. In the end, the treatment loses its effect and Alex returns to his old way of life. In the ineffable world of Alex’s little group in A Clockwork Orange, as in today’s Nicaragua of youth gangs called Los Comemuertos or Los Chancheros, youth gangs face off against each other, whether in groups of five or twenty. They form armies for nocturnal warfare and they strike not only with their fists and boots, but also with more lethal objects.

In A Clockwork Orange, the criminologists invent a way of transforming young Alex. In May 2004, the vice-president of the Nicaraguan National Assembly presented a bill “to regulate crimes and misdemeanors committed by youth gangs,” aimed at eliminating youth gangs by condemning all of their members to prison. Another mechanized cure.

Prescriptive responses and repressive
methods don’t work

Is it possible to turn youth gang members into clockwork oranges? No, because prescriptive responses, repressive methods, laws and Pavlovian conditioning just don’t work, as has been proved by a number of different studies.

Different snapshots have been taken over time and the analyses tend to agree on a number of basic elements: youth gangs were initially formed by their members as youth groups that provided identity, respect and control of a given territory. A violent temperament and a love of the neighborhood, or barrio, were the essential elements that the gang scene fed off. But over time and as the result of all kinds of economic and social circumstances, certain differences started to emerge. The most significant are the youth gangs’ progressive tendency towards anarchy and the leading role they now play in drug use and trafficking.

We can update our understanding of the current situation of youth gangs in Nicaragua—while still not getting a complete picture—by examining police figures on juvenile delinquency, the specific situation of youth gangs in Managua’s Reparto Schick neighborhood, and the traido, or grudge, which is a key factor in understanding the continuity of youth gangs and their excessive violence. In Nicaragua, a traido is a rivalry, a deadly aversion between certain groups or individuals. It is a profound enmity in which the past overshadows current relations. It is a mechanism that keeps the troubled side of gangs at the forefront.

Do the Police see “delinquency”
and “gang” as synonymous?

The National Police maintain that a large part of juvenile delinquency is associated with youth gangs, and therefore tries to keep a thorough record of the number, location and activities of such gangs. In 2003, the police recorded 174 youth gangs and 2,685 gang members in the departments of Jinotega, Matagalpa, Estelí, Chinandega, Managua, Masaya and Granada, although they lacked figures for the country’s remaining departments. Masaya had the highest average number of members per gang, at 21.25. The figures revealed a notable growth of gangs in departments outside the capital, rising from just half a dozen in 1997 to almost 60 in 2003.

In January 2003, the National Police calculated that there were 117 youth gangs and 2,139 members in Managua alone. A month later, they recorded the same number of gangs, but a greater number of members (2,171), for an average of 18 gang members per group. This is similar to the average recorded for Colombian gangs, known as parches, in 1997. If these figures are accurate, they signal a considerable reduction in the number of young people in each gang. At their peak in 1999, the police registered 110 gangs and 8,500 members in Managua (77.27 per gang), a figure that was slightly higher than that provided by youth gang members during a previous study carried out the same year.

All of the names:
The registered and the missing

It is highly likely that the police were—and still are—underestimating the different forms of participation in youth gangs, considering members as inactive who have merely changed the way they participate. And this is not the only factor overlooked by the police. This year the police registered the existence of 12 gangs and 158 members in Managua’s District V: Los Raperos, Los Rampleros, Los Cancheros, Los 165, Los Pablos, Los Comemuertos, Los Bloqueros, Los Nanciteros, Los Power Rangers, Los Plos, Los Cholos and Los Diablitos. But this list only includes gangs from Reparto Schick, ignoring groups from other barrios in the district with recognized youth gang activities.

The number of gangs per neighborhood has also been underestimated. In the Grenada neighborhood, the Police only mention the Los Diablitos gang, although the neighborhood’s inhabitants talk of other gangs, like Los Crazy and Los Colchoneros.

Other gangs known for their active presence in Reparto Schick are also absent from the police registry, including Los Mataperros, Los Churros, Los Billareros, Los Placeños, Los Búfalos (now known as Roba Patos), Los Aceiteros and Los Puenteros. Los Puenteros maintain a habitual presence in the newspapers and have been identified as responsible for several murders. There are also notable omissions in other districts of the capital, such as Los Parrilleros and Los Tomateros, which are among the gangs most often mentioned in conversations with gang members from Reparto Schick, but do not appear in the police lists.

Everything suggests that the police are underestimating the number of youth gangs and youth gang members. Is this a simple lack of information or an attempt to sugar the pill? The National Police could be interested in minimizing the number of gangs in their reports to please a government whose main objective is to attract foreign investors to Nicaragua, “the country with the least violence in Central America,” as the official discourse puts it.

Central American gangs:
Nourished by deported emigrants

Gangs in Nicaragua are less violent and more anarchic than those in its Central American neighbors to the north. In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador there are two large youth gang conglomerates—Mara 13 and Mara 18 (mara meaning “gang”)—who receive their name, financing and certain norms from two big gangs in Los Angeles in the United States. The influence of US gangs has traveled back down with those deported from the States to their Central American countries of origin, who effectively export and globalize the world of these two gang transnationals. There are many former migrants deported by the United States in many barrios and gangs of Tegucigalpa, San Salvador and Guatemala City.

In Tegucigalpa the gangs have been nourished by deportees, as described in an article in the Los Angeles Times: “Nearby is a neighborhood called El Infiernito, or Little Hell, controlled by a street gang, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS). Some MS have been US residents, living in Los Angeles until 1996, when a federal law began requiring judges to deport them if they committed serious crimes. Now they are active throughout much of Central America and Mexico. Here in El Infiernito, they carry chimbas, guns fashioned from plumbing pipes, and they drink charamila, diluted rubbing alcohol. They ride the buses, robbing passengers.”

To a large extent, the deportees define the level of influence: “Given the widespread migration to the United States as a result of the wars, the gangs’ ideas and organizing agents [the deportees] have flowed back,” according to Guatemalan anthropologist Ricardo Falla.

The influence of Mara 13 and Mara 18 has not reached Nicaragua because Nicaraguan migrants have been significantly less likely to face deportation. While Nicaragua received only 3 deportees for every 10,000 inhabitants between 1992 and 1996, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador received 6.55, 15 and 15.75 deportees respectively per 10,000 inhabitants during the same period.

Many Nicaraguan immigrants were able to acquire political refugee status during the eighties, and were subsequently able to make the jump to residents and citizens more easily than other Central Americans. This preferential treatment reduced the volume of Nicaraguan deportees. This tendency also continued in the nineties.

According to statistics from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, between 1992 and 1996 Nicaraguans benefited far more from naturalization and were less affected by deportation than other Central Americans. During that period, Nicaraguan deportees represented just 8% of the total number of Nicaraguans naturalized, compared to 17% in the case of Salvadorans, 30% for Guatemalans and 61% for Hondurans.

The “know-how” left by the wars

There has been a marked evolution of the profile and functioning of Nicaraguan and Central American gangs in recent years. The motivation, procedures and emphasis of activities have all changed. The gangs and other armed groups initially spread as peace came to the Central American countries.

According to Ricardo Falla, “peace, in a way not unlike the increasing nationalism of recent years, made the structure of bipolar confrontation give way and the countries’ own internal tensions rise to the surface. After the wars, violence remained in the atmosphere, as did the ‘know-how’ to handle arms and manufacture homemade weapons, while organized crime groups, though different from youth gangs, appear to strengthen them either directly—by using them—or indirectly.”

In one Managua neighborhood very close to Reparto Schick, British anthropologist Dennis Rodgers found that the gangs had real, well-planned military strategies and ritualized battles, with a gradual escalation of the use of increasingly dangerous arms. They had a well-defined structure and a certain command of military tactics, because some of their first members had done their military service in the Sandinista Army at the end of the eighties. All of this was placed at the service of an emerging semantic and normative sectarianism with a territorial base that was part of the youth gang scene.

A kind of corporativism and a form of work

In Eastern Europe after the fall of real socialism and in other regions of the world, there was a triggering of nationalism, attempts to build communal paradises and the search for territorial identities, all reactions pushing in the opposite direction to globalization. In Nicaragua, the end of the war of the eighties and of the revolutionary project unleashed a kind of corporativism, a segmentation into interest groups according to ideology, profession or territory.

The current actions of Nicaraguan politicians can be also analyzed in terms of gangs, revealing a way of operating based on the tight weave of a group of friends. The gang style of the Nicaraguan political class was proposed as a category of interpretation by former Sandinista guerrilla leader and current president of the Sandinista Renovation Movement Dora María Téllez when the first pact was being forged between Ortega and Alemán.

Such corporativism also had its expression in the barrios, where just like the various associations of bureaucrats, intellectuals and technocrats, young people sought a group that would protect them against the collective other. In poor neighborhoods, the gangs developed in the streets, providing a family and a form of work, as Falla has pointed out. The gang provided security because each member felt protected by the group and provided a community service: defending a territory and its citizens against recurrent attacks from enemy gangs.

With time, changes took place. One of them was the age range of gang members, which decreased as many of the leaders and older members ended up in prison. Approaching adulthood and therefore losing the protective cover of the Code for Children and Adolescents also acts as a disincentive for gang activities. As if they felt that becoming an adult means that things get serious, some moved into other activities. Being a drug runner or dealer was a much less dangerous and almost always less visible way of offending, and it offered financial rewards. In this line of work it was also much easier to cut deals with the police.

From throwing stones to smoking crack;
from defenders to delinquents

The biggest change, which has led to others, can be summed up by noting that gang members went from throwing stones to smoking crack, from having their feet firmly planted in the territory of the neighborhood they were defending to having their head in the clouds, high on drugs. This does not mean that gang members didn’t previously get high on crack, cocaine, marihuana or glue, but it does mark a change in their activities. Drug use and trafficking have come to take a central place, completely displacing the task of defending the neighborhood. The most active gang members are now more reluctant to offer information about their activities, to protect not only themselves, but also the complex network of which they form a part. This network includes the bosses who supply them and shower them with gifts, the clients who demand confidentiality, the neighbors who cover for them, and the police whose silence and collaboration come at a high price.

This transformation could at least in part be the effect of the gang members’ education, which Falla summed in the following way: “If the street is the youth gang school, then jail is the university.” Some gang members I interviewed during a research study in 1999 became involved during their time in the La Modelo prison in Tipitapa, just outside Managua, in more professional drug gangs and trafficking networks.

Increasing drug use requires increasing income. Gang members either have to choose cheaper legal drugs, such as alcohol, to avoid the stigma of being delinquents (and just be considered pirucas, or habitual drunks), or else accept the stigma and resort to mugging or armed robbery to ensure that they always have the money to buy drugs. One thing leads to another, as drugs push them into robbery. The least daring turn into roba ropa mojada (wet clothes thieves), stealing into neighbors’ backyards to make off with the recently washed clothes hung out to dry there.

These gang members thus stop being defenders of the neighborhood and end up being seen above all as delinquents. The effects of the drug relax certain clauses of a formerly sacred code, such as not stealing from neighbors. The vulnerability of the neighborhood has come to represent a deterioration of the social capital of both the gang members and the neighborhood itself. There has been a loss of internal cohesion, which in a context of limited external connections puts the neighborhood on the path from amoral familiarism to anomy.

Defining what is allowed and what is not

Does this change in role imply another way of legitimizing themselves or a loss of legitimacy? The youth gang is one of the ways in which a social group can participate in the production of norms, albeit in a local, informal sphere. The gang cannot define what is legal, but it can define what is allowed and what is not, as well as which behaviors are considered viable and which are not. At moments of disorder, there is a multiplication of authorities and a heightening of competition to see which of the different norms will be imposed. A multitude of groups emerge demanding the right to legislate and impose their norms over others, to assume the authority to classify which behaviors are permitted and which prohibited.

The loose change paid to a gang member to cross through his neighborhood while he stands guard on a street corner is a socially accepted tax. It is a transaction in which the passers-by purchase the right of way. In the barrios, the “healthy” young people have grown up with gang members as playmates, and they have many transactions and common interests. They may label some of the “slackers” as “harmful”—which is often also a self-imposed label—and be scared of them when they are under the effects of drugs, but their habitual relationship is fluid and tolerant. Sometimes, in fact, the “healthy” kids even defend the gang and its members. As Roberto Tapia told me, “Those guys see me as one of the ‘nice kids,’ because I’ve got a good house and go to university. But they’re fine with me. Some are my ‘brothers.’ If they ask me for a buck, I’ll give it to them. What do I lose? They’ve got their problems to deal with.”

They instill fear and
build a community network

Although currently less accepted, the gangs impose themselves by instilling fear and providing certain services. According to some who don’t sympathize with the gangs, “If we make accusations against them, they come and stone the house.” Falla observed that “the police are either inoperative or groping around in the dark. The victims don’t denounce what happened out of fear. The gang exercises fear over its victims so that they’ll keep quiet.” As a gang member with the alias El Biberón recalled, “We used to throw stones at the buses, but the conductors and drivers didn’t go to the police because they knew they’d be on the same route the next day. They knew the bus was sure to get another stoning.”

Collaborating with local people also improves the credentials of some gang members. For example, Managua’s Walter Ferreti neighborhood suffers from chronic water shortages, and gang members from the neighboring Augusto César Sandino neighborhood work lugging water and rubbish for ten córdobas and five córdobas a barrel respectively. One of the inhabitants from the same neighborhood hasn’t forgotten that “gang members put up my mom’s house for nothing... well, for two liters of rum.” Such favors build up a community network of mutual obligations based on an ethic of basic reciprocity. A gang known as Las Gárgolas built the church in their street, although they never go to services. But they are convinced that working on the church amounted to a “blessing,” and believe “that’s why we haven’t been killed.”

Relations with the police:
From local support to beatings

The new penal legislation for both adolescents and adults requires more in terms of the presentation of proof and witnesses. However, witnesses very rarely turn up when gangs are involved, discouraged by either sympathy or fear. Confronting one gang member is to confront the whole group. In fact, it amounts to confronting a whole group of families. Social and even physical death are a constant threat. Community efforts to go the police to save them from the gangs inevitably run up against gang and neighborhood codes that punish bombines (informers or stoolies).

The gang members even have sympathizers among the adults. Some confess to having participated in the fights when the neighborhood was threatened, while others provide weapons and most just keep quiet. Even the police sometimes collaborate. Police officers living in Reparto Schick are often closely linked to relatives or friends who are gang members. El Pelón, a gang member who has been badly treated by other police offices on many occasions, recognizes that the police who live in his neighborhood are different: “They’re fine with us. They just ask us to respect them. If there’s a fight, they don’t get involved or call other police officers. They even sold us pistol ammo and gave us AK-47 bullets.”

But he has a very different vision of other police officers: “They beat us and tell us that we’re trash, bacteria, a blight. They say, ‘If you die, it’s one less bacteria for society.’ When we’re locked up in the station they steal the food we’re brought and let others steal the clothes we’re wearing.” But there’s also another kind of exchange in such cases, with the police taking it out on gang members by beating them up and the gang members obtaining immediate release in exchange. Those who have been beaten and show signs of their ordeal are let out so they don’t make a formal accusation to the Attorney General’s Office. Many police officers opt for this form of venting their frustration, knowing that they probably won’t have anything on the gang members given a criminal system without the personnel to gather evidence and the likelihood that no witnesses will turn up to testify.

A swarm of lawyers
and the absence of the state

There is also a swarm of lawyers in the neighborhoods, willing to do anything to earn a juicy fee. The families of the perpetrators are invariably more likely to invest in their services than the families of the victims. As Falla found in the case of Honduras, the process tends not to favor the victims unless “they have the time to be pestering and pestering and going to the police every day.”

The gang members have the additional option of trying to be recognized as minors. As El Biberón explained, “I used to pass myself off as a minor. It was a strategy of mine. When they locked me up I started thinking, ‘How old are you, then, kid?’ Seventeen. But they ask you right away what year you were born, so I had the answer already worked out: I was born in 1985. That’s right man, so they took me off to the juvenile court. That’s why people say—and I’m one of them—that young people are taking advantage of that new law they have for children and adolescents now.”

The Office of the Special Attorney for Children and Adolescents—which in 2002 had only one juvenile court in the whole of Managua and a meager team of just eight lawyers—and the Youth Secretariat and the Ministry of the Family—which have absolutely no presence in Reparto Schick—sound like remote and almost exotic entities to the inhabitants of the poor neighborhoods of Managua. The Code for Children and Adolescents can always be wielded as a threat against the police. But this has done nothing to increase police contacts with the Office of the Special Attorney for Children and Adolescents. Meanwhile gang members, evangelical preachers, professionals and other inhabitants of Reparto Schick were all unable to mention a single activity carried out by the Youth Secretariat or the Ministry of the Family in their barrio.

Traido: Eternal enmity

Tres Ojos (literally “Three Eyes”), who got his alias because of a third eye tattooed on his forehead, killed a member of an enemy gang by striking him on the back with a machete. After a failed attempt to pass himself off as a minor and get away with a lighter sentence, he was sent to the La Modelo prison. But his traidos, or sworn enemies, were patiently waiting for his release. A group of young members of the offended gang were going around the barrio displaying a trident with the inscription “Just for Tres Ojos” on the handle.

Traido can mean either a grudge or the person bearing it. It is the enmity—sometimes fatal and often eternal—earned during youth gang militancy. In Mexico, traido means “eternal enmity” and it’s said that when two people with a traido meet, they fight to the death. The word traido has old roots in Central America. Over half a century ago, the novel Prisión verde (“Green Prison”) by Honduran author Ramón Amaya Amador used the term to describe a rival who is losing in a game of chance. It is possible that—like coima, which means “a bribe”—the term traido was coined in casinos and bars, from where it found its way on to the streets.

Traido: The thickest bar
of this cultural prison

The traido is a phenomenon with lasting resonance and operates as a mechanism that drives youth gangs beyond their other functions, such as generating identity and protecting the neighborhood. The fuel of old rivalries quickly explodes into new fights. The traido is the thickest, most rustproof and resistant bar in the cultural jail in which youth gang members find themselves trapped. It is like a regulation imposed on both the perpetrators and victims of violence. They are bound together by pending revenge.

Traidos turn cycles of rancor and vendettas into long-term affairs. For example, four years after having quit his gang, El Biberón still can’t go past La Duya Mágica, a meeting point for many inhabitants of Reparto Schick, because it’s controlled by his traidos from the Tamales del Urbina, one of the most feared and notorious gangs. Likewise, the Ministry of Health has a “youth center” in the Leonel Rugama Health Center, but gang members from other neighborhoods can’t visit it because it’s in the territory controlled by Los Comemuertos, who have a traido with all other gangs.

Many gang members would have quit if it weren’t for traidos. After concluding that “the gang is a feeling that leads you nowhere,” El Chapulín, a former member of the Los Búfalos gang, said, “We liven up the block without picking fights with anyone. But along come Los Cancheros and Los Puenteros to flirt with the girls. Every Saturday they come looking to provoke us with AK-47s, machetes and stones. So even if you don’t get involved in anything, others come looking for you.”

Traido: Perpetuating the gangs

The traido is the fuel that keeps youth gangs going. Retired or discharged youth gang members will tell you they’ve left the gang, but that the group comes together again when the traidos attack the neighborhood or when one of its members is assaulted by the traidos when he goes to another neighborhood in search of drugs. It’s like the classic line, “I don’t want trouble, but if you’re looking for it you know where to find me.”

The traido is a stigma that although invisible, is registered in that unwritten file in which all gangs record the acts of their enemies, particularly those who have caused them significant harm. Julio Peña, a local carpenter, recalled how “They attacked my son with a machete even though he wasn’t a gang member any more. That joke cost him 32 stitches. We get attacked here by those from Pomares, Los Búfalos and those from Zone 6.”

According to Carlos Emilio López, who until earlier this year was the Special Attorney for Children and Adolescents, the media transmit the stigma in their zeal to sell their products. As a result, they pass it on to whole families, very often violating the Code for Children and Adolescents, which prohibits the publication of details of cases involving detained minors. The Special Attorney’s Office feels impotent when it comes to stopping the media, as attacking them could wreck the image of the institution and its officials and thus undermine its work.

In the context of a weak state apparatus, “the community takes revenge into its own hands,” as El Biberón so rightly put it. The culture of the traido is in open opposition to the culture of the rule of law or of legality that the National Police and the Ministry of Government are trying to introduce. But the traido has a greater capacity to impose itself, to produce multiple shoots and to resist repressive treatment.

Traido: A resistant force
in the neighborhood’s collective memory

Just as it has been shown that social capital is the only form of capital that doesn’t diminish or become exhausted with use, but rather propagates its own growth, it is also evident that the traido, as one of the mechanisms, expressions and devices of the youth gangs’ social capital, perpetuates and multiplies itself through the very actions it provokes. The gangs’ associations and sense of group belonging serve the traido, multiplying and reactivating it.

Although the Ministry of Government and the National Police propose disseminating “non-violent forms of interaction and the de-stigmatization of rehabilitated adolescents and young people” through “the active participation of community associations,” the traido is so strong that it resists all attempts at making a fresh start. This is because it almost permanently fractures trust, while the distrust it generates not only has social and economic costs, but can also influence the future of people and groups over a prolonged period of time. The community participates by keeping a mental file of all of the traidos, keeping the stigma alive in the neighborhoods’ collective memory.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA and member of envío’s editorial committee.

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