Youth Gang Members: The Hand that Rocks the Mortar Launcher
The number of youth gangs in Nicaragua seems to grow by the day. What are their adolescent members looking for? Why do they fight? What unites them? Rather than breaking with the established order, these youth gang members actually form
their own particular part of that order and share the cultural paradigm of our times. We need to observe and interpret them with greater understanding.
José Luis Rocha
Tom said, "Now we’ll start this band of robbers and call it Tom Sawyer’s Gang. Anybody that wants to join has to take an oath, and write his name in blood."
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Over a century ago, US author Mark Twain wrote a series of stories about a gang of adolescents that hung out on the banks of the Mississippi. Twain’s acute sense of observation enabled him to capture the gang’s youthful spirit and to describe vividly the personality of each of his characters. Who has not heard of the adventures of youth gang member Tom Sawyer and his equally unredeemed friend and fellow gang member Huckleberry Finn? The book was based on real life and celebrated a way of life that was no doubt censured by the "good consciences" of his time. Twain turned a social pariah into a hero, creating an inspired character who strongly criticized the educational institutions of the time—Twain himself once urged his readers not to let school interfere with their education. He exalted the role of the rebel: attacking the established order, ridiculing the commonplace and undermining the apparently solid foundations of the existing institutions. Twain captured the rebellious spirit of those agitated times of gold fever, rapid change, social mobility, marginalization and delinquency.
In praise of the trampIn The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn is a teenage pariah, son of the town drunk. He is cordially hated by all of the local mothers for being crazy, lawless, vulgar and bad, and because all of their children are fascinated by his forbidden behavior. Huck is the prototype of the adolescent vagabond. Mark Twain said that he took his characters from real life, and Huck Finn was based on a dirty, ignorant, completely unrestrained, but good-hearted rascal. According to Twain, he was the only truly independent male in his community.
Today, we would be amazed by such praise of a tramp, but Twain makes it seem perfectly natural. The fact is that the rebellious sense of this literary creation is missing today. The writers of the 19th century idealized the poor (Oliver Twist), while those of the 17th and 18th centuries idealized the rogue (Tristam Shandy) and even the delinquent (Moll Flanders).
Nicaraguan intellectuals, who demonstrated an unprecedented fecundity in the epic genre and apologetics of the revolution, are now sunk in sterility or inclined toward historical themes. None of the works of fiction recently written in Nicaragua reflect the fragmentation of our society and the desperation of the excluded groups. There is no poem to the tramp, no place for such people as literary protagonists in these times; the literary absolution of our times does not cover them.
This vacuum reflects the growing distance that the middle classes have put between themselves and the dispersed expressions of grassroots agitation and tension, which are on the rise but impossible to articulate into a collective project. If anything, these expressions reveal the poor as a threat to middle-class citizens, with whom they share only a few common spaces. No ideological construction dignifies them and encapsulates their sense of life. There is only rejection, based on the journalistic image of youth gang members branded as "anti-social ruffians" or "enemies of the citizenry," phrases that serve to justify hostility against them. It is through this tangle of epithets that we must try to make out the true face of the youth gang member, by blocking out the predominant perceptions.
Oaths and symbolsMark Twain contrasted the dominant censure of the "ne’er-do-wells" of his time with a more favorable portrait. Some passages of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn still provide us with good anthropological tools. One example is the description of the oath Tom Sawyer designed to formalize acceptance into his gang. If anyone hurt any gang member, for example, any other members of the gang could be commissioned to kill that person and his or her family, and they should not eat or sleep until they had killed them and marked their chest with a cross as a sign of the gang’s revenge. Nobody outside of the gang could use this symbol, and would be punished if they did. If any member of the gang told about the cross, his throat would be cut, his body burnt and the ashes scattered and his name erased from the gang’s list and never mentioned again. Tom based the oath on books about pirates, thieves and highwaymen, and when asked what the gang did, he replied: "Nothing only robbery and murder… We stop stages and carriages on the road, with masks on, and kill the people and take their watches and money."
Such descriptions reflect many of the characteristics of the gangs in Nicaragua and other Central American countries today: a code of honor that above all penalizes traitors, punishing snitches particularly cruelly; a set of symbols to identify the group’s acts; specific meeting places; the marking of their territory; and revenge as the main motive behind the greatest expressions of violence. And in these countries today the violence is not just the fantastical threats of a child’s imagination, but is real. So how did a scheme that started as a game of scamps turn into such an apocalyptic reality?
Latin America: a violent territoryLet’s now jump from literary fantasy to national reality. Sofía, a female member of the famous Comemuertos (literally "eaters of the dead") gang, perhaps the most violent gang in Nicaragua, proudly confesses: "We were the real thing, we were all big. We didn’t go around doing just any old thing like the kids who like to fire off homemade mortars or steal wallets and necklaces and then run away. No, we went around with good weapons and attacked vehicles that came to sell goods in the barrio. We broke into houses, stole anything worth taking, and wouldn’t think twice about mercilessly killing six people if need be. We also raped girls and old women right there in the street. And if someone informed on us, we made them pay for it. Everyone in my gang got together to burn down the house of an old man who tried to rape me when I was 14. He’d scratched my neck when I resisted."
The Comemuertos was the gang that in 1994 would dig up recently buried bodies from a cemetery located in what they considered their territory, steal any valuable objects and then burn the corpse using gasoline. Their symbol was the skull and crossbones from pirate stories, and like the much less brazen kids of Tom Sawyer’s band, their conspiratorial escapades took place mainly at night.
Why all that violence? Why violence for violence’s sake? In Latin America, violence has reached unprecedented levels. The innocuous robbery and fighting of Tom Sawyer’s gang have multiplied to horrifying proportions not just in Nicaragua, but throughout Latin America. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, there are currently 140,000 homicides a year in Latin America. Latin Americans annually lose the equivalent of nearly three days of healthy life per capita due to violence. In addition, 28 million families are the victims of robbery every year, and 54 families are robbed every minute. According to any one of these indicators, the level of violence is five times higher in our region than in the rest of the world. The same study states that violence against goods and people represents a destruction and transfer of resources equivalent to approximately 14.2% of the Latin American GDP, or US$168 million. In terms of human capital the region loses the equivalent of 1.9% of the GDP, or the region’s entire spending on primary education. Meanwhile, the equivalent of 4.8% of the GDP or half the region’s total private investment is lost in capital resources. The "resource transfer" between criminals and their victims equals 2.1% of the GDP, which is higher than the distributive effect of all public finances.
First of all, a group of friendsThe youth gangs are not the only protagonists of all of this destruction, but in the case of Nicaragua, adolescents and young people have undoubtedly increased their participation in criminal activities. In 1997, according to National Police figures, 52% of those suspected of committing a crime were aged between 13 and 25, which is precisely the age range of the gang members.
At the beginning of 1999, the police counted 110 gangs, most of them in Managua. Taking the average size of a gang to be 75, this gives a total of around 8,250 members. Since there are varying degrees of involvement, however, the youth gang phenomenon involves many more people. The lack of a clear definition of what constitutes a gang makes it difficult to compare information about their differing expressions in different cities and at different periods of time. Nonetheless, it can be stated that gangs start first as a group of friends rather than as an association bent on criminal activity.
Like Huck Finn, excluded from participating in society’s main institutional activities, gang members see the streets as an alternative way of socializing. These youngsters share many similar experiences, such as family tension, academic failure and lack of interest in legitimate activities, and the gangs offer them a collective solution to the problem of their own identity.
Street socializationGoing around in a gang gives you power, because it provides support for its members. It also confers prestige, because the gang’s activities receive publicity that transcends the neighborhood borders. The family has little importance as a sphere of socialization for gang members, many of whom have had to wander the streets since they were children, selling bags of water, soft drinks and instant lottery tickets, or took to the streets because they were ill-treated by their families. Thus, this secondary-level integration into the gang was the result of the disintegration of the primary, or family, level. They were left with no other option but to socialize with their peers on the streets. "The gang is my family," as one member put it. Their greatest loyalty is therefore owed to their "brothers" in the gang and not to their families. Frequently, the family is unaware of—or pretends to be unaware of—what gang members from the family are up to.
The adolescents choose to belong to a group that their friends already belong to, regardless of the education to which they may have been subjected. According to César, "When I was smaller, my parents ruled with an iron hand. They hit me to stop me becoming a tramp. The problem isn’t education or whether or not you rule with an iron hand. That might be important, but not always. The problem is that you like the way it feels to go around in a gang. You’re led there by your friends; you join because that’s where your ‘brothers’ are."
Friends are like a magnet, and friendships need space and time to be consolidated. Later, the friends form a hierarchy. The gang provides an opportunity to define different degrees of friendship. As Neftalí pointed out, "You don’t have many real friends. Although we all talk in the gang, we only really become ‘buddies’ with a few. Only buddies lend each other money. You can’t be friends with everybody, because there are a lot of people in a gang that you hardly know."
Another gang member elaborated on the distinction between a ‘brother’ and a ‘buddy:’ "There are about 70 kids in the gang. They’re all brothers, but only two are my buddies. When we got hold of weapons, AK-47s, I gave them to my buddies to look after. The other guys might rip you off. You can only trust your buddies. How do you make buddies? In my case, we were in a fight with another gang, there were a lot of us and I was wounded and lying on the floor, but only two of them, my buddies, came back and didn’t just leave me there to die. They didn’t abandon me and let me fall into the hands of the other gang. The others just left me lying there when I got cut open around my eyebrow. So I owe my life to my buddies, and if anything ever happens to them, I have to go out of my way to help them. Buddies give you money even if you didn’t take part in the robbery. If I go out to steal with my buddies, it won’t end in a fight. If we get a hundred pesos, we split it three ways. That’s why I don’t steal with anyone else, because they want to stiff you, they stuff the money down their pants, and that’s low."
Life in a gang forges a common history, a constant exchange of knowledge, and strengthens the ties of friendship. Although it is the criminal aspect that most stands out for an outside observer, the main motivation for the kids is to find a place in the nearest space for socialization, which is also a source of identity.
Gang member or hanger-on? Brother or traitor?Just as there are different degrees of friendship in a gang, there are also different degrees of membership. There are various ways of being linked to a gang and these different membership levels complicate the gang’s organizational structure and the role it plays in the barrio.
The gang provides a mechanism for measuring social integration in the barrio. In many marginalized neighborhoods in Managua, the majority of young people are gang members, leaving those families that have no relations with gang members relatively isolated.
There is also a kind of social pressure, a social tax imposed by the gang for the protection that they provide in the barrio. This social tax can be anything from providing the gang with human resources to giving them small sums of money. While such monetary contributions are offered voluntarily by neighbors or "suggested" to non-residents as a contribution, the intangible assets of those who do not pay deteriorate notably.
There are also various kinds of social tax, according to the person’s status. A young evangelical or university student would not be required to maintain a strong link, for example, though they would be expected at least not to inform on the gang. These different levels of support provide diversity to the links: simple tolerance is the loosest level, and providing arms is the closest. "The gang from La Aceitera comes to my barrio to start a war, so the people from my barrio give us money to buy homemade mortars," explained one member.
The opposite of the collaborator is the informer, who becomes a potential victim. Just one notch up from the informers on the negative scale are the peluches, or cowards, who refuse to take part in the fights. This unwillingness is particularly punishable when they are considered to be shirkers and drop-outs, in other words when they share the same status as a gang member, but refuse to help defend the barrio in the socially accepted way.
Everything exists in the barrio, and the different statuses are clear: straight or bad, decent or tarnished, brother—the highest class being the buddy—or traitor. Churches and other institutions help define these statuses and each one carries certain obligations or roles. For example, different things are expected from a hanger-on than from a gang member. The role of the gang member and that of a "decent" person also generate different expectations. In general, however, gang members admit that belonging to a gang is just a stage in their lives and they hold on to the traditional ideals: marry a decent girl, start up a home, etc. Abandoning the status of gang member implies changing friends. Hanging out with tramps is for gang members; decent girls are for something serious, like starting up a home.
Defenders of their barriosThe gangs are the spontaneous effort of young people to create their own society within a society that offers them nothing that matches their needs. Their gang-based activities provide them with what the adult world denies them: a leading role. The gangs even end up determining the neighborhood’s ecology. Their activity is what sets the rhythm and the laws: when to stay in your house and when the coast is clear, where it’s safe to walk and even what time strangers can visit. "We rule the barrio," as one young gang member put it.
The tattoos, the slang and a kind of moral code all imply the creation of a certain order, their own order. The most obvious demonstration of power this offers is the fact that gangs have succeeded in transmitting their traditions from generation to generation. The members change, but the name, the moral code, the tattoos, the territory and the meeting places live on.
The existence of gangs in other barrios is an incentive to have one in your own. The gang takes on the role of defender of the barrio, and many barrio inhabitants only view those gang members from outside as a threat. This is where the gang can provoke ambivalent feelings, particularly but not only among those families who have no direct relations with the gang, because, in the end, the whole barrio ends up involved, affected or at least implicated. It ends up carrying a stigma in which outside observers view it not as a barrio where there are gangs, but as a gang barrio.
Portrait of a gang barrioLet’s now take a look at Reparto Schick, one of the barrios in Managua with the most gang-related activity. A long central artery cuts through the barrio, which is really a giant conglomerate of barrios built as a result of successive migrations, many of them from the banks of Lake Managua, that currently house some 40,000 inhabitants. Each migratory wave has had its own history of struggles to obtain lots, drinking water, electricity, paved roads, schools and churches. But the leaders who led those struggles have now died or retired from their organizational activities, and nobody has been willing to take their place. This is not an era of community struggles, but of everyone for themselves. The current dreams have a smaller, more individual dimension.
The barrio’s recreation and commerce are concentrated around that central artery. Pool, places to get your hair cut, bars, the odd disco, improvised clothes stores, fried food stands and larger dining places stretch out in an almost uninterrupted line. This diminutive universe is the poor people’s end of the market: a billiard parlor where you can play for just under 10 cents, in marked contrast to the $2.50 charged in more central, "classy" areas; under a dollar for a haircut that would cost you six times more in a hairdressers’ salon... Then there are the shops selling decent-quality second-hand charity clothing sent down in bales from the United States at very cheap prices, items which provide one of the few connections with the global village.
Moving away from this main drag and pushing into the new settlements with their unpaved roads, the architecture of the houses becomes increasingly heterogeneous. Sprawling concrete houses with garage included stand alongside small dwellings nailed together out of debris. The new settlements are the most vigorous tentacle tips of a barrio in permanent expansion. As in the rest of the country, construction is the most rapid growth activity in Reparto Schick. Today, it is both a bedroom barrio of the capital and the domain of the unemployed.
The ruffians hover around the high schools, both inside and out. Those outside lie in wait for the chance to steal a backpack or some brand-name sneakers from an unsuspecting pupil. Those inside try to make their teachers’ lives hell, looking to challenge the authority of masters who receive the most meager monetary recognition from the state for their work in recently-declared semi-autonomous institutes, which conveniently free the state from its social responsibilities.
On Sundays, even the most inhospitable alleyways of the barrio come to life. On one corner, five adolescents meet up to smoke crack. One of their mothers sells marihuana and crack, and they benefit from "special" prices. Some of them sport recent bruises and old scars from local battles. The basketball courts are always full. Soccer is played on many street corners, and on many others groups of older men gather magnetized around a bottle of rum, their sweaty beer bellies glistening in the sun.
Sects and gangs: Similar phenomenaSame time, same day, same place, groups of young people, Bibles under arm, hurriedly cross the streets in the direction of the evangelical churches. Happy music drifts out of some of the churches; from others comes the sound of shouting and an overwhelming multitude of voices speaking in unison as if the gift of tongues had taken possession of the congregation, as they themselves believe. In a fragile world where nobody knows what the next day will bring, the church is a sanctuary for monolithic truths, where one can be soothed of worldly troubles to the tune of "Stop Suffering."
According to Catalan sociologist Manuel Castells, fundamentalism, be it Muslim or Christian, has spread and will continue to spread throughout the world at this moment of history in which global networks of wealth and power are linking nodal points and influential people throughout the world, while simultaneously disconnecting and excluding large sectors of different societies and regions and even whole countries. Reparto Schick is an island in Managua inhabited by people who know nothing about computers and by social groups that do not consume. Sects and gangs mark the barrio life. Both involve the logic of excluding the excluders, of redefining the criteria of value and meaning in a world that offers them no spaces. Like the sects, the gangs turn to primary identities in a world that excludes them. Like the believers in the sects, the gang members build their own meanings and moral codes.
A "gentlemen’s" codeA set of explicit or tacit rules perpetuates the institution of gangs. Without this set of rules, the group of friends with its particular character would not be able to regenerate. There is a gang member ethics, in which certain actions are quite intolerable. The most punishable is being an informer, and this—as in Tom Sawyer’s code—merits expulsion from the gang and even death. Sleeping with girls that hang out with the gang could be taken as rape in certain circumstances, although not always. Such an act is condemned according to the girl’s status. Hanger-on status entitles one to the fewest rights, but also allows the gang member to avoid contracting any obligations. As long as the gang member is viewed as a shirker and a hanger-on, and acts like one, the normal rules are suspended.
It is normal—if insane—to rob or kill, following the "him or me" rule: either the other person has the money or the gang member enjoys it; either the other one dies in the fight or assault, or it’s the gang member who dies. A wartime morality prevails during fights or attacks. In the gang’s own territory, it is fair and even socially acceptable to kill, and at times cruelly, a rival gang member for penetrating it. The external legality is imposed by the coercive action of the police, but their legal system lacks legitimacy with the gang and it is the gang subculture, the gang government, that imposes the rules. After certain hours, any stranger in the barrio is a potential enemy. "Someone walking about at this time can’t be up to any good," they say. Killing the person ceases to be inadmissible because you have to keep the upper hand and not wait for the other to take the initiative.
The local community also has to respect a certain code, minimum rules for co-existing with the gangs. Covering up for them is necessary in certain circumstances. Not giving them away is a permanent requirement. According to Augusto, one of Reparto Schick’s most hardened gang members, "The neighbors know what you are. The other neighbors don’t say anything to me out of fear. We could burn their house down. Though their faces say, "There goes the thief," they keep it to themselves. There are some fierce older people in the barrio who’ve got weapons, but if an old guy knocks off five of us, then the other seventy will come down on him. Or else we’ll get back at him by taking it out on the person he most cares about."
According to a US anthropologist, the streets of Los Angeles, California, have a similar code: "The people in the neighborhood know each other even if they’ve never spoken or said hello. Body language is enough. One facial gesture acts as a greeting and you don’t have to know the name. There are rules about keeping quiet. Nobody can be a witness to anything. You can never know about any crime even it was committed right under your nose, unless you want to end up dead."
Revenge, punishment and solidarityTaking revenge on traitors is common currency, and anything goes. Augusto recalled one of his acts of revenge: "Once we were at a party, and there was this girl ‘Chola’ there. Several people warned me, ‘That girl wants to get information out of you, she’s an informer, she passes information to the enemies.’ She was going to tell them where I was going to go so my enemies would get me. She even called me some gushy name, making out like she was my ‘brother.’ I changed my plans and went off home, but I was angry, so I decide that all of my gang should take her by force. The girl’s easy. So one day I invited her to the school when it was empty, and I told the boys to come along, and about 25 of us had her and I cut her hair off with scissors. I don’t like rape, but that girl was an informer."
Since image plays a determining role in the gang members’ world vision, trying to make out that you are superior in some way is also punishable. Showing off is always punished and fights break out at parties to get back at someone for standing out during the dancing, for showing off. In the words of Pitayoya II, "No one can show off because we’re all equal. And if someone does try to make out that they’re better than the rest, they pay for it."
The most emphasized norm is the principle of reciprocity, solidarity and group cohesion. There were many comments on this point. As Sofía of the Comemuertos explained, "If someone doesn’t have anything, then we help them out. If it’s you today, it might be me tomorrow." Another girl, Ruth, stated that "we share everything in the gangs. It’s selfish just to reward yourself and not share. You have to think that you won’t always have what you need, so if it’s for you today, it could be for me tomorrow."
Fights are a central activityThe code serves the sense of belonging, and this is what makes the different activities possible. People normally identify gangs with robbery and taking drugs, and in fact most gang members are drug addicts and petty thieves. But this is not the trait that most identifies them, firstly because they are not activities exclusive to them, even when the collectivism generated by the gang turns the group into a fertile breeding ground for drug consumption and dealing. Many other young people who do not belong to gangs do drugs and steal. In Nicaragua, drug use among middle and upper class adolescents is more widespread than is generally supposed. Secondly, theft and drug consumption are not activities in which the whole gang takes part, or that are essential to do as a gang.
The only activity that really defines a gang is fighting. Fights pull together most of the gang members, and they never go into battle drugged up. Fights—rather than theft or drugs—occupy the central place in a gang’s life and activities; they are what drive the gangs. The suspicion, whether founded or not, that there is an organized gang in a neighboring barrio that could attack at any moment generates the need to organize for mutual protection, and in the gang system of beliefs, that means organizing the young people in the barrio. Thus, the threat of attack from rival gangs encourages, or in come cases compels, young people to join a gang.
The spiral of violenceViolence and fighting have been integral elements of gangs right from the start. Violence is constantly present and creates a mythical system among the gangs. How does it break out? According to César, "The problems with others starts when they come to our barrio to bust up houses. Of course, we go to other places to destroy their houses, but only in revenge. That’s the way it is. They come one day and we go another day. Destroying houses in other barrios is what starts up the big fights. We’ve destroyed Fatty Cristóbal’s house several times and we’ve destroyed Moya’s place as well. We bend back the bars on the house with metal tubes and let off homemade mortars through the gaps."
Such situations can lead to serious escalations of violence. "Once when we were letting off mortars," recalls César, "one of them landed on a girl, right there in her private parts, and really messed her up. They put Black Wil away for three years for that, just to make someone pay for it. Another time an old guy got out an AK and started firing until he’d used up the magazine. Someone got hit in the forehead and it came out the other side, completely blowing open his head. He was left lying there in the street. So in revenge, they threw gas on the old man’s house and were going to toss a grenade in it."
All gang members have seen comrades killed, many of them from back when they were children, and they talk about these experiences in a matter-of-fact way. Elvis, for example, calmly tells of "another time when the Comemuertos were wrecking the Plo’s houses, without mortars because they make too much noise. There were 40 of us and we hit them from behind. They grabbed Sitting Bull and started kicking him, and although the Chicken ran away, they caught him and said, "Aha, so you’re with them! Take this!" and they stabbed him seven times in the stomach. He can show you; they really left their mark on him."
Subjecting because they are subjectedThe fights provide a reputation, generate prestige and improve the gang’s intangible assets. Revenge is a way of getting even, or guaranteeing a positive balance so that you don’t end up in the red. Individual fights also generate fame, as Augusto explained: "When I got back to the barrio in December, after being on the run from the police, there were new kids who didn’t know me and wanted to rumble. They were just showing off. One of them really wanted to fight me, and I’m not a good fist fighter, but I do okay defending myself with a knife. He had one of those neat switchblades that pop out automatically when you press a button. So we started to fight, and he cut my arm several times, but in the end I stuck him with my knife. I left him on the floor and took off. Sometimes they want to take advantage of you, and it’s best to act quickly, before they do you any harm. Now they respect me more. You have to keep the upper hand."
A common tribute among gang members is, "That one would stab anyone." Why has violence become a mechanism for gaining a reputation? Why has it been singled out in particular? In the words of former gang member Bayardo, "I now see gang members as people who carry a fury within them and are looking for a way to let it out." The gang offers an opportunity to channel it. Social scientist Khosrokharvar provides a possible clue to the origin of that rage: "When the project of constructing individuals who fully participate in modernity reveals its absurdity in the real experience of daily life, violence becomes the only way for the new subjects to affirm themselves. The neo-community thus becomes a necro-community. Thus, self-immolation becomes a way of fighting against exclusion."
In a world in which they are nobodies, the gang members react by attacking, dominating the barrio, subjecting because they are subjected, demarcating a territory because they are uprooted, and associating themselves with an institution that provides them with the identity that they lack. Gang members aspire to dominate in an environment that excludes them. As César remarked proudly, "We run the barrio and nobody says anything. If anyone does say something, we wipe ’em out. They’re scared ’cause there’s so many of us. The youth rules."
A reduced territorial space such as a barrio—an island isolated from the globalized world—or even a street serves as the basis for new identities. And those identities become more local the more inaccessible the globalized world’s culture gets and the more impossible it is for the poor to attain the middle class aspirations being imposed as ideals for young people. Domination over and defense of a territory generates identity. The more complex focal points of identity generation have collapsed, so people have reverted to more local mechanisms. In Nicaragua, recent historical events have particularly contributed to this climate. Today, the FSLN-PLC pact has sounded the death knell for the role of the great political identity alternatives through which aggression was channeled: reactionary or revolutionary, Sandinista or Contra, Liberal or Sandinista, Alemán or Daniel. For the gang member, you only need to be from outside the barrio to be a potential enemy, and territoriality provides a motive for expressing unrest, without ever solidifying into any kind of project.
Suicide: Another form of violenceJuvenile violence is not only expressed through gang fights; it also exists in the self-immolation represented by suicide, violence against oneself. According to the IDB, there were 15,664 suicides in Latin America in 1996, and the number of suicides in Nicaragua has shot up in the past few years. Just as young people commit most of the homicides against their peers, they also commit the majority of suicides. The National Police estimate that there was an average of 24.4 suicides a month in Nicaragua during 1999, or five suicides every six days. Of the total, 40% of those who took their own lives were under 20 and 73% were under 30.
Although it is generally supposed that self-inflicted violence is less important than homicide, a more in-depth approach would focus on the links between suicide and homicide. Some of the fiercest gang members express suicidal tendencies. Twenty-three-year-old Black Eddy spent six years in the Model Prison, just outside Managua, and has now embarked on a rehabilitation process. A few days after he was born, his mother abandoned him in a refuse barrel. He confesses that he often thought about his mother, about what she had done to him, and wanted to kill himself, but he externalized his aggressiveness instead, taking the step from wanting to kill himself to wanting to kill.
In a certain sense, gang members are the ones who have overcome the tendency towards death, who have not let themselves be crushed by a reality that drives them to desperation. They turn their energy into aggression, rather than melancholy. The relation between suicide and gang violence is an almost untapped vein that could reveal the marginalized adolescent’s urgent need for self-esteem. The gang provides one solution to a problem that the suicides were unable to overcome.
Image, identity, self-esteemSelf-esteem lies at the heart of the gang problem and appears to express best the area where the adolescent’s need (identity) comes to a standoff with the cultural mechanism that exacerbates it (hunger for image).
Identity is a key concept because that is what the adolescent is constructing. It is also a need that is tough to satisfy in these times. Castells sustains that "the social and political tendency of the 1990s is to build social and political action around primary identities, be they assigned, historically or geographically rooted or of recent construction in the search for meaning and spirituality." He understands identity as "the process by which a social actor recognizes him or herself and constructs a meaning above all in virtue of a culturally determined attribute or set of attributes, to the exclusion of any wider reference to other social structures."
The same primary identity is also very attainable in the sects, which is why they attract so many people and why they have so much in common with gangs, including a community of beliefs, a moral code, the demonizing of outsiders, and a very developed sense of belonging. But while sects are based on a system of dogmas, gangs are based on territoriality.
The gang members need to reinforce their identity because they feel it threatened, and threatened territory provides the material basis for expressing that identity. Once that underpinning has been obtained, the code, the symbols, the language and the tattoos follow to reinforce that identity. But identity is not built up exclusively by the gang members; several outside actors help in its design. The publicity surrounding gang violence, for example, satisfies the adolescent’s hunger for recognition. Paradoxically, the media’s description of gang members as antisocial beings and public enemies can encourage young people to join up, because widespread publicity ensures them notoriety, which is precisely what they are looking for. "We just fight for the fame, so they’ll say how good we are," explained Elvis.
An exaggerated hunger for imageCultivating an image, becoming famous and winning respect are the needs most emphasized by gang members. As César points out, "You win respect and then nobody goes around making fun of you. You win respect through fights. We call the others cowards, and they’re always getting hit just for being there." In other words, you hurt others so as not to be the butt of ridicule. "When they saw that I’d stabbed two or three sons of bitches," recalls Black Eddy, "the others respected me and did what I told them," while Cristóbal states, "I earned respect through violence. Before, nobody respected me because I was poor. But I made people respect me, and it’s very important to earn respect."
Gang members do not steal to satisfy their basic needs. Elvis earns just over $2 a day and over $5.5 on Saturdays, but its not enough to satisfy his hunger for image, so he steals. "I rob," he says, "to be able to flash a lot of money when I take my girl out, so people don’t look at me like I’m shit. I was born a couple of months premature and had a high voice when I was a child, so they teased me about it, but I started opening out in the gang atmosphere. At first all the gang members would rap me over the head with their knuckles, but little by little I started building up a reputation."
Drugs play the same role. "I feel like the master when I’m on drugs," says Black Eddy. They even start fights just because someone’s showing off, because someone’s dancing better, trying to impress a girl or just because they want to order the others around. They compete for image.
What makes César most proud is the fact that he has built up a reputation as a gang member: "Personally, even if a girl is real good, I won’t rape her. I use my lip, my chat, my tough look. A lot of girls like tough guys. I’m poor and the whole world knows it, but there are girls in richer neighborhoods that are interested in guys like us, and they’re decent girls. But they like the fame, the color, the boys from gangs who live a wild life."
At the end of the day, gangs satisfy a whole range of not unusual needs, such as respect, being someone, fame, attraction. As they cannot gain the respect of the adults, they break the established order and seek the respect of their equals, their peers. "The gang is my family," the members say. Their aspirations are surprisingly close to those of middle-class achievement, but since success is measured by middle-class standards, they are frustrated by the fact that they cannot attain the status. They want to attain the goals that society considers important, such as prestige and certain pastimes that determine status, and when they find that the legal means of achieving those objectives are very unequally distributed, they try to achieve them through illegal means.
This excessive hunger for image reflects low self-esteem. They feel mistreated at home and underrated by society, and their obsession with image leads them to want to be seen as and esteemed for being macho, cruel, feared, brutal and violent. The only way to maintain that roughneck image is by defending it, which is where the apparently excessive violence comes in.
A cultural expression of our timesWhy has image come to have such excessive importance in our society? The gang members’ actions should be observed, understood and interpreted not only in themselves, as a phenomenon characteristic of the marginalized barrios, but also as a cultural expression that shares certain traits with a wider constellation of attitudes and perceptions that are not exclusive to the gang members. It is a question of seeing the gangs as another element in the predominant culture, rather than as just a subculture.
To see the gangs in their real dimension, it is necessary to establish a parallel between the gang members’ behavior and socially accepted behavior. If we look at it that way, today’s gangs in Nicaragua represent part of rather than a breach in a cultural paradigm characterized by:
Hedonism. Gang members rob, not out of material necessity, but out of hunger for beauty as they perceive it. They rob to go to the cinema, to buy drugs or to buy nice clothes. Status and an opulent life style are also goals shared by the most prestigious and famous people in our society.
Illegality. Committing illegal acts is not at all out of tune with our society, where the law is openly broken, white-collar crime is boringly commonplace and the "sin" is not breaking the law but rather doing it unsuccessfully.
Obsession with image. The middle classes are hooked on beepers and cellular phones that are beyond their financial means; people go to great lengths to puff up their résumés; four-color brochures pile up in the institutions; NGOs invest disproportionate amounts of their money in lobbying; business administrators specialize more in selling a good image than a good product; and presidential candidates worry far more about their "look" than about the contents of their platform. Everyone is involved in merchandising. You have to look good to sell yourself, and it’s better to "look like" than to actually be. Image is what gives us value in the market. The gang members do the same thing. They sell themselves with all the means at their disposal: clothes, tattoos, spectacular actions. They don’t do anything different, just the same thing through different means—illegal means—in a framework dominated by the him or me logic.
Criminologists and sociologists have unquestionably confirmed that the epidemic rise in gang violence is rooted in the behavior of the current exclusionary and dehumanizing economy. The invisible hand that "orders" the inequitable "free market" also holds an AK-47, a mortar and a switchblade. The vagabond Huck Finn, that literary hero of last century who was so content with just his freedom, has had new necessities forced on him in today’s consumer society, has started to feel excluded and has become increasingly aggressive.