Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 227 | Junio 2000



Youth Gangs: A Cultural Prison

Getting out of a youth gang creates more problems than it solves. Does Nicaragua really want to "get out" of the problem of youth gangs? If so, the current efforts are leading nowhere, because they are only designed to punish.

José Luis Rocha

I loved myself as traitor, thief, stick-up man, informer, detestable, destructive, despicable, coward. With axe blows and shouts I severed the bonds that kept me in the world of regular morals, at times I methodically untied the knots. Monstrously I distanced myself from you, your world, your cities, your institutions… (Jean Genet, Deathwatch*)
In the end, the greater, more complete, more totally assumed my guilt in your eyes, the greater will be my freedom and the more perfect my solitude and my uniqueness. Thanks to my guilt, I also won the right to intelligence (Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal*).

*envío’s own translation from a Spanish edition

Individual solutions don’t work

In the famous salsa song Pedro Navaja, Panamanian songwriter Rubén Blades describes the typical neighborhood delinquent, a young man wearing sneakers in case he has to make a quick getaway, with a gold tooth, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his overcoat and the swagger of someone who knows he’s good-looking. This ruffian stereotype has now been substituted by another expression of nonconformity. But there are elements that provide a certain continuity as old trends give way to new ones, such as Pedro Navaja’s violent end, shot down to the sound of Life surprises you. Society has also prepared other endings through its mechanisms aimed at correction, but they don’t always arrive before death and don’t always hit the nail on the head.

Solving the problem of youth gangs and the delinquency that goes along with them is linked to the conception of the problem. In other words, it is linked to the image of a gang member, which reinforces a standard procedure: you cure the sick, punish the criminal and provide therapy for the unbalanced, penitence and absolution for the sinner and correction for the ill-bred. Each poison has its antidote. What image of the gang member does this spread? Sick, criminal, disoriented, a pathological emanation of society, life in search of its true form, unexpressed protest, unarticulated nonconformity. Churches, NGOs and the police propose their solutions, which often differ in all but one aspect: they are always aimed at the individual. But in the case of the gangs, the cure can’t be individual because gangs have a reactivation mechanism. They are fed by successive generations and although they may appear to have died out, they soon display their recurrent nature. Furthermore, a series of cultural mechanisms makes it hard for members to abandon the gang. Individual solutions usually come too late.

Caught in a cultural prison

Youth gangs shape their neighborhood’s profile. They are a component of its ecology, defining points of equilibrium, periods of calm, where and when people can be out on the street without it being considered suspicious. Nobody can ignore their presence, but while the gangs condition many aspects of neighborhood life, they have an even greater influence over their own active members. The gang demands dues paid out of one’s hide more than one’s pocket: time, risks, complicity, silence and forced collaboration. Individual members sacrifice a great deal of freedom and find themselves in what Guatemalan anthropologist Ricardo Falla terms a "cultural prison." This prison is reinforced by group coercion. The eagerness for image—macho, hardened, cruel—that unites the group and is sometimes graphically expressed in tattoos, acts as an internal guardian. The respect, built up so arduously, can be lost by leaving the gang, which is one reason it is so difficult to do so.
Looking back on his life from a rehabilitation center for drug addicts, Black Eddy put it this way: "It’s hard to get out of a gang. Since I didn’t want to accept drugs, one of the Comemuertos [one of Managua’s gangs] wanted to mess me over when I came to the neighborhood one day. They know me, which is why Frugal warned me: ‘You know what Black Will’s like, you’re going to be in trouble.’ The rumor was even put about that I was hanging out with another gang. Leaving a gang has its problems. They rag on you; saying you’re all got up in the latest fashion with a brand name cap, a ‘plastic kid,’ as they’re called. They say ‘Ah, you came out of the Modelo [a minimum security prison just outside Managua, in Tipitapa] a coward.’ Others understand and tell you to keep on with your rehabilitation."
Black Eddy’s mother abandoned him in a garbage dump as a newborn, an event that he sees as the root of all his consequent misfortunes and the origin of his aggressiveness. When we interviewed him, he was very optimistic about his process. Months later that cultural prison and those internal demons that keep telling him to maintain his reputation led him to pick a fight with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend and with members of the rehabilitation center in which he had admitted to making such progress. He was finally expelled, only to return a few days later, masked, to rob the place.

There are many others like Black Eddy. During over a year of research, nearly all of the gang members we interviewed on the streets who said they had left their gang or were in the process of leaving were arrested for some crime, generally robbery or rape, within four months.

Sofía, a member of the Comemuertos gang, offers an illuminating and complementary version of the difficulties of leaving a gang. "It’s hard to leave; they always trash you because they’re afraid you’re going to inform on them if you leave. The other problem leaving is that you’re already marked; everybody’s got you identified as a gang member. After I get out of jail I don’t want to stay in this gang life, mainly because of my daughter. She’s the most important thing for me. But it’s difficult, because it’s dangerous for me in the barrio. The Comemuertos have it in for me because the woman I’m accused of killing was a relative of Chico-Masaya, the head of the Comemuertos himself. He swore that when I got out of jail in Tipitapa he was going to get his revenge. And me? Where am I supposed to go if my rock [mom] lives in the barrio and I don’t have any money to go anywhere else?"

The prison bars

Many obstacles make it hard to leave a gang. The "bars" enclosing this prison include:
• Previous crimes that could be pinned on one. The gang provides cover while you still belong, but neighbors could set upon the now unprotected gang members once they leave.

• Loss of prestige. Still-active gang members tend to view a former comrade who quits as a coward—a peluche or acalambrado in the language of Nicaraguan gangs. The tough image so painstakingly built up through misdemeanors is not a possession easy to give up in a society that offers few other intangible assets to make up for the loss.

• The suspicion that a departing gang member may have become a snitch or joined a rival gang. Switching gangs is unusual, but it is severely punished. A gang member’s inactivity arouses suspicions that he or she is selling the gang out to its enemies.

• Former members do not lose the stigma of belonging to a gang. Elvis described it this way: "One problem is if you fall for a decent girl. She’ll tell you to ‘straighten yourself out if you want to go out with me,’ but you’re already marked as a ruffian and people don’t help you get out, they just make it even harder for you." Tattoos, while not exclusive to youth gangs, are a physical expression of this stigma. "I’ve got a tattoo of a demon," says Bayardo, "the famous Chupacabras [a mysterious and unidentified being blamed for sucking goats’ blood in various Latin American countries], which signifies our skill at attacking. Everyone in my gang gets the same tattoo on their right leg, and we’re now identified by it." Their past is a major obstacle to former gang members’ efforts to build a new reputation. The neighbors know them and don’t trust them, while their tattoos immediately give them away even to strangers. The police pick them up on suspicion and if a crime is committed in the barrio, they are the first ones interrogated.

• Pending or feared revenge. The enemies made during so many confrontations hang like a long shadow over gang members, making it hard for them to lay down their arms. Black Eddy explained how this affected him: "I’m sick of jail and enemies. I have to watch my back on the streets and I still carry a blade. I don’t go into the barrio unarmed. I can’t. I’ve got a lot of enemies and I’ve always said it’s better to mess someone up before they mess me up." Certain zones have become no-go areas, and leaving a gang implies losing protection in a hostile universe where you’ve already made enemies. Former gang members and even active ones have to change schools for fear of reprisals from their enemies. Gang members who have experienced a religious conversion are out of luck if there is no church in their turf. Although Fat David says he’s found the Lord, he can’t become an Evangelical because there’s no church in his territory and to visit the nearest one he has to cross hostile territory inhabited by enemies who don’t believe he’s converted.

More problems than solutions

All of these bars to leaving are reinforced by economic difficulties. Robbery, which starts as a way to provide resources for good times, drugs and luxuries, becomes a permanent channel of potential income for gang members. Even the ex–member is always contemplating the occasional act of petty theft. Unemployment and the abundance of very low-paid jobs do not make the prospect of reinsertion into "socially acceptable" life at all attractive and most gang members are under-qualified for the job market. In the best of cases leaving the gang would involve moving away to escape the bars of the social prison, but setting up somewhere else requires financial recourses and a social network of relatives and friends that gang members do not have. Leaving the gang often boils down to two rotten choices: move out of the barrio or end up dead.

Generally speaking, the pressure to stay in the gang comes more from the disadvantages of leaving than the advantages of staying. In this respect, with all the obstacles to leaving the gang that members mention, one is conspicuous by its curious absence. No one lamented or even mentioned the possible loss of their friends from the gang, whose company was one of the main motivations for joining in the first place.

Lock them up or rehabilitate them?

Nicaraguan Society proposes and implements different measures in an attempt to grapple with the youth gang phenomenon. These "remedies" can be grouped according to four models, which by no means exhaust all the possibilities: prison; rehabilitation centers; movements aimed at increasing gang members’ self esteem—as a group and without having to leave the gang—and embryonic paramilitary vigilante organizations.

In the imprisonment model, the main aim—or at least the best fulfilled one—is to punish the gang members and keep them isolated for a determined period. The concept is that the gang member is a guilty party who must complete a certain sentence to atone for his/her failings against society. Once punished, they are supposed to go back into society determined not to re-offend. This model does not distinguish between gang activity and criminal activity.

The rehabilitation model is proposed in different forms by rehabilitation centers and foundations such as El Patriarca and Los Quinchos, and by Evangelical groups. Their objective is to cure. The gang member is seen as a sick person addicted to or possessed by drugs, sin, violence…or the Devil.

The rehabilitation centers base their healing process on isolating the gang members from the conditions that led them to offend and increasing their self-esteem. Such centers do not offer gang members any special treatment; rather their focus is on drug addicts, many of whom—though not all—are gang members. In Ricardo Falla’s comments on Black Eddy’s rehabilitation, he offers us a thought-provoking insight into one of the main problems of this model: "The psychologist is inculcating in him that he should believe in himself, that he is capable of making a new life, under the assumption that thinking of the future reduces the influence and relevance of the present. One underlying point in this vision of self-esteem is too simplistic. According to this rehabilitation strategy, the gang member should not recognize his or her weakness, even though it is obviously always there and will resurface during future relapses. Strength should not be used to cover over weakness; it is not a dialectic vision of self-esteem." And this is exactly what happened in the end. Eddy’s weakness, denied during the rehabilitation process, reemerged in successive waves and ended up defeating the cure.

Perhaps this failure can also be attributed to another limiting factor pointed out by Falla: "Due to their experience of frustration and disturbance, gang members seem to have touched a more profound bottom than healthy people, and if healthy people have never been there they will have a lot of trouble helping them with their rehabilitation." While it is utopian to expect the rehabilitation centers to include staff members who experienced such depths and are also capable of ordering their experiences, it is possible that hope will gradually spring from those without hope, as often happens.
Even so, we would still not have solved the problem of the reactivation of youth gangs, which renders any solutions centered on the individual alone insufficient. Successfully rehabilitating certain individuals does nothing to disable the social mechanism that perpetuates youth gangs as an institution. The self-esteem of the whole group needs to be worked on.

Why do gang members become Evangelists?

Evangelical denominations are grouped in the other great rehabilitation model. These churches have an ample following and a lot of impact in the marginalized barrios of Managua and other Nicaraguan cities. They work by isolating individuals and reinserting them in to another universe, thus transforming their values. This isolation is designed to be more global and permanent than prison: those who accept Jesus Christ no longer live in this world, but have rejected it like the ancient Anchorites. Though they share the same physical space as those living in this world, their spiritual space is totally different, as are their obligations and attitudes. They undergo a complete change in their values and in their style, becoming quiet, moderate, calm, almost phlegmatic. Even their intonation changes. This new identity is as great a source of prestige and pride as their previous violent, reckless and passionate behavior. Within the new spiritual atmosphere being "Gilberto," or milk-toast—the biggest insult within a gang—confers greater status.

Why do so many gang members convert? The emotional nature of the sects’ religious gatherings might play a role, enabling the gang member to express a heartrending cry of protest that was previously locked up deep inside. Also, both gangs and sects share a strong sense of community. The big difference, however, lies in the fundamentalism the sects offer: the gang member moves from a fragmented and fragile world into a universe of monolithic, immutable and solid truths. These similarities and this one big contrast facilitate the conversions.

Two other factors also influence the conversion: women and the end of the gang member’s life cycle. Women are one of the spontaneous mechanisms behind the change, because they imply increased self-esteem and a supposed assumption of responsibilities that means moving beyond that prolonged state of adolescence that is the basis of belonging to a gang. The Evangelical churches offer the opportunity to find a woman. The symbolism linked to tattoos reveals the importance of women in the ups and downs of self-esteem. A very common myth among gang members reinforces this thesis: that tattoos can only be erased by passing the needle over it again but this time using the milk of a first-time mother instead of ink. Only the recently virgin woman can erase the stigmas of the life renounced by the converted gang member.

Incorporation into a sect depends to a great extent on the culmination of the member’s gang life cycle. The sects intervene when the time is right and act as a significant catalyzing element in a process that has already reached its end. The teenager cannot stay in a gang in perpetuity. There is a kind of reasonable time limit for such activities, and once it’s over, the fundamentalism of the sects offers a new source of identity that often fills the void. The gang is even viewed as a very useful previous link according to the fundamentalist sect logic, representing the sinful stage preceding the conversion that will lead to eternal salvation, the maximum reward offered by the sects. Like the previous rehabilitation model, however, this one also offers nothing to the gang, just to some of its members.

Increase their self-esteem or wipe them out?

The third model increases the gang member’s self-esteem as gang member. The objective here is to convert by rescuing the positive values represented by the gang. In this model the gang members are classified as protagonists in social life who have a lot to offer, provided that they redirect their activities. This model has only been worked on in Nicaragua at an almost intuitive level.

The concrete example most closely resembling this model is the space offered to gang members by moderator Evert Cárcamo in the popular La Cámara Matizona [candid camera] television program. In the midst of vulgarity and bad-taste humor, Cárcamo has offered gang members a legal way to act as protagonists and improve their image in front of a mass audience. Using an appropriate approach, this particular effort has an impact and coverage that outstrips all the rehabilitation foundations put together.

The two previous models assume that there is something "unhealthy" about gang members, something ethically bad, and the cure focuses on the individual who must be corrected. The idea is to perform a kind of moral orthopedic surgery. When the ruffian leaves the operating theater, he or she will be healthy or "straightened out." In this third model, the treatment focuses on the gang in order to help sublimate its energies and activities.
The final model, the paramilitary one, is not yet being put forward in Nicaragua; for the moment it is still just a latent risk. In this model, groups of middle- and upper-class adolescents who simulate bellicose confrontations in specially-designed fields and "children" who have access to guns could decide to take on the gangs from the poor barrios to wipe them out, whether for fun or revenge. These adolescents could form paramilitary groups that, imitating the Hollywood example of the Charles Bronson vigilante, could eventually propose confronting and eliminating the gangs through a learned white hat-black hat approach that could get them into the worst nightmare imaginable.

Which model will catch on the quickest and with the greatest determination? It will depend on which image of the gangs wins out. So far, the most widespread model is that of imprisonment: locking up in order to punish.

"This prison, these irons…"

All genuinely active gang members—victims of that cultural prison that is their gang—have also been physically imprisoned at least once. They generally serve time for the lesser crimes they have committed, as was the case with Black Eddy, who tells of having committed far more serious ones: "I spent three years in the Modelo for stabbing two members of the Cancheros gang: Munra and Zanate. They were also there for killing an aunt of one of the Comemuertos. I left Zanate shitting in a [colostomy] bag for three months. I’m sorry I’ve messed up so many innocent people. I’ve been tried for homicide and murder and was let off. I’ve taken part in three killings: one homicide and two ‘atrocious murders.’ A murder is classified as ‘atrocious’ when you stab the victim more than three times. I’d rob when I was drugged up, when I felt like the master, and if they resisted I’d stab them." A quick survey revealed that few of the other young prisoners in the Modelo are doing time for their worst crimes, but this is not the judicial system’s only weakness.

Just in 1999, the country’s different prison centers were flooded by an average of nearly 8 detentions every two hours, 107 a day, 750 a week and 3,000 a month. According to Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) figures, the eight crumbling and unhygienic prisons in Nicaragua’s penitentiary system had over 5,450 inmates last year, although they have an official capacity of only 3,083. According to a UNDP report, each prisoner should have at least 4 square meters of space; Nicaraguan prisoners have an average of between 1.6 and 1.9. The National Penitentiary System currently has an expenditure of 64 million córdobas [just over $5 million] a year, or an average of about $2.50 per prisoner per day.

The prison routine

The prison facility in Tipitapa known as La Modelo, is the biggest in the country. The most infamous gang members from Managua end up in its wing for minors. During one visit in the second half of 1999 we found 215 inmates in that section. The average age was 18 and the youngest were 14. Only 138 were serving a sentence; of the other 77 that had been indicted, only 3 were in the middle of their trial and the rest were still waiting to be called up. A high percentage of these offenders spend several months following their arrest waiting to be tried. Meanwhile, 40 prisoners had not received any visits during their time inside. In jail slang, these prisoners are known as donados (given away). There were no professionals, technicians or university students among these minors; 38 were illiterate and only 64 had finished primary school. This limited educational level meant that only a few could take advantage of the computer and English courses that the penal system offers to minors.

The prison wings stretch out on both sides of a long corridor, broken only by security doors. At the end of the corridor is wing 7, the one for young offenders. Each cell holds an average of six prisoners, who remain locked up from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. when they are all "unleashed" to go to the wing’s communal area. Each cell is fitted out with one water tap, a hole in the floor for defecating, two bunk beds—there’s no room for more in such a small space—and a window overlooking the yard, that provides ventilation and a place to dry clothes. Twice a week, from 8-11 a.m. or 1-3 p.m., the prisoners can go out into the large exercise yard where they play football and carry out commercial transactions behind the guards’ backs using cigarettes as currency. Conventional money is prohibited, and though it is not totally absent, cigarettes are used more. All goods and services, from food and clothes washing to pornographic playing cards, have a set price in this alternative currency. As one of the imprisoned gang members explained, "They search the place every couple of weeks and they look for everything. Money’s illegal and if your family smuggles it in to you, they’ll confiscate it because it’s prohibited to do business in here. The prisoners hide it in their mouths or stuff it down their trousers. The screws look, but they almost never find anything. We know where to hide it, and a prison guard isn’t going to outwit a thief, now is he?"
For those who want to go, there are English or computer classes at 8 a.m. Some more trusted and less serious offenders can clean floors or weed the yards inside the prison. This is a privilege generally reserved for inmates from wing 8 who get a day of their prison sentence knocked off for each day worked. Most prisoners while away the time relating their experiences, illegally trading goods or trying to prize off some metal object, a bit of grating or any other gadget that could be used as a weapon during the next fight.

The inmates’ sex life has both institutional and spontaneous expressions. The institutional expressions are regulated by the visits of girlfriends and wives to specially designated cells, but very few have access to conjugal visits. According to Ricardo, one of the imprisoned gang members, "Many here don’t receive visits. In this wing [with 215 inmates] only 50 receive conjugal visits. Most jerk off or fuck queers. A porno playing card sells for 20 pesos here and helps you jerk off well. But there’s also a queer. He wanted me to fuck him, but I don’t go in for that. Queers make me sick; I don’t like them. But several people here do fuck him, even though they’re not queer. They just do it out of necessity. They just use him to relieve their sexual energy. That queer is really effeminate, but he’ll defend himself if he doesn’t like someone. Pitayoya II wanted to fuck him but the queer didn’t let him and ended up stabbing him." Machismo, with all of its visceral rejection of homosexuality, persists in jail, but under these particular circumstances the normal rules are suspended and certain forms of behavior are admitted. The sexual life of a prisoner demands another code.

The acid test

There is a kind of social stratification in prison. Prisoners claim that those inmates with money or who were members of the army or police are allowed certain luxuries forbidden to most of the rest, like comfortable beds, cookers, refrigerators, food and sound systems. To this more institutionalized stratification is added a spontaneous one: the distinction between old prisoners and new ones.

"The old ones here take the new ones’ things," explained Ricardo. "The older prisoners catch them by surprise when they’ve just arrived and take away the little things visitors bring them with so much sacrifice. I defend the new ones, not so they’ll give me anything, though if I asked them they would. It’s just that I don’t like people taking advantage of them. It’s different if you steal outside." Some of the old inmates, particularly the repeat offenders, become experts in jail. "In the penitentiary system," explains Fat David, "they treat me like a king. All the thieves, the re-educators, the Modelo heavies know me. So what happens? They treat me real good." The buddy system also works in prison. Old buddies meet up or inmates make new buddies and build up the same beneficial reciprocity as in the streets: "Buddies have to share food, marihuana and crack."
As far as gangs are concerned, jail represents a superior level of socialization that serves to professionalize a gang member’s status. Prison is a source of prestige among equals. It’s a feather in your cap because it’s seen as the supreme test. Pitayoya II confirms this: "In the streets they might act the Rambo, but when they get to jail they’re shitting it. Surviving jail is the acid test of how good you are." Generally speaking, prison returns its wards to the community with a greater capacity to commit crimes. According to Black Eddy, "There are about 300 Comemuertos and about 50 old Comemuertos in the Modelo who are serving seriously long sentences. There are 17- to 25-year-old Comemuertos in the Modelo that are growing increasingly dangerous in there."

Dreaming about getting out

Gang members from very different barrios get to know each other in prison; they share impressions and reinforce their gang slang. But they also reproduce the model of turf confrontations, with those from the wing’s upper floor fighting those on the ground floor. The definition of enemy according to their barrios changes to another equally territorial basis, with prisoners from different barrios in the same area banding together. In the Modelo, rival gang members from all the different sections of Reparto Schick, a vast tract of poor sub-neighborhoods with a notoriously high index of rival gangs, set aside their differences and act as a unified barrio.

For many, prison is a place to reflect on their lives and go over the different things that have happened to them. That’s why it also tends to be a place where people reorient their lives. As César recalls, "I got here in ’92 and jail’s made me think things over. I don’t think the same way as before. I’m thinking of getting work with a company when I get out." The idea of freedom is something positive to shoot for and changes certain expectations. "Nowadays there are a lot of kids like me," says César, "based in the gangs and with nothing to look forward to but jail or the cemetery. Gang members who haven’t been to jail say that prison can’t eat you and that some day you’re going to get out. But they haven’t experienced it. It’s true that it doesn’t physically eat you, but it ages you, particularly when you’re a kid and you think a lot about the future. I probably never imagined that I was going to end up in a place like this, in jail. A lot of people sink into a world of perdition, thinking that they’re already lost and there’s nothing to be done about it. But others think about getting out of this. Here we talk about what we’re going to do when we get out. Most think positively. Those who say they’re going back to the same thing say so because they still feel protected here and because their mothers are still supporting them in prison."

The street is school, the prison, university

But the cultural jail imposes itself and re-offending is a never-ending temptation. Susana, for example, intends to go straight, but includes the possibility of the occasional lapse: "When I get out I’m going to shape up. I’ve got to change because this is no kind of life. I don’t want to mess up again. I’d like to work, selling underwear, washing dishes, whatever. My daughter’s three now and it’s time I cleaned up my act. Maybe every now and then I’ll do a bit of petty theft, when there’s no cops around. I could work from Monday to Friday and go out thieving on Sundays, to get some money together to set up a sales stand. Maybe there’ll be a robbery on Saturday and I’ll be able to grab a thousand pesos in one go."
According to one theory, individuals acquire certain behaviors and attitudes through a social learning process, and if that behavior is rewarded in some way it will be more frequently repeated. Robbery as source of income and the enemies made explain the commission of crimes. Black Eddy mentions three sentences: "I’ve been sentenced three times for causing serious injury and twice for robbery. This was my third time in the Modelo. The first time I was in for a year and a half, the second for two years and the third for three—my sentence was five years but I swapped the last two years for rehabilitation in the El Patriarcha Foundation." In the end, he also escaped from El Patriarcha. Similarly, Fat David says that he found the Lord while in the Modelo and swore he would never rob or smoke crack again, but that did not stop him from re-offending, thanks to irregularities in the judicial proceedings. "Me and my two brothers are all criminals. I was thrown in jail in ‘89. I belonged to a gang that robbed chains, watches and bracelets; we robbed the La Tabacalera tobacco factory and the Victoria brewery. In ’97 I was sent down for 27 years for ‘atrocious’ murder and carrying illegal firearms (AKs, grenades, a shotgun). The jury hit us with 27 years, but within a year the sentence was revoked. My last sentence would have been for 19 years for robbing $15,000, but I was only in for six months because they couldn’t prove anything." In general, gang members agree that passing through prison hones their professionalism and throws them back onto the streets prepared for higher caliber crimes.

Not correcting but punishing

To penetrate the dehumanizing reality of prison, those detained there have to be something more than objects that are tabulated and counted but not understood. Cuban nationalist José Martí tried to convey to us the pain felt by the prisoner: "Infinite pain should be the only name of these pages. Infinite pain, because the pain of prison is the hardest, the most devastating of pains that kills intelligence and dries the soul leaving it permanently marked."
The science of punishment, the technology of expiation has evolved and turned in on itself, while prison has slowly turned into a permanent social fixture. French philosopher Michel Foucault described part of this route: "If we were to write a history of the social control of the body, we could show that even up to the 18th century the body of individuals was fundamentally a surface on which to inscribe torture and punishment; the body had been made to be tormented and punished. Through the means of control that emerged in the 19th century, the body acquired a totally different significance and stopped being something that should be tormented to become something that has to be educated, reformed, corrected, a body that should acquire aptitudes, receive certain qualities and qualify as a body capable of working."
In medieval Europe there was an isomorphism between the crime and the punishment, as demonstrated in Dante’s Inferno. The nature of the punishment that befell the body was determined by the deviation it was trying to correct. In his Historia de los presidiarios en Puerto Rico (1793-1993), Fernando Picó observes that "The purgatory of the afterlife has its counterpart in the convict…. Later, in the 1830s, the terminology of commercial accountancy and civil debt starts to impose itself on penal language. The secularization of purgation also supposed a greater accuracy in the calculation of the amount of time to be served." So the idea of punishment went from being an isomorphism to being a fixed concept with variable rates: confinement. Time acquired greater weight as the variety of punishments was suppressed. Thus the idea becomes that of doing time, with no intention of rehabilitation. The years are left to go by. The punishment is isolation from society, privation of freedom for a determined amount of time, sexual incapacitation, lack of access to lucrative work, inability to move around freely, dependence on the services provided by the institution and the stigma of having been imprisoned.

The idea of a punishment that aims to correct people by putting them in prison is a relatively new policing idea. It is not enough to merely compensate the direct victim. This idea comes from the supposition that the whole of society has been offended because its laws, its order, have been broken. It is based on the aim of punishing rather than of correcting, and of its four aims—to punish, isolate, persuade and correct—prison only fulfils the first. It does not isolate, because it involves a vigorous trade in goods, services and ideas. The gang-based social capital, its most criminal talent, multiplies in prisons. Jail does not succeed in persuading people not to commit crimes—not even those who have served time there, as demonstrated by the figures illustrating how many former inmates end up recidivists. It does not correct; it professionalizes. The technologies of correction fail, and in-reality are not really aimed at correcting.

Things were better 130 years ago

Looking back in Nicaraguan history to a decree approved on September 17, 1866, by the prefect of the department of León "so that the establishments of this class [jails] correspond to the objectives of their institution," we find the establishment and/or confirmation of the following mechanisms. Their current absence represents a step backwards for the penal system in terms of corrective aims.

• The warden slept in the prison building, among other reasons to visit the prisoners at least once a night to ensure that order and decency were being upheld.

• The municipal government had the right to remove the warden in case of negligence or corruption.

• The warden could correct minor infringements by the prisoners through the application of hard labor in the jail. (Now they are punished with more days in jail or by being transferred to even more uncomfortable cells, or, more counterproductive still, to cells with more dangerous inmates.)
• The inmates worked from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a salary of ten centavos a day.

• Fruit and provisions were collected as charity for the particular benefit of prisoners who were physically impaired or did not receive food from relatives.

• The magistrates visited the jail to give the inmates the chance to air their complaints. (How many current Supreme Court magistrates have set foot in a Nicaraguan prison?)
• The municipal government had to ensure that workshops and teachers were installed in the jails so the prisoners could learn a trade or practice the one in which they were already skilled.

• Prisoners were given the chance to work, receiving half of the wages immediately with the other half set aside for when they were released.

But all of this has disappeared and we now have a system that involves imprisonment for its own sake. As US prisoner Nathan Leopold so pertinently put it in a symposium on prison systems: "One of the indispensable elements of a balanced and well-adjusted personality is self respect. Prison does everything possible to lower the prisoner’s self-esteem. From the moment they are brought in, almost all official actions are calculated to wrest away their individuality, to humiliate them and to reduce them to a robotic state." Puerto Rican historian Fernando Picó also emphasized this aspect: "The consequent deformation of the inmate’s life is of no benefit to society, and deprives the inmate of all human warmth and vital purpose. The instruments of enclosure and vigilance, such as gates, fences, bars, windows, walls and towers are visually aggressive. Undoubtedly, as well as their normal functions, they have the additional capacity to symbolically impose the authority of those responsible for the confinement. But these things are not done to rehabilitate and when they represent the only visual stimulus, their message is a degrading one."

Freedom in exchange for denunciation: The industry of betrayal

Guarded and punished, inmates suffer from a mechanism in common usage in other areas of our culture. As Foucault observed: "The school system is also based on a kind of judicial power. There are constant punishments and rewards, evaluations, classifications, and it is announced who is the best and who is the worst. Why do they need to punish and reward in order to teach someone something? The system seems obvious, but its obviousness falls apart upon closer reflection." Punishment, the scourge of self-esteem, has been set up as the corrective instrument par excellence, completely replacing all other mechanisms.

Viewed with extreme suspicion, searched and interrogated, those detained—including gang members—do not enjoy conditions conducive to redirecting their lives. This approach does not correct but instead leads to the deformation of the most basic values. The most obvious example of this distortion comes when inmates are "invited" to become snitches.

Fat David, a gang member from Reparto Schick, describes the procedure: "So the guy said to me ‘I’m going to send you to the psychologist, you’re going to talk to the psychologist on one condition. The man’s going to help you, he’s going to sort you out, on one condition: I need you to investigate so and so.’ Right there in the same wing where you’re living. You might be caught for a serious assault; you might be the head of a gang or a member of a notorious band of robbers. Then along comes a police officer, a member of the Criminal Investigations Department, and says, ‘Investigate that man for me.’ And if I give the right information I’m a free man. But saying that they’ll let you out is usually just a trick they use; it’s not true. So you snitch on the guy, you keep snitching on him and finally you end up losing out, and so does the other guy, and you end up being seen as a toad, because they themselves make sure you’re seen that way when you’re no use to them any more."
The system tries to get truth and justice by encouraging denunciation, rewarding betrayal—selling out one’s brothers—with the reduction, or offer of reduction, of one’s own sentence. This is a distortion of values that also prevails in society, where a worker who betrays a colleague is considered a faithful defender of institutional interests. Punishing and locking up criminals and gang members and turning them into snitches is all passed off as natural.

Good guys, bad guys

Isolation requires a whole ideological setup that acts to legitimize the proceedings, censuring the offenders to justify the act of locking them up. The gang members assume the labels applied to them: "We’re tramps," they say, "and they’re healthy kids." Forty years ago US psychotherapist R.D. Laing analyzed the social definition of what is "good" based on his skepticism of the distinction between sanity and madness. What is good and what is bad, who defines it and how it is transmitted are all social products. Laing investigated the meanings of the word "good" and found connotations that tended to approve a certain kind of behavior. According to Laing, "good" is used in the particular sense in which, for example, a good dog is not a healthy or vital dog, but a beaten down creature that will not leave its kennel except to go for its daily walk at the heels of its master. This use of the word "good" is very common in our culture and is particularly applied to children. This is language at the service of repression. A "good" person is one who adapts to the role the family assigns in accord with the expectations of its older members. Any attempts to act independently are considered "bad" or perverse. This situation is unsustainable, however, as it supposes the stagnation of development. Puberty is the moment in which we question the model proposed by our elders.

We can extrapolate from the situation of individuals within the family circle in order to understand the role played by certain groups in the social sphere. Laws, as an expression of the spirit of a certain people, prescribe what is right and what is wrong. The police and prison play a repressive role. Who is healthy: those who view the current situation as normal? Effectively, "healthiness" belongs to a determined context and only makes sense within that context. The authorities and laws praise a given conduct at certain moments, while penalizing it at others. Laws change, thus changing what is considered crime, those to blame and sentences.

A Sandinista precursor: The "divine mob"

The gang members that are currently condemned had a precursor—or perhaps it is better to talk of an embryonic form—in the role played by certain groups in the 1980s. These groups were an expression of popular agitation aimed against the wealthy classes that opposed the Sandinista government and provided a legitimate release for popular discontent, legitimized and ably manipulated by the FSLN. They were dubbed "divine mobs" by Tomás Borge, the Sandinista leader most inclined to theologize reality, and consisted mainly of young people from marginalized barrios. They had an almost military structure and a well-coordinated call-up capacity and were thus far from the spontaneous eruptions that the official Sandinista media tried to sell to the public.

For the government the mobs were shock troops that could be used to snuff out any critical demonstration, thus playing the role currently institutionally assigned to the riot police. For the young people, enrolling in the mobs provided the chance to vent an aggression that was socially approved and blessed by the national authorities. Aggression that could have been aimed against the government was therefore astutely recycled and transformed into the tacitly institutional repression of opposition forces. The ideology of the times sold the idea that all of the country’s problems were rooted in the activities of imperialism and of its cronies within the country and the war cry was that "against the enemy, anything goes!"

What constitutes peace?

The tactic has changed now: if the system previously channeled discontent, it now represses it. This may be because the current ideology does not condemn certain situations, preferring to minimize them and declare them irrelevant. It is socially acceptable to spend $70 on a perfume, for example, when that represents the monthly salary of a primary school teacher. The system guarantees that we are free to spend our own money on what we want to, but should young children beg for money at the traffic lights? Is that normal? Is it "good"?
The overriding logic is that of utilitarianism: it doesn’t matter how much or for how long some members of the group suffer, the important thing is to increase the well-being of the group as a whole. And the group’s happiness is mathematically expressed in the growth of the Gross Domestic Product. Nobody dares rock this boat; it is prohibited to "disturb the peace." But what constitutes that "peace"? Four-year-olds begging for money at traffic lights until 2 in the morning? The rolling back of the agrarian reform? Earning 20 córdobas [$1.50] a day while trying to support a family of eight? The fact that the Comptroller General of the Republic winds up in jail for doing his job?
The same question comes up again and again: what is "healthy"? The fact that this scenario seems normal? It seems appropriate here to quote Kierkegaard’s main epistemology: the world does not look the same viewed from a hut as viewed from a palace. Would Noel Ramírez, the arrogant president of Nicaragua’s Central Bank, have such a positive opinion of economic growth and job generation if he had to spend the whole day selling icewater for five cents a bag under a scorching sun at a Managua traffic light? And would he have the courage to continue such "work" if he were offered the chance at a better income selling drugs or stealing?

The head of a rotten fish begins to stink first

The corruption displayed by the country’s political parties and state officials and the impunity of the criminal big fish is also related to the increase of delinquency and discontent expressed by the youth gangs. How to trace the thread linking illegal macro acts with illegal micro acts? Where do they overlap? What new social class is growing richer and emerging as a result of the terrible shortcomings in the rule of law? What is the line connecting juvenile delinquency to the absolute illegitimacy of the Nicaraguan legal apparatus? A hint is offered to us in the cynical words of the English bishop Watson, preaching to the Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1804: "The laws are good, but unfortunately they are being flouted by the lower classes. Certainly the higher classes do not take them much into consideration either, but this would not be of much import if it were not for the fact that the higher classes provide an example for the lower ones."
Although the impunity of the powerful is obscene, they themselves make a great to-do about the misdemeanors committed by others. Why does being poor not constitute an extenuating circumstance? Why does being rich, having received an education and coming from a stable family not constitute an aggravating circumstance?
Jail is not the answer to juvenile delinquency, whether or not linked to youth gangs. Jail forms part of a whole system dedicated to disqualifying the discontent expressed through the youth gangs. That the gangs attract so many young people reflects the lack of governance palpable at so many levels, expressed in this case in society’s inability to satisfy the demands of youth from poor social sectors, who are in fact the majority of young people in the country. Generally speaking, the government’s solutions are little more than a self-caricature: if the children beg for money at the traffic lights… the government replaces the traffic lights with traffic circles; if students and transport workers protest and erect barricades using street paving blocks … the government paves the streets with asphalt.

As long as this situation is allowed to continue and the solutions focus on guarding and punishing, youth gangs will be around for a long time yet.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Youth Gangs: A Cultural Prison

A Society Scandalized

Who Fishes Best in Troubled Waters?

On the Eve of the Elections: A Vote of Fear or a Vote for Change?

Money Laundering and Investment: A Few Clues

Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development