Did Managua’s Gang Members Vote?
Gang members in Managua’s poor barrios had various reasons for abstaining from the vote. We discovered some of these reasons in Reparto Schick, along with a typology of gang voters and abstainers.
Juan José Sosa Meléndez
A large number of the voters who gave the FSLN its victory in the municipality of Managua were young, but how many of those youths are from the capital’s poor neighborhoods and even poorer squatter settlements? And how many belong to the numerous gangs, or pandillas, that claim these barrios as their turf?
Sandinista businessman Herty Lewites won Managua’s mayoral race by a handsome margin. His running mate was 33-year-old Evert Cárcamo, host of the extremely popular Sunday TV humor show La Cámara Matizona—a schmaltzy and often vulgar version of Candid Camera. From his program on Sandinista-owned Channel 4, Cárcamo mocks politicians and ordinary citizens but promotes the gang toughs from Managua’s barrios, giving the spotlight to their style, their speech, their important figures and their demands, as well as to the rock and rap groups that represent them. The program is in a class of its own, a valuable political, social and cultural offering.
While the Liberals knocked themselves out disqualifying this young and unclassifiable candidate as inept and dangerous, others wagered that Evert would be a magnet for the youth vote and, beyond that, the youth gang vote. Did Evert’s TV gambits and his wild parties pay off? envío toured the main artery of Reparto Schick, the famed “barrio de pandilleros” where it picked up some data on these questions that will never be quantified in the Supreme Electoral Council’s cold calculations.
No-go into "enemy territory"Most residents of this sprawling impoverished neighborhood, particularly the youth, identify with the FSLN, and that holds true for gang members. The monitors of the polling centers we talked to in Reparto Schick’s main schools corroborated this view: "People here have always been Sandinista, even the bums. There are only a few Liberals, so Herty won everywhere."
Because the majority of gang members are between 16 and 19 years old, this year was their first opportunity to exercise their franchise; only a handful of them voted in 1996. Nonetheless, entire gangs in Reparto Schick ended up abstaining for the simple reason that their members’ designated polling center was in "enemy territory." It is a basic gang rule that you don’t penetrate a rival zone unless armed with rocks and machetes and looking for trouble. Since getting into a scrap with another gang often means landing in jail as well, they decided "it wasn’t worth getting in deeper just to go vote." So for starters, the only gang members who even contemplated voting were those registered at a polling place on a street that "belongs" to their gang or to an ally. In those cases they also guarded the entrance to it all day long as if they were electoral police—supposedly to keep their adversaries from coming around, although some non-Sandinista voters complained that they felt intimidated.
Fear of having documentsA number of other gang members decided not to vote because they have always been wary of having any kind of official document that identifies them, and have no intention of sacrificing that anonymity for some dumb political reason. Their fear is that any document that creates a record on them, including the valuable and normally much-sought ID-voter card—will make them an easy target for the police. Those who are over 18 but don’t look it have even more reason to avoid being included in the civil registry. Should that happen, they could no longer lie about their age when they get trapped by the police.
In more general terms, these kids do not exhibit the slightest interest in investing time to deal with the alien and unknown bureaucratic world. Some give the excuse that they can’t go down to a government office in shorts and slip-ons, while others admit that they wouldn’t know what to do inside an office. The majority of gang members have not finished primary school and know nothing about civil rights, including the periodic right to electoral suffrage. If family tradition plays a strong role in socializing the next generation to the importance of this first step to democracy, those with no family tend to be better versed in the right to abstain than the right to vote.
"It’s not my thing"Still other youths, a disarmingly large proportion of them, are so steeped in drugs—particularly crack and glue-sniffing—that they can’t get their head around anything other than how to buy their next fix. "We don’t think about political stuff," said one, but the truth is that they don’t think about much of anything. In the worst cases, they have no family, no place to live and nowhere to go. With their life revolving around vice, it is the only thing that occupies what is left of their mind. They spend their days on street corners asking for change to buy something to eat, which as often as not is a euphemism for glue. They don’t vote for democracy, because democracy made it quite clear long ago that it wants nothing to do with them.
Not all gang members are druggies, however, nor do all of them fear having some document that would identify them. Some are just aggressive by nature, live semi-clandestinely, keep away from other people and are always on the lookout for something to snatch, not infrequently at knifepoint. They obviously don’t vote either. "It’s not my thing," they explain. But that doesn’t mean they have no opinion. They tend to be real critics.
Why vote?When asked about their abstention, most gang members give the same response: "What should I vote for? None of them are going to give me anything to eat. Politicians are just thieves. These guys don’t do anything to help the people. Maybe if they paid me something..." Their responses and opinions are not noticeably different from the non-gang youth who are skeptical about politics. You don’t have to be a gang member to be unenthusiastic about voting. Their reasons for not participating were similar to those that motivated so many other Managuans to distrust politics and reject politicians.
The spectrum of voters and abstainers among gang members is broad and unique, but the percentage of those in both Reparto Schick and other poor barrios who voted seems to have been pretty small relative to those who didn’t. It was a minority, just as it is a minority that is not involved in drugs, that still has the judgment to reflect on the advantages of having an ID card and being a citizen, that still maintains some communication with relatives and the rest of society, or that has any educational level beyond the first few grades of elementary school.
For all the rest, the “fiesta cívica” either passed them by altogether or was viewed as some senseless exercise that has nothing to do with them. Most of these kids are speeding down the slippery slope of addiction, losing their better judgment and acquiring criminal behavior patterns along the way, their pathological states so advanced that it would be hard to pull them back. One barrio resident put it only slightly differently: "These kids are just waiting for the bullet with their name on it." Dodging it is the only sense they can find in their life. Vote for what? Herty won, but it doesn’t seem to have been thanks to the gang vote Evert was able to attract.