An Anthropologist in a Managua Gang
The anthropologist became a gang member in order to know from the inside something of the logic of the hundred gangs that operate in the 400 neighborhoods of the Nicaraguan capital. These are the first notes on this interesting experience.
In Central America, violence and insecurity mount with each passing day, and Nicaragua is no exception. One feature of this is the bands of teenagers who roam the neighborhoods harassing, robbing, beating and even occasionally killing people. Are these gangs a random phenomenon or institutions with an internal logic? What motivates the violence that characterizes them?
As an anthropologist, I wanted some answers to these and other questions, so I set out in search of them. I would like to thank the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for its financing, without which this search, this research, would not have been possible.
To obtain data, anthropological methodology today depends largely on "participatory observation." The major strength of this research method is that it goes beyond just observing how people act; it also observes how they understand and experience their actions. To do that, the anthropologist must assume the social role and participate in the social realities being investigated. So I did just that; I decided to become a gang member.
I had to live this double reality as an anthropologist-gang member, over an extended period in order for daily activities to become explicit. It was also necessary in order to test what the other members say they are doing against what they actually do in practice. This lengthy comparison process is important to understanding how the gang members' lives are organized.
All this requires immersing oneself in a different social role. Immersion, not conversion. In different moments of life, we all play various social roles, and anthropologists perhaps play even more in the course of their research. But one doesn't stop being an anthropologist while being a gang member, nor does one become just like the other members.
The Only "Chele"It cannot be argued that the dual role distorts research; at worst, it does so no more than a survey. Introducing an external variable into a specific social situation can even precipitate useful conditions for understanding the phenomenon better. I verified that by taking on the role of a gang member in a poor neighborhood, or barrio, on the east side of Managua, where I lived with a family between October 1996 and July 1997.
Being a "chele" (light skinned and blond) was obviously atypical, especially in a social context in which I was the only foreigner living in the neighborhood. Also atypical were my social origins and my age-at 23, I was the oldest one in the group. All that distorted the situation, but not outrageously, and the advantages outweighed the distortions.
As a member of the gang, I was treated as a "cool brother" and the other members talked to me about their criminal activities with no fear or reticence. Having an atypical status allowed me to understand some things about gangs that a typical member would also have discovered, but perhaps through a slower learning process. Distance sometimes helps the analysis.
My differences weren't exactly disadvantages. While a gang's reputation depends partly on the characteristics of its particular neighborhood, it also depends on the characteristics of its own members. One reason the gang members in my neighborhood let me into their group was the "special touch" that my presence gave it. Members typically increase a gang's reputation or notoriety through their courage, their violence or their craziness; I gave mine additional cachet through my appearance. I'm sure that not many gangs in Managua boast a blond outsider as a member.
The Logic of Gang FightsThis atypical status helped me discover something of the logic underlying gang fights. I say logic because these frequent confrontations don't arise on the spur of the moment for no good reason. They are largely geared to doing harm to the notorious members of the adversary gang. And I, as the chele in my gang, was a target of this objective.
An anecdote that occurred after I had been admitted into the gang reveals my particular "importance." One day when there was no water in my neighborhood I decided to go shower at the house of one of the daughters of the family I lived with, in a nearby neighborhood. But "my" family wouldn't let me go alone. Even though it was only 6:30 in the morning, they felt it was too risky for me to venture into that other neighborhood. They feared that the gang there might attack me, not just for being a member of a rival gang, but for being one with such special characteristics. Finally, after weighing the risk, the boyfriend of the woman of my house, a taxi driver who was sleeping in the house that day, took me in his cab, waited for me to shower, then drove me back home. I'd never taken such a dangerous shower in my life.
Sub-Gangs WithinGangs have a well defined structure, with subgroups by age. Members always enter at the lowest level, in the subgroup for those under 13 years old. Next they move up to the one for the 13-17 age group, and finally join those over 18. I'm not talking about "different" gangs, but "sub-gangs" within the larger one.
The gang in my neighborhood is subdivided two ways: by age and also by the neighborhood's geography. The Dragons are in the east section, the Shirkers in the west, and the "8th Streeters," who named themselves after a pool hall in their section, are in the center. These subgroups generally operate separately, but never fight among themselves. They also join forces when the neighborhood is in any danger -- i.e. is attacked by a gang from another neighborhood-or to go mess with the crowds during big Saint's Day festivals such as Santo Domingo.
This staged incorporation into the gang is practiced with kids from established families in the neighborhood. In the early 1990s a massive wave of new families immigrated into my neighborhood, about half its current population. One can assume that various mechanisms were developed in those years to bring the newly arriving youth into the gang.
My Initiation Rites: Knife Play and TheftMy special status may mean that the rites of initiation I went through weren't typical, though some members have told me that they weren't so different from others. Since no new young people moved into the neighborhood after me, I had no chance to attend another initiation and dispel my doubts.
My rite was informal and had two moments. The first came one afternoon when the gang members tried to scare me by drawing a knife on me while we were talking in the street. It was a Swiss knife, bigger than the ones usually sold in stores, which the Swiss army uses for hand to hand combat. I was lucky: I grew up in Switzerland and began playing with knives when I was 8. So now, after controlling my initial fear, which wasn't easy, I asked them for the knife and showed them how to do some tricks with it that they didn't know.
The second moment consisted of going to the nearby Roberto Huembes market complex with some of the other members to shoplift. Acting as a decoy I distracted the owner of a clothing stall while they stole some women's trousers, then later I had to sell them in the neighborhood. Going door to door and using my limited social networks-I had only been living there two weeks-I sold the eight trousers for 43 córdobas. They go for 20 córdobas apiece in the market, but it's normal to slash the price for hot goods.
Since the anthropologist proposes immersion and not conversion, I tried to explain this difference to the gang members. Once they initiated me into the gang I told them that I wouldn't participate in either assaults or robberies with them, or in fights with gangs that occurred outside the neighborhood. I told them I would essentially be an observer member. They accepted my conditions without problems, since they were aware that, ethical considerations aside, I couldn't get fully involved in activities like that not only as an anthropologist but also as a foreigner.
But when my neighborhood was attacked by an enemy gang in November 1996, my fellow gang members ended up observing my participation. On that occasion I helped defend the neighborhood, throwing rocks and stick-fighting the attackers. For me it was a question of self-defense, but when it was all over several gang members told me that I was now one of them, that they could see that I was "bad," that I loved the neighborhood and was willing to defend it. Even accepting that I have a special role within the gang, the members felt that I had to be "bad": always ready to defend the neighborhood from invasion, showing no fear of either getting hurt or participating in robberies, smoking marijuana...
January 97 Police BustsBeing a gang member as well as a member of a household in the neighborhood helped me a great deal to understand the attitudes of both the gang members and their families toward the new Liberal government's repressive campaign against them in late January 1997. Launched only weeks after President Alemán took office, the campaign consisted of police patrols in what were designated as "hot" Managua neighborhoods to stop the gangs. After several years of paying virtually no attention to these neighborhoods, the National Police would suddenly appear at any hour of the day or night, when the people called them or when they themselves decided. Each weekend, various patrols came into the neighborhood to carry off drunks and gang members.
A strong characteristic style of gang activity is to stand up to danger. This attitude fits well within the deeply rooted macho culture, which idealizes running risks and publicly demonstrating courage against all comers. When the Police arrived, all the gang members would come out yelling, throwing rocks and running all over the place. The mothers also ran out shouting, but not against the Police. They were trying to stop their boys and herd them back into the safety of their homes.
The mothers' attitude was not just a maternal instinct to protect their sons. Gang members picked up by the police don't get out of jail for two or three weeks. Since their mothers have to take food to them and the guards always end up with a portion of it, the price of their children's gratitude is too high: they lose time and have to spend hard-to-come-by money on extra food and transportation, the latter varying according to where the prisoner is held. The family also has the option of paying bail to get their son released in just three days, but in the eight months I was active it went up from 105 córdobas to 210 (roughly from $13 to $23). This is very expensive for a family whose average monthly income is between 600 and 800 córdobas.
Certainly the increased police presence and near doubling of the bail has led many parents of gang members to take severe measures, such as locking their children in the house for several days. The gang members also scaled down their activities due to the police campaign. Nonetheless, after several weeks of relative police inactivity again, the gangs went back to work. Holy Week was coming up and they needed money to pay for their traditional days at the beach.
It was quickly demonstrated that a police campaign such as the one in January can perhaps curtail gang activity, but not for long; it's no kind of a solution. Police repression reinforces the cycle of violence of which the gangs are only a part. The gangs and the violence they generate have a well defined origin and motivations, and as long as this isn't taken into account, any strategy against the phenomenon will be doomed to failure.
A Nearly Military OrganizationHaving such a close relationship with a gang allowed me to learn a lot about the tactics they use, which also illuminate important aspects of their roots and durability. When gangs fight, they essentially do so with an organization that is virtually military in all its details. They organize into "companies" that protect each other; they have a rearguard; they generally draw up a battle plan with a strategy; and they carry out their retreats in a very orderly fashion. The weapons that each individual takes into combat are his own, but the armed individuals are distributed among the different companies according to their weaponry to balance them. The exception to that is when the need arises to organize what they call an "assault commando," with a lot of fire power to achieve a specific objective such as wounding the rival gang's leader.
The weapons the gang members use range from their bare hands to AK-47 rifles and fragmentation grenades. Generally, however, they use rocks, sticks, pipes, knives and homemade mortars. Firearms-semi-automatic rifles and pistols-are mainly used for assault and robbery, but they also come into play when a gang fight drags out over time and each confrontation requires an escalation of weapons until each gang reaches the point of using the strongest thing it's got.
It's Not Just About JoblessnessThe gangs are a social phenomenon that reproduces itself over time. They began to appear in Nicaragua around 1990. Their members were youths who had served in the military during the war of the 1980s, which ended right after the 1990 elections, so they all knew how to use weapons. But the members of those first gangs are not the gang members of today.
In my neighborhood, members basically have two choices when they reach 22-24 years old. The first is the most common: they start a family "by accident," and leave the gang to show that they are responsible. From then on, the majority of them live most of the time without work. The second option is to move into the world of "hard" crime. A significant minority elects this route. In my neighborhood, about 15-20% become professional criminals.
It has been shown in just these seven years that information on how to handle weapons, devise combat strategies and military knowledge in general has been passed down through generations of gang members. It's important to understand this, because it shows that the gangs are much more than just a response to the structural stimulus represented by the extended unemployment that Nicaragua is suffering.
Naturally, unemployment and lack of alternatives are important factors in explaining the gang phenomenon, but they aren't enough. The gangs are institutions with a certain measure of socio-cultural autonomy and reproductive capacity that is not tied only to the socioeconomic context. Their motivations go beyond that of being spaces in which youths can overcome the boredom of having nothing much to do by provoking, harassing and attacking others.
The first gang members of the 1990s, adolescents who had lived through war, danger, death and many other forms of violence in the mountains, say that afterward they wanted to repeat these dramatic experiences. Above all they wanted to recapture the social status that military life conferred upon them by proudly serving their country.
Today's gang members didn't know the war or do military service. But in the framework of a national situation in which they feel like a lost generation, they coincide with those of yesterday in their desire to achieve a social status with prestige. They themselves state that they don't have any future and that Nicaragua doesn't either.
They are without work and without social respectability. They are also without any possibility of studying. Despite public government statements that the monthly student fees plus another charge for each final exam are supposedly voluntary, schools are still requiring them in the name of "scholastic autonomy." These fees are simply not within the reach of poor families, especially if they have more than one school-age child, which most do. Faced with this dead-end prospect, the only way these teenagers can see to create their own social role is by affirming their presence through a gang that assaults, robs, fights and exercises other forms of violence. It's not just their role but their mission: they see themselves as duty bound to defend their neighborhood and that gives them the right to attack any outsiders who dare to venture into their turf.
Their Identity Is In the BarrioDuring this decade, the feeling of identity has become very localized. My gang identifies strongly with the neighborhood as it was during the Somocista years of their parents' time: a marginal and extremely dangerous barrio. One of my gang friends proudly told me once that "those who lived here before were really tough. They got respect. No one came in here, nobody. You came in one side on foot and went out the other in a box. In those days even the Guardia [Somoza's National Guard] was afraid to come in here." The neighborhood was a theater of violent confrontations during the anti-Somocista insurrection in 1978-79; National Guard planes even dropped bombs on it several times.
In the first years of the Sandinista government, it benefited from an urban program that totally rebuilt the neighborhood. While no one lets me forget that fact, it was unfortunately a short-term one. By the mid-1980s, as the economic crisis mounted, the neighborhood ceased being maintained. Today it has only one functioning street light, the public spaces have all turned into garbage dumps and the houses are falling apart. Since family incomes have fallen drastically, most families can't even afford to keep up the maintenance on their own homes, much less the neighborhood. Its history since 1984-85 has thus been one of slow failure, of prolonged agony. There's no longer anything special about it; it's like hundreds of others all over Managua. Today's gang members dream of the past, when their neighborhood had respect. Everywhere, outside the neighborhood as well as within it, they paint graffiti with the name their barrio had before the revolution.
What Would They Like to Do?This longing search for identity is intimately linked to the vacuum of other significant social roles and permits the assumption that if one could channel the gang members' energies and dreams toward other activities, they would perhaps find what they are looking for.
When I asked what kind of activities interest them and seem useful, they answered that they would like to do something concrete, beneficial to themselves and their neighborhood, something they can identify with and on which they can work collectively. For example, to build a basketball court that they could later be responsible for maintaining.
This response reflects something important to keep in mind when analyzing the social phenomenon of the gangs. They should be considered as collectives, as communities, not just as juxtaposed groups with no order or harmony. In my neighborhood it can be said that the gang is the only example of organization with cooperative solidarity, because even the families are fragmented. The family I live with, for example, is divided into three distinct groups, which survive on different incomes that are never shared among them.
The gang members underscore the importance of solidarity within their gang as strongly as they lament the atomization of their community. They point out that a gang member has responsibilities, one of which becomes obvious to any observer of a gang fight: no gang ever leaves one of its members on the "battleground." Whatever the danger, a wounded member is rescued by the others before retreating. Naturally, this is partly due to the logic of the fights, whose objective is to capture or otherwise incapacitate members of the rival gang who have special qualities. Nonetheless, it is also a sign of the solidarity generated among gang members.
Solidarity Inherited From Sandinismo?The gang members in my neighborhood say that this solidarity-with which they help each other and take care of the neighborhood-comes from Sandinismo. They see themselves as the heirs of the Sandinista values of solidarity and collective work. During the 1996 election campaign, the gang distributed FSLN propaganda and put red and black banners and posters along the streets after it was announced that FSLN presidential candidate Daniel Ortega was coming to the neighborhood.
All gang members in my neighborhood, 100% of them, are Sandinistas. While this certainly has an influence on their ideology of solidarity, the memories that the majority retain of the Sandinista period are imprecise because they were very young in those years. Their views were probably inherited from the first generation of gang members.
The current members tend to idealize and mythify the past. An example of this is their glorification of the history of the neighborhood before it was rebuilt by the Sandinista government, even though it was one of those with the most wretched poverty in Managua.
The gang members have a strong sense of territory. Each member identifies with his neighborhood and sees it as his turf. They also operate in other neighborhoods, but not with the same attitude of relationship that they have with their own. It can be said that the gang members have a strong feeling of social responsibility, at least toward their own neighborhood.
During a "war" with the gang from a neighboring barrio, my friends organized a truce "for the houses," which were suffering from the mortar cross fire between the two bands. The gangs reached an agreement to move their war to neutral terrain between the two neighborhoods, far from the houses. Such a sense of cooperation between supposedly enemy gangs should not be too surprising. Many times the very gang members who fought yesterday join together today to attack another gang; even though these alliances are fleeting, they are not insignificant.
Gang Members Who Are "Bad"While some gangs have female members, all are male in mine. The number of members grew steadily each year between 1990 and 1995, but since then has held fairly steady.
Not all teenagers in a neighborhood get involved in its gang. For example, my neighborhood has about 3,000 inhabitants, of whom some 750 are adolescent males, and only about 100 of them belong to the gang.
Why do some young people become gang members and others don't? The explanation of the members themselves is that some are "bad" and others aren't. Being "bad" is pure whim: an attraction to delinquency, a style of dressing-wearing one's t-shirt inside out, for example-or a way of talking-reversing the syllables of words, so that one is "nitua" instead of tuani (cool).
It's also an attitude, a sense of humor, as was shown in the armed robbery of a diplomat by the members of my gang. They had noticed the diplomatic plates on a car parked on a street in the next neighborhood well known for drug sales. When the diplomat came out of the shop, they were waiting for him with an AK-47. They stole the $200 he was carrying, his rings and watch, his shirt and his shoes. But they decided to show their "respect" for his office by leaving him the "best part": his fancy car and his drug purchase.
But "being bad" is more than robbing, taking drugs or hanging out and making trouble. It's also having a sense of value, of honor, albeit honor among thieves. It's feeling that you belong to the neighborhood and to the gang, with the responsibility that belonging implies. Gang members don't just help each other; they also trust each other a lot. And that trust is a value that is getting ever harder to find in the context of Nicaragua's current crisis.
This trust and this loyalty are partly reactions to the social stigmatization that the gang members suffer, although at least within my neighborhood and probably many others, this stigma is ambiguous. The inhabitants are constantly criticizing the gang, but they never forget that its members are the ones who protect and take care of the neighborhood.
Who Joins a Gang?There's no clear correlation between membership in a gang and the socioeconomic situation of the member's family. Although there's a lot of social differentiation in my neighborhood, the youth in the gang are not mechanically from the poorest strata.
At the same time, however, economics is always an important motive in the decision to join. Gang members can get their hands on a lot of money through assaults, thefts and other "business deals." They use it to buy glue to sniff, marijuana to smoke, liquor to get drunk on, charges for their mortars and bullets for their firearms, daggers, and clothes-especially Nike shoes and baseball caps. Food, too. The average monthly expenses for a gang member range between 200 and 400 córdobas ($20-40). They never save money; they just go looking for it when they need it. They also don't share it with their family, though they sometimes do with fellow gang members.
Nor can it be said that gang members necessarily come from families with problematic histories-broken homes with scenes of domestic violence, etc. The only systematic indicator I've been able to observe is that the vast majority of teenagers from families belonging to evangelical sects don't join gangs.
This could be due to the strict evangelical ideology, which opposes some of the gang activities-including smoking and drinking. It could also be because the evangelical churches are so organized that they play a social role comparable to that of the gangs: both are institutional reference points that offer individuals solid group codes of conduct in a national setting in which many of the social guidelines have been transformed or have disappeared. Within a context of wrenching change and generalized insecurity, full of ephemeral touchstones, both the gangs and the evangelical sects represent an effort to construct a social space with defined rules, where the youths can feel part of a group with social identity.
The insecurity and precariousness that characterize Nicaragua today permeate the social space in which the gang members are situated. The gangs are socially structured and structuring. Even though new values, meaning, practices, relationships and kinds of relations emerge within the social space that these gangs constitute, they are still situated within-and subordinated by-a broader space which also shapes their members' identity. This broader space is the national space, which is in crisis. Since the gang members have to build their identity in both spaces, all their actions reflect both the established order and the one they manage to establish in their gang.
The Expression of a Macho CultureIn a country with a culture of violence, is it any surprise that gang members are characterized by accentuating that social feature? In a context in which strength is what gives status, the way to overcome the strongest is to get hold of a weapon.
Nicaragua's history is unquestionably impregnated with violence. It has been omnipresent ever since the Spanish conquest, and this has affected all organizational forms of life in Nicaragua. Violence is the preferred method for resolving any kind of conflict in a macho cultural framework; even the levels of violence within the household are quite high. The gangs can thus also be analyzed as a crystallization of Nicaraguan machismo, through the attitude of gang members toward danger, the premium they put on violence as a social expression, their almost exclusively male membership, the way they relate to women, and so on.
The gangs and their violence are not phenomena in the air. They have a logic within their own social space and within the social space that constitutes Nicaraguan society. They are the form that some youths adopt to impose themselves on a society that excludes them.
An Uncertain and Changing LogicNotwithstanding all this, a perfect logic should not be sought in the gangs. The conventional explanation of individual behavior, whether it be in economics, sociology or other social science disciplines, is based on the concept that human actions are the product of a rationality based on considerations that individuals make about the various means and ends and causes and effects that are within their grasp. But it is often not easy to identify these supposedly interlinked pieces, because the options one has at hand are opaque and indeterminate.
The ambiguity inherent to the human condition-which is significantly increased in the chaotic and anarchic context of today's Nicaragua-means that people often don't quite know what they are doing or the effect their actions could have. This doesn't mean that their actions aren't rational, but the logic they use doesn't ever get to the point of being systematic. People aren't as sure of either themselves or the world in which they are living as the social sciences often postulate.
The world is not immobile; it's always changing. For that reason, people's lives should be considered as an anarchic process of ongoing change. Human interaction is already ambiguous because all manifestations of communication between human beings-the crux of social interaction-are ambiguous; they constantly need interpretation. That's why many more experiences and a lot more time will be needed for the anthropologist ever to understand the gang member.