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  Number 280 | Noviembre 2004
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Nicaragua

An Urban Gang Moves from Social to Economic Violence

Five years ago they warred with each other and defended their barrio. Today, they’re selling crack and accumulating capital, their unique “love” of their neighborhood forgotten. This recent evolution of Nicaragua’s youth gangs largely reflects their country’s evolution— from collective projects to individual interests.

Dennis Rodgers


In 1996-97, I lived in a poor neighborhood, or barrio, in eastern Managua to study the life and activities of its youth gang, which I even became part of for a while. Some of my preliminary findings were recounted in an article published in envío in August 1997. In February 2002, I returned to this same barrio for a month and a half, to see how the gang had evolved. I shared some of my findings in envío’s March 2004 issue, and now offer some of the conclusions I’ve drawn.

A consequence of peace, an addiction to war

Prosaic forms of violence, such as crime and delinquency, have become ubiquitous in Nicaragua since the end of the contra war in 1990, with the number of crimes committed rising from 28,005 in 1990 to 97,500 in 2003, according to official Police statistics. Not surprisingly, then, a 1999 survey by the Nicaraguan NGO Ethics and Transparency cited in a United Nations Development Program report showed crime to be one of the principal problems concerning Nicaraguans today. It also found that youth gangs were seen as the most likely perpetrators of crime. Even if they are by no means solely responsible for the widespread crime in contemporary Nicaragua, they are certainly the most visible, roaming city streets, robbing, beating, terrorizing and often killing.

Nicaragua’s youth gang history can be traced back to the 1940s, but gangs were a relatively small-scale phenomenon up until the 1990s; in fact, the gang phenomenon almost completely disappeared from view during the 1980s, partly because of military conscription and the extensive organized community vigilance in urban neighborhoods promoted by the Sandinista government. There was an explosion in gang formation following the end of the war and change of government in 1990. In many ways, this was less a consequence of the war than of the advent of peace, as most of these new gang numbers were youths aged 16 to 20 who had been discharged from either the army or the contra forces.

The individuals I interviewed in 1996-97 who had become gang members during this period always gave two general reasons for joining a gang. One was that the change of regime in 1990 led to a devaluation of their social status, which as soldiers defending the nation or as “freedom fighters” had been high within their respective social contexts. Forming a gang had been a means of reaffirming themselves vis-à-vis a wider society that seemed to “forget” them very rapidly. The other was that forming a gang seemed a way to recapture some of the dramatic, yet marking and almost addictive, adrenaline-charged experiences of war, danger and death, as well as the comradeship and solidarity they had lived through as conscripts or guerrillas, which were rapidly becoming scarce commodities in an increasingly politically polarized and ever-impoverishing postwar Nicaragua.

Gangs proliferated and grew rapidly in Nicaragua’s early postwar years. Gang membership is a finite social role in most youth formations around the world, with individuals “maturing out” of the gang at some point over the age of 18, so by the mid-1990s most gang members were no longer the war-affected youths who had initially formed the gangs. Nonetheless, the gangs were a ubiquitous feature of Managua, manifesting their strong degree of institutional autonomy. At its most basic, a gang refers to a very definite kind of local social institution, which generally consists of a variably sized group of overwhelmingly male youths aged between 7 and 23 who engage in illicit and violent behavior—although not all gang activities are either illicit or violent—and have a particular territorial dynamic.

Most gangs tend to be associated with a particular urban neighborhood, although larger neighborhoods frequently have more than one gang and not all neighborhoods have even one. The reasons for their greater or lesser presence include the level of social fragmentation, number of youths, the sort of other opportunities neighborhood youth might have and economic factors—the richer the neighborhood, the less likely it is to have a gang. The Nicaraguan National Police estimated that in 1999 there were some 110 gangs in Managua alone—which is made up of some 600 neighborhoods and spontaneous settlements—involving about 8,500 youths. Apart from likely being on the low side, these figures also do not reflect the fact that youth gangs are a changing phenomenon, as the following description of the evolution of the gang in my barrio between 1996-97 and 2002, makes clear.

The gang violence in 1996-97

In 1996-97, the gang was made up of about 100 youths, all males aged between 7 and 22. It was subdivided into distinct age and geographical subgroups. There were three age cohorts—7-12 years olds, 13-17 years olds and those 18 and over—and three geographical subgroups, respectively associated with the central area of the neighborhood, its west side neighborhood and its east side. All these different subgroups considered themselves part of a single gang but they generally operated separately, except during gang warfare, when different subgroups would come together to defend the neighborhood or attack another.

Much of the gang activity involved acts of violence. While not the gang’s exclusive behavior pattern, violence was in many ways its distinguishing feature, setting its members apart from other youth. In 1996-97, most gang crime was at a petty level, such as mugging, pick pocketing or shoplifting, although a significant proportion did also involve much more serious and violent acts, including armed robbery, assault, rape and murder, particularly by older group members.

Perhaps the most frequent form of gang violence at the time were the regular conflicts between gangs, which turned parts of Managua into quasi-war zones, as gang members fought each other with weaponry ranging from sticks, stones, and knives to AK-47s, fragmentation grenades and mortars, with often dramatic consequences for both gang members and the local population. While at first glance these gang wars seemed highly chaotic and anarchic, they were in fact very organized and displayed regular patterns. Moreover, even if unquestionably frequently deleterious for local residents, they also had positive implications.

Gang wars: Tactics, strategy and ritual

While the triggers for gang wars ranged from assaults on individuals to territorial encroachment by other gangs, they always revolved around either attacking or protecting a neighborhood, with much of the fighting specifically focused either on inflicting or limiting damage to both infrastructure and inhabitants. The gang organized itself into “companies” that operated strategically, expertly covering each other whenever advancing or retreating. There was generally a “reserve force,” and although weapons were an individual’s own property, each gang member was distributed among the different “companies” to balance out firepower, except when a high-powered “attack commando” was needed for a specific tactical purpose.

The conflicts themselves were highly regulated, even ritualized. For example, the first battle typically involved fighting with stones and bare hands, but each new battle involved an escalation of weaponry, first to sticks and staffs, then to knives and broken bottles, then mortars, and eventually to guns, AK-47s and fragmentation grenades. Although the escalation rate could vary, its sequence never did; gangs did not launch their wars with mortars, guns or AK-47s. Moreover, battles involved specific behavior patterns by active participants, intimately linked to what members called “living in the shadow of death” (“somos muerte arriba”).

This expression reflected the very real fact that gang members often found themselves in dangerous situations, which in itself constituted a dimension of the lives of gang members critical to understanding the significance of the ways they related to each other and to wider society. At the same time, living in the shadow of death was more than just a corporeal state of being for them; they used the expression to describe their attitudes and practices. Living in the shadow of death entailed displaying specific behavior patterns, such as exposing oneself purposefully to danger to taunt the enemy during battles. These battles became almost a kind of ritualized ballet, with gang members running around, exposing themselves to risk, shooting away, whatever the odds and whatever the consequences.

Living in the shadow of death meant taking risks and displaying bravado, not asking questions or calculating one’s chances, but simply going ahead and acting, almost daring death to do its best. It meant being violent and being exposed to violence, but with style, in a cheerfully exuberant way that made it almost an esthetic expression. As such, gang violence was more than simply a practice. It was a veritable way of life, an enduring everyday process that became a primary constitutive force in the construction of the individual gang member self, as well as contributing to the constitution of the group. Gang wars helped reaffirm the group by emphasizing the primordial distinction between “us” and “them.”

Violence with a social dimension

At the same time, gang violence was about more than just the construction of the gang or individual; it was arguably about a broader social structuration process, for the gang members justified their fighting other gangs as primarily representing an “act of love” for their neighborhood. In short, an all-important golden rule of gang behavior was not to prey on local neighborhood residents, and in fact to actively protect them from outside thieves. As one named Julio put it, “You show the neighborhood you love it by putting yourself in danger for people, protecting them from other gangs… You look after the neighborhood; you help them, keep them safe….”

Despite the often negative consequences of gang wars for local neighborhood residents, this is not as implausible as it may initially seem. In many ways, the ritualized nature of the warfare can be conceived as a kind of restraining mechanism; escalation is a positive constitutive process, in which each stage calls for more intense action, and is thus always seen as under the actors’ control. At the same time, the escalation process provided the locals with a framework through which to organize their lives, a sort of “early warning system.” As such gang wars can be seen as having “scripted performances,” a means of circumscribing what Hannah Arendt has called the “all-pervading unpredicta-bility” of violence.

Although gang wars had clearly deleterious effects for the local urban population, they were indirect, as gangs never directly victimized their own neighborhood population. The threat stemmed from other gangs, with which the local gang would engage in a prescribed manner to limit the scope of violence in its own neighborhood, thereby creating a kind of predictable “safe haven” for local inhabitants. In a wider context of chronic violence and insecurity, this function was positive, even if not always 100% effective. Despite bystanders frequently being injured and even sometimes killed in the crossfire of gang warfare, the local inhabitants recognized it as such. As a resident named Sergio put it, “the gang looks after the neighborhood and screws others, it protects us and lets us feel a little safer, lets us live our lives a little bit more easily.”

In many ways, though, the local gang did more than simply provide the neighborhood a certain sense of security: it also constituted itself as a symbolic index of community, as its “care” for the neighborhood stood in sharp contrast to the wider context of fragmentation and breakdown characterizing contemporary Nicaragua. This was also reflected in the existence of a certain identification with the gang and its exploits among local residents, and ultimately the gang constituted the principal anchor point for a collective barrio identity in an otherwise fractured community. Seen this way, the gang and its behavior patterns provided important reference points for the general collective organization of social life in the barrio, but it did so in a reduced way, restricted to the local neighborhood, and in what in the final analysis has to be considered more of a palliative than an enabling way. Ultimately, such a form of local social order would never be viable, and indeed, when I returned to the barrio in 2002, both the neighborhood and the local gang dynamics had changed radically.

2002: Everything has changed
with the omnipresence of crack

In 2002, the gang had shrunk from being a group of about 100 members aged 7 to 22, with age and geographical subgroups, to a single group of just 18 youths aged 17 to 23. New violent and illicit activities had replaced those of five years earlier. In particular, gang wars were a thing of the past, individual crime was up as were levels of brutality. Most dramatically, the communitarian ethos of “loving the neighborhood” had disappeared. Gang members no longer cared about the community and in fact now actively preyed on their own local population. As a gang member named Roger put it: “If people in the barrio get attacked, if they’re robbed, if they have a problem, who cares? We don’t lift a finger to help them nowadays… We just laugh … Who cares what happens to them?”

A variety of factors contributed to the change in dynamics, but the most important seemed to be the emergence of hard drugs, more specifically crack cocaine. Although modest quantities of crack could be obtained in Nicaragua in 1996-97, it was not a prevalent drug; marijuana was the most widespread drug at the time, along with glue, both of which were domestically produced and sold on a relatively small scale. Crack began to supplant marijuana and glue around mid-1999, rapidly spreading to the extent that it was omnipresent by the time I came back.

The barrio gang had a dual relationship to crack, first as a privileged site of consumption, and second as a drug dealing institution. With regard to the first, drug use among gang members had increased tremendously compared to 1996-97. Although it was an important element of gang identity in 1996-97, less was consumed than today; moreover, the main drug then was marijuana, which has very different effects to crack. Consuming crack enhances aggressiveness, as a gang member called Chucki emphasized: “This crack makes you really violent, I tell you… When I smoke up and somebody insults me, I immediately want to kill him, to get a machete and do him in, defend myself… I don’t stop and think, talk to him, ask him why or whatever… I don’t even recognize him, all I want to do is kill him… it’s the drug, I tell you, that’s where the violence comes from…”

Not surprisingly, then, there were more acts of spontaneous, unpredictable public violence in the barrio in 2002 than in 1996-97, many of which could clearly be linked to crack consumption. In many ways, though, what people complained about most was not the rise in individual acts of violence as such, but the broader, generalized sense of increased insecurity and uncertainty that now marked neighborhood life. The pattern of spontaneous, unpredictable violence contrasted starkly with the ritualized gang wars of the past that had allowed local residents to predict potential outbreaks and organize their lives around them. Not only had gang wars disappeared, but the gang no longer acted as a bulwark against wider criminality. In fact, it now regularly preyed on local residents and threatened with retribution anybody who would dare denounce them.

The gang was a natural for
metamorphosing into a drug institution

But while this new behavior pattern was clearly linked to drug consumption, it was also the result of the gang having become a drug dealing institution. Drugs in Nicaragua move from the Caribbean coast, where they arrive from Colombia by sea, to Managua and from there up the Pan-American highway to Honduras, the next stop on the route to the US and Canada. Those facilitating transport in Managua take a cut of the shipments to make money distributing it locally; a veritable drug economy has thus sprung up in the city during the past few years, with gang members buying wholesale from big drug traffickers then selling small quantities on street corners as “muleros

The average income generated for gang members dealing crack is substantial in local terms, the equivalent of US$350-600 a month, which is upwards of three times the average wage in Nicaragua. These rewards from crime are in striking contrast with the past; in 1996-97, a gang member’s average revenue from delinquency was about US$50, and most of that was spent on items of immediate gratification such as alcohol, glue, or marijuana, or of conspicuous consumption such as a Nike cap or shoes. While a significant proportion of a gang members’ drug income is still spent on items associated with conspicuous consumption—now more on the order of gold chains and watches, however—most is used to improve the material living conditions of gang members and their families, as well as to reinvest in increasing their drug business.

From a social to a business orientation

The gang’s rise to prominence within the emergent drugs trade is not surprising. As the dominant violent institution within the neighborhood, it was ideally positioned. Due to the illicit nature of drugs, a drug economy cannot rely on classic regulatory and contract-enforcement mechanisms such as the law, and violence constitutes the next best means to impose regularity onto transactions (which is of course implicitly what the power of the law rests on). Although gang members make their drug transactions on an individual basis, the gang as a whole acts as a cooperative interest group to ensure the proper functioning and protection of the local drug economy in general. Not surprisingly, it generally employs extremely brutal means. For example, in 2001, muleros from an adjacent neighborhood set up shop on one of the entrances to the barrio to intercept its crack clients. Contrary to the gang wars of the past, the barrio gang simply fell on their rivals, shooting two dead and leaving three critically injured.

In many ways, the change in violent behavior patterns and decline in gang warfare were almost inevitable. The gangs have changed from socially oriented institutions into economically oriented ones, which means that gang members now have little interest in engaging in activities such as gang wars that might discourage potential clients from coming into their neighborhood. Instead, their violence serves to uphold their drug transactions and ensure the smooth accumulation of capital.

As evolved Nicaragua, so evolved the gang

Although the gang in 2002 seems at first glance to be a very different institutional form than the one in 1996-97, with the earlier one more socially oriented and the later one more economically oriented, they are clearly linked. In fact, to a certain extent it is the same gang with the same individuals. The 18 members in 2002 had all been part of one subgroup of the 1996-97 gang (the 13-17 age group from the east side of the barrio). At certain levels, they even have the same violent behavior patterns, albeit not necessarily in the same way, with the 1996-97 behavior a form of social violence, while in 2002 it was a form of economic violence. Seen this way, what we have is not so much two different institutions as one that has evolved significantly between 1997 and 2002.

The possible paths of social transformation are neither obvious nor certain; rather, they are a function of a whole myriad of factors, particularly wider political economy issues. For example, the emergence of the drug trade in Nicaragua and the concomitant effects on the gang and its violence is arguably a result of the particular nature of the global economy and Nicaragua’s place within it. Thus to understand the underlying nature of this youth gang transformation, it has to be analyzed within the context of Nicaragua’s development, understanding the gang as an institution embedded in this specific content.

In many ways, contemporary Nicaragua is caught in a predicament of vicious, spiraling crisis and social breakdown. Violence, chronic poverty and what the US political scientist William I. Robinson has called “maldevelopment” hold the country tightly in their grips. There is little ground for optimism, either internally—considering the venality and self-interested corruption that characterizes the country’s political class—or externally—international aid being conditional on following the IMF’s bankrupt neoliberal prescriptions. Moreover, the Nicaraguan economy suffers from severe and increasing imbalances and is generally increasingly uncompetitive in the context of the global economy.

What the gang in 1996-97 arguably represented, then, was a radical and desperate form of social structuration, an attempt to constitute a local collective social order through violent means in the face of a wider process of social breakdown with chronic violence and insecurity. It was an emergent social morphology that attempted to step into the void precipitated by the ambient crisis and social breakdown at multiple levels—individual, group and community—by deploying a socially oriented violence. Admittedly, though, this was a desperate form of social ordering, and a highly unstable one at that. Not surprisingly, the gang had become a key institution organizing the emergent drugs trade in Nicaragua by 2002, directing its violence towards ensuring the proper operation of drug markets for its own benefit, no longer protecting or caring about the local neighborhood. Its ordering function was no longer geared to maintaining a neighborhood community but simply to maintaining a local market and bettering their own lives and those of their families. From this perspective, their violence can be qualified as having been economic in nature.

What this evolution can be said to constitute, then, is a story of two halves that reflects the evolution of wider Nicaragua society over the past decade or so. The first half, which culminated around 1998, involved a desperate attempt to mitigate the fragmenting of Nicaraguan social life through the creation of a restricted and ultimately unviable form of local collective social order, a form of localized social sovereignty. This form of social ordering was limited in scope, taking the neighborhood as its anchor point from which to (re)build a social imaginary in socially fractured Nicaragua rather than any national or even city-wide anchor point, for example. But it was social in scope, building on the last vestiges of an ethos born in the heady days of the revolutionary social transformation. The second half of the story, on the other hand, is about a turning away from the social, about grasping a new opportunity for the construction of a new, individual-based, improved way of life that emerged in the form of the drug trade and drug-dealing entrepreneurship.

These are not contradictory stories, however. One is a natural continuation of the other, as a second building on the ruins of the first. The big picture, then, is one of a continuing attempt to establish some kind of sustainable way of life in the poor barrios of contemporary urban Nicaragua on a basis that has been constantly shrinking in scope in the face of violence, poverty and the erosion of hope. It has been shrinking from the level of neighborhood to gang-group to individual gang member-entrepreneur, in other words an inexorable slide from the collective to the individual… And this slide mirrors the evolution of Nicaragua’s recent history, with the triumph of neoliberal ideas and associated notions of individualism and the freedom of markets. At the same time, however, rather than seeing this process of dissociation from the collective to the individual as a regression, the evolution of Nicaraguan gangs can be interpreted in another way.

Borrowing from Karl Marx, the progression of Nicaraguan gangs from being socially focused organizations to economically focused ones can be seen as a move from a certain form of impoverished “primitive socialism” to vehicles for localized “primitive accumulation” processes. In many ways, the bigger picture epitomized by the evolution of Nicaraguan youth gangs is one in which the relative socioeconomic egalitarianism of the 1980s and its echo into the 1990s is being torn apart by a socioeconomic differentiation process. The drug trade in Nicaragua has significantly changed everyday life at the barrio level, initiating conditions in which gang members have become something of a local entrepreneurial elite. For Marx, such a process of socioeconomic differentiation was the necessary first step for more extensive economic development in the form of capitalism.

Whether the evolution of Nicaraguan gangs reflects an instance of this developmental transformation at the local level in a more general context of stagnation remains to be seen, but in a broader context where there seems to be little spurring of any form of socioeconomic progress, it bears thinking about. At the same time, irrespective of whether it reflects a positive process or not, the evolutionary path of Nicaraguan gangs between 1997 and 2002 probably does not bode well for the country’s future. At worst, they can potentially be seen as the harbingers of a Hobbesian hair-trigger society, where the law of the most violent rules and life is short, nasty and brutish, while at best, according to the further development of Marx’s “primitive accumulation” argument, they would be sowing the seeds of much larger future (class) conflicts.

Dennis Rodgers is an anthropologist with the Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics, UK.

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