Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 293 | Diciembre 2005


Central America

Why Do So Many Civilians Have Firearms?

The belief that the more armed you are, the safer you are is putting more weapons in civilian hands in Central America. This myth can be found at the deepest roots of our collective history, expressing the “normality” of violence in human relations and the social order, thus reflecting the egregious role of authoritarian states.

José Miguel Cruz

An argument over custody of their children may have driven a man so crazy that he shot his wife to death in Ciudad Delgado. H.E., a 26-year-old woman, was killed with one bullet Wednesday night at the couple’s home.” Similar acts of violence are described in all of Central America’s newspapers. Beyond the tragedy surrounding this and so many other killings, the news demonstrates how the presence of a firearm irreversibly sealed the couple’s dispute. Without it, the conflict might not have ended fatally.

The land of violence

Firearms play a lead role in the violence affecting all Central American societies, but especially Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They are responsible for most homicides in the Central American countries, accounting for almost 75% in Honduras, according to Investigative Police data. Murders committed with firearms rose from 68% of the total in 1999 to 74.8% in 2001 in Guatemala and from 70% in 2000 to 86% in the first eight months of 2005 in El Salvador.

Together with Colombia, these three countries have been vying for first place on the list of the world’s most violent countries, with homicide rates of around 50 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. The average rate is 27.7 for Latin America as a whole and 8.8 for the world. Although Nicaragua and Costa Rica have violence rates below the Latin American average, weapons are responsible for just over half of all crimes and deaths even in those two countries.

Literature on violence almost unanimously points to firearms as a decisive factor in the appearance of the most lethal forms of violence. Recent studies and information reveal that the number of weapons in the hands of civilians is very high and growing in all of Central America. In Costa Rica, the population’s perception of insecurity is leading many to arm themselves, legally or illegally. In Nicaragua, the years of political conflict have left a significant number of military weapons in the hands of broad segments of the population. But it is in the northern part of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador——where the widespread availability of weapons combines with other factors to turn this sub-region into the most violent on earth. One of these factors is what has come to be called the “culture of violence.”

Those who typically defend the right to possess and bear firearms often argue that it’s not the guns, but rather the people who use them that are responsible for the killings. While that’s true, it is no less true that if someone is carrying a weapon in the middle of an argument, it tends to alter both the behavior and the relational dynamic of those involved. And if you add a generalized “ethic” of the use of violence in society, the basic ingredients are there for the culture of its use to intensify.

A history of living with weapons

A four-year-old study by the Arias Foundation found that no fewer than two million weapons were in civilian hands in Central America, and it is reasonable to assume that this number has increased significantly since then. Various factors explain the arming of Central American societies: the arsenals left over from the armed conflicts, the permissive firearm policies, the marketing campaigns of arms dealers, the institutional fragility in the field of public safety, and, of course, the demand for arms by civilians, which in turn is a response to many factors. The main motivation cited for the arming of Central Americans is that they don’t feel safe in public places or even their own homes. The phenomenon is more complex, however, and lurking in the background are the features of the culture of violence.

There are weapons in Central American societies because an important portion of citizens want to have them. Although we’re not talking about a majority, it would be impossible to explain the widespread circulation of firearms in civilian hands without this desire. The existence in Central America of an extensive arms market, whether legal or illegal, responds to a demand that has been served with an increasingly open and legal supply over the years. By the mid-nineties, there were 270 weapons import businesses in Central America, according to the Arias Foundation’s 2001 report, and this number has been increasing. This indicates a flow of weapons that come into our countries legally and then pass into private hands. The exception is Honduras, where the Army is the only authorized importer.

Whether this fondness for firearms is recent or born out of the development or perhaps even the end of the military conflict is up for debate. While there is no information about the number of firearms circulating before the wars, it is not unusual for chronicles and narratives about Salvadoran and Guatemalan social life prior to the conflict—or even much earlier—to mention many citizens both having weapons and carrying them about in their daily activities, above all in rural zones. The cultural relationship between people and firearms is deeply rooted.

Violence is a socially accepted
way to relate to others

For many Salvadorans and Guatemalans, above all in the eastern part of the latter country, the use of firearms is part of a system of values and norms in which arms are socially acceptable and to some degree admired. This relationship to weapons in turn responds to a cultural system that permits, accepts and values the use of force and violence as part of the way members of a community relate to each other. It is, in other words, a culture that promotes violence.

It would be a mistake to deduce the existence of a culture of violence based only on a given society’s high crime rates. Some societies can be more violent that others only because small, very violent groups are capable of escaping institutional controls and generating a great deal of instability, without this meaning that their actions are covered by the mantle of social approval.

One can speak of a culture of violence when a society has a more or less shared social subjectivity that permits the appearance of violence. In El Salvador, Miguel Huezo contributes to this notion with the concept of culture as a social construction “capable of generating signs of identification and differentiation among individuals and human groups, as well as establishing guidelines of what is socially acceptable; in other words establishing a set of norms that integrates those who comply with it and excludes and sanctions those who do not.” In this sense, a culture of violence is a system of social representations that permit frequent aggressive behavior.

Also in El Salvador, Jesuit Ignacio Martín-Baró was the first to suggest a definition of the culture of violence. Attempting to explain the psychosocial context in which violence takes place, he referred to the system of formal and informal social norms and values that “accept violence as a possible form of behavior or even require it.” Huezo made another important theoretical contribution when he argued that culture, understood in its most practical form, “constitutes a—if not the—reproductive source of social norms and a structure of representations and attitudes that result in a discourse through which violence is reproduced.” In that sense, when one speaks of a culture of violence, one is not discussing the artistic expressions of violence or its “spiritual” nature but rather socially shared subjective constructions that govern a more or less accepted way of conducting oneself in society and of relating to others with violence. More concretely, it refers to the predominant use of violence as a socially—and therefore normatively—acceptable way of relating to others.

This implies the existence of an ethic, something that does not appear overnight and could not exist at all if it were not shared. The norms of this ethic are generated in the socialization and social interaction processes. No one is born with preset normative schemes; they acquire them interacting with others, which is also how they modify and transmit them. Social attitudes are concrete expressions of a set of norms shared by a range of people; they establish behavioral patterns and assign social values to those behaviors.

A myth born of the culture of violence:
Weapons protect and offer security

A survey done in El Salvador in 2004 revealed that 39% of the Salvadorans polled would like to have a firearm for their own protection. A similar survey conducted in Guatemala the same year showed that 35% of that sample would like to own a firearm, of which nearly 80% stated that it was to “defend themselves from crime.” In short, over a third of all Guatemalans and Salvadorans want a weapon to protect themselves from falling victim to violence. Nonetheless, a Salvadoran study on the impact of firearms in crimes committed in 2000 found that a person who uses a firearm in defense against an assault is 46 times more likely to be wounded or killed than someone who does not. So in fact weapons actually increase the risk of being direct victims of violence.

What explains this obvious disparity between beliefs and reality? The belief that weapons protect and provide security is a social construction. Above all, it responds to an ideology in which violence plays a central role in defining social relations and maintaining public order. When many citizens claim that a weapon gives them security and defends them from threats, they are acknowledging that the best way to deal with threats and resolve conflicts is with violence. It is this thinking that marks the relationship that many Central Americans have with firearms. Behind the desire to possess one is the conviction that one must use violence to avoid being a victim of it, that violence must be met by violence.

There is no doubt that the high rate of criminality in these countries and the helplessness this triggers is responsible for people wanting to arm themselves. They feel so unsafe that they think a weapon will safeguard them from possible aggression. In many cases, however, this conviction hides a tolerance of and even need for violence.

In this normative construction, values are assigned not only to violent responses but also the conditions that spark them. Those who think in these terms identify threats, assign roles and justify reactionary behavior based on physical aggression. As instruments for the exercise of violence, weapons occupy a fundamental place in this dynamic. Having and carrying a weapon implies the possibility of responding violently to any perception of threat. It is a conduct congruent with cultural systems that teach that using violence is okay when one experiences feelings of insecurity.

The culture of violence is not explained simply by citizens’ insecurity and institutional weakness, however. The way one responds to insecurity depends on many factors. When an important part of the population shares, accepts and expects arms to be used as a response, we have to consider a value-laden cultural framework.

Aggression, violence and
weapons are socially “normalized”

Whether used for attack, defense, control, oppression, liberation or redress, violence always occurs in a human context, has a social value and requires justification. Only violence of a strictly psychopathic origin escapes these conditions. In the majority of cases, the social context influences the violence exercised with firearms in contemporary Central American societies.

Central America is virtually free of homicides committed purely and simply out of a pleasure in killing. Lynching a criminal, as happens too often in Guatemala; hiring a hit man to kill someone for having an affair with one’s wife, as happens with some frequency in El Salvador; torturing a suspect, as human rights organizations report is still a common practice in Honduras; or hitting one’s son or daughter for misbehaving and slapping one’s wife for being disrespectful, as happens in all our countries, are behaviors that imply a context and can even be justified, depending on the judger’s position. A society’s values provide these justifications and in so doing contribute to the reproduction and maintenance of such violence.

Weapons enter into this dynamic not because they can be used for self-defense but because they serve for aggression. In a society that “normalizes” violence, that aggression is justified. For that reason, what is called the “culture of violence” becomes the overriding factor for explaining the inclination toward arms. The third of the Guatemalan and Salvadoran populations that want to have firearms for defense are not potential criminals, but people convinced of the usefulness of violence to relate safely and effectively to others and maintain the social order.

A threatening environment and
an insecure and hostile history

This normative order meshes with a reality that is viewed as vitally precarious on a daily basis. Legitimating violence meshes with threatening and unstable ecological surroundings and an insecure and hostile history. Violence prevails because generations of Central Americans have been socialized in exercising it, learning that it is the most recognized currency, the one that has dominated in the convulsive social ordering. The most frequent attitude in legitimizing violence authorizes it as a way to maintain public order. We have learned that the way to subsist with a certain social order is to behave aggressively and violently. That is how social relations have been historically defined, and it continues to be promoted when citizens are permitted to use firearms.

The discourse and performance of each of the country’s institutions contribute in large measure to these values, which establishes certain differences among the countries. Nicaragua and Costa Rica have different scenarios of violence than the other three Central American countries, despite the fact that both countries are also inundated with weapons.

Why is there less violence
in Costa Rica and Nicaragua?

These differences are due to the way the state has historically reacted to the challenge of insecurity in these two countries. Costa Rica has been respecting democratic institu-tionality for over half a century, which has allowed it to deal with insecurity by appealing to its own capacity to guarantee the population’s basic social and economic rights without turning to the institutional violence that attributes security to the military. The dissolution of the army so many years ago is a message that downplays the value of using force to resolve conflicts. While the rapid growth of the arms trade is provoking increased levels of violence in Costa Rica, they are nowhere close to those of the rest of the region. This is the fruit of a democratic institutionality that has promoted values of coexistence.

Nicaragua’s case is different, but no less interesting. The model of widespread community participation in resolving the social problems generated during the decade of Sandinista government shed the legacy of social violence bequeathed by the pre-revolutionary authoritarian regimes. Beyond assessments of the Sandinista period’s authoritarian nature, there is no question but that the new model of security—which survived to the end of the revolution—was based on an important component of civilian organization and participation in local problems. This promoted a practice of co-existence, debate and negotiation in the resolution of interpersonal and community conflict. And that, together with the institutionality of the time, reduced the expressions of violence.

States that leave social order in private hands

The political history in Central America’s northern triangle, on the other hand, has created a weak institutional framework that generates private violence. For various reasons, the political transitions that brought political democracy to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have not succeeded in clearly imposing a functioning rule of law that breaks with the authoritarian legacies of militaristic responses to public insecurity; nor have they constructed a system of civic organization and participation capable of achieving agreements on social coexistence.

The three states of northern Central America have insisted on repressive models and the use of force in response to the lack of safety. The Hard Hand and Zero Tolerance programs that have dominated security policies in Honduras and El Salvador are the best examples of these trends. They have also promoted the ethic of private security, facilitating the emergence of security companies and encouraging people to arm themselves to ensure their own safety. Moreover, they have insisted on promoting a type of civic participation based on vigilance and spying on neighbors rather than resolving problems through community dialogue. This has only increased the ethic of private violence.

When national authorities permit the purchase and bearing of arms, they are legitimizing the use of violence to maintain public order and thus define social relations. When the state offers its citizens the opportunity to bear arms as widely as in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, it is encouraging them to settle their differences by force, as well as renouncing its monopoly of force to maintain social order. It is entrusting that order to its armed citizens.

The self-defense ethic in
increasingly unequal societies

None of this is new. In reality, these Central American states renounced the monopoly of force years ago, when in the first half of the 20th century they permitted the hacienda owners to create their own private armies to control their day laborers and farmhands. Violence defined human and labor relations, above all in rural areas, and allowed the creation of a particular self-defense ethic based on violence. In Nicaragua, the revolution broke with that legacy through political means.

The ethic of self-defense is the normative focal point of social violence and has grown up alongside the conviction that as the state and its institutions do not provide security, citizens must provide it for themselves. The political transitions of the early the nineties, marked and altered by acceptance of the Washington Consensus and the neoliberal model, did not resolve such deeply rooted schemes in Central America’s northern triangle. On the contrary, they submerged our societies in such unpredictable and threatening dynamics that they trapped the population in insecurity.

In societies perceived as fundamentally unsafe, this conditioned the bolstering of the old scheme of vital defense and stimulated the return to the self-defense ethic as the configuring element of social relations. The new neoliberal economic setting has also affected Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but these countries experienced political processes that attenuated its impact on the social culture.

In Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the current model has generated an ideal setting for strengthening the ethical culture of self-defense, to the detriment of institutionality and co-existence. In societies so fragmented by social inequalities, the possession of weapons guaranteed the capacity to relate safely to others and granted respect and power to those who possessed the weapons.

Having weapons negates coexistence

Many citizens in Central America have learned—and been socialized to believe—that they are responsible for their own safety rather than the state, which should only play the role of sending criminals off to jail. We have states that provide arms to citizens so they can defend themselves and that demand immunity to violate the rights of suspects.

When a good part of the murders by firearms in Central America are committed due to revenge, personal feuds or on contract and not in response to an assault on property, it is obvious that historically constructed psychosocial mechanisms are operating in our countries that promote violence as a reflection of the state’s institutional performance. The discourse of the authorities and the messages in the media strongly contribute to the appearance and maintenance of these mechanisms.

Firearms are both a centerpiece of this culture and help reproduce it. It’s a vicious circle: the firearms sought for self defense become a threat to others. And the myth that the better armed you are the safer you will be is putting ever more weapons in the hands of Central American civilians. The system that legitimizes violence as a privileged way to resolve conflicts and defend oneself makes it impossible to build a society based on respect. Having a weapon negates coexistence.

José Miguel Cruz is the director of the University Public Opinion Institute (iudop) of el salvador’s Central american university (UCA).

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