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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 302 | Septiembre 2006



Nicaraguan Youth Gangs: From Throwing Stones to Smoking Rocks

Nicaraguan youth gang members have evolved from throwing stones to smoking “rocks” of cocaine; from planting their feet firmly on the ground of the territory they fearlessly defended to floating in the clouds of a drug high. Drug use and dealing have taken center stage in their activities.

José Luis Rocha

The most distinguished mention of a 1970s youth gang member in Nicaragua is found in Ernesto Cardenal’s memoirs of the Sandinista revolution. Charrasca was the notorious leader of a gang dedicated to petty theft and smoking marihuana in the city of León. He and his group provided invaluable support to the Sandinista National Liberation Front in its operations against the National Guard in the 1979 insurrection that brought down the Somoza dictatorship.


Charrasca and his group went from being common criminals to social bandits, an evolution similar to the rural bandits studied by British historian Eric J. Hobsbawm. According to Hobsbawm, the essential thing about social bandits is that they are peasants living outside of the law, whom the lord and the state consider criminals, but who remain within peasant society and are considered by their people to be heroes, champions, avengers, fighters for justice, sometimes even liberation leaders, but in any case people to be admired, helped and supported. He describes them as men who find themselves excluded from the normal path of their people and therefore forced outside the law where they fall into delinquency. Taken as a whole, they are merely the symptoms of crisis and tension in their society, including hunger, plague, war and whatever else distorts it.

But Hobsbawm adds that such groups of bandits, with their forces reduced by times of either tribulation or hope, can unconsciously turn into something else at great apocalyptic moments. As in the case of Java, they can merge into the broad mobilizations of peasants that abandon fields and houses to wander through the countryside full of exalted hope. Alternatively they can turn into peasant armies, as in Italy in 1861, or become soldiers of the revolution, as did Italy’s legendary bandit Carmine Crocco Donetelli in 1860.

Hobsbawm concludes that bandits are valiant both in their actions and as victims. They die defiantly and well and countless youths from poor neighborhoods and suburbs, who possess nothing more than the common—but highly appreciable—gift of force and valor, can identify with them. In a society in which men live subordinated, assistants to metal machines or like movable parts of a human machine, bandits live and die with their boots on.

Like most of the bandits Hobsbawm studied, Charrasca met a tragic end. But his legend lived on to remind us that many Nicaraguan youth gang members of the seventies, navigating the historical currents of the time, managed to give their deviations and violence a social content.

Charrasca: Prince of the lumpen

Ernesto Cardenal described this gang leader in his book La revolución perdida [The Revolution Lost]: “I met Charrasca in Cuba following the triumph [of the Sandinista revolution]. He was like the prince of the lumpen and had become famous throughout Nicaragua as the terror of the National Guard. The guards ran when they heard his challenging voice announcing in the darkness of the night: “Here’s Charrasca!” That time in Cuba, in the protocol house provided to me by Haydée Santamaría, he lifted up his shirt and showed us all the bullet holes in his thorax. There were seventeen in all. He hated the National Guard so much he committed acts of extreme cruelty, such as tying up a guard with barbed wire, placing him in some car tires and then setting fire to them. And it was that hatred that led him to ally with the Sandinistas. The alliance with the FSLN included not only Charrasca, but the whole of his gang, consisting of marihuana smokers, drunks, anarchists and semi-criminals who were nonetheless very brave and controlled by no one except Charrasca, whom they obeyed blindly...

“Just after the triumph of the revolution, Charrasca was imprisoned in El Fortín, along with the prisoners from the Somoza regime, for some kind of anti-social behavior. I’m not sure if he was imprisoned more than once. What I do remember is two or three self-accusations that appeared in the newspaper for errors or acts of indiscipline he had committed, written with the humility of an Ignatius of Loyola. In fact, that was why he had been sent to Cuba, where I met him: to rehabilitate him more. After he returned to Nicaragua, Charrasca lost his head, killed several members of his family (I can’t remember if his wife was among them) and fled on a motorbike pursued by the police. When the police caught up with him, he took out his pistol and killed himself. He died in the same place in front of the San Felipe church where he had been shot so many times and lived to tell the tale.”

With the end of the contra war
being a gang member bestowed status

The application of the structural adjustment program and slashing of the state apparatus initiated by the Sandinista government at the end of the eighties coincided with the reappearance of youth gangs in Managua. Las Pitufas, Los Pitufos, Los Mao Mao and Los Bariloche were the most famous then. Some of their members, who are now over 35, recall those first clashes between youth gangs as break dance competitions and fights with chacos [two sticks joined by a short chain] and the like, but never with firearms. Similar gangs with similar characteristics also emerged in other Latin American countries; they came to be known as maras in neighboring countries like El Salvador and Honduras and pandillas in Nicaragua. The Mexican “communicologist” Rossana Reguillo recalls how “the mara, the band, the clique, the crew became alternative forms of socialization and belonging, arenas where they could compensate for the disenchantment and vacuousness of political meaning. In these arenas, strongly coded and codified in the sense of honor, many Latin American youths found answers to the growing uncertainty of the neoliberal order that showed its ferocious face in the eighties.”

According to British anthropologist Dennis Rodgers, many members of this new wave of gang activity were 16- to 18-year-olds who were veterans of the Sandinista Popular Army or the Nicaraguan Resistance. The gangs boasted well-planned military strategies and ritualized battles, with a gradual increase in the use of dangerous weapons. They had a well-defined structure and a certain command of military tactics. Everything was placed at the service of the budding territorially-based semantics and normative sectarianism that informed the youth gang craze.

All the individuals Rodgers interviewed who became members in the early 1990s mentioned the same reason for belonging to a youth gang: the change of government in 1990 following the FSLN’s electoral defeat led to a devaluation of their social status. They had previously enjoyed a great deal of recognition in their respective social contexts as defenders of the revolution or “freedom fighters.” Forming a gang became a way to reaffirm themselves in a society that rapidly appeared to be forgetting them. It was also a way to recapture something of the still attractive and almost addictive drama of the adrenalin-, danger- and death-filled experiences of war they had lived through as soldiers or guerrilla fighters.

Guatemalan anthropologist Ricardo Falla also detected this relationship between the end of the war and outbreaks of gang activity: “Not unlike the increasing nationalism of recent years, peace means that the structure of bipolar confrontation gives way and the countries’ own internal tensions rise to the surface. After the wars, violence remained in the air, as did the ‘know-how’ to handle arms and manufacture homemade weapons, while organized crime groups remained, which while different from the youth maras, appear to strengthen them either directly—by using them—or indirectly.”

For Rodgers, the youth gangs and their violent practices provided the populations of poor neighborhoods a concrete sense of belonging that they lacked on the city or national level due to the chronic and widely disseminated insecurity predominating at the time in Nicaragua. Rodgers found that, apart from the evangelical churches or small networks of friends or groups that intermittently met, there were no alternative forms of collective youth organization to the youth gang in the Managua neighborhood in which he did his field work. He thus viewed the gangs as a last redoubt of social collectivity in a context of generalized distrust and social atomization.

Neighborhood defenders with a code of honor

From then on, robbery became a favorite gang activity, but the members never put their illicit earnings into the family economy. They were always quick to spend them on cigarettes, alcohol, shoe glue for sniffing—one of the cheapest and most common drugs available—or marihuana, all of which tended to form part of gang consumption. In 1999, researchers from Managua’s Central American University (UCA) conducted a second research study on youth gangs in the country. One of their findings was the sense of a neighborhood “body” built up by the different forms of gang militancy. This body included adults as providers of arms, munitions, money, information and protection from the police and victims’ protests. That explains why gangs were mentioned as having up to 80 members.

The gang members usually enjoyed broad acceptance within the confines of their own neighborhood. They were seen as its defenders, while other gangs from other neighborhoods were seen as the threat. Fights between members of rival gangs—their main activity—had a group objective and a series of individual benefits, including the building up of reputation, respect and power. The youths who controlled the neighborhood enforced their law. This role as neighborhood defenders and legislators was a mechanism that increased their status and respect. The fights satisfied their hunger for image as their fame transcended their neigh-borhood’s limits.

For the gang to function as an institution, it had a code of honor, a tacit set of rules to which everyone submitted. One of the main rules was the prohibition of robbery within the neighborhood. The gang members were protectors of their neighborhood and couldn’t endanger its inhabitants or undermine the respect they had built up. Not swindling their brothers-in-theft was another of the code’s basic articles. US criminologist Edwin Sutherland found an identical set of rules among US thieves: cheating on colleagues by declaring a lesser amount than was actually stolen and pocketing the difference was the most horrible crime imaginable. Among the gang members from Managua’s Reparto Schick neighborhood, being a snitch was the worst possible offence and was severely punished.

One of Sutherland’s informants described the code’s role and the censure of informants, explaining that while few moral rules were established among the thieves, there were a number of tacit rules. It was accepted by all that there could be no informants. Cases of informing are so rare that they barely merited mention. If a thief did inform, the others wouldn’t stoop to the same level to get even; they had more effective methods. All they needed to do was spread the news that he was a snitch and his thieving days were over.

Snitching endangers the group’s very survival. In the youth gangs, the sense of loyalty to the collective is at the core of their raison d’être. So snitching is the most cruelly punished crime—or deviant behavior, if you like. Punishments include gang rape and shaved heads for women and beatings or murder for men.

From throwing stones to smoking “rocks”

The profile and functioning of Nicaraguan youth gangs evolved notably between 1999 and 2005, with a change in motivations, procedures and emphasis on activities. The biggest change, from which others also sprang, could be summed up as the gang members passing from throwing stones to smoking crack. They went from having their feet planted on the ground through the defense of their territory to floating in the clouds on a crack-induced high. This doesn’t imply that gang members didn’t do crack, marihuana, glue or cocaine before, but it does express a change in the emphasis of their activities. Drug use and dealing have taken a central place, entirely displacing the defense of the neighborhood or fights on enemy turf.

The most active youth gang members are now more unwilling to give information about their activities. Some work as drug “mules,” and they all know even the most innocuous drug outlet within a radius of one kilometer and frequently have information on dealing in neighborhoods a long way from their own. They have to protect not only themselves but also the whole complex network in which they’re inserted: the dealers who supply them and shower them with gifts, the clients who demand secrecy, the neighbors who cover for them and the police who sell their silence and collaboration at a high price.

They’re no longer obsessed with death. The rock, the joint and the line are the escape routes, the links that unite—there’s a lot of collective use—and the activities that engage and provide status. The new occupations of drug users or pushers could be at least in part the effect of the gang members’ “university.” As Falla puts it, “If the street is the youth gang’s school, then jail is their university.” Some gang members I interviewed during a research project in 1999 were linked throughout their stay in Managua’s Modelo prison to small groups of drug dealers. But such links are only one aspect of the change, one of the accidental conditions that made it possible. The structural condition was the multiplication of the drug trade in Nicaragua once the big cartels were forced to find alternative routes that ended up passing through Central America.

More drug use requires more income. Youth gang members have to opt for legal and cheaper drugs—such as alcoholic beverages—to avoid the stigma of being criminals… and just be considered dipsomaniacs. Otherwise, to always have enough money for drugs, they have to engage in muggings or armed robbery and thus have to bear the stigma. One thing leads to the other: drug use encourages robbery. The less daring turn into “wet clothes thieves,” entering neighbor’s yards to steal recently washed clothes hanging on the lines. The gang members have stopped defending their neighborhoods and now appear more than anything like juvenile delinquents who steal in backyards and on the street, and hang out to the point that they feel more identified with the label “bum” than “youth gang member.”

A new identity and younger

Many young people talk about being part of a group, but they don’t always identify it as a gang, frequently reserving that label for neighboring groups, which they still call by names that have since been abandoned. As a result of this dissolution of identity, the collectives are christened with less honorable titles that make a vague reference to some feature in the area where they live or allude to their main activity. “The ones from the paved part,” “the duck stealers”... This decline in identity is linked to the degradation of the code of honor.

The abandonment of a considerable part of the code and its agglutinating ethic was one of the most glaring symptoms of the change taking place in Nicaraguan gangs even before 2002 and which is now quite evident. On the one hand the relaxing of their ethic is associated with the loss of internal gang cohesion, a phenomenon directly related to drug dealing. On the other, that same laxity meant that the gang members started stealing in their own barrio and stopped being perceived as its defenders in a rapid erosion of their social capital. The drugs’ very effects have relaxed once sacred clauses in the code, such as not robbing from neighbors. The neighbors’ vulnerability is an expression of the deterioration of the social capital of both the gang members and the neighborhood. In 2002, Rodgers found that the gang members were no longer imbued with the ethos of love for the neighborhood; rather they were perceived as an intimidating and threatening presence.

Another change is the age range of gang members. In 1999, they tended to be between 18 and 25 years old, but by now most are somewhere between 15 and 18. Many of the leaders and other older members are in prison. Approaching adulthood and therefore no longer being protected by the Code for Children and Adolescents is a disincentive for gang activities. It’s as if they feel that “things get serious” when they cross the line into legal adulthood. Some of them thus lean toward other activities. Being a drug mule or setting up a drugs outlet is an often less dangerous and almost invariably less visible way to commit a crime, and also offers pecuniary advantages. It even allows them to cut deals with the police more easily. However, in 2006 we still found that many gang members interviewed in 1999—who at the time were among the more veteran members and are currently well into their thirties—kept up an intermittent gang career interrupted only by a few stints in prison and occasional involvement in small gangs of adult assailants.

Transformed, dynamic, uncompromising...

The main transformations experienced by Nicaraguan youth gangs, then, are a reduction in their average age, a drop in the number of clashes, a loss of interest in defending the neighborhood, a relaxing of the code of honor, stealing from people in their own neighborhood, an erosion of the trust people in the neighborhood felt toward the gang members, the dissolution of the gang member identity, the gang’s atomization and a primary interest in drug use and dealing.

Even though many of their leaders and other members have been confined to the country’s main prisons, the gangs are proving unyielding, with an apparently limitless capacity to recruit new members. The endurance of most gang names, the dissemination of the legend of many of their members and the persistent—if reduced—recruitment all reflect their structural autonomy.

The institutionalization of their dynamism is perceptible in several identity-bestowing mechanisms. Some of these mechanisms persist with the same vigor, such as personal nicknames that evoke terror or segregation transmuted into a symbol: Zapatito Junior, Zayayín, La Pantera, Gargolita, Culo de Tabla, El Gato, El Chicho Renco, La Carla Tuerta, Gallito, el Gordo Manuel, Anticristo, Tres Ojos, Tabo Chintano... Others have weakened, like the construction of strictly delimited and ferociously defended identities: the positive identity of the warrior, the one who “works over” or “harms,” as opposed to the negative identity of peluches and gilbertos [roughly translated as “milk sops” and “jerks,” respectively]. This opposition and the supremacy of the “harmful” over the “jerk” made sense when, as anthropologist Gonzalo Saraví observed among young Argentineans, “the demarcation between one and the other is the participation and involvement in street culture. Thus the isolated ones are those who don’t share the rules, values and practices characteristic of the neighborhood’s dominant youth culture. Also called giles by the belongers, they live in the same neighborhood, go to school or work, don’t do drugs and don’t get involved in violent and/or criminal activities.”

Drugs: Fertilizing the gang’s growth

Since the late nineties there has been a recorded expansion of drug use and dealing in Nicaragua. In fact, the spread of drug trafficking is a problem whose seriousness and potential to generate chaos was identified at least as long ago as 1994. The United Nations Development Program (UNPD) has identified drug use and trafficking as two of the main problems facing indigenous communities in Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. People in many areas of that vast and sparsely populated region grow marihuana and produce crack with cocaine introduced from Colombia.

The Ministry of Government estimates that an average of 6,000 people consumed drugs on a daily basis in Nicaragua in 2002. A survey done a year earlier by the National Council for the Fight against Drugs found that 5.1% of male high school students took crack, 10.5% smoked marihuana and 5.7% sniffed glue. The cost of small doses of all these drugs is moderate for those who buy at the cheapest rates: 8 córdobas ($0.45) for glue, and 10 córdobas ($0.57) for crack or marihuana, compared to 50 córdobas ($2.85) for cocaine. According to a Ministry of Government’s public safety assessment, “drug-related crimes and problems are increasing on the national level, rising from 21.74 to 23.47 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants between 1997 and 2001.” The number of drug outlets rose from 857 in 1999 to 1,289 in 2002. In some cities, such as Bluefields on the Caribbean coast, drug outlets prosper right under the nose of the National Police.

In 2001, the National Police registered the existence of 409 drug outlets in Managua’s eight districts, of which 28% (115) are in district V, which is where the Reparto Schick neighborhood is located. The outlets in that district almost have a monopoly over cocaine and marihuana, concentrating 66% of all cocaine sales outlets in the capital and 59% of its marihuana outlets. The public safety assessment charged that “district V easily exceeds all other districts in the number of outlets” and associated the drugs boom with growing availability caused by Nicaragua being used as a transit country.

The “spillover effect” leaves part of the drug in the country to be sold for local consumption because organized crime pays local dealers in drugs. According to Falla, “with globalization, drug trafficking is increasing throughout the world and the gangs in the United States are multiplying because they are the drug ‘retailers.’ Something similar is happening with those in Central America: drugs are a powerful fertilizer for the growth of the maras.”

Marys full of grace travel up and down the region

The preferred way to transport drugs is to use women mules. The traffickers contract them because they’re less likely to arouse the suspicion of the police, the patrols or road blocks don’t always have female police officers to do a body search and their skirts camouflage the hidden merchandise better. They never travel alone; they’re always accompanied by men ready to offer out bribes when it looks like they might be discovered. Those escorts also watch their every move, ensuring they don’t make off with the goods.

“Once, when I was just starting out, I tried to put one over on them,” I was told by Angela, an experienced mule, “so I got off in Honduras to sell the packets of cocaine there. They grabbed me and showed me photos of beaten women and children cut up into little pieces. ‘You think you’re going alone? Well you’re not,’ they told me. One warning was enough for me.”

The mules pick up the packets in Costa Rica, Managua or Bluefields and take them on to Guatemala wrapped in a very flexible aluminum foil that molds itself to the shape of the body. The packets are generally attached to the legs using adhesive tape. Lycra shorts and three skirts are the preferred choice to ensure discreet passage. Several kilograms can be transported this way. Some manage to take six or more, earning US$600 for each packet. Another way is to swallow the cocaine packaged in small “ovules” tied with a cord to form ampoules the size of an adult finger. The traffickers pay $20 for each “finger” transported from Nicaragua to Guatemala. The carriers can’t eat or drink at all en route. Some mules manage to swallow over 120 “fingers.” This form of trafficking was graphically portrayed in the recently distributed Colombian film “Mary, Full of Grace,” which received an Academy Award nomination for best actress.

On their journeys to Bluefields, many mules end up buying a kilo from local drug bosses willing to sell it to them at a low price, perhaps around $400, for their own benefit. They take it back to Managua and place it in small outlets or sell it on to local drug bosses there. It’s always more profitable for the traffickers to sell their drugs in the United States; in fact, the further north they can place them, the higher the price. Most of what’s sold in Nicaragua amounts to shavings from the large-scale trade, the minuscule filings resulting from the friction of the great flow north.

Connected with the barrio drug economy

The most important catalyst of gang activities in the last two years has been the use and dealing of drugs. While drugs aren’t just used by gang members, the gang can sometimes be the place where other young people’s drug use and links with drug dealing begin.

The introduction of drugs triggered an evolution in the violent and illicit activities of certain young people. Rodgers found in 2002 that the gang was closely connected with his neighborhood’s drug economy; they participated in dealing and using cocaine, particularly crack, a cocaine derivative sold in “rocks.” Rodgers stated that the gang, as the dominant organization in managing instruments of violence in the neighborhood, was ideally positioned to provide the kind of regulation required for local drug dealing, while the neighborhood dealer, typically a former gang member, was linked to the gang in a way that allowed him to involve it in his business. In its biannual report for 2004 and 2005, the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) mentioned that “some of these young people in the youth gangs are also dedicated to protecting and providing information to the neighborhood drug dealers, representing an enormous potential for organized crime.”

Why the symbiosis between drugs and gangs?

Drugs have shaped both the purpose and frequency of theft. Theft used to be motivated by wanting to have a story to tell or the need for money for arms, drugs or identity-bestowing mechanisms like tattoos and brand-name clothes. Now drugs absorb almost all licit and illicit income. The number of outlets is directly proportional to the vitality of the youth gang and the caliber and number of arms at its disposal. The gang’s public presence has changed and has stopped being group-oriented. If ongoing drug use was incompatible with the gang’s previous main activity—fighting—its group presence in public arenas is now incompatible with its new main objective—drug dealing.

One young man told me in 2003 me that the gangs from at least three neighborhoods were stronger as a result of the drug flow. In the Augusto César Sandino neighborhood, where the gang was a little lethargic, there was only one traveling dealer, four glue outlets and three crack and marihuana outlets. In contrast, the area controlled by the much-feared gang called La Mora had five glue outlets and 18 crack and marihuana outlets. The greater links between that gang and the drug outlets meant that their arsenal of pistols and AK-47 automatic rifles were the envy of other gangs. It was common knowledge that Los Salseros, Boleros and Cevicheros had AK-47s, while other gangs less linked to drugs had only pistols, stones and machetes.

The drug/gang symbiosis functions to such a point that sometimes the busting of drug outlets coincides with the waning of a gang and its activities. The decline of the gang from the Augusto César Sandino neighborhood in 2000 coincided with the police dismantling of one of the strongest drug outlets in the area, presided over by Pelo de Lluvia [literally “Rain Hair”]. One of the gang members told me that Pelo de Lluvia’s business was frequented by “rich kids and police officers.” “The police busted it in 2000,” he explained. “But they were from the Plaza del Sol police headquarters, because those from the District V station were working with him.”

There are a number of different reasons for the correlation between gangs and drugs. The gangs have incorporated drugs into their range of essential activities and incentives—there’s a greater stimulus to rob where the possibilities of buying drugs are greater. The police involved in the drug circuits might be providing arms to the gang members most inserted into those circuits, who can thus afford them. The gangs can guarantee that competition doesn’t penetrate a determined market niche, while gang fights occasionally serve as a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the big fish in the drug trade and their premises or even to justify habitual incursions into the neighborhood of police officers mixed up in drug trafficking. The drugs trade has definitely benefited from the presence of gangs while at the same time stimulating their survival through various channels.

The barrio geography and the
prestige of the drug bosses

A neighborhood’s geography can be a factor in defining whether a drug boss uses it as an operations base or not. The existence of blind alleys in certain points, of quick evacuation routes to other zones or of paths littered with obstacles for people who don’t habitually use them are all ways of shaking off the police. The gang members demonstrate how lots fenced with wire or small drainage ditches are very useful for giving the police the slip and therefore good places for setting up drug outlets. Two geographical factors that favor the drug flow in certain points of Reparto Schick and the sprawl of four or five other poor neighborhoods surrounding it in Police District V are their relative proximity to centers of Managua nightlife and an enormous main street that cuts through all of them, allowing people to pass from one end to the other and conduct business without having to use their meandering side streets, which are “hotter.” These neighborhoods are not far from Camino de Oriente, one of Managua’s liveliest entertainment malls, and are bordered on the south by Las Colinas, by far Managua’s wealthiest residential area and home to many rich kids who frequent the drug outlets just “on the other side of the tracks.”

Young people in general—whether gang members or not—find it hard to ensure their drug intake. This is partly because the step from marihuana to crack implies increased costs and partly because consumption rates have shot up, given that there are only minor non-economic obstacles to obtaining drugs and that crack is more addictive. Drug bosses and teenagers benefit from the Code for Children and Adolescents, using minors as mules and even pushers because the law protects them from harsh treatment by the law. There are even ten-year-old drug mules.

Drug dealing and consumption don’t mix well. Pushers are never irredeemably hooked addicts, because the drug boss would never trust that they wouldn’t consume the merchandise, attract attention and be more vulnerable during police raids. But addicted gang members can provide many other services in exchange for drugs: bartering stolen goods, protection, distracting the police...

The big drug lord in Reparto Schick enjoys enormous prestige. He has a fleet of 15 taxis and likes to give away booze and throw wild parties for the gang members. The taxis are a way of laundering his ill-gotten gains and introducing it into the legal commercial circuits. In addition to the taxis, he also has a truck and several houses. His chances of operating depend on the relations he builds, investments he makes and his respect for a certain code. “That guy’s really cool with us,” says Caifanes. “That’s why no one snitches on him. He paid out 1,300 córdobas in ranchera music at the last party. He’s good people. He gives out booze and women. He’s a top guy. He supplies the whole of District V. They busted Tomasa’s outlet last year because she sold pure [sodium] bicarbonate. She was screwing us over like we were dumb kids, so we ratted her out. But this guy, he’s the law.”

This boss, Grueso [roughly, “the big guy”], buys loyalty by investing in local youths; some of them may have benefited from working in his taxi fleet. This is where the redistributive ethos comes into play: whereas the gang members snitched on Tomasa because she was gypping them, they defend Grueso and justify his activities because he shares: “He got involved in the taxi business to do some honest work. He wants to leave drugs some day and do something legal with the money he’s earning.”

Cops have an image as cogs in the wheel

The police have a terrible image when it comes to drugs. Caifanes stated that “most cops are involved in drugs. La Cochona and La Araña, who have outlets, work with the police. They’ve got their close friends inside who warn them when a search warrant is issued, so they’ve already disappeared or hidden the merchandise by the time the cops arrive.”

This micro-level impunity reflects what is happening on the macro level, which also involves the judicial branch. The number of cases ruled in favor of big drug traffickers increases each year. Some feel that good police work—when not previously aborted by officers who collaborate with the traffickers—crumbles in the courts where a network of corrupt criminal and appeals court judges annul trials or hand out acquittals, pardons, case dismissals or releases on low bail. Just in March 2003, 92 corruption cases linked to drug trafficking that involved judicial officials were investigated. How many more have there been since then?

The National Police sector chiefs know the precise location of all drug outlets and bosses. They know their houses, names, properties, routines and relations. But the network of officers linked to the drug business makes successful searches impossible unless the dealers contravene some clause of the unwritten local code. So in the end it all depends on the social networks woven by the drug boss. If the weave is tight, a sector chief will be strongly discouraged from mounting any operation to dismantle the outlet because it jeopardizes his future in the neighborhood. The Government Ministry’s hypocritical focus runs against the most elementary logic, but in line with the logic of power. Its strategy is based on the idea that “the outlets are the main factor to be neutralized, given that the corrosion of society begins there.” Translated, that means that they don’t want to touch the real bigwigs. But this strategy cooked up by the elites in the ministry runs up against local survival strategies and the networks of gang members, police officers, small-time drug bosses and other inhabitants in the neighborhood.

On occasion drugs have turned addicted “bums” into the hardest workers. For example, they’ll lug water when it’s cut off in the neighborhood to make a bit of money, and this helps bolster their image, even though the community knows perfectly well that by paying them for this service it is financing their crack and marihuana habit. In Bluefields it’s said that many families depend on the drug boom for their survival, and in Reparto Schick many families have prospered from drugs.

The campus of the drug “university” has been expanding. Drugs are the great catalyst for many processes in the neighborhood: the social mobility of certain members, the generation of profits for other investments, relations with the police, youth-gang belligerence. In the absence of any activities emanating from the Youth Secretariat or other state institutions and in light of the limited solutions—either work or recreation—offered by the public security proposals, the networks linked to drugs and theft will continue to prosper. And in Reparto Schick and many other places this will continue to revolve around the drug outlets. The police, whether out of fear or complicity, will be just another cog in the drug trafficking machine.

Consumption reinforces the group
and metamorphoses the consumer

Although the gangs are more atomized, they still require a minimum amount of collective life to exist as such. Drug taking is one of the activities that most brings the group together. Its members meet in abandoned houses, empty lots, street corners or the house of a member whose parents are away. Like all forms of consumption, drug taking is a social classifier. The kinds of drugs and the places involved distinguish the “pedigree” addict from the common garden variety. The street use of glue and crack is for unredeemable “bums.” People with more means will smoke marihuana at home or in a bar or snort coke at night clubs. “Coke stimulated me,” explains one such club frequenter, “but it also made me feel really superior to crack heads. I was happy to be on that level.” Some revel in their “drug-tasting” skills: “We’d taste the product before buying it. I got into being a ‘drug-taster.’ If it numbed the tongue right away, it was good. It also has to have a penetrating floral smell. If it tasted bitter, it was no good.”

Collective consumption, sharing—for example by passing a joint around—reinforces the sense of group. The members experiment together with risky combinations, such as inserting a few rocks of crack into marihuana joints. It costs more, but its effects are highly valued. Drugs are valued for the metamorphosis they produce in the consumer’s psyche. As Iván put it, “Marihuana ‘breaks’ your eyes; it makes them go Chinese, closes them up. It gives you the giggles or leaves you pensive, quiet and depressed. It can even give you a ‘white out,’ when everything goes black, your vision fogs over, your blood pressure drops, you break out in a cold sweat and your eyes roll up so only the whites are visible. That’s why it’s called a ‘white out.’ You can even foam at the mouth and look like you’re dead. With crack, your saliva dries up, your throat closes and you feel like you can’t swallow. You feel a pulsing in your throat when you try to wet it with your saliva. Everything spins round and you get really irritated, pissed off; which is when you want another rock and you’ll rob to get the money.” Drugs are feared above all for their physical effects. For example, crack makes you skinny and all crack heads end up corpselike.

Hermógenes prefers marihuana: “I bought grass almost exclusively. From then on I started to learn from experience. If your hand starts trembling and the bag’s small, you’ll drop it. You have to learn to roll it up. I smoke alone, because people here talk too much. My mum and dad don’t know it, but I spend the 20 córdobas they give me every day on marihuana. Your nervousness disappears when you drink liquor and it makes you feel gutsier so you say things you wouldn’t dare say when you’re straight. You can shout when you’re drinking. Marihuana relaxes you, and it doesn’t give you a hangover the next day. It makes you think, you get hungry, it makes you randy, you get exited quick. It’s good when you’re out looking for girls. It makes you giggly; you can’t stifle your laughter and you reach right out and grab her ass. You take her right there. You’re happy, you feel real good. Marihuana has helped me stop being shy. That’s why I had this tribal tattoo done, which means that you feel possessed by the drug, that you’re inside it.”

Neighborhood producers:
Cooking up rocks

Many young people recognize sooner or later—sometimes following a really bad trip—that on this voyage to Venus in a ship of drugs “you want to float, but all you do is sink,” to quote a song by the Spanish group Mecano. But drugs aren’t just a form of evasion, an alienating opiate. They’re also a powerful business. Their trade is one of the most lucrative activities that can be practiced with no professional qualifications. According to his neighbors, Ñato Zepeda, the famous Nicaraguan heroine czar captured in Costa Rica, is illiterate. Many youth gang members, unemployed and outside of the school system, dedicate their days and nights to small-scale crack production and dealing.

Iván explained how to prepare crack: “I cooked crack once. I bought an ounce of cocaine and put it in a glass. Then I poured in half a cup of water and heated it over a low flame. Then I put in half a box of bicarbonate of soda and left it to bubble up. When it rises you have to remove it from the flame immediately. You do that three times. The third time you take it off and cover it. It comes out like oil and you have to skim off the foam. You leave it to cool, which takes about half an hour, by which time you’ve got this white cake.”

According to experts in the field, one cake produces a minimum of 80 rocks, each of which can be sold for 10 córdobas. Given that the cake costs 500 córdobas to produce, the profit margin for that quick operation is 300 córdobas. As drug producers, the gang members know that there’s available and expanding demand in their immediate circle, with no foreseeable change. As long as there are drugs in Nicaragua, teenagers will continue to be involved in using, dealing and producing them. These activities could have very diverse effects on the design and activities of the youth gangs. There’s little or no chance that we’ll find opportunities for helping young people in this terrain, but other tendencies in gang predilections could open up more constructive and benign alternatives.

Hunger for transnationalism:
The Gothic look

Another aspect that marks the current identity of youth gangs is their hunger for transnationalism, which has various expressions. The Gothic fad—so evident in many European, US and South American cities—has found its way onto the palette used by Reparto Schick gangs to retouch, redraw and redefine themselves. Through that process of self-creation and being who they want to be, youth gang members transcend their local, everyday conditioning by painting their nails, piercing their ears and wearing earrings, glitzy bracelets and black clothes.

Fashion signals have transnational meaning, in which painted nails and rings and bracelets on male fingers, ears and arms would have been interpreted as symptoms of homosexuality just a few months back. Now they, together with the earlier tattooing and body piercing, are an indication of their wearers’ international connection, part of the fashion statement required by the transnational ritualizing of rebelliousness.

According to Erik H. Erikson, a great part of young people’s “demonstration” in public or in private is the dramatization of a spontaneous search for new forms of stylistic or ideological ritualization invented by and for youth itself. Challenging and mocking, but rarely unbridled and often profoundly sincere, those new rituals try to counteract—occasionally through the romantic restoration of old songs and clothes—the lack of meaning of the existing conventions of our times, the impersonality of mass production, the vagueness of the declared values and the intangibility of prospects for either an individualized or an authentically communal existence.

Such rituals are also political manifestations, given that “the actions of young people are always, in part and out of necessity, reactions to the stereotypes held up to them by their elders,” in the words of Reguillo. She goes on to describe such rebellious acts crystallized in appearance as “post-apocalyptical prophecies, produced in those bodies plagued with message, that advance ominously over real and symbolic territories like living testimonies of the fragility of the social order we have given ourselves.” They are the most visible, if not the only, expression of that rebellious and transnational micro-politics. Other expressions, including songs, rarely emerge into public view.

Singing “The long, hard life of the drifter”

We are too used to thinking of the gang members as a kind of urban terrorist. We conceive the street “bum” as a young person languishing on the corner, subdued by a hangover resulting from a night of marihuana and rum. We never think of such young people as the producers of art. They are never presented as creators who simultaneously seek to describe and judge the experiences of their neighborhood. But gang members have authored a vast musical production. Their most frequent inspiration is the world of drugs, idleness, the risks they take and the like, all of which demonstrate what one gang singer-songwriter described to me as “the long and difficult life of the drifter.” The following song was composed by 15-year-old Iván:

Now you think, mate, what you’ve got on your mind:
Evil or envy or being rebellious
I’ve grown up in the atmosphere of my barrio
Where I learned my brothers’ bad habits at an early age.
Fury and evil is what has always grown.
A demon’s motto is to just wander around lost.
A whore’s motto is that everyone falls on you.
A fag’s motto is that they give it to you up the arse.
The dogs’ motto is to bite people.
The crack head’s motto is to be a delinquent.
The mafia’s motto is to kill who you’re looking for.
The MS motto is Mara Salvatrucha.
The prisoners’ motto is to be locked up.
And marihuana’s motto is to get you high.

The songs also relate to the transnational sphere: the chords come from a Panamanian genre known as plena and the lyrics allude to the murderous mafias and the Mara Salvatrucha, a youth gang in Central America that’s a living legend and an international reference point. Iván repeats what a friend of his told him after living in Mexico for a few months: “The MS is a mara [youth gang] from El Salvador. It has members in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, but they’re more properly from El Salvador. They board trains and rob people. There are two types of maras. There’s also the MS, which is another name for Mara 13, and Mara 18, also known as the Batos Locos [literally mad simpletons]. MS doesn’t just stand for Mara Salva-trucha; it also means Satanic Mission [Misión Satánica in Spanish]. They don’t just do crack and marihuana. They also shoot up.”

Iván picked up this information from people who start out for the United States but get picked up and deported back from Mexico after staying a while there in shelters or jails, absorbing the features of other cultures with which they later season their traveler’s tales. The singer-songwriters introduce such recently-acquired and exotic knowledge into their songs because the reference to things transnational adds prestige.

The songs build a bridge towards that mystified transnational sphere, which expresses in superlative what the gang members experience here. The transnational sphere is a grotesque mirror that reflects their own neighborhood in gigantic dimensions. The songs also serve to moralize. By writing and singing, the gang member looks at himself from the outside and judges. Looking down on himself, he adopts a socially applauded role, but his songs are amphibian: they travel over socially permissible ground—taking up the rhythm of the plena, for example, which is frequently used in Evangelical music—while at the same time swimming in the waters of the prohibited—because most of their compositions employ crude language some would call obscene that closes the churches’ doors to them.

Why not promote gang member artists?

Gang members and many other youths from poor Nicaraguan neighborhoods have two compulsive obsessions: drugs and the transnational craze with its artistic expressions. While these are very different obsessions, they are sometimes demonized in the same way. The transnational craze, with its artistic expressions, is something rarely picked up on by lazy policy scribblers, who tend to avoid mental hernias by proposing the everlasting panaceas of sports and jobs.

Offering these young people chances to express their artistic creations—songs, graffiti, drawings—with a certain level of public recognition and fame could prove a powerful contribution in transmuting the violent orientation of their energies. It would allow their just nonconformity to be heard and open up arenas for their participation in a policy based not on sticks, stabbings and homemade mortar rounds, but rather on arguments, illustrated with images and adorned with creativeness.

Why don’t civic participation programs contemplate the artistic participation of youth gang members as a way to satisfy their hunger for image and a protagonist role? This would be a great contribution, although little more than a patch on such a rotten society as ours, which tolerates millionaire tax evaders indifferently driving past five-year-old children at the traffic lights who defy the hostility of passing cars full of bitter faces to earn a few cents selling chewing gum or washing windshields.

Jose Luis Rocha is a researcher at Nitlapán-UCA and a member of envío’s editorial council.

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