Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 302 | Septiembre 2006



To Be Young and Poor: Turf, Violence, Fear, Silence

My mom used to tell me it was cool to be young; you could go out in the street wearing whatever you wanted. But it’s not like that any more. To be young now is to be in a gang. If you’re not in a gang, you’re afraid of getting robbed or even killed. You can’t dress the way you want either, but rather the way others want. If you dress sloppy, the cops figure you’re in a gang and beat you up. If you dress up, you get mugged. You can’t win!”

Diana García

Ester is a Kakchiquel from one of the villages in Chimaltenango closest to the capital. She has eight children, most of them now teenagers. Two are girls. The older one takes care of most of the household chores while Ester works. The oldest boy has already started his own household, the next one down was in a gang for a while and the one after him has started going out at night. All the others are still growing and trying to make their way as best they can amidst the slim opportunities for life they find in their community.

Ester is aware of the constant changes in her town. Maquilas came ten years ago and brought a lot of people with them. A lot of ladinos, “outsiders” from hot places like the coast or Jutiapa, or even “foreign” people from Honduras or Nicaragua. For Ester and her family, daily life has grown richer in some ways, but they have also become gradually deafened by the intensity of the violence around them. They are becoming quiet, and their bodies are gradually becoming accustomed to the feeling of being shut in.

She remembers 2002 and 2003 as “the hardest years” and talks about the barrio organization they formed to deal with violence, given the state’s apparent inability to assume this responsibility. During that time, two of her neighbor’s children were killed by drive-by shooters, as was a couple sitting on the side of the street. A few months later, another teenager was killed and two others seriously wounded by shots fired from a car with tinted windows. One night, her cousin’s 18-year-old son got a phone call from someone who asked him to step outside. When he did, a car with tinted windows was waiting to kill him. A little while later another teenager was killed “by mistake” near the school. The one they were “supposed to kill” was the grandson of Ester’s aunt. At that time, people still called the police about the gang members, but soon after, the drug addicts came too. There were threats and extortion, and people learned to keep silent about “things you didn’t want and mustn’t talk about.” The following year, “the neighborhood organization caught the leader of a drug ring torturing a kid.” Ester remembers that “when he came back from the municipal seat, the gangs in town buttressed their forces,” and people finally got mad. He was laughing “because the police were just going to let him go,” and he simply took off his things and handed them to his wife. A few hours later he was burned alive. “No one came to the fair that year,” Ester said. A rumor spread, fueled even by the church, where the pastor warned that 30 or so young people were going to be killed during the patron saint celebration. It didn’t happen that night, but the killings continued.

Before the year was out, one of Ester’s nephews was killed on his way home from school; the son of a niece was killed in the tailor’s shop where he worked; and another member of the family, an 11-year-old boy, was shot from a car with tinted windows. Around the same time, the son of some friends was killed as he was leaving the maquila where he worked, and the only two sons of another neighbor were killed just nine days apart. The father and mother fell apart after that, from all the pain, and ended up in the hospital. These are just the cases that Ester knows of firsthand, though she’s heard of many others.

From massacres in war
to killings at peace

For example, in 2005, some men broke into the house of some other neighbors and killed a young man and a five-year-old girl. A little later the 20-year-old daughter of her sister-in-law disappeared and was never heard from again. One of her closest cousins was tortured, murdered and left in the ravine by a nearby town. A young couple from out of town was found dead on the highway, and a little later a neighbor was killed with a machete for having defended a young woman who was being gang raped. Just before the end of the year, the son of a cousin of Ester’s former husband was killed. The boy was found in a sack with his hands and feet tied, thrown in front of his house.

In town, Ester no longer dares to ask. She goes out less and less often, and doesn’t always go to the funerals, so as not to get involved. She says that people in neighboring municipalities have gone through similar experiences and many of her children’s friends and acquaintances “are no longer here, they’ve already gone.” A web of terror is being woven around her, and she can’t help but feel “there’s no sweetness in life, if we’re afraid all the time.” She’s also aware that “no one’s looking into this,” though she doesn’t know what to do either.

The morning she and I decided to put our heads together about it, a couple of insistent questions—“why?” and “who were they?”—hung in the air. At times, Ester seemed to want to let loose of what she knows. Although it’s been hard for her, she has decided to open this window into her own life precisely so everyone else will join her to begin to “talk about this now” and think about what we’re going to do in this country, where things have progressed from massacres in time of war to killings in time of peace.

Young people in a hostile environment

Guatemala is privileged to have one of the largest populations of young people in Central America, after Honduras and El Salvador. Some 55% of Guatemala’s population is under the age of 20 and an increasingly large percentage of these children and adolescents live in marginalized urban areas. They enter the country’s workforce at a very young age and without any labor rights. Young people from 15 to 29 represent nearly 40% of the country’s economically active population. The social science research institute FLACSO-Guatemala recently described the situation in which the majority of Guatemala’s young people live as one of “comprehensive scarcity.” This is especially true for those in urban areas, where people live increasingly segregated, segmented and fragmented lives, and barely know each other.

Working class youth in Guatemala, especially those of indigenous origins, wake up each day—often without knowing why—immersed in a hostile environment that deprives them of options not only for development but also for survival. At the same time, these young people are faced with a dizzying, unprecedented flurry of social changes that reflect the high-tech era in which they live, and are constantly being called on to make sense of themselves with little knowledge of their history or of alternative frameworks for interpretation besides those provided by the dominant, capitalist, consumerist society. Given this lack of historical memory, the vast majority of these young people are left only with crumbs, as they grow up without alternative explanations or proposals that might help them channel the social malaise they feel so strongly.

Manuel Castells has suggested that a large part of human suffering in this stage of history we’re witnessing is the result of a logical process of capitalist restructuring. Hugo Calello, at the University of Buenos Aires, reminds us that in the current context, in which relations with employers are increasingly less direct, more abstract and mediated, with the economy becoming increasingly informal, the working class—in this case, its youth—has fewer possibilities to become conscious not only of the value of its work but also of the submission to which it is subjected, and thus its own potential for change is significantly diluted.

Calello also notes that the generation of a hegemonic political discourse about society is essential to ensure “relative order in terms of governance” in Latin America. “Keeping equivocation going” and “the tangle of empty words,” especially in political language, are very effective ways to generate consensus, at least of a passive, submissive and routine nature.

According to Calello, one key to the current mechanism of domination can be found by considering how discourse operates through a “differentiated seduction” of each of the segments that make up the whole of society. Those living in poverty and marginalization hear messages about the success of the powerful and corrupt, and about ways of life and pleasures “forbidden to the losers, the timid and the weak.” This discourse leads them to constantly dream of “attaining the unattainable.” Meanwhile, they’re saturated with the sensationalistic chronicle of everyday violence.

Thus, according to Calello, the marginalized members of society are “banished from their reality,” prevented from becoming conscious of the real borders of the space of life to which they’ve been “condemned,” and in which they develop “increasingly widespread and profound forms of violence against others,” depending on their own distance from the extreme of a fully consumerist society. The fragments become fragmented even further, as people exclude each other as different, and turn on each other.

In a violent, inequitable country

As a result of the state’s irresponsibility and the internal application of a “national security” paradigm that puts protecting the life and property of those who have them above all else, violence has grown ever more brutal in Guatemala. The various reports on violent deaths in recent years concur that young adults are the most affected age group. They are only now beginning to recognize that many of the victims are children and adolescents.

The report “Violent deaths of children, adolescents and young people and proposals to prevent them,” by the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman based on its own information and data from the National Statistics Institute (INE), reveals that 63.3% of the people killed in 2002 and 2003 were under 30, while 25.4% were under 18. In 2004, the Archbishop’s Human Rights Office reported, based on newspaper sources, that at least 64% of young people who died violent deaths were between 15 and 17 years old, and another 17% were between 10 and 14. That same year, INE reported 918 deaths of minors. Of the 418 deaths by known cause, 75.8% were homicides and only 14.8% were due to accidents.

Against women, youths
and the very poor

The number of women of all ages killed more than doubled from 2001 to 2005, reaching a high of 665 in 2005. Violence against women is a special case because of the patriarchal way of thinking behind it, in which women are seen as inferior, objectified and subjected. In many cases, this violence plays itself out in a sexual form. Guatemala is now the Central American country with the highest number of women killed as a result of violence and the highest level of impunity in this regard. We have one of the highest rates of women murdered as a percent of the population in the world: 40 per 100,000 people. The global average, according to the World Health Organization, is 10 per 100,000.

As happens in other contexts, poverty makes people vulnerable. Virtually all of the women of different ages who have lost their lives in a violent way in recent years lived in poor neighborhoods or towns. Discussing the case of Ciudad Juárez, Mexican sociologist Julia Monárrez has talked about how poor women, especially those who live in marginalized urban areas, have up to an 80% higher chance of being murdered than those who live in high-income neighborhoods.

While the cruelest violence is experienced in a direct way mainly by the poor, the reactions to insecurity and the interpretations of it we hear about tend to come from the middle class and, to some extent, from the wealthy. This fact is often related to the irresponsible work of much of the media, which only serves to fan people’s fears. It is in response to this phenomenon that the Argentinian philosopher Enrique Marí suggests that people’s capacity to differentiate between the real characteristics of phenomena and the use of them to justify certain measures and interests gets lost when lack of security “takes over” a society and “fear goes beyond the borders of reflection.” Thus, the dominant beliefs and ideas blur the connections between insecurity and inequality, a mechanism promoted by those who benefit from both inequality and fear.

We know about their deaths;
do we know about their lives?

Young Guatemalans are systematically stigmatized and criminalized, and often made to bear the brunt of the state’s repressive policies in the crudest way possible. Many social sectors are aware of the “social cleansing” policies underway. Every day the media present young people in poor neighborhoods as the ones breaking the law and committing crimes, the ones to be feared. Young women from these neighborhoods generally appear only as prostitutes or as victims of the brutal violence. Most of these young people are only listened to when they are behind bars, if then. With no one to protest it happening, they have been painted as the substratum that single-handedly causes all the violence, a deflection of the truth that serves the interests of a few. The needs of these young people are continually neglected, while the profound ignorance of their lives contrasts sharply with the emphasis now being put on their deaths. Do we know how these young people experience the current onslaught of violence and how its multiple forms have come to be an inescapable part of their daily experience? Do we even know how they understand violence?

In October 2005, my colleagues and I talked individually and collectively with over 100 young people, male and female, from 11 to 22 years of age. They study, work and live in poor neighborhoods in Zones 6 and 18 of Guatemala City. Almost a fifth of them were also able to comment on their experiences of violence in other neighborhoods of the metropolitan area or in nearby municipalities where they grew up.

They accepted the challenge of giving their testimonies in order to let people know how they experience violence: how it affects them on a daily basis, who’s involved or affected, to what extent and where they most often come up against it. They also spoke about the alternatives they see or are trying to create. With few exceptions, the young people who shared their experiences have not been involved in maras, that particularly virulent form of youth gangs that predominates in Guatemala, El Salvador and to a somewhat lesser extent Honduras, and almost all participate in some effort to create alternatives so they won’t end up in one. By giving them back their voices, we can come to understand the enormous challenge involved in being young today in Guatemala, particularly in our country’s poor neighborhoods, continuously facing violence day after day without a break, while they build, desire and dream.

Where to find a safe place?

These youths lead their daily lives amidst chaos. Words such as death, abuse, silence and abandonment crop up in all their stories. The main difference between the young women and the young men in this regard can be found in the sites and the intensity of the violence they experience.

Defining a “safe” place isn’t always an easy task for any of them, male or female. In many cases, analyzing their own responses makes them aware of how abandoned they are and the degree of vulnerability they face. Here are some of their responses: “The safest place is the street, where more people are around.” “It’s safe in the fields because there are mara members, but they don’t bother you.” “The most dangerous place for kids is at home and at school, more than in the street. The thing is, people don’t talk about what happens at home.” “For me it’s safe everywhere.” “The only safe place is our house.” “The church is safe.” “It’s pretty safe there as long as you stay away from them.” “You don’t feel safe in the street, but in the neighborhood you do, because they know you there.” “For me there’s no safe place; it’s dangerous wherever you go. The only safe place, maybe, is inside my house.” “When he’s not home, I feel good there, because I don’t feel that fear.”

Assaults and murders

“The street” means different things to different people. If the groups are mixed or just of young men, the violence they talk about receiving in the street most often is insults and street violence. They all can describe it: “A group shows up all tight and even if you’re innocent, they’ll throw you down and kick you right there without so much as a word.” Assaults like this have happened “several times” to at least a quarter of those interviewed.

For these young people, the line between various forms of violence has become increasingly blurred and some of them have almost daily brushes with death: “We’ve seen muggings and murders.” “They rob you there, and if you don’t give them what they want, they kill you too,” “This woman’s son was found with his head cut off because he was in Mara 18. She had three sons, and now the 15-year-old has gotten involved in the mara.” “There used to be least one killing every night, but not now.”

The young people feel constantly harassed and discriminated against. “If you’re young and something happens, you’re in trouble even if you didn’t have anything to do with it.” The control other people exert over their lives covers what they do, what they listen to and even how they dress. “In the barrio they’re always watching over everybody, checking them out. They know what everyone’s doing, and they pigeonhole you that way.” “You can’t wear what you want anymore. A cap, a pair of tennis shoes and immediately they’re telling you those are the shoes the gang members use. I still wear them because I know I’m nobody, no one pays attention to me, but I can’t do it anymore without worrying.” “They discriminate against us because of the way we dress. I like to dress like this, but most gang members do too. The cops take one look at me and, without saying anything, throw me up against the wall. It’s happened to me a lot of times.”

Sexual violence is a constant

Sexual harassment has become more frequent for the young women: “They say terrible things to us.” “Now it’s not just their flirting but also their hands.” “You can’t wear what you want because they rob you or the guys feel you up.”

The street is gradually turning into yet another site of men’s sexual domination, both physical and symbolic, over women. “If there are a bunch of women and we go by there, and he’s alone, he won’t respect us. But if a women is out with a man, then he’ll respect her.” “There’s a girl who walks by there wearing tight pants and those short blouses, and the men standing around there touch her ass when she passes by, and there’s nothing she can do about it.” “In the street sometimes they don’t rape you but they put their hands all over you.” Boys are also molested in public places: “Some men, especially the drunks, frighten the boys by telling them they’re going to touch them there in the street.”

Both the young women and young men say from the outset that they want people to know about this “so it won’t keep happening.” Some wrap themselves in a shroud of silence that speaks louder than words, while others allow themselves to speak because “everyone knows about this anyway.”

As one young woman said, “it’s not just harassment or an occasional touch” they’re talking about. It’s also rape. It happens “in the street, at home, everywhere.” Public places are risky: “The parking lot is dangerous; men or the drivers themselves hide and then grab you.” “A friend of mine was raped and people heard it and didn’t do anything. She yelled out but no one came. This was in the afternoon; she’d taken lunch to her mom who works in the market, and some men grabbed her and raped her in the parking lot.” “Another girl was raped by the police in a panel truck.”

Most of the young men and women challenge the stereotype that sexual violence in the street is exercised exclusively by maras: “The gang members do it, but they’re not the only ones; other men also go around harming people.” “Noooo, it’s guys from here, people like us. It’s not the mara members, but that never comes out in the newspapers. The only bad guys you read about there are the maras, as if what happens to us weren’t an everyday thing, at home and in the street.”

The problem is pervasive in these barrios: at least 50% of the young women and 25% of the young men reported having been raped: “It’s not only girls they rape, boys too and both places: in the street and at home.” “Out of ten friends, it’s happened to four.” “Not only men rape. Women do it too: the aunts, the women who take care of kids.” “Perhaps it happens more to boys at home, but still less than to girls.” “They get abortions there, not only because of rape but also because of unwanted pregnancies.”

“They’ve been taught to be quiet”

The sexual violence exercised in their homes, especially against girls, has been silenced: “I think there’s more rape at home, but people don’t talk about it, out of fear.” “Imagine that your dad warns you not to talk about it, saying that if you do, he says he’ll kill your mom or something. That makes you scared, so you don’t talk, and it keeps happening.” “If you say it happened they don’t believe you. That’s why people are more likely just to tell friends.” “We’re aware of what happens in the street, but not at home.”

Just as these young women report, fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, grandfathers and stepfathers have been aggressors and accomplices of a sexual violence they use to reaffirm their power, a violence fueled by daily practices of domination: “Guys want to possess their sisters, as if we were their property, and all the family does is to keep encouraging them by giving them more authority, until it reaches the point that they climb in bed with you when you’re asleep.”

Although we often hear something along the lines of “boys don’t talk while girls tell all,” both girls and boys, for different reasons, seem to want to minimize the sexual violence that girls experience so intensely. And it appears to be very hard for both of them to find a way to begin to talk about what both know is hidden: the sexual violence that boys also experience from a very young age. “It’s worse for the boys, because they’ve been taught that men don’t cry.”

While sexual abuse is an increasingly present form of violence experienced by both, it is the young women who seem to recognize more clearly the links between their own experiences and the oppression experienced by their mothers: “Mothers don’t say anything because they’re afraid the man will leave and they’ll be alone.” “Perhaps it happened to them too and they kept quiet and now they think it’s our turn.” “I don’t think it happened to them because if it had, they would give us more support when we need it.”

“You get used to just fighting”

The way their families are set up, the way their family members relate to each other, the shouting and abuse they receive or have to witness, reveal a continuum between the violence they face in the street and what they experience at home that isn’t easy for them to understand or shake off.

This is reaffirmed by the individual lectures and “guilt-tripping” from their mothers and fathers, while the responsibilities of society and the state are increasingly diluted: “Where we live there are fewer fathers than stepfathers, because now men only want a woman for a little while, and the majority only want them to satisfy themselves or perhaps they rape a woman because of drugs and she ends up pregnant.” “Sometimes your father doesn’t live with you and people ask you about it, but if you ask your mom where he is, or even who he is, she gets pissed off and smacks you.” “Both mothers and fathers are abusive, and sometimes it works in reverse: once the kids are big they beat up on their parents.” “Sometimes they don’t hit you, they belittle you, and that hurts worse.” “They get screamed at so much at home that they end up timid, like they can’t defend themselves; basically they end up traumatized.” “If your mom and dad start fighting, that affects you, because all you hear is arguments, so in the street you’re already used to nothing but scrapping.” “I have a mom and a dad, but sometimes I think it might be better not to. Sometimes you get so desperate you start thinking about finding some mara to join, or escaping it all with liquor or drugs. What’s the point of having a dad who only mistreats you or treats you any way he wants?” “No one pays any attention to you at home, but in the street they do.” “I don’t have a mom or a dad. My mom’s alive, but she never bothers about us, and my dad’s dead. We live with an aunt. But despite it all, I’m focused on getting ahead.”

“It happens at school, too”

These young people have to guard against a whole set of violent relations in daily life in the neighborhood. It’s becoming clear to them that “you don’t play for fun anymore” and that the use of drugs and alcohol, “even just a little,” is becoming increasingly common everywhere. Abuse on the buses or in the markets, humiliation of the elderly and ethnic discrimination are all realities that some experience and have no good idea how to deal with.

Trafficking in children is being established in many of these poor neighborhoods. “When they steal children to sell them somewhere else, they just snatch them without anyone realizing what happened. If you go to the newspaper they don’t do anything, and that’s as far as it gets.” More than one of the young women has witnessed how women have been turned into merchandise. “One girl I know was sold by her stepfather; he traded her off for another one.”

One situation always mentioned in all the groups is suicide, and although the perceptions might vary considerably and the reasons given might differ, the majority agreed that most of those who kill themselves are boys and girls “of about 8 to 12 years old.”

Sooner or later “poverty” gets pulled out as one more form of violence they are forced to live with. Following on that you hear the word “exploitation.” “They demand everything you’ve got at work but don’t pay well, and since they’re big companies you can’t insist they pay you more because you’re nobody.” “At work you’re constantly being insulted, humiliated and fired for things that didn’t even happen.” “In the maquila some workers take advantage of the situation and try to kiss up.” Even one’s friends do it. Poverty involves learning that “there are always those who want to get ahead at any cost.” Others see the unequal opportunities as clearly unfair: “I went four years without studying because I couldn’t, and it pissed me off when I saw others who had the opportunity and didn’t take advantage of it.”

There’s also violence in school. “Even classmates fight among themselves at school.” “The envy and rivalry among us is also violence.” “There are fights, gossip: she said this, he said that, they stick their nose into everything and I get sick of it.” “The teachers molest you too; they tell you to do whatever they want.” “That happened to a friend of mine, and now she feels really bad, but she doesn’t say anything. And in high school it happens every year.” “Nothing so direct has happened where I study, but there are frictions, some weird things I don’t like.” “There are even rapes in the institute. They plan it there, but do it outside.”

The institute, high school and primary school are no longer places where you can socialize and feel safe. “Where I studied they were always looking for little kids to be gang members, and those who want to get ahead fall into the trap, but nobody who was in a position to choose stayed with the mara.” “The gang members even went inside the school to charge taxes and rent.” “They get someone from the institute itself to collect the money, charging 25 or 50 quetzals a week for each class. They come in to mess with the girls and to talk.” “They have everybody in the institute terrorized. The police turned up but they didn’t do anything.”

Learning to live among the gangs

There can be important differences in whether and how much these boys and girls have learned to relate to the maras, depending on their own personal history and the characteristics of the barrio or of the gangs controlling the “turf” at a given moment. But generally speaking the pressures are always strong. “If a 13 [a member of Mara 13] starts talking to you, they only have to say ‘what’s up?’ or how’s it going?’ and you already feel threatened.” “One of them’s always telling me to join up with them, because they say we have to defend the place we live, but I don’t want to.” “There’s one mara there now, but there used to be two. A couple of years ago they were busy killing each other, but now it’s worse because they thieve together now and don’t care who you are. Before, those from [Mara] 18 took care of you, but now they all just come in and do whatever they want.”

More than one young man said he had “hung out with the mara” in search of protection. Very few admitted having any family member in the mara, understanding it as a source of problems: “Having a gang member for a brother really affects you. I couldn’t even go to the home of another friend any more, because his brother had some problem with the other maras.”

Nonetheless, for some girls gang members have qualities that aren’t easy to find in other relations: “The truth is that they’re really cool as friends; sometimes better than those who claim to be your friends.” Other girls go so far as to protect them from the police, while yet others are slowly figuring out how to relate to them. “It’s not about joining the mara, but even if you don’t it’s good to know how to treat them with courtesy, because we all deserve respect, whatever we do.”

And there are non-gang members who assume the logic of control that a given mara ends up imposing on the neighborhood. “Most of the mara members are from there and you already know them. The thing is that they say it’s dangerous because the older women or kids who see things go around telling everybody or arguing with the mara. And the mara really doesn’t like that, and that’s when they start making waves; or when the girls start mouthing off too much, that’s when they get raped.”

In unsafe territories

The neighborhoods have their own individual histories. They’ve all gone through various stages, and have been the object of state repression to a greater or lesser degree, which produces palpable changes in the daily life of young people. “In March of this year they started killing them.” “Go there now and you’ll see that it’s changed a lot. Now there aren’t any killings.” “About six years ago it was really dangerous; if you wandered into some other sector you didn’t come out alive. It’s not like that anymore, because there’s only one mara now; the little gangs left and they killed off the others or left them in wheelchairs.” “When I was little there were like five maras and there were constant problems, but now they got married and left, or they died or ended up in prison.” “In the last year four or five of them got killed, and the year before like eight.” “Before there were more than twenty murders a year, but now there are only two or three.” “Before there was a lot of violence, but one day they came in—I don’t remember what those guys from the army are called—and they did a sweep and now there are hardly any.” “Like five years ago they just hassled people; now they kill them.”

The neighborhoods also have their own life and an internal diversity in which the different strata shape the way young people experience the violence. Living close to “the edge of town” or ”the school” or ”the corner” isn’t always easy, because the violence is much more present there. There are also entire areas in a single neighborhood in which the violence is much more intense. “Over there is where most of the maras’ massacres take place; that’s their area, their territory; they’ve got it controlled and have everybody terrorized.” Time also changes in those spaces. “Now it’s just Saturdays and Sundays; before it was everyday.” “It’s dangerous for people who have to leave really early to get to work.”

The neighborhoods are fully linked to the codes and dynamics of those with some measure of control over the place: “Where I live, we only used to have Mara 18; but now it’s MS, and they don’t get along with us. Perhaps there’s a risk that one day they’ll go by tossing a couple of bombshells.” “There are little groups that are forming like maras, but they’re little kids; the adults aren’t in them anymore.” “They start out as ‘bugs’; they’re just kids of 10, 12, 15 years old. The ones they just got through killing were leaders; they were over 20 , they were big guys.” “We had a female mara here; I knew them.” “Now there’s only one, the MS, but it fills in for all of them.” “There are about six maras there and nobody gets along with anybody, although sometimes they join up just to bring down another mara.” “A few years ago, when I was little, there were a lot of maras, and I couldn’t walk more than three blocks in any direction; that was as far as I could go to avoid encroaching on another’s territory. Right now there’s only one, just made up of the little kids; they’re all that’s left.”

Do the police bring
even more violence?

Maras aren’t the only source of violence in daily life. Other, usually more invisible people also contribute: “The gangs, yeah, but other people also abuse you. If you don’t do the favor they ask, they feel like they’ve got all the right to come down on you” “At one point I hung out with the maras for protection, but I eventually realized it was worse. Before going around with them, I didn’t feel I could go where I wanted. Now I do, except I’m scared they’ll mug me, but they’re different ones now.”

The civil authorities’ lack of responsibility always came up in the discussions, with the perception varying depending on the police station. Few things seem to irritate them as much as when it’s the supposed “security” that messes with them. “The cops don’t do anything, even when something happens to you right in front of them.” “The police invent things and don’t do shit.” “The cops are violent too; they search you without asking you anything; they just shove you up against the wall.” “The police mess with you, search you. They’re a problem because they don’t do anything; at least nothing helpful.” “They’ll take you in for any little thing. They grab you and start smacking you around, or they let you know they want a bribe. Yet they don’t say anything to those who really commit serious stuff.” “The cops also rape.” “We’ve experienced that; I can’t believe how low the cops can get, even coming to work drunk.” “Yeah, they’re the law, they have to be respected and all, but they go too far because they go on patrol drunk and sometimes treat people who aren’t gang members as if they were. The other day these two cops began calling this kid just because he had tattoos and they beat him in broad daylight; it wasn’t even nighttime. But nobody said anything. Everybody kept quiet, just watching them beat this boy up.” Half of these young men have been robbed or beaten by the maras and the other half by the police.

When referring to some abuse “they” committed, the listener is hard put to know whether the perpetrator is a gang member or a police officer. In their words, gang members, “narcs” and “security” begin to be interchangeable, with the lines often hard to distinguish and name. They’re most reticent to talk about drug-related violence. For some, impunity reigns: “The cops arrested all the Cobra gang members, but a couple of days later they were back.” Others believe the police themselves “are part of it”: “They’ve got their fingers in it.” “We realized that the police were in with them. The mara members were giving them little white bags and the cops were giving them rolls of bills in exchange.”

Stigma to live in a “red zone”

“This here’s a red zone and I think society has formed like divisions, putting certain limits on some of us and different limits on others who are a little bit higher up, and when you’re a kid from here they don’t treat or respect you equally.” Because of the stigmas that society builds regarding living spaces, many of these young people feel the need to hide or falsify their identity to be able to get a job.

They also notice how the image of the place they live can get “spruced up,” which doesn’t necessarily mean that the problems they deal with on a daily basis are getting resolved. “They used to call this a red zone. Now they don’t but there are still killings almost every day, and people getting beaten just for drill. They don’t give it the same name anymore, but nothing’s changed.”

How do they interpret it?

The violence they experience also goes unpunished due to the lack of social sanction. There’s a very clear victimization mechanism with respect to the sexual violence that women face every day: “The thing is that the girls like it.” “And the women wear those really short miniskirts, and seeing them the men get hot. I think that’s why grown men rape them, because of the way they dress.” “If a man on the bus suddenly begins to touch us for whatever reason, society points the finger at us and says we shouldn’t dress the way we do.”

The decision of whether or not to opt for life often depends on such interpretations. The victims unconsciously internalize the readings that tend to label those attacked as somehow inferior as well: “If I were her, I’d feel like committing suicide or become a prostitute, because I’d feel I wasn’t any good anymore. Most young men and women want to get married and find—or be—a pure woman, and if something like that has happened, and worse yet if you get AIDS, your only choice is to either wait it out or just take your life once and for all.” “There are some who get raped and say: I’m no good for anything anymore. Some hang themselves or jump off a bridge.”

Along these same lines the majority explained membership in the gangs as a product of family problems, lack of attention at home, a way of releasing rage over the abuse they receive, a desire for revenge, or a supposedly free decision associated with their very particular lifestyle: “They want to be important.” “They’re looking for the easy way out.” A few went beyond the desire for revenge to also mention the need for “protection” and the longing to “make something of themselves”: “Some do it out of need and others because they want to.” Very few went so far as to establish a link between their living conditions and the prevailing socioeconomic and political reality. “I think all this happens because the President isn’t dealing with the problems.” “Like work is scarce and there aren’t any jobs…”

Although they weren’t specifically asked, both the males and females revealed throughout the conversations how they are constructing themselves as women and men and the new youth of the subaltern class amidst the tangle of violence in which they are ensnared every day. Expressions such as “you can’t trust anybody anymore” reveal how defenseless they feel given the impunity and complicity surrounding what happens. “People only watch now, and don’t do anything because they’re scared.” “The police don’t do a thing.” “If you see stuff like that, it’s best not to say anything and keep your head down, because you can’t do anything, much less change it, as even the police are with them. The police ought to provide us security but they don’t do anything…”

Living with fear

Fear is what determines the options they chose and how they learn to live: “You live with the fear that you’re not going to make it.” “When I go out I’m afraid they’re going to grab me from behind or do something to me.” “You’re afraid to go out of your house because it’s very risky.” Very few have any protection mechanism: “When I go to the store and they start bothering me my brother comes out and then they leave me alone.” The main challenge for the majority of them is to control their fear and “not let it show.” Given this challenge, their nebulous religious participation and above all support and guidance from their mothers stand out significantly: “Before we lived in terror, but now that my mom is on God’s road, she tells us that we shouldn’t be afraid of them, that we aren’t involved with them and they can’t get involved with us.” Even so, the task falls to these young men and women alone: “It’s a fear that you can’t master until you yourself put a stop to it.” “You shouldn’t show them any fear, because if you do they’ll do even worse things.”

Not all young people, even those from a single neighborhood, said they lived in fear. Some have unconsciously negotiated their own freedom in exchange for not having to feel afraid: “I don’t feel afraid because I hardly ever go out.” “It doesn’t make me afraid because I only go out with my mom.” Others feel the loss of public spaces as an imposition: “The only reason we don’t go out is fear.” “I don’t leave my house.” “The safest thing is to stay inside, so I just don’t go out.” “They don’t give me permission to go anywhere; they won’t let me.”

For all that, even closing oneself off doesn’t resolve things, and many often feel their only choice is to run away. “You’re not even safe at home, because there’s some gang members living right next door, from the littlest one to the biggest, and the father sells drugs. They’ve raped girls and now I’m afraid that someday they’ll do something to me.” “There are families that just pack up and leave without saying anything.”

The recourse of staying inside reveals the disassociation with which a good number of young people live, since this leaves them open to another set of aggressions within the home, to which the “the street” was always an alternative.

Learning to say nothing
and survive through silence

It was paradoxical how despite being surrounded by so much ruckus, racket and often even screaming, the young girls would say so forcefully, “It’s incredibly quiet here!” That silence has become the only safe refuge. Since their early childhood, men and women learn to keep their mouth shut, and there are even some who literally lose their voice: “They keep quiet out of fear, or become gay.”

It’s clear that many stories are kept locked away and never told: “I just can’t tell you.” In fact, agreeing to talk, to name things, to say what they’re living through and what they think meant going in the opposition direction to the silence that life has taken upon itself to teach them. “There’s a little place where we try to play and in my case, at least, nothing I see goes any further; nothing happened.” “If they beat you and attack you, even if you’re easygoing and haven’t done anything, you still have to take it; you just put your head down and stay cool. You can’t do anything because if you say anything you’re dead. Three or four days later you’ll be discovered God knows where. You just have to put up with it, because you can’t talk anymore; many are now six feet under because they talked.”

Members of this young generation, in which violence is crystallizing in so many forms and intensities both in public and private, are slowly but surely beginning to protect themselves by internalizing many of the things that happen to them as natural events. “I live in a tract where no cars or anything come in. The only unsafe part is that the mara members sometimes shoot things up on Fridays and Saturdays, but we’re used to that now; it’s normal.” Others go so far as to justify them: “I’ve come to realize that if they ask you for money and you say you don’t have any, that bugs them, because they say, ‘If I mug you it’s theft by force, but if I ask you nicely and you don’t want to, what do you expect?’ And that’s the real truth, because we’re all pinched.” “If I don’t butt into their business, nothing’s going to happen to me. Now if I go around with a big mouth, and decide to tell the cops where they hang out or where their meeting place is, that’s a whole other thing. A lot of people have gotten killed because they couldn’t keep their mouth shut.”

Given this “public” violence, some opt to administer their spaces and relations. “If I talk to a Guaipense, I can’t be seen talking to a Breakero or an 18, so I’m better off not talking to any of them.” “You don’t really want to be seen with the guys from there.”

What alternatives do they find?

Trying to think through alternatives to what they are living is almost impossible for some: “As far as I can see, there’s no alternative to all that.” “We hardly have alternatives for defending ourselves.” Others see only one resource within their reach: to exercise more violence. “At times it makes you want to take justice into your own hands.” Some propose different ways to escape: “Just get out of here, but you can’t always do it because you don’t have any money to buy land.” “Smoke marihuana.” “Don’t get mixed up with them and avoid going out.” “Stay real busy in your work.”

Becoming withdrawn and keeping one’s mouth shut is also an option many use to survive the violence: “That’s why you hardly go out, and your only friends are the ones you make where you study or work.” “Don’t talk to anybody, because you could say that everybody has a bunch of problems, or is mixed up in something. I don’t have any friend there.” “Wear a long skirt or pants.” “Never go out alone.” “From school to home, and that’s it. Just say hi to them and keep moving.” “Don’t come home late and don’t go places you don’t have to.”

For those who can, seeking protection is still an alternative. “Simply get a man to go with you.” “If you go out with your mom they can’t talk to you, but if they see you out alone they’ll grab you.” Knowing what to say and where to say it is another tactic: “If they don’t let you go by and ask you something, tell them what they want to know.” “If the police want to get us to do something we don’t want to do, denounce them to the ORP, where they investigate the police to see if there’s corruption or not.”

It’s not enough to avoid
becoming mara members

Some were able to see way down the road, although not always with much hope for the present: “I don’t think the adults are going to do anything to make changes. So we need to start with our own family when we grow up and have children.” “We women tell each other what happens to us, and realize that it’s not just happening to me and it’s not just happening here.”

“Youth at risk” is how these children and teenagers are defined by those engaged in positive initiatives to keep them from “joining the maras.” Often the young people understand themselves with that same objective: “Many of us would now be in the maras or into vices if it hadn’t been for this.” “If I hadn’t learned about this place, I don’t think I would have seen a way out; I would have just gone out into the street and taken my chances with what comes my way each day. And if one day your number’s up, they kill you. Left to our own devices, we’d just go out like that each day, but here at least there’s another alternative now. I still go out into the street full of fear that they could kill or assault me, but at least they can now see that you’re not in a mara and they have a little more respect for you in the street, and you might run fewer risks.” “What we have is valuable, and I feel very grateful. And that’s why I don’t mind volunteering 24 hours a day, because I know that just as it has helped me; it’s going to help a lot more young people.”

Nonetheless, these young men and women also realize just how limited these initiatives are given the dimensions of the situation they are experiencing: “Coming here is an alternative, but not everyone takes it into account, because otherwise it’d be full; there’d be a whole bunch of kids here.”

Joining the maras is unquestionably an answer, but it doesn’t fully reveal the chaos in which young Guatemalans from poor areas thread their way through the daily violence. Nor can these limited prevention initiatives make up for the failure of state and society to fulfill their responsibilities. They aren’t enough to close the huge gap that exists for these boys and girls, who need to discover for themselves that, rather than beneficiaries, they are subjects with rights.

Diana García is a social scientist and an activist in the rural women’s movement.

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