Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 329 | Diciembre 2008



On the Track of Political Gangs: Has Mara 19 Been Born in Nicaragua?

During the two weeks following the fraud perpetrated in the November 9 municipal elections, hundreds of youth, most of them hooded and armed, took over the streets of Managua and sometimes León, intimidating, lashing out and destroying with abandon. Government spokespeople said they were FSLN militants who were just defending and celebrating the FSLN victory. But did this in fact mark the debut of Mara 19 in Nicaragua?

José Luis Rocha

Martin Scorsese’s box office hit “Gangs of New York” shows a fierce confrontation between two gangs at the service of ethnic factions and political rivals. The film is based on real events: the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys actually did lock horns over local elections in 1857.

The most authoritative account of these events is Professor Tyler Anbinder’s book Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum. Historian Eric Monkkonen coined the term voting gangs to refer to the Yankee and Irish gangs whose primary objective was to influence electoral processes, using their physical prowess to support and defend the politicians of their own particular ethnic group.

No less violent today in Nicaragua

Given the massive participation of current and former gang members in repressing the demonstrations against Nica-ragua’s electoral fraud in November, it is worth reflecting on whether we now have that kind of gang in Managua.

To avoid sensationalist interpretations, it’s best to qualify this hypothesis. There is no category of gangs innately programmed to intervene in elections, just as there are no special types of youth gangs with a vocation for retailing or wholesaling illicit drugs. Gangs morph in response to the opportunities and constraints of their surroundings.

In 1989 El Salvador’s feared Mara 13 and Mara 18 were neither as lethal nor as different from Nicaraguan gangs as they are now. But a mixture of availability of weapons, deportations, the opportunism of organized crime and the Salvadoran state’s repressive policies led them down very different paths than those traveled by the Nicaraguan gangs.

The past decade has seen a decline in the number of Nicaragua’s gangs, their activities, the violence of their confrontations and the age of their members. In contrast, their neighbors to the north—the Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan maras—have earned a fearful reputation. Young Nicaraguans, whether gang members or not, are neither less nor more inclined to violence than other Central American youth. Not less, because their central role in the armed struggles of the late seventies and eighties was perhaps proportionally greater than that of their contemporaries in other countries of the region. And not more, as they laid down their weapons in the transition to democracy.

Violence is being fed and celebrated

The problem in Nicaragua is that violence is being nourished. It is customarily cultivated and lauded by intellectuals from their rostrums and classrooms. Every year students are taken on a field trip to the San Jacinto hacienda to see the stones that Andrés Castro is supposed to have thrown against the troops of US filibuster William Walker. Our history textbooks and revolutionary mythology have busily exalted warrior icons such as José Dolores Estrada, Cleto Ordóñez, Benjamín Zeledón, José Santos Zelaya, Augusto Sandino and many others. The nationalist iconography has made warrior synonymous with patriot. Those who didn’t demonstrate their love of country “with weapons in hand” are supporting actors in this feature film that swings between tyranny and anarchy. Figures such as Sofonías Salvatierra, Juan Bautista Sacasa are mere extras in Nicaragua’s nationalist epic of history.

The political leaders who have most prospered in our two macro-parties (the Sandinista National Liberation Front and the Consitutionalist Liberal Party—FSLN and PLC) are those with the most incendiary rhetoric and the least brains. How else can we explain that the great leader of Liberalism has been the loudmouthed, quarrelsome Arnoldo Alemán and not the incorruptible Virgilio Godoy? Why is the strongman of Sandinismo that fly-leaf reader Daniel Ortega rather than the unimpeachable and extraordinary professional who headed the most unpolluted Supreme Electoral Council in our history, Mariano Fiallos Oyanguren?

The Evertz Cárcamos, Jasser Martínezes, Gustavo Porrases and other agitators are extolled by a culture that venerates the hard hand that pummels peoples into a malleable and impoverished mass. It’s impossible to avoid the impression that Andrés Castro’s children have more than enough stimulation to be forever ready to throw stones, with or without ideological cause. But does such cause currently exist? Before looking into who is feeding today’s violence and why, it’s worth examining the involvement of gangs in party politics in other parts of the world.

In Kosovo, Freetown, Mumbai, Jamaica…

Gangs and politics are a marriage of convenience that has had many different expressions all over the globe. Some were explored in John Hagedorn’s penetrating book A World of Gangs, published earlier this year, which gathered many examples of the either spontaneous or incited incursion of gangs into politics. In the former Yugoslavia, Hagedorn tells us, part of Kosovo’s liberation army was turned into a political force under the tutelage of the international community while another part became a political party and the remaining factions continued to operate as gangs of independent bandits, assaulting humanitarian aid missions with military precision.

The connection between gangs and politics, even the very definition of gangs, are conditioned by the diffuse and often incoherent complexity of the gang phenomenon and its particular context in each case. One of the most dramatic connections occurred in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where youth gangs known as rarri formed in colonial times in marginal poor neighborhoods and developed their own lifestyle. After independence in 1961, politicians recruited the rarri to ensure themselves muscle in the elections, using them as an instrument for decades. The civil war of the nineties transformed them into child soldiers. To ensure their subjection and unconditional obedience, the rarri were fed drugs. Once the war was over, they went back to being bands of thieves made up of unemployed youths, but now endowed with abundant weapons, bitterness and a thirst for life. Hagedorn records the dramatic and pendular movement of Freetown youths from gang members to child soldiers and back.

In today’s Mumbai, the famous politician Bal Thackeray based his political rise on the direct action of youth gangs, copying the strategy that led to Richard J. Daley’s victory in the 1955 mayoral race in Chicago, Illinois. Thackeray cloned Daley’s Democratic Party, electoral machinery and all, in his Shiv Sena party, only changing its Catholic Irish composition for a Hindu one, always flanked by mandels (clubs) of young goondas (gang members) who worked hard with other activists in the electoral races and formed weapons-toting electoral armies. Daley had begun his inexorable rise in the Democratic Party as a leader of the Hamburg Athletic Association, a gang in every sense of the word, and as a racist provocateur during the 1919 uprisings in Chicago. Thackeray has interwoven politics and criminality every bit as much as in Chicago during the heyday of Al Capone or Mayor Daley.

According to Hagedorn, Jamaica’s gangs have also flirted with politics. They date back to the forties, when they were organized by sectors of Kingston in which rival political groups were concentrated. Some scholars have distinguished between area gangs and corner gangs, depending on whether or not they had ties to politicians. The persistent violence of the gang members and local gangsters linked to Edward Seaga’s Jamaican Labor Party and its rival, Michael Manley’s People’s National Party, forms part of Jamaica’s history.

The Jamaican gangs ended up having accentuated political sponsorship in many cities and wards, with the political parties thus buttressing their institutionalization. And although the gangs’ drug income eventually permitted their independence from the politicians, many Jamaican neighborhoods are still divided by political and gang loyalties, and by their fatal mix. The 2004 deportation of 13,000 gang members from the United States to Jamaica only aggravated this situation.

In Haiti and Los Angeles

Hagedorn notes that gangs sometimes oppose the state and sometimes work for the powerful, and their swings between the two are surprising. In Haiti gangs were used to do dirty work the state apparatus couldn’t undertake directly. During the Aristide government, Amiot Métayer’s Cannibal Army gang controlled the Raboteau neighborhood in the city of Gonaives, where Haitian independence was proclaimed.

The Cannibal Army was one of many grassroots organizations that used force and intimidation to back Aristide. But when Métayer was murdered, his followers suspected Aristide. They joined up with forces linked to the old Duvalier regime, took over Gonaives, killed police officers they had fingered as drug traffickers then marched on Port-Au-Prince to bring down Aristide. Since then, gangs loyal to Aristide have squared off against their rivals in bloody battles in Soleil, Bel Air and other neighborhoods of the capital. The Preval government only came to power after arduous negotiations with gangs of all stripes.

Hagedorn also documents how gangs have mixed politics with religion. Not so long ago in Afghanistan, the Talibans were youth gangs full of religious fervor called “bands of hope,” which operated as a kind of moral cops charged with intimidating sinners. Anyone who strayed from the strict fundamentalist doctrine was threatened, and these severe youngsters even ripped what they judged to be indecent clothes from women’s bodies. Valuable art works were destroyed and much literature burned for not complying with the pious canons.

Not all experiences in this terrain are negative. In New York, the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation became a social movement in the nineties, although that transformation was cut short by police repression. The Afro-American gangs of Los Angeles were impressed by the Black Panther party and the fact that two Panther leaders were murdered by the police. With the Panthers’ decline, many youths in search of identity grouped into gangs. Two of them, the Crips and the Bloods, offered the government a joint reconstruction program after the 1992 uprising, but their offer was refused.

For Hagedorn, this array of gangs that dabble in politics shows the volatile nature of gangs and their potential to become political actors. Some gangs occasionally test the political waters and some even end up as political groups, just as some political groups end up as gangs. There’s a bit of everything in the spectrum of gangs and politics. If something can be clearly induced from all these experiences it is that politicians never squander the opportunity to use gangs as cheap shock troops, willing to do battle and enjoy an interregnum of impunity. What actually happened in this regard in Nicaragua in the two weeks after the controversial municipal elections?

“Gunpowder that knows
how to celebrate and sing”

A group of 80 members of the Youth for Peace Movement, made up of kids from 36 Managua barrios who had left their youth gangs, charged in the La Prensa newspaper that former gang members from the La Luz, Villa Venezuela and Laureles Norte and Sur neighborhoods had allegedly been recruited by political agitators. The young people were pulled together in the barrios then taken to an undetermined site where they were given hoods, pistols, clubs, mortars and brand new machetes. They were also given lunch, bus fares and 100-600 córdobas (roughly $5-30). A protest march “against the electoral fraud” had no sooner been announced by the opposition when Sandinista legislator Evertz Cárcamo boasted that defenders of the Sandinista vote would take over the streets. He made good on his word: the main demonstration to protest the electoral fraud was encircled by armed and masked youth so the protesters couldn’t go anywhere, while a number of them were wounded by rocks, clubs and fists.

Days later, First Lady Rosario Murillo, the government’s Communication, Citizenship and Social Programs “czaress,” justified these crimes:

“We have once again seen youth bearing the banners of the Revolution with honor and glory; we have seen the symbols of our revolutionary struggle in the red and black of boldness and honor, in the masks, in the mortars, in the festive gunpowder that knows how to celebrate and sing at every step of the heroic route to freedom. We have seen the miraculous multiplication of boys and girls who congregated by the thousands, reigniting the imagination and re-encountering the unique and original identity of Sandinismo, which represents Homeland, Love and Service. Nicaragua, sisters and brothers, flourished during those days, in a springtime of youth and intrepidness….

“I proudly proclaim that all these young people, impoverished by the unjust model we are transforming, those young people we have seen in the streets of Nicaragua… those youths the oligarchs scorn, are, belong to, the Sandinista National Liberation Front. On this revolutionary route, those thousands of boys and girls have found the just recovery of their rights of citizenship, their personal dignity and the political protagonism the oligarchy snatched away from them. They are the Sandinista youth who have taken the streets to defend the victory of the people, the victory of the youth, the victory of Nicaraguan families….”

“The situation’s going to get out of hand”

Murillo’s speech was soon given the lie by psychologist Mónica Zalaquett, who for over a decade has headed the Violence Prevention Center (CEPREV), the most prestigious nongovernmental organization in Nicaragua dedicated to working with young gang members. In declarations quoted by La Prensa, she denounced the manipulation to which many young people had been subjected: “They go where they’re paid and with that money they’re going to buy drugs, and then they’ll go out drugged up or with a few drinks under their belt looking for a fight or even worse. The situation’s going to get out of hand.”

Zalaquett’s arduous efforts to pacify gang members and turn them into peace leaders in dozens of Managua barrios have had admirable results recognized in national and international forums and in sharply critical research studies. Nonetheless, her warning was lost in the smokescreen raised by the FSLN to envelop the mercenary vandalism, presenting it as holy grassroots indignation, an intifada in defense of the vote.

Her concern is fair enough: we could be facing the regression of all the work done to convert the culture of violence into one of peace and achieve a masculine identity removed from the aggressive channels offered by the prevailing cultural forms. The official discourse extolling masks, mortars and gunpowder “as just recovery of citizenship rights” is nothing more than an inlay of demented lyricism that consecrates the territorial logic of “the street is ours” and banks on institutionalizing the use of violence as a method for dealing with dissent.

For years, CREPREV has invested a great deal of time in family visits, workshops and neighborhood accompaniment to transform this culture of violence and get young people to explore the roots of their fury to understand them and control their ramifications. Of course these young people need political arenas, and we need to work on this in a much more coherent fashion than we have been doing so far. But we also have to rail against the notion now being offered to young people by the most powerful politicians that the exercise of citizenship is the right to smash vehicles, wield machetes and bust heads with utter impunity.

Is the government gambling on the bloody exercise of citizenship and on focusing the state propaganda apparatus on resuscitating the mechanisms of gang fundamentalism, shared by many other fundamentalisms?

Destroy to construct enmity

The fact that the days of street violence produced numerous cases of damage to property, especially vehicles, seems symptomatic of a class rage. The aggressiveness with which some vehicles were pulverized sounds a clear warning bell about the class component of this project. Let’s leave aside the fact—significant for other purposes—that the vehicles that got the worst treatment during the day of greatest vandalism belonged to two television channels known for their opposition to the FSLN. The incursion of the “spring of youth and intrepidness” into the parking lot of the Metrocentro shopping mall, alongside the Ruben Dario traffic circle they had occupied, to bash in the vehicles of at least twenty shoppers with their clubs, mortars and “festive gunpowder” was an eye-opening demonstration that some victims were not sought out by name. Was it their identity as a social sector? If so, this was not a completely spontaneous act, but the launching of one of the mechanisms of gang operations: the construction of “others” against whom any action is valid.

The youths in gangs battle against group-constructed rivals. To bolster their own identity, they need “others” against which to define themselves. As the young people who live barely two or three streets down from one’s own group aren’t really very different, identity is built and cultivated through baptism with special names, the appropriation or invention of certain signs—graffiti, colors and tattoos—and the narration of neighborhood legends that explain the origins of the rivalry. Enmity must be constructed and is the fruit of conscious production.

The “little pink asses” are more “others”

The same thing happens in the case we’re looking at: the identification of a certain social sector per se as the enemy was the result of two years of government propaganda. First came proclamations against a diffuse entity labeled as “the oligarchs.” Next, once some young people publicly began to protest certain government decisions, the propaganda organs bent to the task of constructing the “others” they termed “little pink asses.”

The construction of “others” who are very different and threatening (to the revolutionary process) has the effect of stripping them of their human attributes to make them more easily punishable. This is one of the mechanisms of all fundamentalisms, whether religious, political, racial, social or ethnic…

The desire to construct otherness emphasizes a single attribute, considered the identity pivot. This system dehumanizes the rivals by reducing them to a single feature on which the terrors that inspire criminal acts are focused. Just for being transformed into “others,” these people deserve punishment, attack, exclusions, death. For skinheads it could be the color of one’s skin; for the fanatics of religious sects it is a set of beliefs; for others it’s a political flag that draws the thin red line between ours and the ‘infidels’. The havoc in Metrocentro and the persecution of opposition demonstrators were the final result of a prolonged labor of constructing “others” based on a social attribute. It doesn’t matter if the construction had a weak base: the result proved efficient. It seems to have created Mara 19: a conglomerate of gangs with a common enemy.

“The streets are ours”

These reflections don’t answer why this political-repressive work was done here and now by gang members and former gang members. The first obvious answer is “because they were sought out, armed and paid.” The second obvious answer is “because today’s hunger and unemployment ensure there’s no shortage of people who can be contracted for these little jobs.” But there’s a need to penetrate further, into another aspect that can reveal a factor with possibly broader consequences: why are these young people daring to get involved in such levels of violence under these specific circumstances?

CEPREV, Our Nicaragua Foundation, Challenges Foundation, the National Police and many Protestant and evangelical denominations have been working with notable success in pacifying the gang members. Nonetheless, the massive reduction of gangs can’t be attributed to such targeted interventions. Other elements in the surroundings have helped, including the more limited availability of arms and less developed organized crime. Unlike their Central American neighbors, Nicaraguan gangs haven’t been associated with organized crime. But the situation could change if the chances of linking up with organized political crime in this setting start to multiply. In fact it already has. The instigation of violence by socially prominent FSLN politicians of the likes of Cárcamo and Porras sent a message: it’s legitimate to take over the streets, “the streets are ours” and nobody else has the right to use them.

In the days leading up to and following the elections, the aggression became more heated. It began with blows and ended in stabbings, clubbings and firing off of mortars. The aggressors were testing how far they could go without being called to task. And what they discovered was that the further they went the more blessings they received.

In synthesis, the aggression was produced by and in the context of an absence of political and social morality. It isn’t about classic anomie, lack of norms or the social structure’s inability to provide certain individuals what they need to achieve society’s goals, resulting in a collapse of governability when many such individuals adopt anti-social behaviors, driven by frustration. No, this is about de-moralization caused by authority’s legitimization of vandalism. In a moral crisis typical of totalitarian regimes, leaders encourage and applaud behavior that in normal circumstances would have been considered criminal, thus redefining that behavior as actions of love and service, bold patriotic acts, heroic paths to liberty and just recovery of the rights of citizenship that win the perpetrators honor, respect and glory.

The de-moralization triggered this November could have a long reach, as is beginning to be seen in the case of youth gang members. Reactivated thanks to the mortars and machetes distributed to them by politicians after eight years of truce, the gangs could take on new spirit, protected by the attractive offer of impunity and recognition that the streets will never again belong to the opposition, but rather to those who attack it.

More of the worst:
Machismo, aggressiveness, impunity

The supplying of weapons, accompanied by a legitimating clap on the back, could have a powerful effect on the gangs. A “static effect,” to paraphrase Erich Fromm’s terminology, would assume a return to violence at precise moments, with attacks on the required day then a return to peace. Such violence would be assumed as part of a special period and would consist of occasional skirmishes as demanded by the political client.

But reconfiguring the surroundings through such legitimization of violence could have a “dynamic effect” in which the gangs find a favorable breeding ground through positive reinforcement they receive from “respectable citizens” who occupy visible positions on the social ladder. The supply of weapons is important independent of where they come from, but is decisive if the provider is decked in authority because the availability is secondary to the actual provisioning; it legitimates physical aggression as a method to clear a road bristling with enemies.

Obviously adolescents are gaining political protagonism these days. Murillo isn’t wrong about that. Anthropologist Dennis Rodgers discovered a decade ago that a strong incentive for joining a gang in the nineties was the possibility of triggering adrenalin and recovering the social protagonism and camaraderie that some young people had experienced during their military service of the eighties.

Today’s young gang members never had that experience, but some share their idealization, acquired through the family legends. In their case the social protagonism involves taking over the streets. The politicians have granted them a more ambitious appropriation than they have been used to: they get to own not only the street in their neighborhood, but all the streets of the capital.

But such protagonism isn’t the exercise of a citizenship that helps us toward healthy coexistence and opens opportunities for all. Citizenship exercised through clubs and rocks could lead our young people into the kind of manipulation experienced by the youth of Mumbai or Port-au-Prince. Quite apart from its lack of ethics, it’s poor thinking for any group to base its power on irregular forces that could suddenly turn against it, as happened with Aristide’s gangs.

Only very perverse minds could conceive of the strategy—worthy of Fouché—of putting together cheap paramilitary groups of youths to repress their political adversaries. Choosing it shows a haughty scorn for those very youths who endanger their lives and mutilate their socialization as builders of community. The politicians have offered these boys more of the worst of Nicaraguan culture: machismo, aggressiveness and impunity. In place of offering solutions, they’re riding a globalized wave of uncertainty that forms the basis of today’s multiple intolerant and criminal fundamentalisms.

Annihilation of the state

Modernity is founded on a strong state. Democracy has been an ideological and political pivot of modernity. Neoliberalism taken to an extreme—in nations with weak states such as Nicaragua’s—is producing the collapse of democracy and of the functions of different state apparatuses, as witnessed in the rollback of social protection, growing levels of street violence and increasing insecurity of all types: insecurity about getting and keeping a decent job after graduating that complies with the minimum conditions; insecurity about having a pension fund that hasn’t been squandered in the global casino by pension fund administrators… These insecurities are more radical than the classic civic insecurity, and are also at the root of the fear these young aggressors feel.

Nicaragua’s municipal elections provided the setting for the latest chapter in this collapse: the electoral branch refusing observation, the police refusing to control the situation, the youths of the barrios preventing peaceful demonstrations and harming their participants. The informal creation of Mara 19 puts a seal on this collapse so we can move from dismantling the state to completely annihilating it.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit SErvice for Migrants of Central America (sjm) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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