Are April and May’s “vandals” Reparto Schick gang members?
In the bloodiest days of April and since,
Daniel Ortega blamed neighborhood gangs
for the violence and looting in the streets.
His barely credible words opened the door
for paid “gang members” to ransack
supermarkets and local businesses
and for a climate of chaos that still blankets the country.
I can shed no light on whether these mercenary thugs
have ties to any of Nicaragua’s “traditional” gangs.
But I can say whether those purported ties
involved gangs from Reparto Schick.
José Luis Rocha
Gangs have been the bête noir politicians and social analysts alike use to explain Central America’s excessive brutality. In the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, they aren’t far off he mark.
But such has not been the case in Nicaragua, whose statesmen for decades have boasted of a two-sided exceptionality: an exemplary police force using a non-repressive community-based approach, and receptive gangs of “at-risk youth” who pose nothing close to the threat to the population of the well-known maras in those countries. With the outbreak of what Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata of Estelí called April’s “unarmed revolution,” this rhetoric has taken an unexpected turn, leaving us with many worrying questions.
Were they “traditional” gangs?
In his few public appearances during April, Daniel Ortega tried to stanch the massive repudiation of his repressive rule by blaming barrio gangs for the violence in the streets. The scant credibility his words garner in this and other contexts did not prevent them from sowing doubt and opened the door for mercenary “gang members” to ransack stores, supermarkets and restaurants; burn down government offices, stalls in several open markets and a radio station; and propagate a climate of chaos in cities around the country.
I can’t shed any light on whether these groups had ties to any of the many Nicaraguan gangs referred to as “traditional:” social structures that in some barrios have survived under the same name for more than two decades. What I can clarify is whether or not these purported ties lead back to gangs in Reparto Schick, a giant cluster of barrios created in 1963 when René Schick, Nicaragua’s President between then and 1966, donated state-owned land for a low-income urban residential development. The initial beneficiaries were squatters from the banks of an enormous drainage channel, followed by two waves of people displaced by the flooding of Lake Managua. Between 5.6% and 8% of Managua’s entire population lives in the center-city sprawl known as Reparto Schick.
My monitoring of the gangs
helps understand today’s events
In 1999 the top National Police commanders already considered Reparto Schick the most dangerous area in the capital, a reputation it still has two decades later, even though none of its barrios ever matched the media attention or notoriety for per-capita lawlessness ascribed both then and now to the much smaller Jorge Dimitrov barrio further into the center of the city. Perhaps Schick’s sheer volume of crime pages and police reports is what guarantees it a permanent place in the collective memory as the scene of violent youth battles. It is definitely a valuable observatory of youth gangs.
My monitoring of the gangs over the years offers evidence of their evolution in Reparto Schick, their relationship to the police force, the operations the police levied against the gangs, and their relations with both diverse civil society agencies and other state entities. I hope these elements will help clear up two of the main questions raised by the current revolt in Nicaragua. The first is the complex and fluid relationship between gangs and the State—including their instrumentalization for party politics—and the second is the true tenor of police operations in the neighborhoods, which explains the incubation of an apparatus with carte blanche to repress.
Broadly speaking, the evolution of gangs in Reparto Schick can be divided into six stages: the pre-institutional phase (1988–1990), the golden years (1994–1999), the atomization phase (2000–2004), the peacemaking period (2005–2009), the re-ignition phase (2010–2015) and the re-pacification phase (2016–2018).
Less violent gangs
In what I call their “pre-institutional” phase, in the final years of the revolutionary government and contra war, the gangs had no organizational independence from or relevance beyond their original members. They did, however, leave a marked influence on their successors.
Once old gang members went into retirement, there was a short break, after which new gangs with new names and other leaders sprang up. The first gangs in Reparto Schick were La Bananada, Los Brujos (the Warlocks) and Los Dragones (the Dragons). While many of their leaders were jailed, others became a bridge to the new generation, fanning the flames with their anecdotes and serving as coaches; but they were unable to confer organizational vitality on their gangs. As organizations they lacked the self-perpetuation made possible by injections of new recruits. These first gangs didn’t benefit from the automatic reproduction typical of social institutions. Nonetheless, in gang self-imagery, they are frequently recalled as the legendary ancestors of today’s gangs.
They were less violent than later ones. The majority of their members and of the current gang members agree that fights among those first groups were “cato a cato” (fistfights, without weapons) or backed up by “nunchucks,” the traditional Okinawan martial arts weapon called a nunchaku first made famous by Bruce Lee movies. Luxury sporting goods stores sold this pair of wood sticks connected at one end by a short chain or rope at prices out of the reach of Schick youth, so they crafted their own, giving rise to a “makeshift weapons” industry. Gang members painted and sculpted their nunchucks with their gang symbols and logos of the moment: a dragon, a smurf, etc., to stamp them with collective identity.
This legend of amateur gangs is challenged by testimonies indicating that their arms dealing ways were more varied, and changed over time. Picapiedra (Flintstone), a member of Los Dragones, recalls that “Los Brujos were murderers. Sometimes they pulled a gun if they got mad because they were taking a beating in a fistfight.”
Born in the economic
recession of the late 1980s
These gangs arose when Nicaragua was in a period of serious economic recession. The FSLN government applied its first fiscal adjustment in 1988, which resulted in a reduced provision of social services and major layoffs in the public sector.
Working-class neighborhoods, which had benefitted from social policies that gave priority to cities, especially Managua, bore the brunt of the adjustment due to the abrupt, sharp contrast and were resentful. Unorganized delinquency flourished, together with other counterculture phenomena. For example, homosexuals, traditionally repressed in a culture as dramatically machista as Nicaragua’s, came out of the closet in an unexpected form of rebellion: the vindication of their sexual heterodoxy. This early—for Nicaragua—manifestation of sexual diversity was not limited to working-class neighborhoods. Among Managua’s middle class in those years, so-called “white parties” became the rage, organized in discos and private homes for an exclusive guest list of gay and lesbian couples dressed all in white.
This phenomenon is likely tied to an increase in female labor market participation, and the attending crisis in traditional gender roles. At any rate, it was an example of the outbreak of challenges to dominant culture in which the gangs played a part. In a time of extreme militarization, the gangs loosened the State’s ironclad monopoly over violence and military organization in urban areas.
The golden years:
Gangs are much more violent
About halfway through the term of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, Daniel Ortega’s presidential successor, it was very clear who was on the losing end of the application of successive structural adjustment programs: the huge “surplus” of employees, primarily from working-class barrios in the cities, who couldn’t find jobs in the war-ravaged economy, particularly not in the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), at that time virtually the only emerging major source of employment.
Nicaragua faced what Mexican writer José Agustín recounted about Mexico under President Miguel de la Madrid (1982–1988): “In de la Madrid’s Mexico during the crisis years of the eighties, the old myth of study-work-and-be-happy collapsed. While every door closed in their face, while the highest rung of the social ladder stayed just out of reach, the mobs channeled their youthful energy into extreme violence. It was no longer a question of knives, belts and chains; now pistols were the order of the day and in the great gang fights there was no want for deaths.”
The gangs that arose in Nicaragua during the mid-nineties were much more violent than their predecessors. In 1998, the National Police recorded gang activity in seven of the country’s territorial departments: 102 gangs with 1,370 members, of which 372 were in prison. In Managua alone, they found 60 groups with 753 members. The police said they had broken up two Reparto Schick gangs: la Pradera (the Prairie) and Los Comemuertos (Death eaters), but these gangs remained active, belying the police’s minimalist statistics and triumphant rhetoric.
This new generation of Schick gangs also took a technological leap forward. Their arsenal had originally consisted primarily of fists, stones, pipes, mortar throwers, truncheons and machetes, but now they were backed up by sharp objects ranging from razor blades, daggers, ice picks and homely kitchen knives to the deadly verdugilla knife, which due to its steely texture and thin blade, could penetrate muscle tissue with minimal resistance, plunging into vital organs to deadly effect. “The verdugilla is used more as a threat during holdups, but we don’t keep it back from anyone,” recounts Lázaro Pacheco, leaving unspoken how resisting a robbery turns threat into action. Once in a while an AK-47 appeared, furnished by an adult to rapidly repel rival gang incursions.
Drug use was limited to certain times and types. They sniffed the type of glue used by shoemakers but mainly smoked marijuana. The joint was only occasionally laced with small doses of crack, turning it into a “bañado.” They never took drugs before a fight. Battles—the source of meaning and driving force of their identity and fame as gang members—required lucidity. Both violence and the caliber of weapons could take just minutes to escalate.
Los Cancheros (those from the basketball courts), los Comemuertos, los Rampleros (the Rampers) and los Raperos (the Rappers) appeared. These were the first four Reparto Schick gangs of this new stage. Later they were joined by los Aceiteranos (the Oilcanners), los Bambanes (the Bam Bams), los Bloqueros (those from the concrete block factory), los Plo, los Cholos (the Dandies) and the Power Rangers, to name just a few. All these gangs were still active in 2012, although by then their aggression levels, which had been very similar to each other in 1998, had begun to vary.
The new gangs were not only better armed but also more highly trained; with one gang generation leaping to the next, just as in Mexico: “The Sex Panchitos were wiped out, but it was too late. New larger and more ferocious gangs appeared in poor barrios around the cities, especially in Mexico City and Guadalajara. They were called los Verdugos (the Executioners), los Salvajes (the Savages), los Lacras (the Scourge), los Mierdas Punk (the Punk Shits) or las Capadoras (the Castrators), a gang of rough girls.”
Respecting the neighborhood and the rules
At that time the struggle for “territory” was key. Territory is the area under control, the micro-universe sometimes consisting of a single block where those in control can bring order and enforce their law.
Again the dynamics are similar to those José Agustín found in Mexico: “The mobs, like the gangs before them, treated the neighborhood as sacred ground; the streets were their only possession and many of the fights were over invasion expeditions from other mobs, usually from the same neighborhood. Inside the mob you had to prove yourself with your fists and learn to assault. You had to become el machín, the leader, and here the term means less ‘heavyweight’ and more an eminently machista mob leader. Everyone got a nickname, which was a kind of initiation into a new identity.”
The gangs had a code and a system of requirements aimed at selecting and training hardened men. “The gangs have rules,” Maule recalls. “If anyone wants in, he’s told he has to follow the rules or he’s out. To get into the gang, you have to show your bravery; go to a gang brawl and fight with rocks and machetes. And if they take you, they throw you up against the new guy who’s the first to take a blow: knock him out or send him to the hospital just to show you’re really serious about being in the gang. Second, if you’re supposed to get into it with a member of another gang and don’t join in a fistfight, they call you a coward, tell you you’ve got no place in the gang, that you’d better beat it, because they only want the bold and daring. They sent us out just to mess up another guy, to be vicious, above all. Third, if we were caught by the police in a gang fight—for example, if we had a gun and were shooting at someone—we’d better not say anything: just say, ‘It wasn’t me, I don’t know nothin.’ Keep quiet. Clam up, right? If you ratted the others out, they’d sic two or three from the gang on you to rough you up and kick you out of the gang for snitching, because they don’t want nobody who does that.”
Another key part of the gang code was respecting the neighborhood. Thefts and attacks were only conducted in other neighborhoods, while the gang members defended their own neighborhood. That’s why they had their neighbors’ silence, complicity and even active collaboration. Gang members were only killed by citizens armed with pistols or AKs outside their own territory, for example in the legendary joint attack by the Comemuertos and the Bloqueros on the 30 de Mayo neighborhood, where Paulina Rubio, el Frijol and Piedrín attained national fame.
Heroic legends and a
hunger for mythology
Gangs, more clearly than other countercultural groups, have a hunger for mythology that turns them into mythomaniacs. The golden era of gang activity (1994–1999) is packed with foundational myths.
Pitayoya, founder and head of the Comemuertos, Managua’s most famous gang, was one of the era’s legends and a great coach for gang members. He served several years in La Modelo prison for aggravated murder; then on release was killed by an enemy.
The Rampleros have stitched the scraps of their memories together in an archetypal story, creating a typical hero legend: a tank who can only be defeated by a battalion. He’s the otherwise invincible man who can only be vanquished through trickery, falling victim to his own confidence in a moment of error, or his weakness for a woman. A Samson unbeatable until the arrival of a double-crossing Delilah, the treacherous female who hands him over to countless Philistines.
This mythomania was fed with material from the adventures lived by several gang members during their military service in the 1980s. The ex-draftees not only wanted to feel the adrenaline of war again, but also to recapture the spirit of camaraderie and the Manichean division of society into good guys and bad guys, which had been stripped from them by their “farewell to arms” and the new rules of the political game.
These devices generated solid group cohesion. Rallying between 40 and 80 gang members, their leaders civilized the scenes of violence, making them both more democratic and less ideological. Parents of gang members in those days would deny that their sons took part. At any rate, they limited their objections to the rival gang members who came to attack the neighborhood. They explained the existence of the gangs and their violence with another kind of myth: the gang members are the sons of girls who went out to the literacy campaign and coffee harvests so they could sleep around. In other words, the sin of licentiousness brought uncontrollable children into the world, with anarchy in their DNA.
The end of the golden years:
A police “community approach”?
The police put an end to this golden era with the arrest and imprisonment of these groups’ main ringleaders. No sign of the “community approach” touted by official propaganda. In 1999 they arrested 706 gang members and claimed that they had left just one gang active in Managua’s District 5, where Reparto Schick is located.
But that police intervention took place six or more years after the founding of the gang, by which time their organic growth mechanisms counteracted the effect of deaths, desertions, jailings, religious conversions and retirements. Only a year after that supposed extermination, the police calculated 133 gangs with 2,576 gang members, numbers not much lower than the 176 gangs and 2,965 gang members listed in 1999. The police didn’t mention that the dynamic was changing.
In the neighborhood, Daimaku recalls that “After El Yonqui, his right-hand man, Fanor, who was second in command, took his place. They called him Big-head, because he had this huge head. But Fanor was killed by the Comemuertos. They grabbed him in an empty field behind where we lived and killed him there. They grabbed him and screwed him with an iron and left him to suffocate. Then Miguel Atolillo took over.”
That was the end of the golden era and its ranks. There followed a period of anarchy, which had a very uneven impact on the gangs.
The gangs lose standing
Drugs were the main catalyst of gang activity in the atomization stage (2000–2004). The role of mule (itinerant crack transporter/seller) became a source of income for many young people. It was a job requiring discretion and individual mobilization.
The gangs weren’t wiped out during this period, as the police like to claim. In fact, two new gangs even emerged in 2000: Los Sucios (the Dirty Ones) appeared in the 20 de mayo barrio and Los Cartoneros (the Box Dwellers) in the Naciones Unidas barrio. These are the most recently formed gangs, as are their neighborhoods of run-down housing. The Cartoneros got their name because they lived in houses made of cardboard.
Clashes were more sporadic, although the presence of industrial weapons—especially pistols—was more frequent. Neighbors didn’t talk as much about gang members, referring instead to “vagrant kids,” who spent the day smoking crack and sniffing glue in the streets. They began to assault people from their own neighborhood, becoming a danger to their neighbors and also to themselves, since this stage was filled with murders among members of the same gang. Their social capital eroded and they lost their standing.
This was the period when the National Police wanted to attribute the decline in gangs to their efficient raids and began to sell their “community” model—through the Inter-American Development Bank, which provided hefty sums—to the whole Central American region. Their rhetorical efforts were impressive. Police Commissioner Hamyn Gurdián emerged as a key figure. In 2003 he maneuvered his way into the position of Director of the Youth Secretariat, after having achieved certain notoriety as head of a Managua police district for his non-repressive operations: de-escalation plans with commitments signed by jailed gang members turned over to their families on Mother’s Day or Christmas, and wiping records clean. These actions coexisted with highly invasive operations, where police agents would give lessons to school directors and even to parents on how to educate their students and their children. They also shared space on the real police agenda with extrajudicial punishment, which became the norm and a handy remedy: beatings inside patrol cars and at police stations. Detainees didn’t file complaints because they considered it better than ending up in a cell at La Modelo prison.
The role of NGOs and of drugs
When the break-up of the gangs spiked (2005–2009), NGO interventions multiplied, sometimes in conjunction with the police and with support from various churches. Psychologists from the Center for the Prevention of Violence (CEPREV) worked in many neighborhoods, while the Our Nicaragua Association intervened in others. In yet others, the Pro-Development Foundation and Casa Alianza offered scholarships and talks. Some of these institutions worked shoulder to shoulder with the National Police: they invited police officers to their talks, coordinated visits to the neighborhoods and received financing for joint projects.
Many gangs, weakened beforehand by the atomization process and loss of standing, entered a hiatus. Although there appeared to have been a mass conversion and definitive suspension of activities, in reality the atomization process had simply deepened. Pacification was the result of factors with a range of moral classifications: NGO work, atomization and drugs.
Levels of drug use, homicides committed under the influence and thefts to be able to buy drugs were higher than ever. Gang members died more frequently from cocaine overdoses than on the battlefield, and drugs were also the motive, target or backdrop for the murders. Such was the case of the legendary Moya from Los Rampleros: Police District Six authorities confirmed that Winston Moya Rodríguez, alias Dog Body, was found with a vial of 46 crack stones at the time of his death.
Counter to the forecasts of those who considered the gangs the main focal point of crime, the decline in gang activity coincided with an acceleration in delinquency, which jumped from 1,898 charges per 100,000 inhabitants filed in 2005 to 2,871 in 2009. For armed robbery, the rate went from 390 to 565. During this five-year period, the homicide rate stayed steady at 13 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest of the past two decades, according to the police.
At the end of this stage, the withdrawal of many foreign aid agencies from Nicaragua reduced NGO interventions, affecting both geographic coverage and the frequency of their visits. Few of the promises of accompaniment, scholarships and training ever materialized.
This decrease coincided with tales by retired gang members of small skirmishes and acts of revenge that led them to join forces with the new generations to attack rivals or defend their neighborhood. Old gang members conducted vendettas and fell victim to their rivals.
Ortega’s return to government
The Schick gangs became active again for at least three years (2010–2012). Once again they began to appear in the breaking news sections of TV reports and newspapers. This re-ignition had been gestating with occasional attempts to increase activity since 2007, the year Daniel Ortega returned to the presidency.
Starting that year, FSLN militants offered money, weapons, munitions, transportation and impunity to active and retired gang members who wanted to participate in “spontaneous” counter-protests against those protesting electoral fraud and arbitrary measures. Although it is unlikely that the re-ignition is wholly due to this factor, the role it played is nothing to sneer at, as can be inferred by the coincidence in time and the causal link between the two phenomena.
Mónica Zalaquett, who as part of CEPREV had been developing a program to convert gang members into peace-makers, denounced the abrupt regression the Ortega government’s offer had triggered in several Schick neighborhoods. Neighborhoods once again became battlegrounds. But this time, instead of mortars and knives, the clashes involved rifles and pistols. Different sources testified that the weapons used to repress opponents of Ortega’s regime had come from National Police arsenals and after the protests, gang members held on to them.
The link between
the FSLN and the gangs
The link between the FSLN and the gangs was made via leaders in the Sandinista Youth (JS), the then-Citizen Participation Councils (CPC) and National Police agents. Ever since the end of the 1980s’ conflict, the National Police had access to a substantial database on the gangs. With the creation of its Person of Interest (PIP) category, something like the complete opposite of VIPs, police agents regularly visited the homes of the best known gang members, gaining detailed, first-hand knowledge of their every move.
September 2015 witnessed one of the most brazen events in this instrumentalizing of the gangs. Gang leader Zamir Matamoros, who had been hired as a peace leader with CEPREV, fired on some protesters that month. After he was captured, he slandered Zalaquett claiming supposed links between her NGO and political opposition forces. He went so far as to charge that she had specifically hired him to stimulate the opposition protests, which in that year were demanding transparent elections.
Matamoros’ statements raised the instrumentalization to a new level: it was no longer just a matter of police agents distributing weapons and gang members using them in plain view. Now the judicial branch had used the legal proceedings against him to destroy the reputation of a woman who, more often than not, had even expressed support for collaborating with the police. Nonetheless she had just as certainly complained of the unfortunate role the police were playing in Ortega’s regime. Matamoros reappeared in May 2018 firing on the population in Ciudad Belén, Managua.
My last interview with
these gang members
To better understand what happened during this stage, one needs to move from the magnifying glass to the microscope: from Reparto Schick to one of its barrios. Elías Blanco (an alias) is one of the numerous barrios that make up the conglomerate of marginal neighborhoods in Reparto Schick. It had a population of 2,102, according to the 2005 census.
During my fifth visit to Reparto Schick, in 2012, I decided to change the research venue. I had done my last field work, in 2007, in barrio Augusto Cesar Sandino, controlled by the La Pradera gang, which at the time was completely pacified. That field work had been to measure the success of an intervention against violence, since La Pradera was the model of a converted gang, transformed into a group of “peace leaders,” the label given them by CEPREV. But I had discarded that gang and its barrio this time, deciding instead on Elias Blanco, whose third and fourth generation of gang members were still active. During the first days of August 2012 I got wind of a confrontation between La Pradera and Los Billareros, but that was after I had started the research elsewhere.
Los Rampleros, which emerged at the end of the 1980s, consider themselves direct heirs of Los Dragones, one of the capital’s most legendary gangs. Veterans from that gang still live in Elias Blanco, where they sell small bags of Pinesol floor cleaner door to door, the economic activity most resorted to in the barrio. If they want, they can work seven days a week since most households can’t afford to buy a larger container of it all at one time at the supermarket. Most of the gang members I interviewed obtained their legal income through this means, although the day of the interviews they were on “vacation” for different reasons.
I did the interviews in a dirt ally where there used to be a famous ramp, from which the gang got its name. The boys would wait their turn talking, smoking, sniffing glue and drinking liquor, which is what they use the alley for. Daimaku, my guide and guarantor of my credibility, holds them back and entertains them on the sidewalk across the way. Every once in a while he leaves the group and comes over to intervene in the interview, stoking up the conversation and showing the confidence they need to feel, thus having the effect of encouraging trust. It’s obvious that he has participated in workshops and similar interviews; he knows what I’m interested in and repeats the mainstream discourse. I try to ask questions that will take him out of that politically correct terrain, trying to dismantle his character.
The nostalgia for lost spaces
Their repeated request—”We want courts, places to do sports, balls, places to enjoy ourselves”—isn’t necessarily a cliché those interviewed take from the predominant discourse and repeat to a researcher in a vain attempt to ask for what they figure is socially acceptable. It can also be interpreted as nostalgia—possibly induced by parents and grandparents—for lost collective spaces. It’s a symptomatic act of loss formulated as a utopia.
Managua’s over-60 residents long for the Managua that was reduced to rubble by the 1972 earthquake. They have passed their idealization of the capital on to their children and grandchildren, reinforcing it with a longing for the 1980s, when the FSLN government’s redistributive policies clearly favored the city over the wartorn countryside, maintaining an almost total subsidy for collective transportation, water and electricity until the war costs meant they no longer could.
Schick has experienced the same infringement on its recreational spaces all neighborhoods have suffered, regardless of their social position. Important cinemas and stores have closed down, defeated by the concentration of flourishing recreation and commerce in Managua’s four new malls. Eating, drinking or simply going “window shopping” in the barrio stopped happening years ago.
Not everyone resolves this situation by going to these new malls, some of which are too upscale anyway. The community hasn’t managed to digest the change. The gangs’ struggle for territory has a sense of a symbolic recovery of collective spaces, but the introduction of the drugs and arms trade manipulates the struggle, giving it an irreversible direction, a harsh tone and a lethal result.
People of Managua live off of multiple nostalgias. The gangs’ character as fighters for a territory has deep roots in this nostalgia. Theirs is an archaic utopia, one located in the past. It’s one of the many elements that haven’t been taken into consideration by public policies that by subsiding tourism businesses have encouraged a concentration of opportunities for leisure—legitimate leisure—in areas far from the impoverished barrios.
Young people who’ve
Gradually the cigarettes, the glue and the alcohol have dismantled the boys’ inhibitions and they get more and more revved to tell about their life of muggings, killings and personal and family tragedies.
In contrast with interviews done in previous years, I was aware in 2012 of a decline in their expectations. Ten years ago they were dreaming about getting married—to a “decent girl,” they insisted—having children, working as electricians or migrating to the US with a clean police record. Some were in fact heading in that direction. They had taken the first steps to establish a couples relationship and joined one of the many evangelical churches that do mission work in Reparto Schick. Their police record was an insurmountable obstacle to getting a formal job, but their social file was getting cleaner. Belonging to a church gave them a sort of “good boy” card.
Years ago they could dream. But now they had stopped. Years had gone by and their situation hadn’t improved. Their social-economic profiles are very similar. Those between the age of 25 and 30 still live with their parents. At best they made it through third or sixth grade, but some are illiterate. Most of them have children, with two or three different women, but don’t live with or support any of them.
...and can’t find jobs
Many of those interviewed quit being gang members about eight to ten years ago, but they couldn’t get a permanent job, so they walk the streets selling little bags of Pinesol. Teaching them a trade meant nothing.
Daimaku himself is a typical case. He studied pastry-making in Sunday courses at the “Inmaculada Concepción” school in the Camilo Ortega barrio, where he was given 30 córdobas as a stipend and food money when he got there each Sunday, which was part of a scholarship from CEPREV.
Visibly proud, Daimuku said to me, “I know how to make cakes, hors d’oeuvres, pizzas. I know how to make upside-down pineapple cake, how many minutes it takes to bake a cake so it doesn’t burn yet isn’t raw…” Excited with his new skills, he put in job applications to several bakeries, but with no success.
Daimaku has no visible tattoos; they’re all hidden under his light t-shirt, and he lacks that fierce aspect other gang members have developed. But he knows that most of the paths out of his vital crossroads only lead to one destiny: a modest unskilled informal job and living in his mother’s house. He didn’t even go pick up his baker’s certification, because it can’t give him what his social position and files deny him.
Daimaku will keep going to his spot at one of Managua’s major intersections every day from 7 to 9:30 in the morning, where he cleans windshields for those waiting for the light to change. It’s the available job market. That and selling Pinesol.
A mother pointed out her son to me: “They taught him welding, but he doesn’t want to work. He doesn’t like it.” By the evasive way most approach the issue, the impression seems to be that they haven’t even attempted to apply for a job.
Why don’t these boys get jobs?
The job blockade is related to many different factors, whose relative weight could only be seen through a survey.
First: The youth resist being subjected to a systematic work regime and having to leave their anarchic style of obtaining income. A full-time job means a drastic change in their life style.
Second: They avoid exposing themselves to rejection and because of that don’t even look for work. They suspect—or have repeatedly proven—that their appearance and fame closes doors, especially if they try to get a job in the barrio.
Third: The income they would get from a job is a lot less than what they get selling Pinesol, cleaning windshields, or washing vehicles in parking lots, and certainly less than stealing or selling marijuana and crack. The opportunity cost to change from illegal or risky activities to a formal and legal activity as a source of income is high and clearly evident.
Fourth: in a society where benefits and the practice of rights go to those with “connections,” they lack the social capital to be able to land the right to work.
Fifth: there is limited demand for the trades they’ve learned within the constrained geographical and relational area in which they move. Many of them only have relationships with other people in Reparto Schick, where a small number of welders, cabinetmakers or bakers manage small semi-family businesses that barely generate job posts outside of their own relatives.
Sixth: Even if they’re trained in a trade, employers occasionally require them to take on other tasks as well, such as bookkeeping, billing, keeping track of debts... The basic skills needed for this are acquired in school, but most of the boys are illiterate and barely made it through a couple of years of elementary school.
“Nobody comes to
help us anymore”
The offer of educational services is crucial. Several of those interviewed tried to make it through the Elias Blanco High School a few years earlier. Since they work, they could only take night classes, but the school’s administration ended up closing those classes due to frequent electricity blackouts at the time. Public service failures in put an end to another service through a domino effect.
The presence of the State and its branches are barely perceived and very deficient. Other actors, apart from the churches, haven’t assisted them or have stopped coming. Most of those interviewed repeat what Llorón told me: “Nobody comes here, nobody. Nobody visits us or helps us. Sometimes they call us to meetings in the school and lecture us. Only CEPREV use to come, but even they stopped coming”
CEPREV suspended its visits in 2009, right when gang brawls started up again. A highly valued pacifying factor had been that CEPREV director Monica Zalaquett helped speed up the release of those detained by the police. But that possibility vanished with the political polarization and Zalaquett’s persecution. The boys say they feel abandoned by CEPREV, which gave them no explanation for its withdrawal.
“They come and they go” is the boys’ perception of the professionals who approach them. And it applies to me also. So they insist on knowing when I’ll return to the barrio...
Facing a tarnished police force
The National Police is the most visible face of Leviathan, though its ambivalence is outstanding. With support from foreign cooperation, a small police station was installed next to the Macaralí school. The objective was to restrain inter-gang fights and crime in general, but it only managed to displace the battlegrounds to an area where for more than five years there had been no significant fights.
The main problem is that the police presence wasn’t accompanied by the alleged “community approach.” According to Ramplón, “The guardia only come to conduct some operation. I’m not going to lie: here we smoke, we sniff, we drink, but we don’t rob anybody, we don’t mess with anybody. We just hang out on this corner. But all of the sudden they show up and take our glue and say, ‘Come on, come on” and they smack us around, for no reason. Several times I’ve had fights with the guardia because they come and bang, bang, bang, bang, they lay a round of punches on us. We aren’t bothering anybody. They come around and say, ‘“We don’t want to see anyone drunk.’ But that’s not how it should be. We want a peaceful relationship, no aggressions.”
While the police presence has increased, it is inversely proportional to its social acceptance. The police has been losing prestige nationally since 2010 or before.
At the barrio level, this loss of prestige is due to their practice of bribing drug dealers. The police patrols are perceived as parasites of the “mini cartels” that surfaced around Reparto Schick and are an important source of income for many. That’s why “Plan Shield” was seen as a manifestation of hypocrisy doomed to failure.
That plan consisted of encouraging elementary and high school kids to mark the walls of drug dealers with condemning signs, an activity that challenged the principle—essen
tial for survival in the barrios—of not being a “snitch” (informer),
In envío, security expert Roberto Orozco classified these operations as pure media manipulation aimed at showing the police as side-by-side with the barrio against local drug dealers. The media always reacts when the institution needs to be legitimized because it’s facing problems.
This type of operation is nothing new: it’s a carbon copy of a Mexican program. José Agustín writes that since the police couldn’t stop the eruption of small-time drug-dealing bands, Arturo Durazo, then the chief of police in the capital, friend of the president and himself a notorious drug-trafficker, changed tactics. He proposed that the boys in the bands become snitches or join the police outright. But the proposal flopped since the kids were fiercely anti-authority.
“They call us trash…”
The reputation of the Nicaraguan Police has also deteriorated thanks to their harassment of the gang members and other youths. Daimuku offered an example: “They had me in a holding cell, where cops would grab me and beat me. They’d punch me in the ribs so I’d talk. But we never did, because if we said anything we’d be in more trouble in our barrio, for being snitches. When you get to court, the judge asks if you’ve been beaten, and I said yes. But sometimes its bad to talk about the police because if for some reason you aren’t released, some police are crooks and they can stick you in another cell and let other prisoners beat you.” Llorón confirmed the caution that’s required: “There’s a song that says ‘The tongue has no bone, it’s difficult to control’.”
The triple police policy—beatings, complicity with neighboring gangs and application of the preventive model—have caused an affective ambivalence among gangs. Some express a good opinion about their police neighbors, but have a different vision about other police, those “outside” the barrio,: “They hit us and tell us we’re trash, bacteria, scum. They say to us: ‘If you die, you’re one less bacteria in society.’ When we’re in jail at the police station, they steal the food that’s brought to us and let others steal the clothes we’re wearing.”
Citizens’ priorities for the police
The payback for their repressive police attitudes has been the resuscitation of the word “guardia” to refer to the police. It’s a highly derogatory adjective because it equates the once-prestigious police born with the Sandinista revolution with Somoza’s brutal and corrupt National Guard. This turn of the screw in the relations with the police has legitimized and multiplied confrontations against police officers, endowing the attackers with heroism extracted from the revolutionary mythology. With that, news of gangs seriously injuring police officers multiplied.
More than a decade ago, journalist and political analyst William Grigsby Vado argued that “Nicaraguan citizens have for some time now set their own priorities for police work: adequately confront juvenile delinquency (i.e. gangs); drug dealing and hence its cruelest consequence, drug addicts; street muggings; home robberies; cattle rustling; white-collar crimes and seizure of other people’s property.”
The private security boom
With this kind of focus, the police appear as the antibiotic for “public health.” When society is weak, the police antibiotic is applied to eliminate the “antibodies.” But the application of this model—belying the rhetoric about community work—isn’t the factor that has most marked the relationship between gangs and police. Another very important aspect regarding the police deserves extensive treatment.
There’s a coincidence in time between the private security boom and greater access to industrial munitions. Private security is one of the most flourishing industries in Nicaragua, a country where not that many prosper.
There were only 8 private security companies in 1995. By 2003 there were 56 and they had expanded their coverage nationwide. They employed 9,017 security guards, already exceeding the 7,200-strong police force by 1,817, and had increased their arsenal to 5,511 registered arms, between pistols, 38-caliber revolvers, rifles and 12-caliber shotguns. Two years later, in 2005, private security companies totaled 67, with 9,329 agents.
In 2008, a year after Ortega gook office, 22 new security businesses opened, bringing the total of companies in the whole country to 112, 80% of them in Managua. That year the media was talking about 23,000 men dedicated to private security, an army that more than doubled the by-then 10,500 police.
The relationship between the illegal munitions market and this burgeoning private security industry needs to be explored. It’s already known that this industry’s dramatic rise and achievements are closely linked to the police, as most stockholders and boards of directors are former police commissioners and the businesses sell investigation services that couldn’t be conducted without active collaboration, such as providing access to police files.
Police Commissioner General Maldonado went so far as to present private security as a complement to public security. The armories, which also belong to former commissioners, are the third leg of a tripod—along with the National Police and the private security companies—upon which rests a growing import of arms and munitions. This hodgepodge of related public and private parts opens up multiple opportunities for the military depot’s illegal market.
The re-pacification phase:
More educational opportunities?
In the middle of the 21st century’s first decade, in a calendar that not all barrios followed in unison, many gangs from the capital were calming down, as their members began to find jobs or other socially acceptable niches. A deeper ethnographic study is needed, through inquiry into their life stories and the daily life in the barrios, to know what exactly happened to these young gang members.
A very superficial survey among the most conspicuous members of the Elias Blanco gang showed that two former gang members—the famous Come Jabón (Soap Eater), among them—worked in construction, two were studying and one headed north to work on farms. Such a conversion from urbanite to farm worker is very atypical. The other two occupations are opportunities that opened up in a particular context: the construction boom of the previous two or three years and government investment in adult education. Between 2006 and 2017, central government staff increased from 39,140 to 108,208 employees, with technical, scientific and administrative services personnel increasing by more than 100%. The greatest increase, however, was in education, with an average annual growth rate of 57.7%, from 7,663 to 51,883 teachers. This expansion of the teacher corps opened up study opportunities for many young people in the marginal barrios who had left school during the last two decades.
It’s possible that the increase in state employees fostered friendlier relationships—clientelism—with the State. That plus the increase of study opportunities may also have helped pacify renowned gang members, as I confirmed happened in the Elias Blanco barrio.
Nonetheless, those two factors weren’t enough to correct the deteriorated relationship between Reparto Schick’s residents and the National Police, which failed due to the mistreatment received for decades and the loss of authority of a police force that’s distorting its role by acting as a recruiter and/or arms supplier.
One of April’s surprise was the
“Reparto Schick movement”
This April, the FSLN tried to come back to recruit people from Reparto Schick, just as the Shah of Iran used to do with the lumpen proletariat whom he would them set on the opposition. It was counting on its clientelist links and successes of previous recruiting activities to guarantee a satisfactory gathering of mercenaries.
But it got a big surprise from both those who had no gang militancy and the emeritus gang members. They had created the Reparto Schick April 19th Movement, which was just about to burn down the police station. It defended the Willycar store and the Schick bakery from the looting promoted by mercenaries the FSLN had hired outside of Reparto Schick. Several supermarkets, among them the Super Express, next to the Duya Magica bakery, were ransacked but the local population, with noticeably experienced action by the gangs, defended other businesses.
It’s thus possible that gangs aren’t involved in the mercenary forces Ortega has been using in the April uprising, or at least not in as large a way as propaganda would have us believe. Two sets of reasoning support this hypothesis, which isn’t necessarily valid in all territories: the pacification phase the gangs are currently in and their involvement defending their territory against the invasions by mercenaries the FSLN recruits then ferries around in both unmarked and government pick-ups.
If this is so, research is needed on the real make-up of these shock forces. Are they state employees, anti-riot police or soldiers dressed in civilian clothes, Sandinista Youth militants, lumpen proletariat willing to sell their repressive force in exchange for immunity, a few córdobas and the loot from the ransacked supermarkets, stores, houses and warehouses?
To understand the gangs’ actions one needs to grasp that they aren’t persistent, linear and ascending (or descending) in time, but intermittent. The conditions of the context can vary in expression, intensity, membership profile and activities.
Gangs appear, disappear and reappear. They go through periods of stagnation and then are reactivated. However, one factor has remained constant most of the time, although not always: loyalty to their territory of origin and its people. This, if nothing else explains the behavior of the Reparto Schick gangs during the April uprising.
A history of incomprehension
It’s important to pay attention to the gangs’ rebellion as a factor responding to the system and not a criminal outbreak. In this sense I want to rescue another find from Jose Agustin, who said that in counterculture, the rejection of institutional culture isn’t through political militancy or ideological doctrines but, often unconsciously, reveals a deep dissatisfaction. There’s something that doesn’t allow the members of this counterculture to realize themselves completely. The counterculture itself is thus a political phenomenon, but one that has more often than not generated incomprehension and repression.
While the system assesses all of this as “romanticism that will pass with time,” it still tightens the screws. Thinking that to be young is equivalent to being mentally retarded, it doesn’t listen to reasons or proposals made and instead, without letting go of the club, pressures the kid to accept what he’s told uncritically, hoping he’ll docilely allow himself be channeled along the well paved lanes of the rat race. If he doesn’t accept, then he’s scolded, disparaged, demonized and repressed with a virulence that varies according to the level of poverty and helplessness. The history of counterculture is one of incomprehension and repression.
José Luis Rocha is an associate researcher at the Institute for Research and Social projection on Global and Territorial Dynamics of the Rafael Landívar University of Guatemala and the José Simeón Cañas Central American University of El Salvador