Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 252 | Julio 2002


Central America

The Identity and Culture of Central American Youth Gangs

Youth gangs have been the subject of social research in Central America since the mid-nineties. Learning the characteristics of such groups and their members—without falling into the trap of oversimplification—helps us question our prejudices and promote alternatives.

Manfred Liebel

A very specific kind of youth gang has been slowly spreading like a shadow over the marginalized barrios of big Latin American cities since the sixties. Their very names—Los Sacaojos (The Eye-Gougers), Los Come-muertos (Eaters-of-the-Dead)—put ironic stress on their violent nature. Depending on the country or region, these gangs are known as pandillas, bandas, galladas, clikas, parches, maras or barras and their members as pandilleros, chavos, bandas, cholos or mareros. The youngsters have taken these names from the press or the police, giving them their own particular interpretation and value. In Central America, such gangs are called pandillas in Nicaragua, maras in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and chapulines in Costa Rica.
The many other names used to describe the groups suggest that the lives of these young gang members are centered on violence, theft and drugs. The image most people have of these adolescents is strongly influenced by the mass media, which almost unanimously present them as the worst expression of delinquency and social decadence, as people who must be dealt with harshly.

Neither empty vessels
nor mere imitators

Talking in terms of gangs stereotypes these young people, not just because the terms already have a negative connotation, but also because such talk effectively segregates them from another, supposedly completely different group of young people, one that is healthy and non-violent. This black and white vision has little to do with the reality in which all young people are currently living. Above all, it fails to recognize the young gang members’ motives, their self-perception and the way they organize themselves. Attempts to avoid stereotyping by coming up with neutral terms, such as "spontaneous groups," "informal groups" or "youth groupings," have had little effect because they are too general and do not take these groups’ real characteristics into account.

Young people must not be understood as empty vessels that are filled by adults whom they only imitate, but rather as subjects with their own ideas, their own life strategy, capable of creating their own cultures. The youth gangs represent a multiple social phenomenon that covers small groups of youths on street corners right up to subtly structured organizations that have taken on an international character, with each group having its own particularities. There are differences between the gangs in each country and each country’s gangs change with time.

Unlike their Mexican and Colombian counterparts, the Central American gangs only became a subject of social research in the mid-nineties. In Central America, as in the rest of Latin America, these groups have been associated with the big urban centers since the sixties, spreading in proportion to the spread of poor and marginalized neighborhoods. They can be understood as the result of a capitalist development that destroys traditional ways of life and bases of agricultural subsistence without providing those forced out of the countryside the foundations for a stable existence, let alone a better life. This is particularly serious among adolescents and young people whose whole lives are ahead of them. The youth gangs can thus be understood as the collective response of many young people to an intolerable situation and as a challenge to the very society that is denying them any participation or future.

From living on the streets
to defending the barrio

Until the eighties, large-scale youth groups were relatively short-lived formations with informal structures. Two main groups can be distinguished during that stage. The first included young people who gathered on the street corners of their barrio to enjoy their free time outside work or school. Sometimes, joining union or student movements, they would protest for or against certain social situations, such as public transport price hikes. The other kind consisted of children and adolescents who at least temporarily lived on the streets and met up at determined points to organize their survival, based fundamentally on theft, begging and temporary work.

These two kinds of groups were still not identified with a specific neighborhood, or barrio, as would later be the case with the youth gangs. They were more concerned with finding places where they could feel safe and pass away the night or their free time without being bothered. They rarely caused conflicts, as their transitory nature made it hard to develop a feeling of group belonging. They did, however, confront the police and the military. Two examples of this are Nicaragua during the last years of the Somoza regime and Guatemala during the military regime established in 1978, which employed brutal methods, including physical extermination.

Around the mid-eighties, there was a partial change in the nature of these groups and youth gangs began to emerge alongside the "corner groups" and "street kids." These beginnings of the present day youth gangs had comparatively new forms of organization, consisting of larger numbers of youngsters than the previous kinds of groups, with an average of 40 to 50 members, although some ended up with 100 or more. They also carried out other actions, in which defense of a "territory" delimited by the youngsters themselves and consisting of anywhere from a few blocks to a whole barrio became one of the central elements of their identity. While the street groups tended to avoid calling attention to themselves, the youth gangs burst into the barrio and schools in a provocative, attention-getting way.

US influence

In El Salvador, the groups went through changes over time because of the prolonged civil war, appearing in large numbers only after the signing of the peace accords in 1992. The first maras included not just youngsters from the barrio, but also guerrilla and army veterans whose hopes of a better life and social recognition had been frustrated. They also included youngsters who had either emigrated to the United States with their families during the war or were actually born there and were now returning. The life stories and experiences of all of these young people added particularly violent tendencies to the Salvadoran maras.

The gangs led by youngsters who had lived in the United States tended to be particularly big and rigorously organized and to involve the use of firearms. The two most notorious gangs were Salvatrucha and Dieciocho (M18), whose leaders and most active members had belonged to Latino gangs of the same name in Los Angeles. These two gangs have hundreds of members in El Salvador, and their field of action is not limited to determined barrios. They are divided into local clikas that act and develop independently. They maintain relations with other gangs in Guatemala and Honduras, some of which share the same names. In El Salvador, as in the rest of Central America, local or barrio gangs exist alongside these big gangs.

Numerous and growing

The maras in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are more professional and aggressive than Nicaragua’s pandillas, or than Costa Rica’s chapulines which are also less numerous and tend to be less organized. Official 1987 estimates put the number of youths active in maras in Guatemala at that time at 28,000 and growing. Some 20,000 youths belonged to Salvadoran maras by the end of 1996, the vast majority of them in the capital San Salvador; an estimate that had risen to 30-35,000 by 2000. In Honduras, the number of active gang members was estimated at 60,000 in 1998; Tegucigalpa alone had 151 maras with some 14,000 members (12,000 males and 2,000 females). In Managua, the police had identified 110 pandillas with an average of 75 members, thus totaling some 8,250 gang members at the beginning of 1999. This number is probably higher in reality, as in some Managua barrios most youngsters consider themselves pandilleros.

All of these figures, taken from research work and the media, are approximate. Official organizations and the press tend to use them to dramatize the phenomenon and rarely explain the methods and criteria employed to reach such estimates. At the same time, however, youth gangs are now so widespread in Central America that it is just not possible to quantify them. What is certain is that a large and ever-growing number of youngsters are participating in them.

Increasingly younger,
and more females

"My whole life has been a cross because my dad’s an alcoholic and right now he’s been drinking since Christmas and he’s always in a rage. But my mom’s the best in the world, and I’m not the only one who says so. I’ve got a sister and we both suffer a lot because my dad doesn’t give us any money, even for food. He came home at five today already drunk. Ah, but my grandma, who lives in the States, does love us and helps us, and thanks to her I can study." (Testimony of a female Guatemalan youth gang member.)
Although it is commonly assumed that the gangs are made up of youths who live on the streets or were street kids, most research reveals that the lives of these youngsters are actually centered on their own barrios, where most have a home, however precarious and conflictive it may be. The research also shows that most gang members do not live off theft or holdups, but either have a job, be it well or badly paid, or try to find one after they leave school. They also tend to have attended school more years than the national average.

In Guatemala in the eighties, 80% of gang members were between 15 and 19 years old, and none were over 25, but the mean age of gang members has gradually fallen to between 12 and 15 years. In El Salvador during the nineties, the profile was similar to that of Guatemala ten years before, with 72% of gang members from 16 to 21 years old. In 2000, the average age of those entering the youth gangs was 15.1 for males and 15.3 for females, while now over half enter between the ages of 11 and 14.

The gangs originally consisted mainly of males: 80% in Guatemala and 78% in El Salvador. A subsequent survey considered representative showed a 44% female participation in Guatemalan maras, while it is currently estimated that a third of El Salvador’s gang members are female. There thus appears to be an increasing tendency for girls to join, or even found, youth gangs.

In both of the above-mentioned countries—and apparently in others, too—there are almost equal numbers of males and females in certain gangs. And although the females have a subordinated position in most gangs, there are some in which female members are leaders and enjoy the respect of the males.

They have studied but reject school

Although the gang members spend a great deal of their time on the streets, most do have a home. The vast majority, 80% in Guatemala and 90% in El Salvador, spends the night at home. In El Salvador, half of the gang members live in their parents’ home (52.7%)—half of these just with their mothers and some just with their fathers. Others live with friends (13.7%), relatives (12.4%) or a partner (8.7%). Significantly, a third already have their own children and 38% of the girls are already mothers.

No illiterate gang members were found in Guatemala, where 61% had gone to elementary or high school—naturally none to private school. Although few were happy with the education they were receiving and 38% had already abandoned their studies, all showed a great interest in their own education.
Many gang members are dissatisfied with school—most of the schools were rated as "boring" and "useless"—and often drop out because of their rebellious behavior. In the study done by AVANCSO in Guatemala, the researchers were impressed by the gang members’ ability to comment on the country’s political and social situation and drew parallels between them and the young activists of the political movements of the 1970s.

In El Salvador as well, most gang members (96.3%) were literate and many had above-average levels of schooling, according to a survey by the Central American University’s Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP). Almost half (46.3%) attended school up to the ninth grade and a third (32.5%) graduated from high school. They had an average of 8.4 years of schooling and those who had returned from the United States had up to 10.2 years.

The number of Salvadoran gang members who dropped out of school and had no diploma was also relatively high. At the time the survey was done, most of them (75.9%) were outside the school system, which the IUDOP researchers interpreted as meaning that the school system had nothing attractive to offer these youth, did not motivate them to learn and excluded them for social reasons.

How they view the world of work

In Guatemala, those gang members with temporary jobs are badly paid and do not have regular work. In general, those who work give part of their earnings to their parents and actively contribute to maintaining the family. They are proud of looking after the family, which also gives them a certain power within it. It enables them to maintain their family links but distance themselves from it when necessary. Finding their own place to live is a major problem.

Ten years after the first study, the situation in El Salvador is considerably more complicated. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed (74.5%) had no paid work at the time they were interviewed and half of those who did (52.5%) did not have a work contract. Only one in every ten had more or less stable work.

Of those who had paid work, 28.4% had some kind of skilled job (cobbler, dressmaker, baker), 12.9% worked as assistants to mechanics or carpenters and 18.2% had non-skilled jobs (errand boy, domestic). Others worked as drivers or store, office or other service help, most of which does not correspond to their level of schooling and is badly paid. The low and irregular wages forced them into illegal activities such as drug peddling and theft in order to make enough to live on.

Poor and emigrant families

Most of the gang members’ families live in such poverty that they cannot adequately feed their children, let alone give them any economic help. The family home is often so small that there is no space for the children when they grow up and they are practically forced out onto the streets. There is no state or community organization where the adolescents can spend their free time or get involved in interesting activities in line with their own tastes without having to pay.

Some gang members are on their own because their parents or older siblings have emigrated either permanently or temporarily. One Salvadoran study revealed that nine out of ten youth gang members had relatives living in the North. This did not necessarily mean that they were receiving economic help, but these relatives occasionally brought them clothes, videos, sound systems, CDs or other items when they came to visit, which the gang members often sold to survive or buy drugs.

Let the good times roll

"The street teaches you to live or die, and, well, you have to learn to try your luck," shrugged a male Salvadoran gang member philosophically. "God knows what’s waiting for me around these neighborhoods," commented a female Salvadoran gang member with similar fatalism. "You get tired of the wild life, but sometimes it’s inevitable. There’s nothing to do and you get more and more involved. I’ve lived on the streets since I was nine and it’s better to go around with a gang than on your own, although it’s more difficult for a girl."
At the center of the gang is what the youngsters call la vida loca, or "wild life": the feeling you get when your own band is fighting rival bands from other barrios, with other youth who think themselves superior ("bourgeois") or with the police; that fight that Nicaraguans call la cateadera. They are guided by a taste for provocation and the not always so calculated risk of doing things that "normal" citizens consider scandalous or that are clearly prohibited. What they most like about gang life is what the Salvadoran maras call los vaciles, which means just about anything from the good times in gang life and the sense of belonging to activities on the edge or outside of the law.

Most of the gang members rob or take drugs, particularly marihuana, alcohol and, for some time now, crack. These activities, which the media and politicians highlight as typical of youth gang culture, are actually not a particular characteristic of youth gangs; they are quite common among many people today. Drugs are part of daily gang life, but are not what brings the youth together. Not all gang members participate in robberies and holdups and it is important to point out that such actions are rarely carried out as gang activities. The main gang activities are the group-led fights, brawls and struggles. This is what unites all male and female gang members, who almost never fight under the influence of drugs.

Each gang member’s participation in fights and the skills and courage displayed during them play a decisive role in social recognition and determining his or her position within the group. They bestow a profile and prestige on the gang member. The fighting philosophy is to act quickly and cleverly and dominate the situation before the other one can get the upper hand. The decisive thing is to "keep the upper hand" and never give up under any circumstances.

Barrio-based identity

The main reference point for the gang members’ activities is the barrio where they have grown up and feel on familiar ground and in some way safe. Adults concerned with the good reputation of their barrio will see them as enemies there under certain circumstances, but it is there, in their barrio, where they generally find sympathy and help—particularly from their mothers. Belonging to the barrio provides them with a sense of identity. It is no coincidence that the gang fights to defend a territory, be it the whole barrio or just a few blocks. This can also mean having to fight for supremacy within the barrio itself, normally against adults who reject them or treat them with hostility. As one gang member from a Managua barrio put it, "We run the barrio and nobody says anything. If anyone does say something, we wipe ’em out. They’re scared because there’s so many of us. The youth rule."
Jose Luis Rocha of the Central American University in Managua offers the following interpretation: "In a world in which they are nobodies, the gang members react by attacking, dominating the barrio, subjecting because they are subjected, demarcating a territory because they are uprooted, and associating themselves with an institution that provides them with the identity they lack. Gang members aspire to dominate in an environment that excludes them."

The good times and the bad

Salvadoran gang members were asked what it was they liked about the gang and the advantages of belonging to it. The main attraction was the "good times." They were attracted by joint activities that were either on the fringes of the law or illegal, the comradeship among "brothers," the respect they had earned, as well as power, protection, unity among brothers, interpersonal trust, money and freedom from their parents. The fights, women and drugs attracted them to a lesser extent. In fact, the listed fights and drugs at the top of the list of things they least liked about the gangs. The main disadvantages of gang life they mentioned were police discrimination and persecution and the danger of being locked up or murdered.

There is a marked contrast between the views of male and female gang members on gang life. One of the negative aspects the girls frequently point to is what they refer to as el trencito ("the little train"), the practice of having to offer sexual favors to male members of the band, sometimes at the demand of the gang leader. The girls generally consider the different characteristics of gang life more negative than their male comrades. They pointed to "having good times together" and "the clothes" as the most attractive elements.

Like the earlier Guatemalan study, the Salvadoran research contradicts the general conception that young gang members are running away from family problems and deficiencies. They claim they join the gangs because gang life seems more attractive and to have more advantages than disadvantages. Despite the difficulties and dangers, they feel that their needs are more satisfied in the gang than in other alternatives within their reach, above all because they are considered important in the gang. Another Salvadoran study concluded that for many young people "the maras provide a social network that supplies them with income, self-esteem and solidarity."

"We eat off the same plate"

"You learn a lot of things in the gang, including being really, but really, really honest," said a male Guatemalan youth gang member. "For example, if you did a heist with another two mates and you got 200 quetzals out of it, you share it out equally. And what you can’t share goes for food in equal parts until it’s finished."
"There’s a brotherhood within a gang like in no institution, no political party or anywhere else," adds another. "Others don’t eat off the same plate, but we do; we cover up with the same blanket."
Coexistence in a youth gang creates a common history, an ongoing sharing of knowledge, and allows the youths to earn recognition and confirm and strengthen their ties of friendship. They unconditionally answer each others’ calls and defend each other.

Youth gangs do not emerge with the aim of breaking the law, but rather as groups of friends that want to do something together. Their greatest loyalty is not to their family but to their fellow "brothers" in the gang. The gang itself becomes a real, rather than just rhetorical, kind of family, with relations of genuine love for each other. Justice and honesty are greatly valued in the group and are considered leadership qualities. All of the gangs have a kind of code of honor that is obligatory for everyone. It is a conscious way of responding to all of the hypocrisy they have seen in adults and the corruption they perceive in society. Hardly any gang members sell out to promises or gifts of money to become police spies or snitches.

Initiation rites

Each gang has its own rites and rules. Although they always refer to equality within the group, the gangs can also have hierarchical structures, some more so than others. They usually have leaders who give out instructions, but are only recognized as long as they demonstrate qualities that favor the group and negotiate in the interest and benefit of the whole gang.

Initiation rites allow the gangs to recognize whether new members are capable of fulfilling the group’s requirements. Requirements related to fighting are important, such as physical power, skill, quick reactions and being steeled not to turn in the face of danger. The Mara Salvatrucha, for example, elects a few comrades to beat new members up for 13 seconds, expecting the latter to be able to defend themselves. The Mara Dieciocho, true to its name, allows this to continue for 18 seconds. The Mara Morazán subjects new members to a knife fight with the gang leader to measure their guile and skill, but above all to see whether they are afraid of tough fights.

The initiation rites have certain variations for female members. They are also required to fight, but another practice is el trencito, or "love donation." As one girl explained, "Once I was really high, and four guys from the gang told me to open my legs. I said no, so they jumped me with fists flying, and one of them said, ‘Look, love, if you don’t let us, we’re going to take it anyway, so it’s better to do it willingly.’ Well, I was really high, so what did I do? I decided, what the hell, my turn had come, so the four of them had me." After such a ritual, the girl is admitted into the gang but there she will have to face other similar attacks.

Signs of gender equity?

Above all, the female members are expected to do the same as the males, whether in fights with other gangs or police or in the "good times." Disrespectful treatment of female members by male members leads to strong words, and not all gangs act in the way described above. In some gangs, the discriminatory distribution of roles that usually negatively affect women in society is strictly forbidden, so the female members achieve a form of equality and even get to be leaders.

This equity even includes homosexuality. While homosexuality is generally considered abnormal or a kind of illness in Central American societies, it is openly practiced by female and male members in many youth gangs without being the object of any discrimination. In the AVANCSO study, half of the females surveyed said that they had had lesbian relations, which did not exclude relations with men.

The creators of their
own culture and language

From a cultural point of view, the pandillas and maras create their own world around them, which is differentiated and explicitly separated from "normal" society. They create their own language that only they can understand, in which they frequently mix words from Spanish and English, although they also resort to archaic Spanish versions, the code-like form of slang known as Malespín or idioms from other Latin American countries, particularly Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela.

Gangs also tend to coin new words loaded with humor and irony and employ graffiti and signs—often only understood by the gang members—to mark out their own territory or transmit certain messages in code. Certain kinds of gestures in their body language, the symbolic language of tattoos and these wall paintings amount to a special form of communication among gang members.

They have a wide range of musical tastes, from romantic and melancholic songs to British rock, although rap and hip-hop, with the accompanying break dancing, tend to dominate along with heavy metal and punk. Their favorite singers range from El Puma to Santana and Rod Stewart and from Tina Turner to Tatiana, and include groups such as Timbiriche, although other gang members like the marimba from the indigenous tradition.

Unlike Mexico, it is rare for Central American gangs to form musical groups, write lyrics or develop their own musical style. However, they are very receptive to such possibilities as demonstrated by rock singer Lorena Cuerno’s musical initiative in El Salvador.

"I earned respect through violence"

"I earned respect through violence," explains a male Nicaraguan gang member. "Before, nobody respected me because I was poor, but I made people respect me, and that’s very important."
"There are many people who don’t believe your good intentions. Just because they see that you belong to a gang, they think you’re bad to the bone," argues a male Salvadoran gang member. "But it’s not like that. If you feel really loved and appreciated by people in your community, you also feel a lot of appreciation for them, and will even give your life to save them from danger and do them favors without expecting anything in return."
Mental violence and armed confrontations play a central role in youth gangs. But though many gang members commit illegal acts and do not respect the law, it would be very shortsighted to view them as protagonists of a criminal subculture. Many of them offer more complicated reasons for being in the gangs than a simple interest in getting involved in criminal actions.
Rather, the gangs should be understood as a variation of the survival culture of the poor and cast off, a reflection more than a cause of the violence extended and practiced throughout Latin America. In one study on the forms and causes of violence in El Salvador, Salvadoran sociologist José Miguel Cruz spoke of a "culture of violence," which he understood as "the creation of values and norms that legitimize and privilege the use of violence in any sphere in response to other forms of social behavior."

An excluding violence that triggers rage

Since the signing of the Salvadoran peace accords in 1992, 8,000 people have died each year in that country as the result of acts of violence, the equivalent of 140 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. In Latin America as a whole, 140,000 people are murdered every year. All of them die before their time, something they have in common with the hundreds of thousands of people who die before their time from hunger or the unsanitary conditions in which they live. Each year 28 million Latin American families suffer robbery and holdups, which works out at nearly one a second. This kind of violence is five times higher in Latin America than in the rest of the world.

The rise in violence is not just the result of poverty. It is also rooted in the growing levels of social inequality which make so many people feel that they are being treated not only unfairly but also with contempt, something that generates desperation and rage.

The neoliberal structural adjustment measures imposed on Latin America by the International Monetary Fund and other international institutions since the 1973 military coup in Chile and very obligingly executed to their own advantage by the forewarned and corrupt national "elite," are themselves a form of structural violence. Such measures have not only increased poverty, but are also producing fundamental cultural changes, damaging people’s own self-image and making them aspire to a way of life with new standards that their limited resources will never allow them to reach.

The new "values":
Compete and make a fortune

Having money, making a fortune and acquiring expensive consumer goods whatever the cost have become the new priorities for living a full life. Values such as solidarity, integrity and loyalty, which up to now had made living together easier, inherently contradict the new axiological system, as the new model shows them to be inefficient and poorly adapted to competition. Hence, social belonging is being buried and relations of trust among relatives, friends and neighbors are being subjected to severe tests and often even destroyed.

Young people witness the collapse of social cohesion and violence in many ways long before joining youth gangs. As children they quickly get used to seeing their fathers or stepfathers in a foul mood, and acting in a bad, irresponsible or violent way. In many families, alcohol prevails as a way to forget about the excessive effort that must be made just to survive and the feeling of desperation. In El Salvador, 80.5% of the youth gang members were maltreated as children and almost half of them have seen women and children constantly insulted and threatened at home.

Broken homes:
A simplistic hypothesis

The AVANCSO study underscores that incomplete families are usually not what most affects the young. They are more affected by the anguished and insecure behavior of adults and the impossibility of communicating or being able to develop a trusting relationship with them. Also in El Salvador, the latest IUDOP research rejects the widespread and simplistic hypothesis that gang members tend to come from broken homes. Like many other studies, it underlines the fact that the family life experienced by gang members is impregnated with violence and lack of understanding. Such experiences are an even more determining when it comes to girls joining a gang.

Young people experience violence and injustice daily in the streets, at school, in their search for work and in their dealings with state authorities. At school, they feel discriminated against and undervalued by the teachers, themselves overburdened and underpaid. Their search for work is full of morale-breaking blows and when they are lucky enough to find paid work they have to put up with miserable wages that are not nearly enough to satisfy their basic needs. State authorities or the self-styled "death squads" and other paramilitary groups consider them de facto or potential criminals for no more justifiable reason than their tattoos, unusual clothing or even the area they live in, thus turning them into objects of humiliation, threats and even murder. They are locked up and abused by the police under the least excuse and the girls are often raped.

"I don’t want anything to do with society"

By the time young people join a gang, they are already convinced that they are living in an unjust world and are victims of that injustice. They see their gang as a form of revenge against a world that wants to harm them. They see rich people taking advantage of others and poor people being exploited and having to endure too great a burden. They do not see society serving the poor or young people and reject it outright. As one male Guatemalan gang member put it, "Society? I don’t want anything to do with it."
From their experience of poverty and threats, the gang members have learned that they must act together so as not to go under. This does not, however, make them politically radical in the sense of wanting to change a society they consider hostile and unjust. Rather they defend themselves first and foremost, and want to ensure themselves the piece of the pie that corresponds to them, even if this involves using violence. Furthermore, the misery they are living in makes them see their appropriation of goods to deal with their most immediate needs as a justified response from those who have been marginalized materially or spiritually from the system, with no real possibility of creating and living out a valid and dignified life project.

Youth gangs offer a leading role

By joining up with a gang, these young people are declaring that society is denying them the educational, cultural and economic opportunities to develop as people and live a satisfactory life. In no way do they idealize their "wild life," rather offering an ambivalent interpretation of their way of acting, but they see no other possible way to live their lives and have their own identity. They view their criminal acts and the violence they exercise as a legitimate way of satisfying their basic emotional and material needs and attaining a certain psychological and economic level.

They believe it is better to feel important and valued under dangerous circumstances than to be nothing or a nobody. Many adolescents say they find themselves better off as members of a gang than as adolescents at home. The decision to become a gang member could prove decisive for the adolescent given that the benefits are greater than the costs. The needs for action, prestige and status, money (whether or not obtained through criminal activities), drugs and attention from girls can all be satisfied by belonging to a gang.

Finally, José Luis Rocha explains the idea of belonging to a youth gang as an attempt to re-obtain a social arena that has been lost or is unattainable in "normal" life. Through the gang, the youth are attempting "to create their own society within a society that offers them nothing that matches their needs. Their gang-based activities provide them with what the adult world denies them: a leading role."

Open to solutions that respect them

Under other political and social circumstances, many youngsters who are today in youth gangs would probably have found different, less violent and destructive ways of expressing themselves or would have joined social movements aimed at changing their own particular circumstances. But this is not a time for communal movements and there are no political alternatives out there. Furthermore, organizations considered progressive tend to judge youth gangs and their members according to the same stereotypes disseminated by the mass media and police authorities. They thus reject young people from gangs as lumpenproletariat and even fight against them, in collaboration with the police.

Very slowly, however, some organizations are beginning to recognize that many young people currently involved in gangs are very receptive to alternative solutions to their problems, providing they are taken seriously as autonomous people and are respected and supported when setting aside the violence that was part of their lives when their rights and dignity were being trampled upon.

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