Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 301 | Agosto 2006


Central America

Why No Maras in Nicaragua?

Why haven’t the fierce Mara 13 and Mara 18 youth gangs moved into Nicaragua? And why are Nicaragua’s own gangs less violent than their counterparts in the rest of Central America? The discourse on youth violence is full of fear-mongering, laws and myths. We have to reach beyond all that and start thinking more.

José Luis Rocha

The United States Army, that self-styled police force of humanity, has already started to turn its ominous periscope toward youth gangs. In March 2005, the US Army War College published another article in its special series on “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century.” Titled “Street gangs: the new urban insurgency,” it is a manual aimed at training members of the US Army on the issue. It was written by retired colonel Max G. Manwaring, who is Professor of Military Strategy at the US Army War College and has also held positions in the US Southern Command and the Defense Intelligence Agency. As the title suggests, this document presents youth gangs as a mutation of urban insurgency because, like the old forms of insurgency, these gangs have the objective of “controlling the governments of targeted countries.”

Political and criminal in nature,
they threaten the collapse of states?

According to Manwaring’s article, the youth gangs are half-political and half-criminal in nature and this is manifested in the fact that they generate serious domestic and regional instability and insecurity; exacerbate the problems of civil-military and police-military relations and reduce effective civil-military ability to control the national territory; and help transitional criminal organizations, warlords and drug barons erode the legitimacy and effective sovereignty of the nation states. Crime and instability are only symptoms of the threat, the ultimate threat being either state failure or the violent imposition of a radical socioeconomic political restructuring of the state and its governance.

The Central American youth gangs are the first to be addressed by Manwaring. He states that the Californian youth gangs began moving into all five Central American republics in the early 1990s, the main impetus coming from convicted felons being sent from prisons in the United States back to the countries of their parents’ origins. They included members of the famed Mara Salvatrucha (also known both as MS-13 and Mara 13) and Mara 18 (“mara” is the Spanish term for youth gang, particularly the more violent ones, in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), as well as several others in El Salvador such as Mao Mao, Crazy Harrisons Salvatrucho and Crazy Normans Salvatrucho. Manwaring calculates that there are some 39,000 active gang members in El Salvador, adding that several thousand individuals with direct links back to El Salvador are located in the United States, Central and South America, Mexico, Canada and Europe. He adds that “in the early stages of their development and through the present, virtually all the Central American gangs have flourished under the protection and mercenary income provided by larger criminal networks. The basis of this alliance is the illegal drug trade “that is credited with the transshipment of up to 75 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States.”

Manwaring has many colleagues in the Central American coercive apparatuses who agree with his particular interests. The producers of order establish alliances, organize seminars and design strategies to suffocate the youth gang threat. Is this document just another sinister face of US anti-immigrant policy?

Exaggerating the linkage between youth gangs and organized crime networks and associating their beginnings exclusively with deportation effectively adds up to criminalizing migration, without making even the slightest allusion to adaptation problems experienced by migrants as the result of xenophobic policies and reactions, the unbridled desire for profit of many businesspeople or residential segregation. Manwaring’s document contains many questionable arguments, omissions and other unfounded statements. While it thus might be useful to refute, correct or complete his thesis, it seems of even greater interest to reflect on criminal violence and delinquency based on certain statistical information and theories.

A pioneering study and today’s debate:
Are they criminals or merely a symptom?

Dr. Deborah Levenson was a very early and visionary pioneer in this field given that her research was carried out in 1987. When she studied youth gang members in Central America the gangs were still in their infancy and it was impossible to predict the overwhelming force they would achieve just five years later. Levenson describes them as voluntary organizations made up of young people born and raised primarily in the city, who had a positive feeling about their participation in a group they perceived as democratic. She argued that their members weren’t the poorest of the poor and that their group activities were more important to them than any other kind. Even then she observed that the youth gangs had grown considerably over the previous year without involving more than a handful of adults. Drugs were important for their members, but not central, and in a very broad sense they saw themselves as rebels. She also highlighted that these groups provided their members with help, camaraderie, a few pleasant moments, an identity and a little money.

Two large gang consortiums subsequently absorbed the many gangs that existed in the eighties: Mara 13 and Mara 18, which currently have branches in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and the United States. The level of violence increased and the repressive responses more than compensated. In the current context, the coordinates of discussions about youth gangs and violence are set on the one extreme by the champions of citizens’ security and on the other by those—such as Mexican “communicologist” Rossana Reguillo—who prefer to think of the gang members “as a symptom, a radicalized expression of contemporary unease, who find ‘criminality’ to be an ideal vehicle given the lack or inadequacy of languages to be expressed.”

What follows is a presentation of several theses on youth gangs based on Italian criminal law expert Alessandro Baratta, who considers that rather than a preexisting fact objectively proved by official bodies, criminality is a “social reality” of which the actions of those bodies are a constituent element.

Urgent need for an informed and critical debate

For reasons of space, we will not detail either the discourse or the actions of the control and rehabilitation agencies, although they should be understood not as independent variables, but as constituent elements of a shared social reality, as other ways of expressing the same problem, as diverse symptoms that are neither removed nor clearly dissociable. NGOs dedicated to rehabilitation; the judicial system that pardons or punishes; the police, whether they are participating in the drugs trade, inflicting beatings or applying non-repressive programs; proponents of a Code for Children and Adolescents who achieve more international legitimacy than national social consensus; these are all expressions of different strategies that are mutually conditioned. They are just some of many factors that should be borne in mind when analyzing youth violence and delinquency.

Informed debate is an essential condition for the design and implementation of effective public policies, placing us, in Reguillo’s words “in a better place from which to understand maras, whose complexity has not been successfully gauged in public debate, because it is their most spectacular traits that remain fixed in a discourse that spreads—more than the maras themselves—and whose effect is to block critical reflection.”

Nobody has yet bought the Nicaraguan franchise for those two giant youth gang consortiums known as Mara 13 and Mara 18. There is a persistence of fragmentary groups, small gangs not associated with bigger conglomerations and less permeable to US influence. The Nicaraguan gangs have not yet bought into the mara fad and are less violent than those in the rest of Central America. Why? Let’s compare Nicaragua to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in this respect as a methodological way of questioning certain theses and buttressing others, without pretending for even a minute that the situation of young people is better in Nicaragua than in the other three countries. The comparison of certain indicators could offer clues to which elements are associated with youth violence and those with which no univocal correlation can be established.

More youth violence than ever before?

From the early eighties, violence and youth violence in particular became the focus of attention for Central American social analysts and public policy designers. It was noted that the rate of youth participation in homicides was notably high and in an alarming ascent. In 1996, 29% of all homicides reported in Latin America were committed by 10- to 19-year-olds and over 34% by 20- to 29-year-olds.

According to police statistics for January to November 2005, over 43% of male detainees accused of the various forms of homicide were young men between 18 and 25. If we extend the age range to young men between 15 and 25, their participation increases to 50.6%. The same age range accounts for 73.32% of people detained for robbery with violence and 51.48% of all detainees. This level of criminal activity is greater than the demographic weight of young men of this age. Fifteen- to twenty-four-year-olds account for 20.5% of the total population and 37% of the population over the age of 15 and therefore liable for detention. The criminal participation of 15- to 25-year-olds—measured according to the number of people detained—is 14.48% above the same age group’s demographic weight in the population over the age of 15. And their participation in robbery with violence is double their demographic weight. This confirms the disproportionate criminal participation of young people, particularly in violence labeled as a crime.

Violence is a very visible component of the functioning of Nicaraguan society, of Central American societies and of other societies in the world. “Criminal” violence has been recognized as one of the greatest social problems of our time. According to British anthropologist Dennis Rodgers, crime rates have increased by 50% globally in the last 25 years, with a notable surge in the nineties. This phenomenon has affected all underdeveloped countries, but has been particularly marked in Latin America, where the most visible forms of violence are no longer activated by ideological conflicts related to the nature of our political system, as was the case in the past, but rather appear as common crime or what can be termed organized crime to a lesser or greater extent. Another feature that differentiates the current violence from its previous forms is that it has stopped being the patrimony of the coercive apparatus of the state and organized opposition groups, giving way to what Dirk Kruijt and Kees Koonings term the democratization of violence, an option now available to multiple actors pursuing all kinds of goals.

In Nicaragua and other Central American countries, the cessation of the armed conflicts of the eighties caused a displacement: while the war concentrated the violence in rural zones and generally speaking stayed away from the cities, the war was transferred to the urban centers under the guise of crime following the peace accords.

Today’s violence: Devoid of ideology,
more democratic and more urban

Three changes characterize the region’s current violence: its de-ideologization, the democratization of its use and the urbanization of its scenarios. A look at Nicaraguan crime statistics reinforces the idea of “democratization,” which should perhaps be termed the “de-ideologized spontaneity of its practice.”

According to police statistics, the figures for injuries display a constant increase: from 1,875 in 1984 and 4,568 in 1990, to over 10,000 in 1995. Murder, homicide, rape and assault all display similarly upward curves. In 1981 there were 1,862 aggravated robberies, which dropped to 64 in 1985. Even in 1989, a year before the change of government following the FSLN’s electoral defeat, there were just 830 aggravated robberies. But subsequently, according to the newly appointed National Police Commissioner, Aminta Granera, in a study published in 1997, “the drastic rise in the occurrence of robbery with intimidation can be observed in a more pronounced way starting from 1990, during which year this crime rose by 87%. In 1994, 3,018 cases were reported, representing a 28% increase over 1992.” The growth was not only visible in absolute terms. In the first four years of the nineties the population grew an average 3.3% a year, while the increase in criminality in general and violent crime specifically averaged 18%; in other words, it grew 5.5 times faster than the population. This abrupt increase can partly, although not exclusively, be seen as a typical phenomenon of a postwar period and of the transition from regimes with powerful coercive apparatuses to ones with a more limited control apparatus and laxer policies.

Youth participation in criminal violence has become the center of attention of multilateral organizations, governments and academics. As the UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has observed, the most symptomatic and worrying aspect is that the faces of violence are almost always young, whether we’re talking about victims or victimizers. ECLAC’s alarm bells are laudable, but require greater justification. A closer look at the behavior of young people in the past three decades reveals that youth violence is neither new nor has it reached its peak.

Violence then and now:
From institutional to outside legal channels

The percentage of young people involved in criminal acts—a category that includes violent crimes—has increased, but there are indications that the rate of their participation in violent acts per se has dropped.

In Nicaragua in the seventies, tens of thousands of young people took up arms during the insurrection that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. Not only did they make up the bulk of the guerrilla army, they also played a key part in running the fight, with teenage boys and girls holding the rank of comandante. In the following decade of the contra war, the age range for compulsory military service established by the Sandinsta government was between 16 and 25, precisely the age group that currently claims the greatest number of youth gang members and most of those detained for committing crimes.

But while the military service recruited hundreds of thousands of young people—to which should be added those who fought for the counterrevolution—it is probable that the number of young people in Nicaraguan gangs over the last ten years has not exceeded 25,000. So the real boom in youth violence in Nicaragua actually took place in the seventies and eighties, although it was admittedly institutionalized violence, with an ideological basis and a predilection for rural settings.

What has happened since then is that young people—particularly those involved in youth gangs—now practice a kind of violence that is labeled as criminal due to its relative de-ideologized spontaneity and the fact it takes place outside the legally established channels. The novelty, however, is not so much its scenarios, lack of ideology, classification as an offense for taking place outside of institutionalized channels or association with so-called common crimes such as street fights, robbery, hold-ups, etc. The reasoning that regards today’s youth violence as either greater or at least more threatening now springs from a discourse and a strategy. It is a discourse that sees the epoch of peace as a return to normality, the rule of law, where there are precise and unquestionable norms about which behaviors can be qualified as acceptable and which as deviant. It is a discourse that proclaims the existence of what it intends to generate: attaining the desired ends involves going through certain channels, the stage of all against all is at an end, and the legality of a certain behavior is what will guarantee its continuity.

For this discourse, if violence is domesticated by an ideology and operates under certain circumstances, then it has a certain legitimate character that it lacks during peace time. That discourse, with its laws and myths, obeys a middle-class strategy. The war took place in settings that didn’t directly affect them, which is why they underestimate its dimensions and refuse to look at the historical continuity. As a result, their discourse presents the eighties as some kind of rupture. That decade was “the dark night” (as Pope John Paul II famously called it), “the lost decade,” a parenthesis in a normality that requires a certain re-established legal framework in order to continue functioning.

It’s worth highlighting the criminalized nature of the youth gangs and the fact that they are labeled as a transgression of the standards that constitute the re-established normality. On the youth gangs’ side, this emphasis is obligatory as their violence is the object of attention precisely because it constitutes a transgression. Taking up this confrontation between the youth gangs’ activities and their labeling by the order-producing organizations, Rossana Reguillo proposes that the gangs should also be seen as the “most extreme face of the exhaustion of a legal model.” In the range of gang reactions to this exhaustion, fights are just one more transgression and no longer even the most vigorous. There are other faces of this exhaustion of the legal model. Could drugs be the most sinister?

Are Nicaraguan gang members
the authors of such countless damage?

A superficial and largely unfounded analysis associates the greater manifestations of violence and criminality with the youth gangs. The Nicaraguan National Police sustained in 1999 that a large part of youth delinquency was associated with the existence of the youth gangs and they were therefore trying to keep thorough records of their number, location and activities. In 2002, the National Police in Managua “captured”—or so state the police documents—736 youths identified as gang members. That figure would appear to indicate that the police apprehended 33% of Managua gang members that year, as the police estimated the total membership of the capital’s 118 gangs at 2,229. That would have had a very high impact and would indicate that the youth gangs were the focus of privileged police attention. But those 736 gang members represented just 7% of the total number of 15- to 25-year-olds detained in Managua, a weight that does not in any way correspond to the extreme danger attributed to them.

The following year, the police recognized that youth gangs committed just 0.51% of crimes. Does this mean that their members were not a very active criminal sector, that the statistics are badly put together or that gang activities go relatively unpunished compared to other offenses because charges are hardly ever pressed, for example due to fear in the neighborhood where they operate? Or could it be that the gang members are extremely skillful at evading the police, the police frequently apply extrajudicial penalties, or gang activities have been displaced toward behaviors that are less penalized or identified as gang-related? Might it even be that a disproportionate fuss is made about gang activities? It must surely be a combination of several of the above possibilities.

Given that the police had a “Youth Gang Plan” in place since 1999 and given the stubborn predilection for gangs in police videos on youth violence, there appears to have been no lack of police zeal in referring to and penalizing gang activities. The elevated weight of young people among the total detainees shows that they are a very appetizing segment for secondary criminalization, which operates when penal system agencies such as the police, judges or the magistracy attribute the category of criminal to specific individuals. Why isn’t there a large number of youth gang members among those detainees? First because approval of the Nicaraguan Code for Children and Adolescents has increased a tendency among police to mete out their own spontaneous punishments on the scene for the main crime committed by the youth gangs: fights between different groups in which there is often no one to file legal charges. Second, because gang members’ activities now concentrate more on drug use and dealing, petty theft and muggings carried out individually and not in groups. Third, because the communications media have fueled the public’s perception of the gangs, making more of a fuss about their deeds and the “countless deaths and damage” than about the gangs themselves and attributing crimes to the youth gangs that were not actually perpetrated by their members.

“Youth groups at risk” or “youth gangs”?

Do Nicaraguan police statistics underestimate the number of youth gangs and does this in turn affect the statistics on youth gang activities and the number of detained gang members? The Nicaraguan National Police have applied a new youth gang classification since 2003. The first category consists of what are called “Youth Groups at High Social Risk,” consisting of young people who “spontaneously relate,” sometimes for illicit ends; occasionally consume liquor or take narcotics and psychotropic drugs; among whom certain signs of violence and rebelliousness emerge; and who occasionally commit minor offences classified as misdemeanors. The second category, identified as dangerous, although not on the same level as their Central American counterparts, is that of the “Youth Gang,” consisting of young people who “identify as a group”; use identity-conferring symbols, languages and behaviors; sometimes have no family links; “organize” locally—in the block, basketball court, on the street corner and in the neighborhood, which they consider “their territory”; commit crimes and penal misdemeanors and inflict injuries and damage to property that “provoke a great feeling of insecurity”; “habitually” consume alcohol and drugs; practice “continuous violence” that is firmly asserted in the group; generate “clashes with other groups or youth gangs” in defense of “their territory,” using firearms, blades, home-made weapons, etc; and constitute a penal category classified as “association to commit a crime.”

The use of quotes in the above descriptions highlights the contrast made by the National Police between these two groups. The youth groups consisting of individuals who relate spontaneously and only occasionally consume drugs are clearly discernable from youth gangs, which generate insecurity, are a source of ongoing violence, are organized according to territories and are devoted to drug taking and using weapons. The category “youth gang” is bestowed only on groups that possess these features, based on criteria defined by the different police apparatuses in Central America. According to this classification, the number of youth groups and their members ”at social risk” in Nicaragua has declined from a peak of 285 and 4,428, respectively, in 2002 to 77 and 988, respectively, in November 2005, while youth gangs have climbed from 62 in 2003 to 89 in November 2005, and their members have climbed from 1,058 to 2,227 in the same period, according to Nicarguan National Police figures.

The case of Managua’s District V: Disinformation, prudence or something else?

Managua has always had the greatest presence of youth gangs. In 1999 the figure mentioned was 110 youth gangs in Managua and in 2001 the National Police registered 96 gangs and 1,725 members in the capital city. The next year the numbers had jumped to 118 gangs with 2,229 members. In January 2003, there were 117 gangs and 2,139 members and just a month later the same number of gangs was registered but with slightly more members: 2,171.

These figures give an average number of 18 members per gang, which is similar to the average for the Colombian gangs known as parches in 1997. In November 2005, the 34 gangs and their 706 members in Managua represented 38% and 32% of the national total of gangs and youth gang members, respectively, which is much greater than the capital’s roughly 25% of the country’s total population. The department with the greatest youth gang presence after Managua is Estelí, with 24% of the country’s gangs and 19% of its gang members. Estelí is the only Nicaraguan city apart from Managua in which the gangs have been studied and both places are notable for their dramatic urban growth.

In Managua’s District V, the focus of the field work for this research, the police registered the existence of just five youth groups and gangs with a total of 61 members: Los Rampleros, Los Caucheros, Los 165, Los Power Rangers and Los Plot. But a survey of inhabitants from the different neighborhoods, particularly the gang members themselves, reflected the general impression that many highly active groups and gangs were missing from the official police figures, including: Los Mata Perros, Los Churros, Los de la Adoquinada, Los Billareros, Los Placeños, Los Aceiteros, Los Puenteros, Los Raperos, Los del Pablo Úbeda, Los Come Muertos, Los Bloqueros, Los Nanciteros, Los Cholos, Los Diablitos and Los Roba Patos—previously Los Búfalos and includes Los Concheños. Also absent were Los Tamales del Urbina, undoubtedly the most famous and belligerent gang in District V. It is impossible to ignore some of these groups, such as Los Puenteros, whose activities are continuously mentioned in the papers and has been identified with several murders.

PIPs: The complete opposite of VIPs

The police statistics verge on the chaotic. The Los Cholos gang appears in the police records of gangs currently in circulation and its members are among the gang members detained, but the gang doesn’t appear at all in the general youth gang register. Only youth gangs from District V’s Reparto Schick neighborhood appear in that general register and no mention is made of other neighborhoods where youth gang activities are notorious. There’s also an underestimation of the number of gangs per neighborhood. The inhabitants of the Grenada neighborhood, for example, talk of Los Diablitos, Los Crazy and Los Colchoneros. Gangs from other districts are also notable by their absence: Los Parrilleros and Los Tomateros are just some of the youth gangs most often mentioned in conversations with gang members in Reparto Schick that do not appear in the police registers.

Is this deliberate disinformation or an attempt to sugar the pill? The National Police could be interested in using their reports to reduce the gangs to their minimum expression as a way of calming society. The police in the zone, who pass their reports to the District V police station, know the details of all the gangs and each of their members because they make routine visits to them all. In the police records they are classified as PIPs—Personas de Interés Policial (People of Police Interest)—and their files must be continually updated by the sector heads. It could be said that PIPs are the extreme opposite of VIPs...

The police could be interested in presenting a more peaceful situation than actually exists, perhaps because it would suggest good police performance and dovetails nicely with the government decision to present Nicaragua as the safest country in Central America, free even from “land grabbers” and therefore attractive to foreign investment. But this underestimating could also be part of a de-stigmatizing strategy.

Why do the Maras 13 and 18
have no presence in Nicaragua?

In 2006, Salvadoran writer Juan José Dalton told the Spanish newspaper El País that 100,000 youths belonged to Maras 13 and 18, which is comparable to Central America’s total military and police forces. But why aren’t the Maras 13 and 18 in Nicaragua? And why do the youth gangs in Nicaragua not display the same ferocity as the maras in the rest of Central America? Even if the youth gangs in Nicaragua have a greater presence and more widespread activities than reflected in the police statistics, Nicaragua’s gang members are fewer and less violent than in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, countries in which those two great transnational conglomerates—Maras 13 and 18—predominate.

Those maras, which also operate in the United States and Mexico, have not extended their sphere of action to Nicaraguan cities, which is intriguing given their expansionist tendency and the fact that they are a virtually regional phenomenon. How can those who insist on a univocal correlation between youth violence and poverty levels explain the absence of maras in Nicaragua and the lower levels of violence among the country’s youth gangs? According to ECLAC’s Social Panorama of Latin America, 2005, Nicaragua has higher levels of poverty and exclusion than those countries where the maras are present, as shown in the table on the next page.

In its study on “Youth, Population and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean,” ECLAC states that “it is convenient to avoid certain simplifications that are still present in the interpretation of the phenomenon of youth violence and delinquency. Among them is the one that mechanically associates youth poverty and youth delinquency. Under this approach, violence is a logical derivative of poverty. But the evidence available shows that, contrary to what this theory indicates, the greatest expressions of violence are not concentrated in the poorest areas of the continent, but rather in those contexts in which various economic, political and social conditions perversely combine.” So poverty and exclusion alone cannot exclusively determine youth violence and delinquency.

Other factors, other explanations

In the search for explanations, some have also explored the path of relations with the government, democratic values and trust among the citizenry. The study on political culture and democracy coordinated by Mitchell A. Seligson of the University of Vanderbilt, whose Nicaraguan case study was conducted by Luis Serra and Pedro López Ruiz of Managua’s Central American University (UCA), contains a number of revealing figures. For example, just 28% of those surveyed have values that support a stable democracy; only Guatemala has a lower percentage (21%), while Honduras and El Salvador do slightly better with 30% and 32%, respectively. Government efficiency was classified as 17.5 in Nicaragua, 27.3 in Honduras, 32 in Guatemala and 35.6 in El Salvador, and Nicaragua also has the lowest level of satisfaction with municipal services. In terms of the assessment of the rule of law, El Salvador obtained a score of 39.7, compared to Nicaragua’s 32.

Confidence in the armed forces reached the 60s in Honduras and 68.6 in El Salvador, but just 54.2 in Nicaragua, and a similar pattern was repeated for confidence in congress, the Supreme Court, the church and political parties. The greatest victimization by acts of corruption was registered in Nicaragua. Finally, the study took a look at social capital. Asking about interpersonal trust, it found a rate of 56 in Nicaragua, followed by 57 in Guatemala and 63 in Honduras and El Salvador. Conclusion: none of these are determining factors for the reduced youth violence in Nicaragua.

Other factors associated or associable with youth violence and the presence of Maras 13 and 18 that merit examination and analysis include migration, organized crime, the availability of arms and police operations, all of which are variables with a considerable impact on the expansion—if not necessarily the appearance—of the maras and on the rates of youth violence. They demand analysis.

Transculturation: The Negros Curros of Havana and the Cholos of the eighties

The maras are a transnational phenomenon. This feature, with its corollary of “transculturation,” recalls references to the “negros curros” (literally “flashy blacks” or “cocky blacks”) that strutted their freedom through the streets of Havana in the first third of the 19th century—at the height of slavery—dressed up in outlandish clothes, talking their own slang and spreading panic with a show of bad living, delinquency, marginalization and violence. Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortiz coined the concept of transculturation to refer to the different phases involved in the passage from one culture to another, which implies a partial deculturation—uprooting from a preceding culture—and a neo-culturation—the subsequent creation of new cultural phenomena.

According to Ortiz, “what happens in any embrace of cultures is the same as in the genetic copulation of individuals: the offspring always has something from both parents, but is at the same time distinct from each of them. As a whole, the process is a ‘transculturation,’ and that term implies all the phases of its parabola.”

Transculturation has left its mark on many features of Cuban culture, such as the santería (a system of cults whose essential element is the worship of deities created through syncretism between the African and Catholic beliefs), which is as far-removed from—or as close to—its African roots as it is from Spanish Catholicism. Nineteenth-century transculturation produced the “negros curros,” which although they have now disappeared emerged from the vigorous migratory flow between Spain and Cuba. The “negros curros” had many Andalucian traits: the slang, the courage, the argumentative attitude. They were also distinguished by their way of walking and dressing and by their life “of crime and blustering, always with a knife in hand: defiant and quick to brawl.” The continuous slave traffic produced a cultural mixing. Lifestyles and cultural institutions were stirred together, producing identity, and very often mixed and conflictive identities, such as the “negros curros.”

Many vehicles are currently facilitating the cultural mixing between the United States and Central America, including music styles such as rap, reggaeton and perreo, which reflect a mixture of common motives among young people living in different climes; television programs; clothes—where the bales of used clothing imported from the States play a key role, providing a cheap way of dressing gringo- or cholo-style; friends and relatives who come and go or who settle over there, but regularly communicate and are a kind of role model of success, whether a cousin, an aunt or a rich brother who went of to seek their fortune.

Cultural remittances and young nomads

These cultural remittances maintain the connection between over there and over here: the United States and Central America respectively. And this leads to a very complex tangle of all kinds of cultural survivals and mixtures, marked by the problems of adaptation there and here, of the present and the past, as demonstrated by the pachucos, the cholos and the gang members of the eighties. The maras have existed since the eighties, before the migratory waves took on their current dimensions, alarming for some, natural for others and celebrated by very few.

In 1987, Deborah Levenson found a multitude of youth gangs in Guatemala City with colorful names: Tigresa (Tigress), Angeles Infernales (Infernal Angels), Escorpion (Scorpion), Güevudos (Assholes), Zope (Vulture), Relax, Nice, Motley Crew, Apaches, Las Pirañas (The Piranhas). A team from the Rafael Landívar University discovered that 12 years later all of these gangs had been absorbed by two big rival gang corporations: Maras 13 and 18, corresponding to two streets and gangs from Los Angeles, California. Although the US influence was perceptible from 1988 in the use of English names, the gangs’ globalization was only institutionally consecrated years later by their transnational nature and the strong links between those from the North and the South, to the point that gang emissaries from the North visit their Central American affiliates to pass on gifts and money.

These nomadic youths are at the crossroads of transculturation, where among other ingredients, cultural remittances, assimilations, setbacks and drugs all converge. As Guatemalan anthropologist Ricardo Falla observed, “With the open migration to the United States as the result of wars, ideas and organizational agents—the deportees—flow back from the maras.” And Rossana Reguillo drives home the maras’ nomadism: “In their current phase, the novelty introduced by the maras is that of carrying their territory around with them and their capacity to establish relatively stable links in the locations where they install themselves.”

Central American emigrants:
Nomads, residents, deportees...

The deportations from the United States appear strongly associated with the maras. Years ago a report in The Los Angeles Times was already describing the gangs of Teguci-galpa as nourished by deportees: “Nearby is a neighborhood called El Infiernito, or Little Hell, controlled by a street gang, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS). Some MS have been US residents, living in Los Angeles until 1996, when a federal law began requiring judges to deport them if they committed serious crimes. Now they are active throughout much of Central America and Mexico. Here in El Infiernito, they carry chimbas, guns fashioned from plumbing pipes, and they drink charamila, diluted rubbing alcohol. They ride the buses, robbing passengers.” If this link between the maras, migration to the United States and deportations is true, this may be one of the reasons for the absence of maras in Nicaragua.

The destiny of Nicaraguan migrations is markedly different to those from the other Central American countries in two senses. First, most Nicaraguan migrants go to Costa Rica, not the United States. It is estimated that around half a million Nicaraguans are temporarily or permanently residing in Costa Rica, while according to a US Census Bureau survey indicates that there were 248,725 Nicaraguans in the United States in 2004, representing just 8.57% of all Central Americans in that country.

Second, the Nicaraguans who have migrated to the United States have mainly settled in Miami and other parts of Florida; only 12% of them have settled in Los Angeles, the city from whose streets Maras 13 and 18 took their names. Nicaraguans account for just 4% of the Central Americans living in Los Angeles, while in Miami they represent 47%. Almost 31% of the Salvadorans who migrated to the United States live in Los Angeles and another 12% live elsewhere in California. And while only 14% of Hondurans in the USA live in Los Angeles, there are still 56,555 of them there compared to just 29,910 Nicaraguans.

To this spatial distribution should be added the different volumes of deportees. Population flows and back-flows are powerful conditioners and Nicaraguans have been less affected by deportations from the United States than their Central American neighbors. According to official statistics from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, only 1,585 Nicaraguans were deported from the USA between 1992 and 1996—an average of 317 per year. Nicaraguans detained for deportation between 1998 and 2002 totaled 5,026, an average of 1,005 a year, which is insignificant compared to the deportees from other Central American countries. From 1998 to 2002, the United States of America deported 63,639 Hondurans, 56,076 Salvadorans and 39,669 Guatemalans.

And this isn’t just because there’s less Nicaraguan migration to the United States. The same situation is reflected in the relative volumes. The percentage of naturalized Nicaraguans divided by the number of their deported co-nationals is also much higher than the corresponding percentages for Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Nicaraguans have been relatively more benefited by naturalization than affected by deportation. Between 1998 and 2002, the United States naturalized 4.5 Nicaraguans and conferred residency on 14 for every Nicaraguan they detained for deportation. In contrast, just 1.5 Salvadorans and 1 Guatemalan benefited from residency for each of their co-nationals deported. At the opposite extreme to Nicaragua is Honduras, with 3 Hondurans exported for every 1 naturalized.

The Cubans living in Miami felt a political affinity with the Nicaraguans who arrived in their city during the eighties, putting their contacts with Republican Party politicians at the service of the newcomers. Many of these new arrivals were welcomed as political refugees fleeing the Sandinista government, which was considered a communist regime, and the naturalization and residency procedures were unusually streamlined for them. Many new migrants still benefit from the effects of that privileged policy without being the object of persecution.

After such favorable beginnings, the influence of Nicaraguan migrations and gangs will depend to a great extent on future US migratory policies, changes in the spatial distribution of migrants within the United States and an increase in the young Nicaraguans currently emigrating to San Miguel and other departments of El Salvador, where they could come under the influence of Maras 13 and 18. More importantly, it will also depend on meetings among the many “deportables” of all Central American nationalities in Mexico, that enormous vertical boundary, that anti-migratory filter at the service of the United States and location of so many cultural exchanges.

Central America: A great number
of weapons in civilian hands

Given the early stage at which Deborah Levenson did her first study of youth gangs in Guatemala—prior even to the emergence of Maras 13 and 18—her conclusions seem premonitory. She argued that their lack of orientation undoubtedly left them exposed to manipulation by political groups and that they would not escape from being incorporated into or used by adult criminal networks and absorbed by crime. If that turned out to be the case, she continued, they would cross the point of no return and become centralized, anti-democratic, authoritarian and more violent. Several studies agree that the maras have evolved towards violence on a major scale.

The hypothesis that youth gang violence is proportional to the availability of arms seems reasonable enough. A large proportion of homicides and other crimes are the result of the ability to get hold of firearms. According to a publication by the Small Arms Survey and the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfer, there were 52,390 legal weapons in Nicaragua in 2000. Only Costa Rica had fewer (43,241), while the figures were much higher in El Salvador (170,000), Guatemala (147,581) and even Panama (96,614), a country characterized by the relative absence of armed conflict.

Nicaragua also has low homicide rates compared to the rest of Central America. In 1997, police statistics and other governmental sources revealed the following homicide rates per 100,000 inhabitants: 9.2 in Nicaragua, 109.1 in El Salvador, 52.5 in Honduras and 30 in Guatemala. In the October 2002 study by William Godnick, Robert Muggah and Camila Waszink, “Stray Bullets: The Impact of Small Arms Misuse in Central America,” Nicaragua stands out for its low level of violence: the country’s 12.26 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, although much higher than Costa Rica’s 5.94, seem meager compared to El Salvador’s 43.4, Honduras’ 36.11 and Guatemala’s 30.2. Some areas of El Salvador and Guatemala have homicide rates of nearly 100 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Nicaragua: A great number of weapons
and people who know how to use them

Obviously these very low averages in Nicaragua mask a distribution of violence that particularly affects poor neighborhoods. Living for a year (1996-97) in the poor Managua neighborhood he dubbed “Luis Fanor Hernández,” British anthropologist Dennis Rodgers counted 9 violent deaths. This amount is proportionally equivalent to 360 deaths per 100,000 people.

It we count “homemade” weapons—hammers added to metal tubes with the capacity to fire AK-47 rounds—the availability of arms in Nicaragua increases. According to my own calculations during the field work for this study, there are at least three “homemade” pistols for every twenty houses in some Managua neighborhoods. Nicaragua could also have both a low legal registry and a high distribution of weapons as the Sandinista government created a number of armed defense mechanisms that achieved mass recruitment during the eighties in its desire to knock out the counterrevolution. These included the Patriotic Military Service, Reserve Battalions, Popular Sandinista Militias, Sandinista Defense Committees and Student Production Battalions. Many of the weapons belonging to these institutions ended up in the hands of their members.

Some idea of the under-registration of arms in Nicaragua is provided by a survey carried out by the firm Borge y Asociados in 2001. Only 6.2% of the owners of arms interviewed said they had legally registered them. In some areas of the country at least half of those surveyed said they had been trained in the use of firearms. In 2002, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Government estimated that 140,000 firearms were in civilian hands, of which only 69,157 had been legalized. And hidden arms caches were still being found in Managua at least up until July 2001.

Even contemplating these not inconsiderable factors, the gap between Nicaragua and the rest of Central America is so wide, the migration of arms from Nicaragua to the rest of Central America at the beginning of the nineties so considerable and the problem of under-registration so generalized in the region that it appears certain there are fewer arms and homicides in Nicaragua than in the countries with maras. These features should be taken into consideration when explaining why Nicaraguan gangs are notably less bellicose.

Another important element here is the maras’ linkage or similarity to organized crime, which has been detected in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Crime in Nicaragua isn’t as well organized, nor has it developed so many links with youth gangs, except in the small, very localized in eighborhood drug markets. Despite the presence of certain bosses in neighborhoods with a high youth gang presence, their trafficking of large amounts of drugs doesn’t involve the gang members.

The maras’ most terrifying face

If it’s true that violence begets violence, then the actions of the police as the entity authorized to exercise institutional and legitimate violence undoubtedly condition other manifestations of violence. Shouldn’t the number of civilians killed by the different Central American police apparatuses be a key indicator of the state’s promotion of violent methods to resolve conflicts? That unknown and hard-to-discover figure is fundamental to explaining the rising levels of violence and the perceptions of a rule of law or lack of it.

In April 2006, the Second Anti-Youth Gang Convention took place in El Salvador’ capital with the participation of 170 experts from eight countries, including Mexico and the United States. During the convention, 40-year-old Commissioner Omar García Funes, a former lieutenant in the Salvadoran army who graduated as a police officer in Chile and is currently in charge of the Salvadoran National Civil Police’s special divisions, told the press, “Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 have something in common. They were founded by Salvadorans and their members are mainly Salvadorans who cross borders. They continue to control the neighborhood because they are territorial. They have a lot of resources because they used to charge motorists 25 cents [US] and currently charge restaurants, stores and transport businesses thousands of dollars in extortion to allow them to operate. They currently mobilize in vehicles and have cell phones and radios, most of which they have stolen. Certain cliques specialize in hired killings. We know of people who have hired them to rub out enemies they were feuding with. They also use intelligence. They penetrate or infiltrate a place before they make their move. In other words, they carry out reconnaissance operations. Our own general director of the National Civil Police, Rodrigo Ávila, has even discovered the infiltration of police units.”

There is a quite evident desire to present the maras’ most terrifying face. As Commissioner Funes concluded, “The maras have mutated and are an organized crime phenomenon.” If the “labeling approach” theory is right, the Nicaraguan police’s officially non-criminalizing attitude could have the effect of not stimulating further violence and criminality.

If violence begets violence,
the police also do their share

The Nicaraguan National Police apply an approach towards youth violence in general, and the youth gangs in particular, that is in marked contrast to the policies applied by their Central American counterparts. They’ve dubbed their operations against the youth gangs with names linked to public holidays—the Bethlehem Plan at Christmas or the Beach Plan in Easter week—in contrast with police operations in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, whose names demonstrate the desire to severely repress youth gang members: Anti-mara laws, the Broom Plan, the Zero Tolerance Plan, the Hard Hand Plan and the Super Hard Hand Plan.

Nicaragua’s National Police statistics and the institution’s distinction between youth gangs and youth groups also have a decriminalizing effect. Could the under-registration and classification of youth gangs also be governed by such a strategy? To a certain extent we can interpret them as the application of W. I. Thomas’ theorem that if certain situations are defined as real, then their consequences are real. This theorem would be applied here in the following form: if the police determine that there are very few youth gangs and that most of them are inoffensive, even if it isn’t true, then that under-registration, classification and determination will have the effect of not reinforcing criminality, and will help the police statements end up as true.

A breeding ground for youth gangs,
both legal and illegal

We intuitively know that if the youth gangs are to be understood completely, their existence and manifestation must be linked to labor insecurity, the collapse and transformation of the old social security model, the weakening of many institutions, the de-legitimization of the justice apparatus, which has been put at the service of private interests, and the transnationalization of the elites, all of which gels into a crisis of hegemony for the organizations responsible for administering social order.

All of these transformations have generated and disseminated mechanisms of public insecurity that are more severe and imbedded in everyday life than those anathematized by the penal system and the communications media. The existence of political parties dominated by a patronage network that controls the government and maintains indissoluble links with the private sector, their manipulation of the democratic institutions and the ongoing presence of gangs of nepotistic and corrupt politicians as a legitimate form of social capital in the political economy of Nicaragua and the rest of Central America have turned corruption into a lasting system with multiple ties to politics and culture.

The system of institutionalized corruption is deeply rooted in conceptions that de-legitimize the judicial apparatus and the state’s normative power, disseminating a broad acceptance of impunity and permissible illegality. The erosion of state legitimacy—expressed by Reguillo as the exhaustion of a legal model—provides an ideal breeding ground for all kinds of transgressive behaviors, some highly penalized and others immune to criminalization due to the status of those who adopt them. In the words of the Chilean Mauricio Duce and the Venezuelan Rogelio Pérez Perdomo, both experts in judicial systems, it is assumed that “those processed by the penal system are dangerous to society, unless their social connections prove otherwise.”

What can be done?
Policies for the police and society

Beyond intuition, the comparative analysis of the figures presented highlights the influence of certain factors, including migrations, the availability of arms, organized crime and police operations. It’s not the case that young people in Nicaragua doe not participate in Maras 13 and 18 because they are apparently in a better situation with respect to the other Central American countries. We haven’t examined many of the indicators related to the situation of young people, such as suicide rates (i.e. the violence they commit against themselves), drug and alcohol consumption and sexual violence, but based on the contrast discovered in certain factors conditioning the youth gangs in Nicaragua and the maras of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, it is possible to suggest certain policies, bearing in mind of course that poverty and many other factors—above all inequality—do play some role in youth violence.

First, the control of arms and reduction of their possession and use must be a priority for the police apparatuses. This good intention clashes with the fact that in Nicaragua—as perhaps in other countries of the region—there are close links between the National Police and arms and munitions dealers. As a result, the sale of arms will continue being a very lucrative business. What can be changed is the legislation on their possession and use, and the prohibition of links by current and former army and police members with the arms market.

Second, Central America’s police forces should adopt practices and discourses that do not criminalize young people and adolescents and instead stick more closely to what is established in the Codes for Children and Adolescents and the UN legislation that inspired them.

Third, the link between maras and youth gangs should not lead to criminalizing migration or deportees. If anything, deportations should be criminalized. Adaptation problems lie at the root of the problem and require treatment in the migrants’ countries of destination. The fight against deportations must continue, but if they persist, the reinsertion of the deportees into their countries of origin should be more benign and subject to an active policy.

Save yourself if you can... afford it

There is a need for more research and more political willingness to reduce social inequalities and work on all of the areas mentioned. Above all, there is a need to save society as a whole, but not with the kind of operations aimed at personal salvation currently manifested in the privatization of public security in Nicaragua.

In 2000, there were 47 private security companies operating in the country, employing 6,536 agents. By 2005 that number had risen to 67, covering 4,153 objectives with 9,329 guards and 6,805 arms. In Managua alone the 8,217 guards are close to the total number of police officers in the country (8,360). And in addition to these company-linked security guards there are around 5,000 street watchmen operating independently.

There’s a real need to come up with another radical way, a more comprehensive strategy for dealing with crime and violence that doesn’t get bogged down in details. There is a need for. If we keep along the same path we’ll be heading for atomization, the dissolution of social links, and an attitude of “save yourself if you can... afford your own security.”

José Luis Rocha is a researcher with Nitlapán-UCA and a member of envío’s editorial board.

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