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Negotiating Pathways to Manhood: Rejecting Gangs and Violence in Medellín’s Periphery

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Abstract

Gangs around the globe are paradigmatic of urban violence and predominantly made up of male youths from poorer neighbourhoods. However, even in the most violent urban contexts, the majority of young men do not join gangs. This paper uses original empirical data collected in Medellín, Colombia and a conceptual focus on masculinities to understand why some male youths negotiated a pathway to manhood without joining a gang, arguing that two factors are central: family support in developing a moral rejection of gangs during childhood, and these youths' subsequent ability to form socialisation spaces away from the street corner. These factors helped them circumvent the influence of what this article calls the "gang male role model system".
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IntroductIon
Almost a century ago literature began to emerge from
the Chicago School, where scholars such as Thrasher
sought to understand the phenomenon of urban gangs
(Thrasher, 1927; also see Cloward and Ohlin, 1960;
Yablonsky, 1997). Although the definition of gang has
been contested (Pitts, 2008), since then substantial
literature has been produced on gangs around the globe.
Much has been published on gangs including multi-
country comparisons (Rodgers, 1999; Alexander, 2000;
Klein et al., 2001; Bourgois, 2003; Covey, 2003; Rodgers,
2006; Jensen, 2008; Hagedorn, 2008; Pitts, 2008; Pitts,
2011). This has included a surge in policy-oriented
publications over the last five years, as governments,
particularly in Central America and the Caribbean
region, scramble to control rising urban violence,
which has become a major political issue (for example:
Small Arms Survey, 2010; UNDP, 2011; OECD, 2011a;
World Bank, 2011b; The Geneva Declaration on Armed
Violence and Development, 2011; Costa, 2012).
Research on civil society responses to gangs and vio-
lence is less common than studies of the gang phenom-
enon itself. In fact, in Colombia, the focus on belligerent
groups has been so intense it has led to the emergence of
the disciplinary term violentología – ‘violentology’. Gangs
themselves have long been the targets of state-led interven-
tion policies where punitive mano dura, or zero-tolerance,
approaches reect the dominant discourse across the re-
gion. However, such intervention has met with limited
long-term success and has been strongly criticised by the
academic world, civil society organisations and inter-
national development agencies. Urban violence in the
southern hemisphere is largely conceived as a reproduced,
ArtIcLE
Negotiating Pathways to Manhood:
Rejecting Gangs and Violence in
Medellíns Periphery
Adam Baird
Submitted: January 2012
Accepted: April 2012
Published: May 2012
Abstract
Gangs around the globe are paradigmatic of urban violence and predominantly made up of male youths from poorer
neighbourhoods. However, even in the most violent urban contexts, the majority of young men do not join gangs. is
paper uses original empirical data collected in Medellín, Colombia and a conceptual focus on masculinities to understand
why some male youths negotiated a pathway to manhood without joining a gang, arguing that two factors are central:
family support in developing a moral rejection of gangs during childhood, and these youths’ subsequent ability to form
socialisation spaces away from the street corner. ese factors helped them circumvent the inuence of what this article
calls the “gang male role model system”.
Keywords
gang, violence, youth violence, urban violence, violence prevention, Medellín, masculinity, masculinities, habitus,
Bourdieu
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multi-causal and socially generated phenomenon,1 where
gangs are understood as epiphenomena of deeper systems
of structural exclusion linked to the political economy of
the modern city (see Bourgois, 2003: 319; Rodgers, 2010).
However, some debate the importance of exclusion and
poverty as a motivational factor for gang aliation (Rubio,
2008), and in policy circles in Latin America and the Car-
ibbean, the penetration of the narcotics industry into com-
munities has been presented as the main factor correlated
with homicide rates (Costa, 2012). e socially generated
conceptualisation of violence has led to recent human se-
curity (UNDP, 1994) perspectives gaining ground, which
advocate more nuanced approaches to violence reduction
with a focus on prevention and development (Abello Co-
lak and Pearce, 2008: 11-15). is discourse is increasingly
reected by multilateral institutions including the UNDP,
OECD (OECD, 2011a; OECD, 2011b; UNDP, 2010; UNDP,
2011) and the World Bank, whose recent report argues for
a developmental response to crime and violence in Latin
America with the increased involvement of civil society or-
ganisations (World Bank, 2011a). However, methods of ur-
ban violence reduction remain highly contested and linked
to regional political-institutional cultures, the debate about
which is beyond the scope of this paper.
Since the mid-1990s, in Medellín, Colombia, amongst
civil society organisations there has been a generalised
shi in violence reduction methods from direct interven-
tion and conict resolution with gangs, to prevention work
with vulnerable youths living in socio-economically de-
prived contexts with abundant gang activity (Baird, 2011:
125-8; Baird, 2012). Despite signicant levels of civil socie-
ty activism in Medellín, few scholars focus on the progress
made by such activism or on nonviolent youths in Mede-
llín but rather, in the violentología tradition, focus on bel-
ligerent groups (for example Hylton, 2007; Rozema, 2008;
Bedoya, 2010). Pertinently, Barker (1998; 2005) argues that
scholars need to ask why, even in the most violent urban
contexts, most youths do not actually engage in systematic
violence and join gangs. If we are to interrupt the contin-
uum of gang membership – hence cycles of violence – it is
crucial to understand why youths do not join gangs.
is article seeks to address this point by investigating
a particular group of young men in the poor and violent
Montecristo neighbourhood in Medellín. ese youths not
only avoided joining gangs, but came to work with the lo-
cal community organisation, Corporación Vida para Todos
(Corporation Life for All) from now on CoVida,2 and de-
veloped values that strongly rejected violence and crime.3 It
should be noted here that this group of youths was chosen
in particular because of the antithetical positions they took
towards gangs, crime and violence, with the intention of
uncovering how such positions developed.4 e wider in-
tention of this paper is to contribute to debates around the
prevention of gang membership and hence the reduction
of urban violence.
First, this article provides a brief contextual background
of the Montecristo neighbourhood. Secondly, it argues the
relevance of masculinities in understanding modern-day
urban violence. ird, the empirical data is analysed to re-
veal how youths negotiated pathways to masculinity whilst
rejecting violence, and in particular, the gang.
SocIAL contExt
In MontEcrISto
Medellín has been affected by urban violence since the
1950s, which became more intense from the late 1980s
onwards (Medina Franco, 2006). Most of this violence
occurs in poor neighbourhoods. In 1991 Medellín achieved
the ignominious record of the highest per capita homicide
rate in history, at 381 per 100,000 inhabitants (Suárez
Rodríguez, 2005: 203).5 This violence is linked to the
dynamics of the broader armed conflict in Colombia, and
was brought about by a cocktail of gangs, youth assassins
(sicarios), cartel violence, urban militias linked to left-wing
guerrilla groups, paramilitary and state violence. This
period coincided with the childhood of the young men
interviewed for this paper. There were still large numbers
of gangs and paramilitary groups6 in the neighbourhood in
2008 when the data was collected despite the paramilitary
demobilisation process, about which there has been much
debate (Amnesty International, September 2005; Rozema,
2008; Llorente, 2009; Palou and Llorente, 2009; Insuasty
Rodríguez et al., 2010).
Montecristo is the last neighbourhood in north-west-
ern Medellín before the slopes become too steep for any
1 Scheper‐Hughes and Bourgois claim that violence is mimetic and reproductive “so we can rightly speak of… a continuum of violence” (Scheper‐Hughes and Bourgois,
2004).
2 CoVida and Montecristo are pseudonyms.
3 Other literature describes these youths as ‘prosocial’ (see Daly and Wilson, 1997; Barker, 2000).
4 When interviewed, these youths estimated that only a small minority – approximately 5% – of local young men work for community organisation. As such, this group can
be described as an ‘outlier’ compared to the ‘average’ youth in the neighbourhood.
5 In a city of 1.6 million a staggering total of 6,349 homicides were recorded that year, and in total between 1986 and 1993 there were 33,546 homicides (Márquez Valderrama
and Ospina, 1999: 14). For comparative purposes, Perlman refers to Rio de Janerio being one of the most violent cities in the world in 2004. e homicide rate then was 37.7
per 100,000 (Perlman, 2008: 52), a tenth of the homicide rate in Medellín in 1991.
6 Paramilitary groups controlled many street gangs from 2003 in Medellín, although their control began to fragment in 2009. During the eldwork period in 2007-8, in the
eyes of community members the words gang member and paramilitar y became largely synonymous, both of which are used in this article.
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32
JOURNAL OF CONFLICTOLOGY, Volume 3, Issue 1 (2012) ISSN 2013-8857
dwelling to be built, and is classied as socio-economic
strata one and two, the poorest on a scale of one to six. e
location of CoVida, aer a long, winding ride on the 247
bus from the city centre, is itself an indicator of the exclu-
sion of the neighbourhood. Life history interviews were
conducted with een male youths with an average age of
23.4 years old during a period of participant observation
at the organisation in 2008 (for detailed methodology see
Baird, 2009).
Growing up in Montecristo is particularly challeng-
ing. Generalised poverty and socio-economic exclusion
limit opportunities for young people. e ubiquity of the
drugs trade and irregular armed groups spanning a num-
ber of generations has led to chronic levels of violence,
which promote social and family disorder with fatherless
households the norm. Generalised police and institutional
corruption at a local level and absence of the rule of law
provided illegal armed actors with a space to proer ‘secu-
rity services’, which, although based on extortion (Bedoya,
2010) , have gained local legitimacy. Sexual and domestic
violence are pervasive in the community, as are levels of
alcoholism and drug addiction – the latter the principal
economic pillar of gangs and paramilitaries. Whilst Mon-
tecristo is not in a Durkheimian anomic state, turf wars
between rival gangs shaped the childhood experiences of
the youths interviewed: “In the 90s I watched my friends
die, and even at school you weren’t safe. I was there when
they [a gang] came into school and grabbed a classmate of
mine, dragged him o to the toilets and killed him… so
we ended up spending our youth either locked up at home
or at school, because that’s what you had to do.” (Gabriel,
11/07/2008) Life is hard. Home economics – putting food
on the table – alongside security remain the main preoc-
cupations of local inhabitants. Whilst these realities bite,
there is another face to Montecristo; it is also a vibrant
community and locals have developed tremendous resil-
ience to poverty, exclusion and violence, using agency to
nd creative ways to get by – known locally as rebusque.
thE gAng MALE roLE
ModEL SyStEM And thE
rEproductIon of vIoLEncE
Ninety-five percent of the 5,450 homicide victims in 1990
were men, and 65% were between the ages of 15 and 29
(Revista Planeación Metropolitana, 1991: 3). Young men
are also the main perpetrators of lethal urban violence
– the human capital of insecurity. This male youth
demographic rubric has remained remarkably constant
over the last two decades.7 At a global level, young men
remain the protagonists of violence: In 2002, the WHO
reported that “Males accounted for three-quarters of all
victims of homicide, and had rates more than three times
those among females: the highest homicide rates in the
world – at 19.4 per 100,000 – were found among males
aged 15-29 years” (Krug et al., 2002: 6).
Given the overwhelming amount of youth male-on-
male violence, it is logical to conclude that something about
the construction of the male identity makes this possible.
Despite increasing literature linking the urban periphery
– namely inequality, poverty and exclusion – to violence,
very little research brings these perspectives together to
reveal how masculinities might interact with contexts of
exclusion and poverty to generate violence.8 Masculinities
alone do not generate urban violence (Rodgers, 2006); but
rather, the way that deprived socio-economic conditions
interact with masculinisation can cast light on the genera-
tion of violence. For this reason it is pertinent to ask how
some youths become men, in contexts of exclusion, with-
out joining gangs and engaging in violence.
Understanding how masculinity is reproduced can
help us understand the reproduction of violence itself.
Youths are disposed – that is, they have a less than conscious
tendency – to reproduce existing versions of masculinity
they are exposed to while growing up. is is understood
here as masculine habitus,9 drawing on French sociolo-
gist Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘thinking tools’ from his eory of
Practice (Bourdieu, 1977). In short, boys are disposed to
‘become men, or go through a process of masculinisa-
tion that reects existing masculine identities. Whilst, of
course, this reproduction of practice is imperfect, allowing
for multiple identities, agency and social change, mascu-
line habitus helps explain the generalised intergenerational
transmission of masculine comportment. To understand
how the reproduction of certain masculinities are related
to the reproduction of violence let us consider the mean-
ings of masculinity in peripheral Medellín, and in particu-
lar in relation to violent armed actors.
Masculinity can be employed in a variety of frame-
works. In this paper it is understood from a sociological
perspective as the cultural construction of the gendered
self (see Hearn, 1996: 203-4), an ‘achieved’ identity. Recog-
nising that there are multiple masculinities (Hearn, 2005:
61), hegemonic masculinities (Connell, 1987) in particular
7 In a longitudinal study between 1990-2002, the vast majority of homicide victims in Medellín were consistently young males between 15-34 years old, a trend which
remained unchanged in 2009 (Suárez Rodríguez, 2005; Hylton, 2010).
8 Gary Barker and Steen Jensen have studied masculinities and violence in contexts of exclusion (Barker, 2005; Jensen, 2008). Pearce also asks pertinent questions about
masculinity, socialisation and the transmission of violence (Pearce, 2006).
9 Masculine habitus has also been used by Coles (2009).
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have been related to violence.10 Basic hegemonic charac-
teristics of becoming a man are: success, status, income,
strength, condence, independence, aggression, violence
and daring (Edley and Wetherell, 1996: 101). A somewhat
exaggerated form of hegemonic masculine identity is wide-
spread in much of Latin America, and commonly referred
to as machismo, although we should be careful not to essen-
tialise concepts of masculinity in the Latin American re-
gion (Gutmann, 1996: 245; see also Gutmann and Viveros
Vigoya, 2005: 115). ese masculinities are synonymous
with social status, respect, money, sexual access to women
and oen violence, but there is contextual denition, or
localised nuances, to masculine performance. e young
men interviewed in this paper from a poor neighbourhood
in Medellín were asked to outline what was locally under-
stood as being a man.
Sammy: Here you notice particularly the strong dif-
ference between men and women. Being a man is to
be strong, being a man is to be a brute, being a man
means bringing home money, being a man means
being a protector, being a man is being skilful, being
a man is being a womaniser, being a man is being a
chauvinist, being a man is being macho, being a man
is being manly, being a man is to have power, being
a man means being respected. Being a woman is the
inverse of being a man… being weak, fragile, not hav-
ing power, not having status, to be subordinated…
(Sammy, 03/06/2008)
ey go on to explain how gangs, particularly gang
leaders, become strong symbols of male success, the stand-
ard bearers of masculinity for boys and young men, be-
coming localised models of hegemonic masculinity.
Pepe: …Well, there is one stereotype of a man, which
is the armed actor, the head of the gang, or the person
who has been getting involved with armed groups,
and has begun to rise through the ranks. The one that
starts as a carrito [a child] who carries guns and then
the next thing you know he has become the boss…
They enjoy significant status and recognition. (Pepe,
11/04/2008)
Licit opportunities to secure desired, or dignied, live-
lihoods are scarce, leading to many “frustrated dreams”
(Pelicorto, 10/06/2008). A number of youths then search
for other options through crime and gangs. ese illicit op-
tions, by contrast, appear ubiquitous and accessible in the
youths’ immediate social world when presented with the
imaginary11 or role model of the materially wealthy gang
members and standard bearers of male success.
Pepe: One of the reference points here that is latently
constructed is that of the cacique or boss [the leader of
the local gang or armed group]. Well of course, imagine
during their whole life at home theres not enough food
or basic utilities; there are no loving relationships but
high levels of domestic violence; and the whole time
they see this bloke who lives locally who enjoys strong
economic solvency, who’s got… I don’t know what
to call them, but accessories. He’s got a motorbike,
designer trainers, girls, expensive clothes, all that sort
of stuff. But also he’s got respect, recognition, power
[emphasis added]. So of course the young lads round
here say “fuck me, this is the ticket!” It’s also seen as
the easy route… So they are given a gun, and a gun is
already a big deal [speaker’s emphasis]. I think that a
gun is a very resounding symbol. (Pepe, 11/04/2008)
Although multiple male role models exist at any one
time for boys and young men growing up in these com-
munities, it was common for gang members, particularly
gang bosses, to occupy a signicant ontological position
in the eld of masculinity, symbolised, albeit in an exag-
gerated way, through the masculine capitals of power, re-
spect, money, access to women and so on.12 e gangs and
their members can become powerful imaginaries and role
models for impressionable boys, a mechanism to ‘do mascu-
linity’, accumulate and show o such locally valued capitals.
In addition, gangs’ ontological signicance in the eld of
masculinity is enhanced where young boys and youths have
narrow perspectives of the world, due to stymied spatial and
social mobility. Hernando noted, “four blocks” would be-
come the youth’s nation state from which they would rarely
venture (Hernando, 21/06/2008). In the masculinisation
process, youths would gain more esteem, status and mas-
culine capital by joining a gang, than by working for a pov-
erty wage in the informal sector. e gang therefore had
the added incentive of catering for youths’ need for respect
or dignity.13 As such, the meanings of masculinity for boys
and young men in Montecristo were signicantly shaped
by what this paper calls the gang male role model system –
system indicating reproductive capacity.
10 When we theorise men and masculinity, a sociological approach should rig htly talk of ‘masculinities’ rather than ‘masculinity’. Like all identities, masculine ones have to be
constructed and negotiated via interaction in dierent socialisation spaces, and at any one time there can be multiple expressions of masculinity itself (Hearn & Morgan,
1990; Hearn & Collinson, 1996; Hearn, 1996).
11 e youths interviewed oen referred to the imaginario of the gang boss. Imaginario can be translated from Spanish as ‘imaginary’ or ‘role model’.
12 Field and capital aer Bourdieu (1977). Capital is used here in reference to ‘masculine capitals’, the loca lised assets or signiers of identity. ese capitals confer male identity
in a relational eld, linked to male esteem and dignity.
13 Bourgois and Jensen have written incisive accounts on urban socio-economic exclusion and individual struggle for respect and dignity respectively (Bourgois, 2003; Jensen,
2008).
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e following section analyses how these youths man-
aged to grow up and establish dignied masculine iden-
tities whilst rejecting the gang as a pathway to manhood.
is can provide us with an insight into how positive, non-
violent masculine identities emerge in contexts of violence
in the urban periphery where gangs are most widespread.
chILdhood upbrIngIng
And thE roLE of thE fAMILy
Whilst all of the youths interviewed suffered from social
and family challenges caused by poverty and exclusion (see
Dowdney, 2007), they viewed their upbringings in a largely
positive light. Eleven out of fifteen youths said they were
taught good values, felt cared for in affectionate relationships
and supportive homes, and in nine cases mentioned their
parents’ insistence on education. In general, they spoke
of good communication with both mothers and fathers.
Only Pepe and Pelicorto appeared to view their family
upbringing in a predominantly negative light, and there
was only one experience of significant domestic violence.
Of course, there were some bad experiences and fractured
relationships at home. In three cases the father was absent,
due to his death or a parental separation, and in three more
cases the fathers had problems with alcoholism. However,
these cases are not straightforward, for example absent,
alcoholic or violent fathers could demonstrate both positive
and negative facets of influence over their children.14
As they grew up, each youth’s decision-making and
consequent social action was shaped by a complex of
context, agency, opportunity and happenstance. How-
ever, their narratives suggest two factors that helped
keep them out of gangs. First, their families contributed
to the emergence of a moral self that rejected violence,
criminality and gangs in their neighbourhoods. Sec-
ond, youths were encouraged to participate in socialisa-
tion spaces that were alternatives to hanging out on the
street corner, particularly after dark, or other places as-
sociated with gangs. The relevance of socialisation will
be explored below.
Here we should mention that these life experiences
were nuanced and at times contradictory; even youths from
the best families could join gangs (Galán, 19/06/2008).
Hence, whilst some authors have made eorts to categorise
resilience factors15 we should caution against using them in
a straightforward deterministic fashion.
Ángel: Look, in my family, my life was always about
education… My Dad wanted me to be really educated
[speaker’s emphasis]… I ask myself why I did not get
into drugs and violence if I grew up with them all
around me… Sometimes I arrive at the conclusion
that it’s because of the education I received at home,
because I’m someone who thinks differently because
I wanted to finish my studies… (Ángel, 15/05/2008)
Chiner: …When I got to the age that I could join a
gang I was conscious of things. Because apart from
having a reference point at home we also had reference
points through our friends… and despite the fact that
we were only young, we had a clear understanding… I
think because of the education that we received. That’s
important because we studied hard… (Chiner and
Felipe, 10/07/2008)
e case of Quien shows that we should not generalise
that single mothers nd it more dicult to deal with sons
(see also Moser, 2009: 239). Interestingly, Quien refers to
his mother’s disciplinary side as a male attribute.
Quien: The paternal figure in my life has never
been present… Normally when mums say “don’t get
involved in drugs, don’t join gangs” and all that, their
sons don’t pay any attention… So it depends on having
a strong figure in the family. Probably that’s the father
but with me it was my mum. If I arrived home late
she’d say “Hey dickhead! Where have you been! You
son of a bitch, what are you thinking!” She’d speak like
a bloke… shed be tough as if she were a man… My
mum’s a real personality! I think she was the paternal
figure as well. (Quien, 20/06/2008)
ALtErnAtIvE SocIALISAtIon
And joInIng thE coMMunIty
orgAnISAtIon
Parental influence did have an impact on these youths’
choice of socialisation space when they were growing up. In
turn, socialisation spaces appeared particularly influential
in shaping their identities and masculinisation processes.
14 In the cases of Chiner, Pelicorto and Sammy, even though their fathers had signicant problems with alcohol they were strong advocates of their sons’ education. Pelicorto’s
father was very violent domestically, especially when he came home drunk on payday, but also tried hard to keep Pelicorto away from the dangers of violence on the
streets and was persistent in making sure all of his homework was done. Sammy’s father had alcohol problems and separated from his mother when Sammy was seven.
Nevertheless he still drove his three children to and from school every day in an attempt to keep them safe from local gang violence. Chiner stated that despite his father’s
alcohol problems he supported his children’s education strongly and was aectionate at home.
15 See gang prevention theory around risk and resilience (Small Arms Survey, 2008: 229; Small Arms Survey, 2010: 234).
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ese youths tended not to hang out on street corners
at night getting up to no good, and avoided being amurrao
– literally: “sitting on the wall”, guratively: sad, bored and
desperate (see Henao Salazar and Castañeda Naranjo, 2001:
90). Amurrao aer dark was generally perceived as a pre-
cursor to gang exposure and potentially gang membership.
e youths at CoVida tended to demonstrate alternative
interests and pursuits, which led them to socialise in spac-
es away from the street corner. ey were oen studious,
church-going, had strict parents, were members of youth
groups or school clubs, or socialised with small peripheral
peer groups who liked niche music such as rock, punk or
reggae. eir upbringing was an inuential precursor to
the development of alternative socialisation spaces, except
perhaps following ‘niche’ music tastes, which appeared
more arbitrary.
Galán is an example of how strict parenting kept him
away from gangs.
Galán: When we were young, thirteen or fourteen
years old, I wasn’t allowed out later than 10 pm on
the street… So at 10 pm I’d have to say to my mates
“I’m going home, it’s 10pm. So they would all say
“Haaaaaaaaaa! Piss off then so [your parents] can put
your nappy on!” …It’s easier to stay out than go home
because of the pressure… If you don’t have resilience…
if you don’t have those values, then you get sucked in
really easily. It’s a lot easier being accepted in these
parts being a delinquent than being the goody-two-
shoes of the neighbourhood… (Galán, 19/06/2008)
Joining the community organisation CoVida involved
elements of chance, agency and opportunity. Eighty per-
cent of the male youths in Montecristo, as estimated by
those interviewed, were not members of gangs, but only
a small minority of local youths went on to join CoVida.
Although rejecting crime, violence and gangs did not lead
them directly into CoVida, it did make joining a possibil-
ity. Two factors stand out; rst, a fundamental precursor
for joining CoVida was that youths were not members of
gangs. Furthermore, no ‘reformed’ gang member had ever
joined, pointing to a strong organisational culture that re-
jected violent actors. Secondly, their socialisation spaces
were crucial to staying out of gangs and joining CoVida.
Church, youth or extra-curricular school groups acted as
foundational processes to enter the organisation where
several youths joined because they had friends there.
Pepe: I think that they are not conscious that they
want to take part [at CoVida]. They don’t say “oh, I
want to participate and I want to do that”. I think their
first organisations, like the youth group for example,
are important factors that influence the development
of youth towards social views and interest in doing
something for the community… We worked on
characterising these youth groups and found that,
first of all, someone gets involved in a youth group
because they can meet friends there, because they
want to share, to find a socialisation space with peers,
to hang out and have fun. But also with ideas about
supporting the community, to take care of kids,
clean the streets, celebrate Easter, things like that.
Supporting the community themselves. This begins
to develop another type of attitude and other types of
public action by these youths, different to a youth that
isn’t in a youth group, one that simply hangs out on the
corner doing nothing… (Pepe, 11/04/2008)
ese processes inuenced youths’ decision making
when some of them were confronted by violence in their
lives: they became tools with which to negotiate violence.
However, this negotiation is complex and youths strug-
gled to articulate why they followed one pathway and not
another. For example, Pelicorto sought refuge in CoVida
when a friend was murdered; he did not seek revenge but
could not explain why. Gato’s cousin was shot in gang-re-
lated activity; he reected that it had pushed him closer to
the church youth group. Sammy said he didn’t join a gang
like his older brothers because he had the opportunity to
join a youth group which saved him.
Gato: To go through that is really tough… Yeah, you
can have money, women, motorbikes, luxuries [as a
gang member]… but it doesn’t last, it’s fleeting. [After
my cousin’s death] I said to myself once and for all
“this is not what I want to do with my life”… It made
me more religious… I started to get involved more
with youth groups at the church… (Gato, 19/06/2008)
Sammy: Put it this way, I had a different option to [my
brothers], they offered me a youth group but not them.
That’s it! I found a youth group and they didn’t… After
seeing the damage that guns do, that the conflict did…
and no, I don’t want to be bad, I don’t want to be one
of those guys, I want to be someone else. And I got the
opportunity to do that… (Sammy, 03/06/2008)
dEvELopIng poSItIvE
MAScuLInE IdEntItIES At
covIdA
In Montecristo in the early 1990s, at the height of the
violence in Medellín, there were a number of community
and youth groups struggling to survive. This was when
CoVida was established, as a coordination of disparate local
organisations, with the accompaniment of experienced
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NGOs, academics, and staff from the municipal welfare
system Fundación Social. CoVida aimed to organise local
civil society organisations and give them a vision and
strategy for the future. CoVida founder member Gabriel
stated:
“There were a lot of community groups but they
weren’t articulated and we didn’t know how to work
in a conflict context… so CoVida was formed with the
Fundación Social and Corporación Región [NGO].
With community organisations we decided to form an
organisation that would accompany us, make us more
dynamic and help us form a mission and vision for the
future” (Gabriel, 11/07/2008).
However, by 1999 nancing for this support had run
out and the adults le CoVida, so local youths stepped
into the void taking over the organisation as volunteers.
Remarkably, as Gabriel says, “we produced results that the
municipality, Fundación Social, or even we didn’t expect.
We stayed open, became self-sustainable and gained re-
spect for our work in the community… Youths began to
join because they wanted to help the community to learn
something” (Gabriel, 11/07/2008). CoVida began to run
workshops as a community centre and youth club, opened
a public library, a kindergarten, as well as a small audio-
visual business supplying PA services at local events, and
later an Internet cafe. In recognition of their competence
the municipality let them administer the funding for the
local Social Action Plan welfare programme in 2006, and
they became instrumental in the implementation of the
Mayor’s Participatory Budget in Montecristo between
2008-2011. Perhaps the most striking feature of CoVida is
that in 2008 it was run almost entirely by youths with an
average age of 23.
Given the inuence of expert NGOs, academics, the
Mayor’s oce and even the international donor communi-
ty, not surprisingly, the youths running CoVida developed
a dierent outlook on life than the average youth in their
community. ey had a strong ability to reect critically
and analytically upon the realities of violence and exclu-
sion in their neighbourhood. ey promoted nonviolence,
participation, equality and inclusion, and politically, most
could be considered liberal or le-wing and progressive.
It was unsurprising that a former member of CoVida later
became the director of Metrojuventud, the Mayor’s Oce
on Youth, for the entire city.
As a workspace and socialisation area CoVida was sig-
nicant for these youths in terms of the development of
their identities and values. e organisation helped them
expand their horizons despite the generalised lack of mo-
bility in their community. CoVida also broadened the eld
of masculinities for these youths, that is, what it meant to
be a man, by providing a number of alternative models of
masculinity to the gang male role model system. e or-
ganisation also gave youths opportunities to replicate these
models by working at the organisation and acquiring rec-
ognition, belonging and identity there.
Hernando: I looked up to Pelicorto [former Director
of CoVida] and we became good friends… He was
a reference point for me because he had a different
discourse to many people, a community discourse…
I ended up coordinating a project… and became
Director of CoVida and I got recognition from that.
(Hernando, 21/06/2008)
is process was not uniform or easy, and not all iden-
tity development can be attributed to CoVida alone, but
the organisation did inuence what it meant to be a man
for these youths and then provided them with dignied
possibilities to masculinise.16 ese were tied to developing
self-esteem and importantly, a reputational project. ey
ran workshops on community development and human
rights, organised local youth and sports events, helped run
the audio-visual business and made video documentaries,
participated in local and municipal level political debates,
amongst other activities.
Pepe: I’ve also had the chance to get to know a lot of
people [via CoVida]… to travel and get to know other
spaces, other places in the world… This has helped me
to see the world in a different light… That’s basically
down to my participation in CoVida… I’ve been
linked to social processes… That has given me job
opportunities, training, so I’ve been able to develop
skills that other youths don’t have… We have status
and a position in the community, we’re not always out
with girls, showing off in an ostentatious way… (Pepe,
11/04/2008)
e organisational culture and maxims at CoVida had
a strong inuence on these youths. e environment facili-
tated personal development, broadening their horizons be-
yond just four blocks, contributing to these youths growing
intellectually and becoming critical thinkers, particularly
of violent groups. As these boys were coming of age, the
organisation allowed them to forge identities with recog-
nition and status, shaping what it meant to be a man, and
simultaneously provided them with masculinisation op-
portunities to plot pathways to manhood and to construct
their gendered self. ese youths, disposed via masculine
16 Individuals are complex and youths at CoVida were not committed to a single version of masculinity all of the time, nor were they entirely disassociated from hegemonic
versions of masculinity, for example occasionally displaying macho traits in their attitudes towards women.
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habitus to achieve a form of normative manhood that
would give them locally valued recognition, and ultimately
self-esteem, found positive ways to establish male identity
through CoVida. Ten of the een youths interviewed
spoke about gaining recognition specically. For example,
Pepe, Galán and Hernando:
Pepe: CoVida has created a very strong image in the
community, which means that the youths here gain
a certain status. People have always been keen “hey
it’s cool being in CoVida” and that’s because you get
recognition from it… (Pepe, 11/04/2008)
Author: For you, what are the elements of your life
that make you feel good?
Galán: First of all my family. Second, being listened to
[in CoVida]. They make you feel important, they make
you feel like you are part of another family. That’s re-
ally important because… when the youths join the
group they make themselves heard using their own
initiative, they mobilise and do loads of things. That’s
good for self-esteem, which is completely different
from the youths who don’t mobilise… they organise
themselves with guns, and the gun becomes the object
of self-esteem for them… (Galán, 19/06/2008)
Hernando: Lots of kids… [just want] money but
others want to feel recognised in a context of poverty,
to feel recognised to have a certain status… I think that
what [CoVida] did was give us kids another status, a
type of recognition… In other words, another way to
link themselves to life of the city, to feel like someone
in the city. [I] felt recognised and that energy fills you
up. (Hernando, 21/06/2008)
CoVida became a central formative space for many of
these youths, where they developed strong convictions to
work in community development. Social actors in violent
communities respond in a range of ways to mitigate the
negative eects of violence. ese factors militate against
simplistic perceptions of exclusion, fear, and passivity and
show how communities confront, collude with, and judge
violent crimes (Moser, 2009). CoVida developed the rejec-
tion of gangs that emerged during the childhood of these
youths, demonstrating that the Montecristo neighbour-
hood was not a passive recipient of social violence. e
youths at CoVida faced signicant challenges that were
commonly nancial - much of the work at CoVida was vol-
untary, part time and poorly paid. ere were also threats
and intimidation from armed groups; in one case, a mem-
ber was assassinated by militias.17 Friendship, camaraderie
and shared adversity bonded individuals to CoVida, which
became a refuge from the violence on the streets, and vi-
tally, a key socialisation space for these youths “like you
are part of another family” (Galán, 19/06/2008). Galán and
Pelicorto said:
Galán: I think the difference between us [and gang
members] has to do with our principles. What I’m
saying is that each of us has moral standpoints and we
share collective moral beliefs. Us lot at the organisation,
there’s something inside each of us that has developed.
(Galán, 19/06/2008)
Pelicorto: …We had a feeling of resistance as well.
“We’re not gonna give in... And whenever there’s a
shoot out we’ll close the doors… I said to Hernando,
we took the most difficult decision given everything
that’s happened. For us it would have been easier to
buckle under pressure from our family or friends, that
we should leave, or join one of those [armed] groups…
I feel that we have to be role models, but we have
to be good role models, brother… But I insist that
these factors of resilience are very important in these
communities, but there is something that makes
me worry a lot. How far do factors of resilience go?
(Pelicorto, 10/06/2008)
concLuSIon:
MAScuLInISAtIon, dIgnIty
And ExcLuSIon
Medellín’s periphery and the young men that inhabit it are
undoubtedly complex. Whilst charting the life-histories
of these youths can help us identify resilience factors that
contributed to them rejecting violence and engaging in
community development work, it is important to warn
against excessive neatness in the analysis and conclusions of
this article. In one case, Ángel a former member at CoVida,
joined a so-called community organisation funded by a
paramilitary group because he could not bear the financial
pressures upon him after his father died. He said “I’m the
man of the house… It’s lots of pressure… How can I have
a dignified life without money?” (Ángel, 15/05/2008). This
shows the complexities of real life circumstance and how
it interacts with youths’ agency to shape their decision
making when seeking pathways in life that dignify them
(for a discussion see Greig, 2010; also Rodgers, 2006: 286).
We should not expect individuals to fall easily into neat
categories.
17 e militias were urban vigilante groups linked to le-wing guerrillas from the broader armed conict.
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In Montecristo life is hard. For these youths CoVida
was a symbolic and practical refuge from the hostile out-
side world, a site of opportunity for the development of
ambition, the employment of agency and the construction
of identity. is was bound together by the friendship and
camaraderie of the socialisation space of CoVida itself. On
balance, despite the case of Ángel, these youths reected
the eld of inuence at CoVida, developing nonviolent and
largely pro-social male identities. In this way, the organisa-
tion nurtured their masculine habitus – their dispositions
to become men – presenting them with opportunities to
secure positive type masculine capital, status, recognition,
self-esteem and dignity.
Hernando was clear that CoVida gave him “another
status, a type of recognition. e struggle for dignity is the
domain of the impoverished and excluded; “it is what pow-
erless people have le when all else fails” (Jensen, 2008: 9).
ese processes were perhaps summed up best by Pelicorto
who simply said: “you don’t dream of packing biscuits in a
factory”. If we are to interrupt the reproduction of violence
through young men living in contexts of exclusion and vio-
lence, we need to take this into account.
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Recommended citation
BAIRD, Adam (2012). “Negotiating Pathways to Manhood: Rejecting Gangs and Violence in Medellíns Periphery”
[online article]. Journal of Conflictology. Vol. 3, Iss. 1, pp. 30-41. Campus for Peace, UOC. [Consulted: dd/mm/yy].
<http://www.uoc.edu/ojs/index.php/journal-of-conflictology/article/view/vol3iss1-baird/vol3iss1-baird>
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7238/joc.v3i1.1438
ISSN 2013-8857
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About the author
Adam Baird
adsbaird@gmail.com
Adam Baird is a research fellow within the Drugs, Security and Democracy Program of the SSRC and Open
Societies Institute, a visiting researcher at the City University of New York, and Associate Expert to the UNDP
in the area of Crisis Prevention and Recovery for Latin America and the Caribbean.
... The literature on street gangs in Latin America, mostly based on ethnographic research in poor neighbourhoods in this region, has highlighted the relationship between street gangs and violence (Arzate et al., 2010;Bourgois, 2003;Baird, 2012;Guzmán-Facundo et al., 2011;Jones et al., 2007;Jones, 2013;Oehmichen-Bazán, 2013;Jones and Rodgers, 2011;Rodgers and Baird, 2016;Rodgers, 2006;Quintero and Estrada, 1998;Barker, 2005;Reguillo, 2005;Reguillo, 2012). Such attention is not surprising considering that Latin America is one of the most violent regions in the world. ...
... In general, scholars have focused on analysing the different types of masculinities that are produced and reproduced in contexts of poverty. In particular, there is a large amount of ethnograhic research which studies the power dynamics and the particular rules established in poor neighourhoods (Baird, 2012;Quintero and Estrada, 1998;Cerbino, 2004;Reguillo, 2012;de la O and Flores, 2012;Cruz-Sierra, 2014;Guzmán-Facundo et al., 2011). Adam ...
... Crucially, one of the key characteristics of this hegemonic masculinity is the performance of violence, and in some cases engaging in criminal activities, in order to establish and preserve their reputation as men. The compensation for performing this masculinity include gaining respect, dignity, money and social status within their neighbourhoods which, as Baird (2012) points out, becomes their most important, if not the only, sphere of influence. ...
Article
Full-text available
11/20/19-Justice in Mexico, a research-based program at the University of San Diego, released a working paper entitled, “Violence within: Understanding the Use of Violent Practices Among Mexican Drug Traffickers” by Dr. Karina García. This paper provides first-hand data regarding the perpetrators’ perspectives about their engagement in practices of drug trafficking-related violence in Mexico such as murder, kidnapping, and torture. Drawing on the life stories of thirty-three former participants in the Mexican drug trade—often self-described as “narcos”— collected in the North of Mexico between October 2014 and January 2015, this paper shows how violent practices serve different purposes, which indicates the need for different strategies to tackle them.
... Es pertinente mencionar que las pandillas son altamente heterogéneas. Rodgers (1999) ofrece un panorama de la investigación sobre pandillas en América Latina y el Caribe, en tanto Adam Baird (2012aBaird ( , 2012b discute algunos nexos entre masculinidades y pandillas que elucidan la cuestión. ...
... Asimismo, se han hecho importantes avances en la comprensión de los procesos de producción y reproducción de la violencia urbana al analizar su transferencia entre espacios públicos y privados, así como entre generaciones. También al problematizar el papel crucial de las versiones dominantes de masculinidad en la reproducción de la violencia (urbana) (Baird, 2012b;Wilding, 2014;Taylor et al., 2016a;Salahub et al., 2018), al criticar el papel del Estado en la perpetuación del "apartheid" urbano y apuntar las limitaciones en las políticas y programas de prevención de homicidios y al señalar los impactos de la creciente criminalización de la pobreza urbana (Wacquant, 2010). ...
Book
Es imperativo buscar nuevas formas de abordar e indagar las violencias en ciudades latinoamericanas desde la Salud Pública. Este libro responde a esa necesidad, estudiando la violencia urbana como una expresión o un síntoma de la conflictividad social, cuyos procesos malsanos muchas veces implican y producen muerte, multiplicando la violencia (homicida). Para dicho análisis se examinan los malestares y los procesos salud-enfermedad y muerte que se derivan de lo que se conoce como violencia urbana. Los (des)ordenamientos territoriales, la fragmentación y la polarización urbana son características del “neoliberalismo realmente existente” en ciudades del Sur global. Por tanto, esta obra los examina como referentes centrales para entender el fenómeno de la violencia urbana. Además, esta obra se alimenta teóricamente de conceptos propuestos por la Medicina Social y Salud Colectiva Latinoamericana y por la Geografía Crítica Latinoamericana. Para un análisis empírico, se examinan los casos del barrio San Bernardo en Bogotá y el complejo de favelas de La Maré en Río de Janeiro, barrios azotados por (des)ordenamientos territoriales, donde confluyen violencias, se produce muerte, pero también se articulan resistencias.
... a dilucidar por qué un fenómeno como el narcotráfico logró calar socialmente, pues, como vimos, la cotidianidad es una especie de híper-realidad que no depende de las voluntades de los "buenos".Por otro lado, hemos dejado claro que, a pesar de que podrían llegar a resultar atractivas para muchos, o por lo menos llamativas, las formas a partir de las cuales se manifiestan un conjunto de prácticas culturales y estéticas sintetizadas en los habitus traqueto y sicarial en Medellín, no se puede caer en la romantización de esta realidad. Por ejemplo, sería necesario tener en cuenta que las acciones de muchos jóvenes de la ciudad, en el marco de las culturas juveniles, tienen muchas veces consecuencias negativas en otros múltiples actores, porque no se trata, como lo expresaBaird (2012), de un movimiento cultural propiamente dicho que resista las precariedades ni los problemas de una ciudad distópica, por esto, hemos dicho que una noción como "subculturas del narcotráfico"(Salazar y Jaramillo, 1996) ya no es funcional a este contexto, pues no podemos afirmar que en el habitus sicarial se dé un enfrentamiento con la cultura hegemónica como estrategia de resistencia de grupos de jóvenes. En efecto, si ya quedó claro que no se trata solamente de las actuaciones, prácticas culturales y expresiones estéticas de grupos de narcotraficantes o de sicarios, sino que, por el contrario, estos modelos de vida se han introducido a la vida cotidiana de múltiples actores a partir de la incorporación de un modo de ser y de comportarse que, aunque ya no tenga una relación directa con el mundo del comercio ilegal de drogas, las distintas connotaciones culturales, sin embargo, cargan con el peso histórico y las reconfiguraciones sociales provocadas por el narcotráfico. ...
Thesis
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This work starts from the idea that with the incursion of drug trafficking in Medellin, there has been a reconfiguration of the ways of behaving socially and expressing themselves culturally of many people in their daily lives. Therefore, it is assumed that a set of representations has been built around these reconfigurations that assign meaning to the ways of conceiving life in the city, this means that many behaviors are judged or interpreted as part of the reproduction of the life model established by drug trafficking. In this way, it is analyzed how drug trafficking has influenced the reconfiguration of the habitus of certain actors in daily life, and these, as ways of thinking and acting, are structured on the basis of a particular worldview that gives meaning to numerous cultural expressions, that contain themselves some historical sediments through the trajectory of the drug trafficking phenomenon, although today they are fed and updated through the circulation of global cultural influences. Thus, we show how some modes of behavior have been structured in the daily life of Medellin are currently interpreted and judged through drug trafficking experiences, but these practices are not only attributable to drug traffickers.
... This last aspect, perhaps underdeveloped in the contributions, is generally understudied in works on extreme violence, although it deserves special attention, if only, paradoxically, because it would make it possible to better identify the conditions in which violence emerges. The aim here is not to go back over the vast literature on post-conflict, demobilization programs, transitional justice, or memory policies (FMSH, 2019: 90-153), but rather to approach the subject of this special theme through its counterpoint, as Adam Baird (2012) does in his study of neighborhood youth in Colombia, which shows how some did not become gang members: Why, in a context of generalized violence, do "certain" individuals or groups not act out? How can there be both scenarios of escalating violence and situations of moderation of violence? ...
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Dennis Rodgers is a social anthropologist by training, with a BA and a PhD from the University of Cambridge, as well as a postgraduate degree from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Brooks World Poverty Institute (BWPI), at the University of Manchester, UK, where he leads their research programme on ‘Urban Poverty and Conflict’, and a Visiting Senior Fellow with the London School of Economics Crisis States Research Centre, where he is involved in their research on ‘Cities and Fragile States’. He was also a member of a Nicaraguan youth gang for a year.