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Understanding Gangs in Contemporary Latin America

Abstract

This chapter provides an overview of the current knowledge base about Latin American gangs. It begins by focusing on the two most developed bodies of work, respectively on Central American and Brazilian gangs. Reliable information about Central American gangs is extremely scanty. The scaremongering about gangs often obscures the fact that there exists significant diversity between both gangs and countries within the region. The chapter talks about pandillas and maras. Maras are a phenomenon with transnational roots, while pandillas are more localized, home-grown gangs that are the direct inheritors of the youth gangs that have long been a historic feature of Central American societies. The literature on gangs in the rest of Latin America is both much less dense and less empirically detailed than it is for Central America and Brazil. Much of it is based on media and secondary sources, or else indirectly approaches gangs.
1
Understanding gangs in contemporary Latin America
Dennis Rodgers and Adam Baird
1
Forthcoming in Scott H. Decker and David C. Pyrooz (eds.), Handbook of Gangs and Gang Responses,
New York: Wiley, 2015.
(1) Introduction
Gangs are widely considered to be one of the major forms of violence afflicting
contemporary Latin American societies. Although by no means new phenomena gangs were a
major feature of late 19
th
century Brazilian port cities (see Soares, 2001), for example, and have
long been a popular subject matter of movies such as the 1950s Mexican classic Los Olvidados
their current prominence is widely seen to be emblematic of a fundamental transformation in the
post-Cold War Latin American political economy of violence. This is generally understood as
having moved from being predominantly related to ideologically-charged conflicts over the
nature of the political system to most often involving more prosaic forms of violence such as
delinquency and crime (see Kruijt and Koonings, 1999; Pearce, 1998). Although this particular
characterisation has been challenged, partly due to the clear continuities that exist between past
and present patterns of Latin American violence (see e.g. Rodgers, 2009), there is no doubt that
Latin America is currently one of the most violent regions in the world. It has by far the highest
national rates of homicide, often far beyond what we might call ‘traditional’ warfare or conflict
zones (Small Arms Survey, 2013).
It is perhaps not surprising that violence and insecurity have become major political
issues in the region (see Arias and Goldstein, 2010; World Bank, 2011), and gangs have emerged
as a significant focus of interest as a result. Indeed, as Jones and Rodgers (2011) point out, gangs
have effectively replaced communists as the hemisphere’s principal ‘threat’ to democracy in the
post-Cold War era, and are invoked to justify a range of particular interventions, including
extensive punitive repression, as well as, more generally, the securitisation of development
policies. At the same time, however, there clearly exists significant sensationalism around gangs
in Latin America. As is also the case elsewhere in the world, gangs in the region are by no means
unitary social phenomena, and the label is used to denote a whole gamut of social forms from
street corner youth groups to organised criminal associations. Indeed, a major issue regarding
Latin American gangs is the widespread conflation of gangs and organised crime, fuelled by
highly sensationalist media reports. Although there is no doubt that there are links between
gangs, drug-trafficking and organised crime, these are by no means pre-ordained, and the
connection is more often assumed rather than demonstrated. Moreover, where they do exist,
these connections are opaque and complex, and vary significantly from one setting to another.
This particular issue illustrates starkly how our knowledge about Latin American gangs –
as well as drug-trafficking and organised crime – is very uneven, and moreover often quite
contradictory. This chapter therefore aims to provide an overview of the current knowledge base
about Latin American gangs,
2
and identify major gaps in existing research. It will draw
principally on studies based on primary empirical research, as although there is a proliferation of
secondary-source based studies, these are more often than not highly sensationalistic, politically
1
Respectively Professor of Urban Social and Political Research, University of Glasgow, UK, and Assistant
Professor, University of Peace, Costa Rica.
2
This chapter excludes the Caribbean.
2
motivated, and extremely speculative, when not wrong. We begin by focusing on the two most
developed bodies of work, respectively on Central American and Brazilian gangs, before then
considering the emergent literature on several other countries in the region, as detailed in table 1
below. We then go on to identify a range of long-standing, important cross-cutting themes, as
well as several new ones, before concluding with a tentative agenda for future research.
Table 1: Selected recent studies of Latin American gangs based on primary research
Country City Studies
Brasilia Abramovay et al. (2002).
Fortaleza Garmany (2011).
Rio de
Janeiro Arias (2004, 2006. 2014); Arias & Davis Rodrigues (2006); Dowdney
(2003, 2007); Gay (2005, 2009, 2010); Goldstein (2003); Hume &
Wilding (2015); Leeds (1996, 2007); Penglase (2005, 2008, 2009);
Perlman (2009); Soares et al. (1996); Vianna (1997); Zaluar (1983, 1994,
1997, 2000).
Brazil
São Paulo Adorno et al. (1998); Denyer Willis (2009, 2014, forthcoming).
Bogotá Perea Restrepo (2007).
Baranquilla Perea Restrepo (2007).
Neiva Perea Restrepo (2007).
Colombia
Medellín Aricapa (2005); Baird, A., (2009, 2012a, 2012b, 2015); Riaño-Alcalá
(2006).
Guayaquil Moser (2009); Santillán & Varea (2008); Torres (2006). Ecuador Quito Cerbino (2011); Cerbino & Barrios (2008); Cerbino & Rodríguez (2008);
Santillán & Varea (2008).
El Salvador San
Salvador Aguilar (2006); Brenneman (2012); Cruz (2005, 2010, 2014); Cruz &
Portillo Peña (1998); DeCesare (1998); Demoscopía (2007); Hume (2004,
2007a, 2007b, 2009); Hume & Wilding (2015); Núñez (1996); Rubio
(2007); Savenije (2009); Savenije & Andrade-Eekhoff (2003); Wolf
(2012a, 2012b); Zilberg (2011).
Guatemala Guatemala
City Brenneman (2012); DeCesare (2013); Demoscopía (2007); Grassi (2011);
Levenson (2013); Levenson et al. (1988); Merino (2001); Núñez (1996);
O’Neill (2010, 2011, 2012); Rubio (2007); Winton (2004, 2007).
Honduras Tegucigalpa
Brenneman (2012); Castro & Carranza (2001); Demoscopía (2007);
Gutiérrez Rivera (2010, 2013); Rubio (2007); Salomón et al. (1999);
Wolseth (2011).
Nicaragua Managua Núñez (1996); Rocha (2000a, 2000b, 2003, 2005, 2007a, 2007b, 2008a,
2008b, 2010, 2013); Rocha & Rodgers (2008); Rodgers (1997, 2000,
2006a, 2007a, 2007b, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2015, forthcoming); Rodgers &
Rocha (2013); Rubio (2007); Vermeij (2006).
Mexico Guadalajara Reguillo (1991).
Mexico
City Castillo Berthier (2002, 2004); Castillo Berthier and Jones (2009); Cruz
Salazar (2004); Gigengack (2006); Nateras Dominguez (2006); Perea
Restrepo (2007).
Monterrey Hernández León (1999).
Puebla Herrera et al. (2009); Jones (2014).
Venezuela Caracas Mateo & González (1998); Pedrazzini & Sanchez R. (1992); Zubillaga
(2007, 2009, 2013); Zubillaga & Briceño-León (2001); Zubillaga et al.
(2015).
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(2) Gangs in Central America
Although youth gangs can be traced back to the 1940s and 1950s in Central America – and
the region’s industrialisation and concomitant urbanization the first in-depth investigation of
the phenomenon was not carried out until the late 1980s. This was Deborah Levenson’s (1988)
pioneering research on Guatemalan street gangs, which was in many ways a foundational study,
subsequently directly informing Juan-Carlos Núñez’s (1996) comparative study of street gangs
in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, as well as Donna DeCesare (1998) and JoMiguel
Cruz and Nelson Portillo Peña’s (1998) studies in El Salvador, and Leticia Salomón, Julieta
Castellanos and Mirna Flores’ (1999) study in Honduras. Similarly, the first ethnographic study
of a Central American youth gang, carried out in Nicaragua in 1996-1997 by Dennis Rodgers
(1997, 2000, 2007a), was built upon by José Luis Rocha (2000a, 2000b, 2003, 2005) during his
research with a different Managua youth gang in 1999-2000. His results were then taken up by
Rodgers (2006a, 2007b) in order to calibrate new field research in 2002-2003, and further
exchanges occurred for Rocha’s continuing research in 2005-2006 and 2012 (Rocha, 2007a,
2007b, 2008a, 2008b, 2010, 2013), and Rodgers’ in 2007, 2009, 2012 and 2014 (Rodgers, 2010,
2013, 2015, forthcoming), as well as joint research carried out in 2012 (Rodgers and Rocha,
2013).
3
Since this first wave of scholarly investigations, there has been a proliferation of studies by
an ever-increasing number of researchers who have almost always drawn on this initial body of
work in order to inform their studies, including Savenije and Andrade-Eekhoff (2003), Cruz
(2005, 2010, 204), Hume (2007a, 2007b, 2009), Savenije (2009), and Wolf (2012a, 2012b) in El
Salvador, Castro and Carranza (2001), Gutiérrez Rivera (2010, 2013), and Wolseth (2011) in
Honduras, Vermeij (2006) in Nicaragua, Merino (2001), Winton (2004), O’Neill (2010, 2011,
2012), and Levenson (2013) in Guatemala, as well as Brenneman (2012) in all the three Northern
triangle countries, DeCesare (2013) in El Salvador and Guatemala, and Zilberg (2011), who
conducted a transnational study of gangs “between Los Angeles and San Salvador”. A multi-
volume study juxtaposing research on gangs in each Central American country was also
published in the early and mid 2000s by a conglomerate of regional research institutes (ERIC et
al. 2001, 2004a, 2004b), and there have also been four overview studies based on primary
research (albeit of rather variable quality): USAID (2006), Demoscopía (2007), the work of the
“Transnational youth gangs in Central America, Mexico, and the Unites States”
4
project
coordinated by the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México’s (ITAM) Center for Inter-
American Programmes and Studies (Centro de Estudios y Programas Interamericanos, or CEPI),
5
and the volume edited by Thomas Bruneau, Lucía Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner (2011).
6
From this body of work, a number of key insights regarding Central American gangs have
emerged, including the fact that gangs are contextually but not necessarily causally associated
with poverty, that structural links can be made between the post-Cold War emergence of gangs
3
Nicaragua is the Central American country that has probably been studied in greatest empirical depth as a result of
this rather unique process of longitudinal ethnographic conversation between Rocha and Rodgers (see Rocha and
Rodgers, 2008).
4
“Pandillas juveniles transnacionales en Centroamérica, México y Estados Unidos”.
5
This group’s output is available online at http://interamericanos.itam.mx/maras/index.html.
6
We do not consider here the multitude of superficial overviews that have been written on the basis of secondary
literature, as well as works that touch on gangs within the context of a broader issue, such as Latin American youth
violence (e.g. Jones and Rodgers, 2009).
4
and the long history of insurrection and resistance to oppression in the region, and that no single
factor explains gang membership or the life course of individuals after they have left the gang.
Stereotypical “determinants” such as family fragmentation, domestic abuse, or a particular
psychological makeup have been shown not to be consistently significant, and the only factor
that has been reported as systematically affecting gang membership is religious, insofar as
evangelical Protestant youths tend not to join gangs, and conversion is a common means of
leaving the gang, whether in terms of being one of the few possible exit strategies in El Salvador,
Guatemala, and Honduras (along with death and migration), or as a means of adopting a new
persona and a definite set of non-gang behaviour patterns in Nicaragua.
The most important insight, however, is perhaps the fact that reliable information about
Central American gangs is extremely scanty, with official statistics particularly problematic due
to chronic underreporting, deficient data collection, and issues of political interference
consequent to the fact that gangs have become major scapegoats and are often pointed at by
politicians as the major cause of misery in Central America. The scare-mongering about gangs
often obscures the fact that there exists significant diversity between both gangs and countries
within the region. A critical distinction has to for example be made between pandillas on the
one hand, and marason the other. Maras are a phenomenon with transnational roots, while
pandillas are more localized, home-grown gangs that are the direct inheritors of the youth gangs
that have long been a historic feature of Central American societies, albeit turbo-charged by the
legacy of war and insurrection in the region. Pandillas were initially present throughout the
region in the post-Cold War period but are now only significantly visible in Nicaragua – and to a
lesser extent in Costa Rica – having been almost completely supplanted by maras in El Salvador,
Honduras, and Guatemala (although it should be noted that maras in this latter country also
involve gangs that elsewhere in the region might be more associated with pandillas see Grassi,
2011).
The origins of the maras lie in the 18
th
Street or Dieciocho gang in Los Angeles, a gang
founded by Mexican immigrants in the Rampart section of the city in the 1960s, although it
rapidly began to accept Hispanics indiscriminately, and grew significantly during the late 1970s
and early 1980s as a result of the influx of – mainly Salvadoran and Guatemalan Central
American refugees, who sought to join the gang in order to feel included as outsiders in the
United States (Valdez, 2011). In the latter half of the 1980s, a rival possibly splinter group
founded by a second wave of Salvadoran refugees emerged and became known as the Mara
Salvatrucha (a combination of salvadoreño and trucha, meaning ‘quick-thinking’ or ‘shrewd’ in
Salvadoran slang). The Dieciocho and the Salvatrucha rapidly became bitter rivals and
frequently fought each other – and law enforcement – on the streets of Los Angeles.
After the US Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant
Responsibility Act in 1996, whereby non-US citizens sentenced to one year or more in prison
were to be repatriated to their countries of origin, almost 50,000 convicts were deported to
Central America in addition to 160,000 illegal immigrants caught without the requisite permit
– over the course of the next decade (UNODC, 2007, pp. 40–42). The overwhelming majority of
these Central American deportees were sent to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, partly
because most Nicaraguan migrants generally emigrated to Miami or Houston rather than Los
Angeles, and for locally-specific reasons did not participate in the local gang scene to the same
extent, but also because a large proportion – some 180,000 – of Nicaraguan illegal migrants were
amnestied in 1997, as “allies in the fight against Communism” (Rocha, 2008b).
5
Arriving in countries of origin that they barely knew, deportees rapidly reproduced the
structures and behaviour patterns that had provided them with support and security in the United
States, including in particular founding local clikas, or chapters, of the Dieciocho and
Salvatrucha gangs. These clikas rapidly attracted local youths and either supplanted or absorbed
local pandillas. While each clika was explicitly affiliated with either the Mara Dieciocho or the
Salvatrucha, neither gang could ever be characterized a federal structure, and much less by a
transnational one. Neither answered to a single chain of command, and their “federated” nature
was in many ways more symbolic of a particular historical origin than demonstrative of any real
unity, be it of leadership or action (see Ward, 2013).
At the same time, however, the transnational transposition of US gang culture to Central
America had brutal effects due to the fact that it was less embedded within the local institutional
context than traditional Central American pandilla culture, and therefore less rule-bound and
constrained. Rather, it responded to US-specific dynamics, which often clashed with local habits
and behaviour patterns. Having said this, the mara phenomenon is not simply a foreign problem
imported by deportees, but rather one that has evolved and grown in response to domestic factors
and conditions, with the majority of mara gang members no longer deportees (Demoscopía,
2007: 49). It is also clear from existing studies of both pandillas and maras that contrarily to the
numerous sensationalist accounts linking Central American gangs to migrant trafficking,
kidnapping, and international organized crime, these gangs were initially mainly involved in
small-scale, localized crime and delinquency such as petty theft and muggings (although these
can often result in murder). These are most often carried out on an individual basis, although the
maras in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras also rapidly become involved in the extortion of
protection money from local businesses and the racketeering of buses and taxis as they passed
through the territories they controlled.
There is however clear evidence that both pandillas and maras have become more and
more involved in drug trafficking and dealing over the past decade and a half. This is perhaps not
surprising considering that the consumption of drugs has long been associated with the gang
lifestyle and that Central America has become a transit point for over 80 per cent of the total
cocaine traffic between the Andean countries and North America.
7
Drug trafficking in Central
America was until recently relatively decentralized, with shipments passing from one small, local
cartel to another, with each taking a cut in kind in order to make a profit as the drugs were passed
from the much more organized Colombian cartels to the Mexican cartels. The role that maras
and pandillas played in this process was mainly as the local security apparatus of these small
cartels, or as small-time street vendors informally connected to them. Certain studies have
however suggested that the leaders of these small, local cartels were often ex-gang members who
had “graduated”, so to speak, and over the past half decade there has been a significant shift in
the nature of the drugs trade in Central America, which has increasingly professionalised.
Another factor that significantly pushed Central American gangs and in particular the
maras in the Northern Triangle countries towards a greater degree of organisation was the
introduction in the early 2000s of a series of extremely repressive anti-gang policies, often
referred to generically as “Mano Dura”, or “Hard Hand”. These led to a series of extremely
brutal “tit-for-tat” confrontations between state authorities and gangs in El Salvador, Honduras,
and Guatemala that contributed to gangs become more professionalised and less visible than
previously, aiding their involvement with the drugs trade. Recently, however, the maras have
7
See the US Department of State’s 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), available online
at: http://www.state.gov/j/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2013/vol1/204050.htm.
6
declared a truce in El Salvador, which has putatively significantly reduced violence, although
whether this is true or not is by no means clear. In Nicaragua, following an initial flirtation with a
“soft” Mano Dura, pandillas have been effectively isolated through a series of urban
infrastructural transformations that have socio-spatially excluded the poor neighbours within
which they arise, in order to prevent violence from spilling out into more affluent areas. Whether
this is a sustainable strategy in the long term is highly doubtful, however, especially as this
infrastructural isolation also impacts on other spheres of life including rendering participation in
the labour market generally more difficult.
Much has been made of the putative “corporatization” (see Taylor, 1990) of Central
American gangs, as a result of both the rising drugs trade as well as in reaction to state
repression, with some commentators going so far as to argue in a rather deterministic manner
that gangs have begun to morph into more organised forms of transnational criminality (see for
example Sullivan, 2006). It is however increasingly becoming clear that the reality is much more
complex. While there is no doubt that Mano Dura policies have pushed gangs towards becoming
more organized and less amateurish, the spread of drugs has led to their encountering
competition in the form of drug cartels and other less territorially-based criminal groups. These
more powerful organisations have sometimes absorbed gangs or more accurately, some gang
members but more often than not, have either ignored or repressed local gangs. As a result,
while gangs do continue to exist throughout Central America, some recent research has
suggested that they are increasingly being “squeezed” from a sociological point of view as
significant actors within the regional political economy of violence (see Rodgers, 2012; Rodgers
& Rocha, 2013), although this is likely to be a temporary state of affairs if the cycle of violence
that has afflicted the region during the past 25 years is anything to go by.
(3) Gangs in Brazil
Brazil, perhaps more so than any other country in Latin America, has long been an
intellectual hotbed of research on urban violence and exclusion. In recent years gangs have
become a major focus of interest, although it should be noted that work on the topic is by no
means recent, with Alba Zaluar’s (1983, 1994) foundational research, in particular, the major
initial reference point for almost all subsequent primary studies of the phenomenon in Brazil
(e.g. Abramovay et al., 2002; Adorno et al., 1998; Arias, 2004, 2006 & 2014; Barker, 2005;
Dowdney, 2007; Gay, 2005, 2009 & 2010; Goldstein, 2003; Leeds, 1996; Penglase, 2005, 2008
& 2009; Perlman, 2010; Soares et al., 1996; Vianna, 1997). The majority of this literature tends
to focus on gangs in Rio de Janeiro, partly because it is a perennially attractive destination for
international researchers, but also because it has been a hub of international, governmental and
nongovernmental responses to gang driven violence, channelled by organisations such as Viva
Rio and Promundo.
8
Increasingly, however, there is also an emerging literature exploring
violence in other cities such as Sao Paulo (e.g. Denyer Willis, 2009, 2014 & forthcoming;
Holston, 2008), Fortaleza (e.g. Garmany, 2011), or Timbauba, Pernambuco (e.g. Scheper-
Hughes, 2015), although little of this literature focuses specifically on the gang phenomenon.
Although gangs have long history in Brazil, going back to the 19
th
century, maltas that
congregated in Rio de Janeiro’s port (Soares, 2001), as well as the music-centred galeras
cariocas and more violent quadrilhas of the 1970s and 1980s (Vianna, 1997). Since the
beginning of the 1990s, the Brazilian gang scene has been dominated by more violent drug
8
See http://www.vivario.org.br/en/ and http://www.promundo.org.br/en/.
7
gangs, often known as comandos. Their origins in Rio de Janeiro go back to the Cándido Mendes
prison on Ilha Grande in Rio state in the 1970s, where common criminals mixed with left-wing
political prisoners arrested by the military dictatorship. Non-political inmates subsequently
established the Falange Vermelho (Red Phalange), later dubbed the Comando Vermelho (Red
Command), when they returned to their homes in Rio’s 800 or so favelas. In its formative years,
the Comando Vermelho provided ‘law and order’, ‘protection’ and ‘social welfare services’ for
favela (slum) residents, such as financing child day-care facilities and giving handouts for
cooking gas (Pengalase, 2008; Gay, 2009). This was established through a set of symbols,
discourses and tactics, linked to the group’s left-wing organisational origins, and included
normative projects such as the promotion of boa vizinhança, or “neighbourliness”, which also
reflected the organisation’s “collective in the prison (Pengalase, 2008: 126, 129). In this
capacity, the Comando Vermelho took advantage of the widespread distrust of the police and the
abandonment of the favelas by state welfare services, hence earning their keep and embedding
themselves in the communities.
In 1982, the Comando Vermelho took the pivotal decision to fund their activities through
the drugs trade (Gay, 2009: 33). Rio is a significant cocaine transhipment point for the Andean
product en route to Europe, but as much as 20 percent of shipments are sold nationally. Much of
this retail trade circulates within the favelas, sold at bocas de fumo, drug-corners run by gangs.
Drug penetration in Rio’s favelas has had a profound impact (Arias, 2006; Leeds, 1996).
Perlman (2010) observes that the greatest change in the years following the 1970s has been the
domination of many communities by such drug gangs. Downey (2007) describes how the rise of
gangs in Rio de Janeiro can be divided into three periods: (1) the pre-cocaine, pre-Comando
Vermelho era; (2) the 1980s cocaine and Comando Vermelho phase of territorial definition and
‘narco-culture’; and (3) the 1990s onwards, which saw the emergence of bloody territorial
disputes where a number of Comando Vermelho leaders or donos - were killed as distrust and
rivalry grew. This third period is also characterised by the splintering of the Comando Vermelho
in the late 1990s, which also led to the decline of its “old-style” organisational roots where
“respectful’ gangsters provided social services (Pengalase, 2008: 123), and the emergence of a
range of new gangs including the Terceiro Comando (Third Command), Comando Vermelho
Jovem (Young Red Command), and Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends), as well as the
escalation of territorial disputes, or turf-wars, over retail drugs sales.
This latter development contributed to spiralling gang-related violence in Rio de Janeiro,
as starkly highlighted by the fact that death rates from firearms in the city for the 15-24 year old
demographic range more than tripled from 30 per 100,000 people in 1980 to 103 in 2007 (Gay,
2009: 30 & 47). These ‘gang wars’ led to a brutal state driven ‘war on gangs’, which further
increased the bloodshed. Most notoriously, in 2007 1,350 military police invaded a group of
favelas collectively known as Complexo de Alemão to expel the Comando Vermelho, leaving
scores dead (Gay, 2009; on police violence see Gay, 2010: 208; Leeds, 2007: 28). The response
by the Comando Vermelho led to the militarisation of the favela, as well as the increasing use of
children and youths in armed combat (Dowdney, 2003: 25 & 33). This also changed the already
complex and ambiguous relationships that the gangs had with their host communities. In the
early years the gangs were interwoven with the social fabric of local communities (Leeds, 1996:
59-61) creating a romantic “Robin Hood mystique” around them (Perlman, 2009, 63). However,
as they became drugs based, militarised and ruthless, they also became predatory upon local
communities (Perlman, 2009 & 2010; Leeds, 1996: 61 & 77). Drug gangs began to control
neighbourhood associations and those not acting in their interests were forcibly removed.
8
Between 1992 and 2002, 400 local neighbourhood leaders were assassinated and 450 displaced,
whilst many other simply withdrew form public life (Gay, 2005: 58 & 2009: 35).
This escalating violence led to the implementation of one of the best-known
contemporary examples of urban crime and violence prevention, the Urban Pacification
Programme. This began in 2008, and involved the deployment of specially trained Police
Pacification Units (Unidade de Policía Pacíficadora, or UPP) in gang-affected favelas, albeit
mainly those near 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games sites, as Saborio (2013) points out.
The UPP aimed to be different from the short-term operations of the military police units. The
programme operates in three phases: (1) army units and special military police – the Batalhão de
Operações Policiais Especiais, or BOPE –occupy a favela (intervention phase), (2) UPP officers
are introduced (stabilisation), and (3) finally establishing state and private infrastructure and
social projects (consolidation phase). The UPP claims legitimacy as a break with the past, both
bringing security and development initiatives (Jones and Rodgers, 2011). It is argued that unlike
previous attempts to ‘integrate Rio’ or ‘normalise’ the favela through upgrading projects the UPP
makes favela residents into full citizens, and ‘reclaims’ state sovereignty over the ‘ungoverned’
spaces of the city (Muggah and Souza Mulli, 2012). In so doing, however, one might argue that
pacification renders the favela a more “legible” space (see Scott, 1998), one in which the state
and private sector can therefore act, and there have also been significant critiques of the UPP
programme and its long-term sustainability (see Jones and Rodgers, 2015).
Gang dynamics in Sao Paulo have to a large extent been comparable to those in Rio.
Whilst the city’s favelas are rife with smaller youth gangs that commit unorganised and petty
crime are known as trombadinhas or “little crunchers” (Covey, 2010: 150), Sao Paulo’s principle
gang is the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC). In a similar fashion to the Comando Vermelho
but many years later in 1993, the gang originated as a small-scale gang in Carandiru and
Taubaté prisons, and grew to become a ubiquitous fixture of the city’s poor neighbourhoods. The
PCC’s beginnings were not linked to politics, but rather were a collective response to prison
conditions and violence. One notorious incident in 1991 saw the massacre of 111 inmates in
Carandiru detention centre, which led to the creation of the PCC in the nearby Taubaté prison
two years later (Denyer Willis, 2009). The PCC made a variety of demands framed in human
rights terms, as well as establishing a command and control structure over Sao Paulo prisons that
allowed it to bring a relative calm to prison life. At the same time, however, Holston (2008: 273)
has argued that the PCC is nothing more than a “prison-based gang” that has adopted the
language of human rights to state repression and prison conditions as a smokescreen to the
organization’s criminal nature (see also Macaulay, 2007: 638). Certainly, after expanding to a
network of thousands of members within the São Paulo prison system, the PCC quickly gained a
foothold in the city’s poor urban neighbourhoods as most prisoners came from such
neighbourhoods and returned home when released. This provided the operational means for the
PCC to gain in influence and control the drugs trade, to the extent that some scholars have
described the PCC as a ‘parallel power’ to the state (Macaulay, 2007), although others have
highlighted that it grew in symbiosis with corrupt and clientelist elements of the state (Denyer
Willis, 2014 & forthcoming).
(4) Gangs in rest of Latin America
The literature on gangs in the rest of Latin America is both much less dense and less
empirically detailed than it is for Central America and Brazil. Much of it is based on media and
9
secondary sources, or else indirectly approaches gangs. Although primary research has been
carried out on the phenomenon in almost every country in the region (see Rodgers, 1999), many
such studies often tend to be quite old, such as for example Lois B. DeFleur’s (1970) study of
youth gangs in Cordoba, Argentina, or Luis Salas’ (1979) study of gangs in 1950s and 1960s
Cuba. While highly informative, such studies are arguably limited in terms of their current
relevance, due to the cultural, political, economic, and social changes that have affected both
youth culture as well as the wider societies within which these gangs emerged. New factors,
including the end of the Cold War, globalization, transnational migration, a decline in
authoritarianism, the rise of the middle class, and more, have all transformed the face of Latin
American during the past half century. Having said this, there exist a number of recent primary
studies about gangs in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Venezuela, which we now present in a
selective manner. As is also the case of the Central American and Brazilian literature, the gangs
that they describe range from “classic” youth corner gangs to much more organised and
professional associations, more often than not involved in drug dealing. It should be noted that
the boundaries between these however often remain rather fuzzy, both due to institutional
evolution as well as particular labelling practices.
(a) Colombia
The majority of gang research in Colombia has focused on the second largest city,
Medellín, although there have also been regular studies produced on the capital city Bogotá.
There is however some evidence of gangs in medium sized towns such as Barranquilla, Neiva
(Perea Restrepo, 2007: 26), Cali and Cartagena, and frontier towns (Rodgers, 2003). The context
of much gang activity in Colombia has been historically interwoven with the arc of the political
violence that the country has suffered since the 1950s, which has been compounded from the
1980s by the effects of drugs-trafficking, particularly cocaine and crack into the poor urban
communities where Colombia’s gangs are mainly located. In summary, the country’s armed
conflict, the boom of illicit drugs sales - both at a local consumer level and as lucrative
international commerce - the widespread availability of small arms and light weapons, the
existence of a “culture of brutality” and a “logic of death” (Perea Restrepo, 2008), as well as the
general legacies of trauma (Riaño-Alcalá, 2006),have all combined over the past 70 years or so
to create an atmosphere extremely conducive to violence. This arguably peaked in the 1990s,
with Medellín, in particular, suffering the highest per capita homicide rate in world history, at
381 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1991 (Suárez Rodríguez, 2005: 203).
Given this context, gangs and gang violence in Colombia is particularly complex (Rubio,
2007). Whilst there are slippages and linkages between gangs and organised crime across the
region, gangs in Colombia also have such connections with armed actors from the broader
political conflict, especially as both leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary regularly incur
into the country’s cities. In this light, gang violence is perhaps better understood as a part of a
multi-layered form of ‘urban conflict’, something that as Beall et al. (2013) have highlighted is
increasingly common to cities in the contemporary developing world. At the same time, recent
studies by Baird (2012a; 2012b) in Medellín, and Perea Restrepo in Bogotá (2007), have shown
that gang members rarely join up for politically motivated revolutionary or counter-revolutionary
reasons, although the gang may later try and influence some forms of local politics.
Gangs have existed in Medellín since the 1950s, but were relatively benign until the
1980s cocaine boom, which led to two phenomena: the local sale of cocaine and crack, and the
10
international trade, which led the rise of notorious drug cartels. The 1980s marked the beginning
of a criminal struggle to control Medellín’s domestic and international drugs trade, where one
drug cartel or baron such as Pablo Escobar - would succeed another. The figure of the drug
baron began to subside in the late 1990s as ‘king-pin’ strategies to arrest them involving
Colombian police forces cooperating with the US Drugs Enforcement Agency caused such
cartels to reconfigure, evolving into more complex organised criminal groups. By the early
2000s, paramilitary and neo-paramilitary groups
9
because increasingly involved in the never-
ending cycle of drugs trade which shows no signs of abating today (Aricapa, 2005; Baird, 2012b;
Civico, 2012; Rozema, 2008).
Although gang links to more organised criminal super-structures have led to a steady
flow of arms, munitions and drugs, street gangs do not run the lucrative international trade of
cocaine (Baird, 2012b; Civico, 2012; Rozema, 2008). Rather, like Rio de Janeiro, depend on
local or retail consumer drugs sales, extortion rackets, money laundering and loan sharking in
their host neighbourhoods (Bedoya, 2010). Gang members here are organic to communities, and
are generally rooted in a given territory. Given the continuum of violence many poor youths have
faced, they have had to reconfigure their worlds subjectively. Riaño-Alcalá (2006) argues that
such youth use oral histories of death and narratives of fear, as survival strategies to inhabit
violent neighbourhoods. This has shaped “social and interpersonal relations, eroding the
institutions of society and established values, and becoming the dominant feature of Colombian
society” (Rodgers, 2003: 116).
This is something that Perea Restrepo (2007) has also described in the context of his
study of gangs across 21 poor neighbourhoods in southern Bogotá. In particular, he sees
becoming a gang member as a fluid way of inhabiting the city and navigating the complex
linkages between street level violence and more organised criminal violence (Perea Restrepo,
2007: 11). He points out, however, that there were over 1,000 youth groups and cultural
organizations number in the neighbourhoods he studied, and only about a third of those could be
considered ‘gangs’. Overall, he counted only about 800 gang members out of the 17,000 youths
aged between 15-24 years old living in these neighbourhoods, that is to say, approximately 5%
of the youth population (Perea Restrepo, 2007: 57, 63). He notes however that there also exists a
number of words to describe gangs, such as ‘banda’, parche, gallada, pandilla’, or combo’,
and that these can moreover vary contextually. Generally, however, Perea Restrepo argues that
the term banda is used to refer to an organized criminal group that operates out of sight, while a
pandilla is a highly visible street gang that publically shows its power. The word parche
originally a group or gathering of friends – is frequently used to suggest some sort of delinquent
group, particularly in poor slums and neighbourhoods, which is indicative of the way poor male
youths are easily stigmatized. There are however, fluid interconnections between a relatively
innocent parche on their street corner to being a fully-fledged member of the pandilla, and
“graduation” to a banda.
(b) Ecuador
Up until the last decade or so there was a general lack of research on gangs in Ecuador,
although there has been a proliferation of recent studies (e.g. Carrión, 2002; Cerbino and
9
Paramilitaries are counter-insurgency groups, which were rolled out by the state into Medellín to remove guerrilla
forces. The paramilitary groups quickly became involved in drug trafficking and were soon indistinguishable from
drug cartels, sometimes being called ‘neo-paramilitary’ groups (Baird, 2013; Civico, 2012).
11
Rodríguez, 2008; Santillán and Varea, 2008; Torres, 2006; Cerbino, 2011). These highlight how
gangs arose in Ecuador in 1980s, and are mainly found in Guayaquil, and to a lesser extent in the
capital Quito. Ecuadorean gangs are generally divided into organised naciones and less
organized pandillas, although they are often all incorrectly called maras. Guayaquil has
approximately 1,200 pandillas, of which 50 are naciones, with a total of 65,000 members
accounting for approximately 7% of the population aged between 12-20 years old (Torres, 2006;
Carrion, 2006; Santillán and Varea, 2008). Pandillas in Guayaquil are territorial, neighbourhood-
based, and the violence between them has led to high homicide rates, notoriety in the press, and
gangs have become a political issue since the beginning of the 2000s. The Latin Kings are the
biggest nacion in Ecuador, created by returning emigrants from the USA in the early 1990s.
They are highly organized and hierarchical with fee-paying members, and operate as a network
of cells in different neighbourhoods (Torres, 2006; Cerbino and Rodríguez, 2008; Santillán and
Varea, 2008: 82). The Latin Kings have rules in the form of the ‘Latin Kings bible’, and a
cultural repertoire where the gang builds its organisation or ‘nation’ by ‘planting a flag’ in a
specific urban territory (Cerbino and Rodríguez, 2008: 43-48). Cerbino and Rodríguez argue that
this makes the Latin Kings different to a more organic pandilla, seeing them as a type of socio-
cultural phenomenon born out of structural exclusion, reaching out to poor youths in
neighbourhoods in Quito and Guayaquil by building a ‘nation’ of ‘brothers’. There is a lack of
clarity about the extent to which naciones are involved in organised crime and drug trafficking,
and what is stereotyping and sensationalism. Torres (2006) argued that in terms of homicidal
violence in Guayaquil the Latin Kings were the most violent nacion, whereas in 2007 the Latin
Kings in Quito were given legal status - a symbolic and judicial recognition of the group - to
transform them into a social organization which even received backing from President Correa at
the time (Carrion, 2006). Certainly there appears to be much more criminal violence perpetrated
by the Latin Kings in Guayaquil than Quito.
(c) Mexico
As the 1950 Luis Buñuel film Los Olvidados highlights well, gangs are by no means new
phenomena in Mexican society. As is evidenced by studies of urban slums during the 1950s and
1960s such as those produced by Oscar Lewis (1961), for example gangs emerged
organically as vehicles for youth to bond with other peers, and generally do the things that
adolescents often do all over the world. As Rossana Reguillo’s (1991) classic study of street
gangs in Guadelajara highlights, however, this logic began to change in the 1980s. She describes
how the gangs – known as ‘bandas – became primarily concerned with the provision of
collective cultural reference points and a sense of belonging in contexts where traditional
institutions – such as the family, work, school, or the Church – were being eroded due to broader
structural transformations, including in particular economic liberalisation. As such, she describes
them as a “new” expression of youth culture, adapted to a new reality. This theme has persisted
in contemporary gang studies, with much research focused on the social identities and quotidian
practices of gang members (Castillo Berthier, 2002, 2004; Castillo Berthier and Jones, 2009;
Cruz Salazar, 2004; Gigengack, 2006; Herrera et al., 2009), although it should be noted that
there has been an increasing shift in emphasis towards the way that the Mexican gang experience
increasingly reflects the ‘cultural contact’ of young people with the US, whether through
involvement with gangs as a migrant or by knowing individuals who have emigrated (Hernandez
León, 1999; Nateras Domínguez, 2006, 2007). Certain studies have also focused on border cities,
12
such as Nogales, and the particular marginalized youth gang culture that has emerged there
(Rosas, 2012).
Mexican gangs have most recently also become a significant focus of interest in relation
to the ever increasing levels of violence associated with the rise of drug trafficking organisations
(DTOs) in Mexico since the early 2000s. Certainly, as Nathan Jones (2013: 8) has put it, “much
has been made about the potential alliance between cartels and street gangs”. He however goes
on to suggest that “while gangs and organized crime often share common members, most
Mexican gangs do not have extensive transnational connections or connections to large Mexican
DTOs”. Citing media reports, he contends that in 2009 there were more than 1,600 youth gangs
in Monterrey, but only 20 were identifiably involved in retail drug sales, and suggests that the
association that is often made between gangs and drugs therefore has more to do with media
scare-mongering, although he does also note that it is perhaps partly linked to the encroachment
of Central American maras in South Mexico. The problem, as Gareth Jones (2014), has
highlighted, is that the folding of gangs into a public security discourse means that they are
constructed in a particular way. Perhaps even more worrying, however, he also describes how
the category of ‘youth’ in general is increasingly being ascribed an inherent sense of ‘gang-ness’,
something that is leading to particular policing and governance practices.
(d) Venezuela
Despite the fact that Venezuela increasingly stands out as an emerging violent country,
with homicide rates steadily rising since 1995, to reach a homicide rate in 2012 of 54 per
100,000 (UNODC, 2014), there is a real paucity of gang research in the country. This is despite
the fact that much of this rising violence has been shown to be armed, urban, social, and –
according to the few primary studies that have been carried out – predominantly linked to gangs
(see Zubillaga, 2007, 2009, 2013; Antillano and Zubillaga, 2014). To a certain extent this
situation is due to the fact that gangs have only come to the fore of the violence panorama
relatively recently, and also because they tend to be disorganized, small local groups that do not
have a strong historical or political genesis. Certainly they lack the organisation of the naciones
in Ecuador, the comandos of Brazil, or the maras in Central America, and they do have the same
types of linkages to organized crime that gangs do in Colombia. Nevertheless, recent research
has highlighted how the Venezuelan state actively creates a “state of warfare” by promoting a
lethal stigmatization of “young, dark-skinned males from low-income areas” (Zubillaga et al.,
2015). What gang research there is in Venezuela is almost entirely focused on Caracas
(Pedrazzini and Sanchez, 1992; Zubillaga, 2009; Antillano and Zubillaga 2014). To a certain
extent this is due to the fact that gangs came to the fore with the Caracazo violent uprising that
occurred in poor neighbourhoods of Caracas in 1989, when inhabitants looted shops in protest at
the governments economic polices. As Mateo and González (1998: 230) observed, however,
gang violence in this period stood out as it was so ‘exaggerated’. There is little doubt that gangs
– known as bandas or ‘malandros’ – emerged as a particular sub-culture predicated on ‘rebellion
but not revolution’, with the major issue facing the marginalised youths who joined them less a
concern with changing the system than defending themselves from wider violence and
uncertainty. Gang members tend to act mainly to keep out rival gangs from their home
neighbourhoods, and provide law and order by executing known thieves (Zubillaga, 2007: 594).
Certainly, it is striking that in recent years gang violence in Caracas has increased despite the
13
poverty programs such as Barrio Dentro under the government of President Hugo Chavez,
leading to the paradox of ‘less inequality, more violence’ (Zubillaga, 2013).
(5) Classic themes regarding Latin American gangs
(a) Social embeddedness
An issue that is repeatedly underlined by research on Latin American gangs is that they
emerge from particular social contexts. Contrarily to the predominant interpretation of this gang-
context relationship that exists in the US gang literature, which has historically stressed (or
assumed) that gangs are the consequence of significant “social disorganization”, Latin American
studies have shown time and again that the relationships between gangs and their local
communities are often very strong and highly organized, if not necessarily with positive social
and political outcomes. Zaluar (1997, 2000) has for example shown how gang formations in Rio
de Janeiro favelas controlled territories in a way that she terms “perverse integration”, but other
studies have revealed how communities can relate more positively to gangs and violence
(Rodgers, 2006a), and also how gangs build reputations and extend their control through the
vigilante enforcement of existing norms vis-à-vis certain criminal activities, domestic violence
and child abuse, alcoholism, drug use and property disputes (Arias and Davis Rodrigues 2006).
Indeed, gangs may sometimes organize to ‘defend’ communities from outside incursion,
construct networks with other gangs and develop (hierarchical) structures for command and
control (Rodgers 2006a, Zubillaga, 2007). At the same time, some studies suggest that the
relationship between gangs and local communities is highly volatile, and can change very easily
(Rodgers, 2007b).
(b) Governance voids and parallel power
One reason why gangs emerge to provide security in lieu of state institutions such as the
police is the historical abandonment of poor communities in Latin American societies (see
O’Donnell, 1993). The withdrawal of the state leaves “governance voids” (Kruijt and Koonings,
1999) that gangs fill. At the same time, however, the rise of gangs as a localised form of
‘sovereign power’ in the urban periphery of many Latin American cities has led to debates
around whether gangs constitute a ‘parallel power’ to the state or not. For example, in
Cochabamba, Bolivia, Goldstein (2003: 207) argues that in the absence of the state “gangs…
provide an alternative justice system - a parallel state, if you will - among the poorest”. Arias
(2006: 2), on the other hand, argues that localised drug gang empires are not so much constructed
in the absence of the state but in coalition with corrupt elements of state institutions and
politicians, giving gangs a “degree of localised power to fend off state agents trying to repress
crime”. In Medellín, gangs were subject to control by paramilitary groups linked to the state in
the early 2000s, the role of the gangs became linked to a broader, if perverse, state project
(Noche y Niebla, 2002; Baird, 2013). Having said this, Perlman (2009: 63-64) contends that
while gangs do partially fill the state vacuum in Rio’s favelas, they cannot rightly be considered
a parallel state if they provide no welfare or social services. More generally, this issue has given
rise to debates about the nature of democracy in post-Cold War Latin America, and more
specifically whether a new form of partial democratic governance has emerged in the region that
normatively involves limited forms of violence (Arias and Goldstein, 2010), while others have
14
argued that violence is part and parcel of contemporary urban governance in Latin American
(Rodgers, 2006b).
(c) Machismo/gender
Due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Latin American gang members are
young men it is unsurprising that many scholars have related the phenomenon to machismo,
pathways to manhood, or masculinities (see e.g. Barker, 2005; Baird, 2012b; Zubillaga, 2009;
Zubillaga and Briceño-Leon, 2001). Such studies analyze youths’ reasons for joining gangs,
unpacking male identity and the struggle for male status and esteem in contexts of pervasive
exclusion. In such settings gangs become attractive mechanisms for impoverished boys to
achieve manhood, and gang members themselves become figures of admiration. Masculine
identities are manifest both as male-on-male and male-on-female violence, as well as the use of
‘beating-in’ for new gang members, and gang rape inductions of female gang members in
Central America (Hume, 2004; Aguilar Umaña & Rikkers, 2012). Portrayals of female gang
members, by contrast, have tended to highlight their status as exploited sex objects (for example
Hopper and Moore, 1990; Baird, 2015; although Gay, 2005, presents a different picture). In
Latin America empowered female gang members and all-female youth gangs are rare, but whilst
still a minority, female gangs have often been observed in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mexico
(Cummings, 1994; Rodgers, 2006a; Winton, 2007). Looking forward, there is a clear need to
further understand the gendered range of interactions that girls and women have with gang-life,
the co-construction of masculinities within gang socialisation spaces, and the interconnectedness
between gender and class, race and gang violence (Baird, 2015; Hume and Wilding, 2015).
(6) Emergent themes regarding Latin American gangs
(a) Gang evolution
A major lacuna in the literature on current Latin American gangs is the lack of
longitudinal studies, with most investigations presenting gangs in a “snapshot” manner, as they
exist at a specific moment in time. This can be partly attributed to the intrinsic methodological
difficulties involved in carrying out detailed primary research on gangs (see Baird, 2009;
Rodgers, 2007a), which means that many studies of gangs are often rather serendipitous in
nature, or the indirect result of other investigations, neither of which are necessarily conducive to
repeated study over time. Yet even longitudinal studies of general urban slum life are rare
(examples include Moser, 2009; Perlman, 2010). Specific studies of gang evolution are even
rarer, although there are exceptions; the work of Dennis Rodgers and José Luis Rocha –
including especially Rodgers and Rocha (2013) – on Nicaraguan gangs is currently unique in this
respect. This means, however, that we understand much less about Latin American gang
evolution than we might, despite the fact that this is a critical issue (Ayling, 2011; Densley,
2014). Research has for example indicated that drug ‘penetration’ of poor neighbourhoods has a
transformative and even institutionalising effect on gangs, provoking higher economic flows, turf
wars over retail drugs sales, and enhancing the linkages between organised crime and the flow of
illicit weapons to gangs (Rodgers, 2013). In many cases, drug penetration has shifted gang
activities away from any initial sense of community service, welfare, or self-defence provision
15
towards more predatory forms of interaction with host communities (see Rodgers, 2006a,
2007b). This is also exemplified by Perlman (2009: 63), who concludes after decades in Rio’s
favelas, that despite initial being the guarantors of definite normative codes for social cohesion,
drug gangs eventually took “no responsibility for the general welfare of the population”.
(b) Transnationalism
The perceived and real movement of gangs across borders has led to a growing discourse
about the rise of “transnational gangs” (see Sullivan and Elkus, 2009; Cerbino and Barrios 2008).
Most recently, this discussion has focused principally on the Central American maras, which are
often depicted as transnational “super-gangs” – it is generally reported that there are two groups:
the Mara Dieciocho and the Mara Salvatrucha (also known as M-18 and MS-13) – that operate
territorially throughout the Central America isthmus and large swathes of the United States and
Canada. Law enforcement studies have repeatedly reported the supposed existence of links
between maras in the United States and in El Salvador, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) created a special task-force focusing on maras in December 2004, and to set up an office
in San Salvador in February 2005 specifically in order to monitor the phenomenon as a
transnational security threat. Most academic studies of the mara phenomenon have however
generally emphasized that these are principally local-level social forms, and that although local
maras often do explicitly identify with either the Mara Dieciocho or the Mara Salvatrucha,
neither über-mara is a federal structure, and much less a transnational one, with their federated
nature more imagined and symbolic of a particular historical origin than demonstrative of any
real unity, be it of leadership or action (see Jütersonke et al., 2009).
Having said this, there is no doubt that gang members do migrate although it would be
surprising if some did not considering the volume of individuals who do move – and beyond the
maras, Cerbino and Barrios (2008) and Queirolo Palas (2009) have reflected on the
transnationalism of the Latin Kings, who expanded from the USA to Ecuador in the early 1990s,
and then in the late 1990s from Ecuador to Spain, then to Italy, Belgium and Germany (Cerbino
and Barrios, 2008: 16). It is debateable, however, whether the Latin Kings in Spain arose because
of the gang’s transnational cultural influence per se, or rather as a consequence of the sons of
Ecuadorian economic migrants joining their parents Spain. This raises the question as to whether
these ‘transnational gangs’ should be understood as an increasingly globalised cultural-political
phenomenon and expression of youth organisation in contexts of persistent exclusion, as
purposefully directed or organized movements by gang, or simply the logical consequence of
general population mobility and the emergence of diasporas made up of individuals who move
between their countries of origin and residence. A more recent focus has been on border cities
such as Nogales, which straddles the international boundary line running between Arizona in the
US, and Sonora, in Mexico, and the particular gang cultures that emerge in such liminal spaces
(Rosas, 2012).
(c) The political economy of gang policy
Policies towards gangs have long been controversial. The infamous Mano Dura policies
introduced in Central American during the mid-2000s have for example widely been condemned
as having increased violence (Aguilar, 2006), and denounced as reflecting the oligarchic nature
of Central American societies (Rodgers and Muggah, 2009). This is one of the few gang policies
16
to have been scrutinized in this way, yet there is clear scope to put other policies under the
microscope. The notion of community policing, so popular in the 1990s, despite any lack of
evidence supporting it, would have been a case in point. More recently, the Citizen Security
paradigm that has emerged in Latin America as a post-dictatorship, post-Cold War reframing of
security away from existential threats to the state, towards individual insecurities based on rights
and citizenship, is a prime example of the primacy of policy rhetoric over empirical reality on the
ground (see Adams, 2012; Costa, 2012; Rodgers and Muggah, 2009; UNDP, 2013). On the one
hand, the rise of citizen security reflects the shifting challenges in the region towards non-
conflict crime and violence within democratic contexts. On the other hand, it is also part of a
long legacy of continuous evolving policy options that are clearly responding more to broader
political and economic imperatives than any verifiable empirical reality.
The stand-out indicator for violence, particularly for country comparisons and ‘progress’
on security is the homicide rate – see for example the annual Global Study on Homicide
(UNODC, 2014) – although this indicator is only a partial barometer of the complexities of
violent societies, and eminently “massaged” by the authorities (see Rodgers and Rocha, 2013, on
Nicaragua, for example). As gang activities account for a large proportion of homicidal violence
they have become the focus for many Citizen Security policies. Here, three main approaches to
gang violence have emerged; suppression and punitive measures involving incarceration and
policing; interventions such as negotiation and demobilisation of gang members; and prevention
initiatives to reduce both gang membership and the levels of violence used by gangs (Small
Arms Survey, 2010). Suppressive measures still predominate politicised, sensational and populist
responses to gang violence across the region, despite the clear lessons learned from the
limitations of mano dura policies in the past. However, pressures to reduce the homicide rate
coupled with the failure mano dura type crack-downs have led to increasing experimentation
with negotiation and demobilisation with gang members in cities such as Medellín and San
Salvador. Nevertheless, gang negotiations are notoriously fickle meaning the lasting impacts of
such processes are much debated.
(7) Conclusion: Towards an agenda for future research
Although there is a substantial body of knowledge about Latin American gangs, it is
undeniably patchy. In particular, it is characterised by significant geographical gaps, both in
terms of countries as well as spatial location. There for example seem to be no major studies of
gangs are Paraguay and Uruguay, despite the fact that both media reports and urban governance
policies suggesting that they exist in both societies. It is also striking that most primary studies of
gangs have been carried out in large cities, despite the rise of small and medium sized cities in
Latin America during the past two decades. There is clearly a need for more research within the
region, including in particular studies that go beyond the obvious cities such as Rio de Janeiro,
Medellín or San Salvador. Further, despite researchers visiting communities with significant
gang presence, there is surprisingly limited empirical data collected from gang members
themselves. To a certain extent this is due to practical issues, but there are examples both in
Latin America and beyond of studies that have directly engaged with gang members, and it is
no accident that these are often the most insightful. At the same time, it is also notable that only a
minority of youth, even in the most gang-saturated neighbourhoods, join gangs. This is
something that Latin American gang research has rarely considered, and investigating this would
likely contribute considerably to understandings of gang violence prevention.
17
Another issue concerning the current state of Latin American gang research is that most
studies tend to focus on a single gang or a group of gangs that operate in a given community, and
rarely consider the gang or the context relationally, particularly cross-culturally. Many causal
factors of gang violence are shared across cities in the region, although of course with localised,
culturally specific nuances. There is therefore an obvious need to develop more comparative
research, both due to the putatively increasing transnationalization of gangs as well as for the
way that comparison is “revealing [of] the assumptions, limits and distinctiveness of particular
theoretical or empirical claims, and …for formulating new lines of inquiry and more situated
accounts” (McFarlane 2010, 726). These approaches are critical for more nuanced
understandings of why gangs exist, particularly when speaking to policy, in order to challenge
simplistic punitive responses, the regressive media sensationalism that stokes public fear, and to
fundamentally change the way people think about gangs. Similarly, the need to develop more
longitudinal research, to allow an appreciation of the evolution of gangs, is essential.
Part of this clearly requires the development of new forms of research, including more
collaborative work between gang researchers most research so far has been carried out on an
individual basis but also with gang members. The past few years have seen the emergence of
several NGOs such as Homies Unidos in El Salvador that have begun to create links with
researchers, facilitating interaction with both current and retired gang members, but it is also
something that is required at a more individual level, in order to allow truly collaborative crafting
of the publically published work about gangs. Currently, altogether too much research is being
written with an eye to promote particular perspectives and policies rather than provide a balanced
picture of what is often a very tragic situation. This is particularly true with regard to the
controversial promotion of a securitization of development that is occurring both in Latin
America and elsewhere (see Jones and Rodgers, 2015), as well as other more obviously
pernicious forms of stigmatization that prevent any coherent tackling of the very real social issue
that Latin American gangs constitute.
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... Yet while specialised drug dealing gangs may exist, Klein (1995) contends that the number of US gangs that might be characterised as organised corporate drug-dealers is typically overstated by media and law enforcement. This view has been similarly echoed by researchers in other contexts (e.g., in Central and South American gang research; Rodgers & Baird, 2015). ...
... Others have argued for the distinction between different kinds of groups that may fall under a conceptual "gang" umbrella, with differences being drawn between groups such as street-gangs (Weerman et al., 2009), prison gangs (Pyrooz & Decker, 2019;Wood et al., 2014), organised crime groups (Alach, 2011;Rodgers & Baird, 2015), and terrorist or extremist groups (Curry, 2011;. ...
Thesis
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Gangs are associated with a range of social, criminal, and economic harms. Yet, after almost a century of dedicated research, the development of effective and ethical responses to such harms has proven difficult. Recent attempts to address this have seen the establishment of the Eurogang Program; an international group of gang researchers and practitioners coordinated around a consensus definition of gangs. Since its recent inception, the Eurogang Program has quickly become the dominant framework of research and practice. While much is being staked on the success of the Eurogang Program, the suitability of such a programme for progressing gang research is yet to be thoroughly examined. In this thesis I therefore conduct a meta-theoretical examination of the state of gang research and particularly the Eurogang Program and its associated practices. By examining the frameworks underpinning gang research and drawing upon insights from the philosophy of science, I characterise the Eurogang approach as an attempt to coordinate gang research through means of unification (i.e., through the privileging of particular research perspectives and strategies to achieve coordination through consensus). I draw attention to some major limitations of these unificatory attempts and emphasise how the consensus Eurogang definition does not appropriately set up researchers to be able to develop the various kinds of conceptual and theoretical understandings of gangs required to improve gang policy and practice. Instead, I make the case for a framework known as epistemic pluralism, in which researchers do not pursue consensus but rather cultivate multiple systems of knowing to serve a variety of different research purposes. After establishing the benefit of epistemic pluralism, I examine how such a framework may be applied to the gang field. This involves specific discussion of the various aims of gang researchers and the roles that conceptual strategies (i.e., definitional, classificatory, and explanatory approaches) play in providing the pragmatic and epistemic (i.e., knowledge-related) insights required to meet them. These discussions offer a novel perspective on the roles of conceptual strategies in the process of knowledge production and justification. Having established the general kinds of strategies required for different research purposes, I then consider some specific examples of conceptual strategies that are relevant to meeting the various needs of gang researchers. This takes the form of the Conceptual Framework for Gang Research (CFGR). This novel approach offers greater opportunities for more meaningful kinds of research coordination and maximises the likelihood of establishing the conceptual and theoretical understandings of gangs required to improve gang policy and practice. The value of this thesis as a case study for pursuing epistemic pluralism in the sciences is also discussed.
... Idleness as a "lazy tendency" to crime seems to underscore that, as Hoffman (2011) said, violence is also hard labour. It might sound that easy money in gang literature (Rodgers & Baird, 2015) has been misunderstood in NEET and crime literature for Mexico as just "lazy" money. ...
Preprint
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Since 2007, academia, media and politicians in Mexico have discussed the causes and precursors of the Mexican Drug War. One of the contentious points is the profile of those participating in the violent conflict. Many from diverse positions have pointed out that the Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEET) youth population is the leading participant. These assertions have cultivated policy design for the federal government with a new first job trainee program. I dispute this characterisation with data from vital statistics and the recent official inmate survey. Rather than a set fixed profile, I propose an adaptable life-course development description using the inmate survey data with a logit analysis of the probability of being sentenced for homicide in Mexico since 2006, the year of the war onset. By theoretically criticising NEET, I propose studying youth transitions to adulthood and socioeconomic marginalisation instead. The primary purpose of these criticisms is to inform and improve development policies focused on youth crime prevention and reduce violence in Mexico and other countries in Latin America facing increasing violent youth crime.
... There is an excellent body of empirically grounded, contemporary research on gangs in the region showing that drugs, guns and gangs undoubtedly coalesce on the streets (Harriott and Katz, 2015;Rodgers and Baird, 2015;Edmonds, 2016;Deosaran, 2017;Wolf, 2017;Fontes, 2018;Gutierrez Rivera, Strønen and Ystanes, 2018;e.g. Bergmann, 2020;Evans and Jaffe, 2020). ...
Article
Full-text available
At the end of the 1990s gang driven homicide rates in Belize and Trinidad boomed and today remain amongst the highest in the world. That these homicide booms occurred as drug transhipments increased, makes casual connections between drugs and violence an intuitive and frequent assumption. This article argues that the role that drugs transhipment plays in sparking transitions to violence is often assumed and overstated, and alone is a weak predictor of violence. The comparative research presented finds that historic, chronic vulnerability in the poor neighbourhoods of eastern Port of Spain and southside Belize City played a defining role in the rise of street gangs; whilst increased lethality is directly attributable to inflows of firearms, which had different transhipment routes and political economies to drugs when homicide booms occurred. Ominously, once a violent street culture is established, it is resilient, guns stay, gangs evolve, and homicide levels persist.
... 3 These and other criminal groups started to take over the favelas in the 1980s when larger amounts of Colombian cocaine entered Rio de Janeiro's drug market. 4 Their sale in these poorly policed neighbourhoods turned out to be a highly lucrative business. As drug trafficking became increasingly competitive and dangerous, it soon required special protective measures, such as the corruption of local public officials and the use of 'foot soldiers', later equipped with illegally trafficked machine guns and other military weaponry. ...
Article
Rio de Janeiro’s ‘war on drugs’ is notorious for its outrageous violence in the metropolis’ poorest neighbourhoods, the ‘favelas’, which are home to over a million people. Many of these favelas are under the rule of heavily armed drug gangs whose social and territorial control is only sporadically challenged by the state. The local government has increasingly opted for so-called ’incursions’ into these dangerous places, i.e., raid-like operations by special police units to arrest criminal suspects and confiscate weapons and illegal narcotic drugs. Whenever possible, these units are protected by armoured vehicles and ironclad helicopters with snipers on board. Routinely, this ‘war approach’ results in the use of lethal force and other traumatic incidents. More than once, Brazil has been internationally condemned for serious human rights violations in this particular context. Meanwhile, alarming references suggest that arbitrary killings and other inhumane acts have recently become widespread or even systematic, raising the question of whether there is a reasonable basis to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed. This article examines the crime’s contextual elements by focussing on the period of Federal Intervention into public security matters within the jurisdiction of the state of Rio de Janeiro (16 February 2018–31 December 2018).
... Ethnographies from the United Kingdom (Densley, 2011;Hallsworth, 2013;Ilan, 2015), France (Mohammed and Mucchielli, 2016), Spain (Feixa and Romaní, 2014), the USA (Flores, 2014;Martinez, 2016;Tapia, 2017;Dur an, 2018) and Central America (Cruz, 2010; Rodgers and Baird, 2015), from Guatemala (Levenson, 2013;O'Neill, 2015;Fontes, 2018) to Honduras (Wolseth, 2011;Rivera, 2013), to El Salvador (Zilberg, 2011;Ward, 2013), describe how "gang talk" is used as a political windfall for authoritarian politics. For example, the Trump administration strategically associated Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) with migrant "caravans" moving through Central America (Fontes, 2018) and used "the gang" to politically construct a "Latino crime threat" in the USA (Flores, 2014) that resulted in children being separated from their parents at the border and increased use of detention and deportation to deter migrants and asylum seekers. ...
Article
Purpose In their 1999 classic, Crime is Not the Problem , Zimring and Hawkins changed the way criminologists thought about crime and violence simply by forcing us to distinguish between them. In so doing, they advanced an agenda for a more effective response to the real “crime” problem in America – violence. In this short commentary, the authors apply this logic to gang research and responses. The authors argue police fall short in responding to “gangs” because researchers and policymakers have defined them in terms of criminal behaviour writ large, not the problem that really needs policing – the precise social and spatial dynamics of gang violence. The purpose of this paper is to stand on the shoulders of others who have stated violence trumps gangs when it comes to policy and practice and provide a conceptual review of the literature that captures mainstream and critical perspectives on gangs and offers both sides some common ground to start from as they contemplate “policing” gangs with or without police. Design/methodology/approach A review of the extant literature. Findings The authors stand on the shoulders of others who have stated violence trumps gangs when it comes to policy and practice, to provide a conceptual review of the literature that captures mainstream and critical perspectives on gangs, in North American and European contexts, and offers both sides some common ground to start from as they contemplate “policing” gangs with or without police. Originality/value The paper is a conceptual piece looking at policing gang violence versus gang crime. The paper aims to restart the debate around the role of crime in gangs and gangs in crime. This debate centres around whether gangs should be understood as primarily criminal groups, whether “the gang” is to blame for the crime and violence of its members and what feature of collective crime and violence designate “gangness”. We use that debate to reflect past and current police practices towards gangs.
Article
Is it possible to disengage from street gangs in communities and districts where gang organizations rule? We argue that disengagement is possible when this process does not alter the social order that allows street gangs to continue controlling and establishing the rules that govern economic activities and relationships in the barrios they control. We explore the process of gang disengagement under criminal governance in El Salvador, a country plagued by the powerful MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs. We conducted a survey with nearly 1,200 people with a history of gang membership and 25 in-depth interviews with former gang members. We find that disengagement through religious conversion allows the gang to continue exerting power over the deserters, while at the same time enforcing religious commitment to the congregation. The religious community provides the normative framework that reassures the gang that its former associates will not act against it, consolidating its local authority.
Article
For nearly a century, gang scholarship has remained foundational to criminological theory and method. Twenty-first-century scholarship continues to refine and, in some cases, supplant long-held axioms about gang formation, organization, and behavior. Recent advances can be traced to shifts in the empirical social reality and conditions within which gangs exist and act. We draw out this relationship—between the ontological and epistemological—by identifying key macrostructural shifts that have transformed gang composition and behavior and, in turn, forced scholars to revise dominant theoretical frameworks and analytical approaches. These shifts include large-scale economic transformations, the expansion of punitive state interventions, the proliferation of the Internet and social media, intensified globalization, and the increasing presence of women and LGBTQ individuals in gangs and gang research. By introducing historically unprecedented conditions and actors, these developments provide novel opportunities to reconsider previous analyses of gang structure, violence, and other related objects of inquiry. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Criminology, Volume 5 is January 2022. Please see http://www.annualreviews.org/page/journal/pubdates for revised estimates.
Article
The article investigates how exposure to gang-affiliated peers affects social behaviors and attitudes of early adolescents. Much of the literature finds that exposure to gangs contributes to adolescents’ antisocial behaviors. According to other studies, however, gang exposure can also promote prosocial behaviors. The present article re-examines this contradictory evidence, exploring potential complementarity of both reactions to gangs. Using a survey of 1,782 adolescents aged ten to 13 from rural Colombia, I compare adolescents who are and are not in a school class with members of youth gangs. I exploit the fact that schools in rural Colombia are unsegregated. Moreover, the presence of youth gangs across these schools is linked to incidence of historic armed conflict rather than typical forms of social disadvantage. This comparative setting thus allows me to establish an unconfounded relationship between exposure to gang-affiliated classmates and social outcomes. The analysis reveals gender differences in the effect of youth gang exposure. I find that girls react to male gang classmate by increased involvement in prosocial organizations. Boys, by contrast, adjust to male gangs by expressing more antisocial attitudes. There are no gender differences in the effect of gang classmates on alcohol consumption (an indicator of antisocial behavior). The article shows that the well-documented antisocial adjustments to gangs are – population-wide – complemented by prosocial adjustments, with gender being a key moderator. I discuss the implications of these findings for theories of violence and social change after conflict.
Article
Full-text available
The murder rate in Port of Spain, Trinidad, rose dramatically around the turn of the millennium, driven overwhelmingly by young men in gangs in the city’s poor neighborhoods. The literature frequently suggests a causal relationship between gang violence and rising transnational drug flows through Trinidad during this period. However, this is only part of a complex picture and misses the crucial mediating effect of evolving male identities in contexts of pronounced exclusion. Using original data, this article argues that historically marginalized “social terrains” are particularly vulnerable to violence epidemics when exposed to the influence of transnational drug and gun trafficking. When combined with easily available weapons, contextually constructed male hegemonic orders that resonate with the past act as catalysts for contemporary gang violence within those milieus. The study contributes a new empirical body of work on urban violence in Trinidad and the first masculinities-specific analysis of this phenomenon. We argue that contemporary gang culture is a historically rooted, contextually legitimated, male hegemonic street project in the urban margins of Port of Spain.
Article
In this review of violence in Latin America, I have attempted to organize the region's scholarly literature around the most influential and leading research issues. Three main lines of research have materialized from this overview. First, one line of research is concerned with the difference between the old patterns of violence and the so-called new violence. Second, a line of research focuses on the state's responses to violence. Third, a similar, although much broader, line of research focuses on the public's responses to violence. The article describes a number of paradoxes and paradigms around the study of violence in the region. Further work toward organization and synthesis of research and issues in the region is necessary.
Article
Full-text available
The international community has been slow to appreciate the growing problem of the participation of armed children and youths in non-political disputes, encountered in both developed and developing countries, from Haiti to Northern Ireland. While there is widespread recognition of the issue of ‘child soldiers’ (e.g. www.childsoldiers.org/ ) there are also many children who participate in organised armed groups that function outside traditionally defined war zones. Nowhere is this issue more acute than in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There may be more people (and specifically children) dying from small-arms fire in Rio de Janeiro than in many armed conflicts elsewhere. Most are bound up in the relentless conflicts involving factions of drugs traffickers fighting within and between Rio's favelas , or shanty towns, and their burgeoning drugs trade.
Book
Lucia is a Resident of Jakeira, one of the many favelas or shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil, the fifth most populous country in the world. Robert Gay, a sociologist from Connecticut College and experienced researcher on Brazil, pieced together this account of her life in a series of interviews conducted between 1999 and 2002. A woman of color now in her early thirties, Lucia is a survivor, her story a harrowing one. Her testimony offers, as Gay affirms, the "detailed and intensely personal perspective" of a woman struggling each day in a "male-centered and male-dominated world" of violence, fear, and economic hardship. In human terms, it brings to the reader one version of the precarious circumstances facing millions of poor people in the world's most rapidly growing large cities, the urban centers of the Third World.