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Duros & Gangland Girlfriends: Male Identity, Gang Socialisation and Rape in Medellín, in AUYERO, J., BOURGOIS, P. & SCHEPER-HUGHES, N. (Eds), Violence at the Urban Margins in the Americas, Oxford: Oxford University Press.



BOOK AVAILABLE AT: In the Americas, debates around issues of citizen's public safety--from debates that erupt after highly publicized events, such as the shootings of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin, to those that recurrently dominate the airwaves in Latin America--are dominated by members of the middle and upper-middle classes. However, a cursory count of the victims of urban violence in the Americas reveals that the people suffering the most from violence live, and die, at the lowest of the socio-symbolic order, at the margins of urban societies. However, the inhabitants of the urban margins are hardly ever heard in discussions about public safety. They live in danger but the discourse about violence and risk belongs to, is manufactured and manipulated by, others--others who are prone to view violence at the urban margins as evidence of a cultural, or racial, defect, rather than question violence's relationship to economic and political marginalization. As a result, the experience of interpersonal violence among the urban poor becomes something unspeakable, and the everyday fear and trauma lived in relegated territories is constantly muted and denied. This edited volume seeks to counteract this pernicious tendency by putting under the ethnographic microscope--and making public--the way in which violence is lived and acted upon in the urban peripheries. It features cutting-edge ethnographic research on the role of violence in the lives of the urban poor in South, Central, and North America, and sheds light on the suffering that violence produces and perpetuates, as well as the individual and collective responses that violence generates, among those living at the urban margins of the Americas.
Duros and Gangland Girlfriends:
Male Identity, Gang Socialisation and Rape in Medellín
Adam Baird
in! Medellín,! in! AUYERO,! J.,! BOURGOIS,! P.! &! SCHEPERLHUGHES,! N.! (Eds),! Violence, at, the,
This chapter uses original empirical data from marginalised urban communities in Medellín,
Colombia, to move beyond simplistic interpretations of male violence by considering the nexus
between masculinities and class, gang sub-culture, and the role of both men and women in the
reproduction of urban violence. Conceptually, Pierre Bourdieu's concept of capital is used to
highlight the performance and display of gangland masculine identities with particular attention
given to the complex role that gangland girlfriends play in both reinforcing certain 'successful'
male gang identities, whilst simultaneously becoming victims of a sexual violence, namely rape.
gangs; urban violence; male violence; masculinities; Medellín; Bourdieu; rape; sexual violence
Introduction: Negotiating Pathways to Manhood through Gang Membership1
Youth gangs are paradigmatic of urban violence and are generally associated with socio-
economic exclusion2. Poor young men overwhelmingly provide the human capital for continued
gang membership and at the same time are the principal victims of homicidal violence3. There is
also increasing acceptance of the connection between gang membership and the construction of
masculine identities (Covey, 2003; Barker, 2005; Rodgers, 2006; Dowdney, 2007; Hagedorn,
2008). Muncie (2009) has argued that much poor, male youth violence is perpetrated as a
‘maverick’ form of masculinity by those who have grown up in economically deprived areas at
the margins of mainstream society. Over fifty years ago, Cloward and Ohlin (1960) observed the
‘aberrant behaviour [that] may result’ when individuals encounter obstacles to growing up.
Similarly, other studies that link versions of masculinity to violence (see Barker, 2005: 71, 82;
Yablonsky, 1997: 172; Hume in Pearce, 2006: 70) point to structural exclusion which fosters the
development of youth gangs, where violent and macho activities are used by disadvantaged
youths who seek to restore esteem through the ‘glittering prizes’ of the gangland life-style,
regarded as ‘indissoluble’ from masculine identity (Pitts, 2008: 94-95). This chapter seeks
understand the relationship between masculinities and violence in a nuanced, multi-dimensional
way; as Hume & Wilding point out, it is at the “intersection between race, class and gender, that
violence is most productively understood” (this volume).
The gang as a manifestation of “protest masculinity” amidst socio-economic exclusion is not a
new one (Adler, 1928). Enduring exclusion generates a collective sense of emasculation among
marginalized young men as they are blocked from achieving the traditional male identities they
are expected to live up to, which can led them to embrace rebellious processes of
masculinisation. Bloch and Niederhoffer claim that where male adolescents are “cut off from the
possibility of manhood for a prolonged period”, gangs function as vehicles for satisfying their
urge for male adulthood (in Yablonsky, 1997: 171, 172). Bourgois has made similar observations
in his study of Puerto Rican drug gangs in New York. While men with business acumen and
diverse progeny command ‘respect’, these masculinising processes are hindered by social
exclusion: “The former modalities of male respect are no longer achievable within the conjugal
household… One can discern the gender-specific form of the experience of social
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marginalization in the Puerto Rican diaspora” (Bourgois, 2003: 293, 295). Puerto Rican drug
gangs emerged as epiphenomena of systematic exclusion tied to the political economy of the city
which blocked access to the opportunities that defined dignified pathways to manhood
(Bourgois, 2003: 319).
Similarly, in Guinea Bissau Vigh contends that young men face “social death” as the
conventional pathways to male adulthood with esteem and dignity have been closed by economic
decline. In response, to avoid the shame and frustration of emasculation, many male youth seek
alternative means to become men – through migration, drug trafficking, or becoming child
soldiers where “war becomes a terrain of possibility” rather than a terrain of death (Vigh, 2006:
31; also see Adams, 2012: 22). In an excellent body of research into gangs and exclusion in Cape
Town, South Africa, Jensen (2008) has likewise analysed the agterbuurte gang member who
becomes a ‘bad mother fucker’ through heroic identification with the gang in order to invert a
sense of masculine disempowerment (Jensen, 2008: 92).
Emasculation contributes to the reproduction and reinforcement of youth gangs because they are
tools to mitigate such feelings, becoming instrumental in negotiating pathways to manhood.
Where gangs persist across generations in a given neighbourhood, they become a masculine
system of influence (also see Baird, 2013), symptomatic of continual marginalisation from the
productive socio-cultural and economic practices of urban life. Latin America has widespread
poverty and weak systems of governance, but suffers chronically from inequality, most visible in
its cities where the rich and poor live in closer proximity. This contributes to many youths’
gravitation towards gangs, so much so in many Central American countries that some scholars
liken them to forms of dystopian social organisation or collective movements (Beall and Fox,
2009: 186; Rodgers, 2006: 288).
Conceptually I examine social exclusion and masculinisation as the basis for the (re)generation of
youth gangs and violence. The endeavour is to understand the processes that lead to male youths
being socialised, generation after generation, into gangs. Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and
capital (1977) have been used to examine how masculine identity is reproduced in circumstances
of deprivation; how masculine habitus latent subjective urges or dispositions to become men -
animates new generations of boys to accumulate masculine assets or capital through gang
membership in an attempt to achieve manhood.
The interaction of girls and women with gangs is crucial to the process of male identity formation
in the gang and receives particular attention in this chapter, not least because women’s roles in
gangs are so understudied, but also because singular focuses on male-dominated homicide rates
obfuscate the range of other violences suffered by women (see also Hume & Wilding, this
volume). Here I examine how sexual access to young women becomes another capital or
‘glittering prize’ of gang membership that has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing gang
identities, hence perpetuating their existence.
Research in Context
Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city with some 2.5 million dwellers, has a long history of
gang related violence and drug trafficking linked to the dynamics of the broader armed conflict.
Growing up in these neighbourhoods is challenging where generalised poverty, socio-economic
exclusion and the traumas of everyday violence severely limit opportunities for young people.
The ubiquity of the drugs trade and gang presence across generations has led to chronic levels of
violence, which have promoted social and family disorder with fatherless households the norm.
Sexual and domestic violence are pervasive, as are levels of alcoholism and drug addiction
local drugs sales being the principal income generator for gangs. Amidst such challenges, these
neighbourhoods are also sites of tremendous resilience, agency and rebusque the creative
capacity for day-to-day survival of local inhabitants. However, the focus here is upon gang
socialisation, violence and gender.
This chapter is based on interviews with a range of gang members and their (ex)girlfriends, and
non-gang members, supported by a broad body of ethnographic work conducted intermittently
between 2007-2012 (Baird, 2009). It should be flagged up that of the gang members cited here,
Sayayo, Peludo, Tino, Notes, Junior, Niñez, Jose and Ceferino, all bar Junior who was ten
years old and running drugs and guns around the neighbourhood smoked marijuana, took
cocaine and drank alcohol, most of them heavily. Peludo stands out as he entered the gang as a
sicario assassin at the age of twelve. The two non-gang members cited here – Sammy and Pepe –
could be described as proactive or ‘prosocial’ members of the community, because they worked
at a youth-based community organisation (see Baird, 2012). The (ex)girlfriends cited are Negra,
Femina and Diablis, all in their twenties. They had all headed out in their early teens to ‘party’
with gang members, but had now left that life behind. Negra and Femina had ex-gang member
boyfriends with children by them. They all took a lot of cocaine and ecstasy in their earlier years
partying with gang members. Femina euphemistically said that in her past she had exchanged sex
for ‘material things’, which she distinguished from being a sex worker, and Diabilis recounted a
harrowing story of rape. All names used in this chapter are pseudonyms chosen by the
interviewees themselves.
Gangland masculinities
Exclusion as emasculation
We should be careful not to over-simplify or stereotype male identity and we should rightly
speak of masculinities and not masculinity. However, the most common and somewhat
exaggerated version of hegemonic masculinity across Latin America is defined by the notion of
machismo, the visible symbols of which are male displays of wealth, sexual conquest, and power
over others. Machismo is culturally rooted in gender inequalities that cut across class divisions
and encompasses the attributes of social status, material wealth, sexual prowess, and a
predilection to violence (Gutmann and Viveros Vigoya, 2005: 118). Machismo in Medellín is
somewhat exaggerated as Sammy, one youth who was not in a gang articulated: “Being a man is
to be strong, a brute, bringing home money, a protector, skilful, a womaniser, a chauvinist,
macho, having power, being respected” (Sammy, 03/06/2008). Yet navigating pathways to
manhood and ‘doing’ gender in this performative sense varies according to the possibilities of
accessing diverse ‘masculinisation opportunities’. In Medellín these depend considerably on the
‘tools at hand’ linked to the socio-economic circumstances male youths grow up in, which vary
dramatically in such an unequal city.
One evening I spent in the wealthy neighbourhood of Parque Lleras contrasted starkly with the
previous night spent in a poor part of town called La Salle. In Lleras, the popular image of the
‘successful’ macho man is one who has a well-paid executive job, comes from a ‘good’ family,
drives a prestigious 4x4 car, wears expensive Ralph Lauren polo shirts or suits, drinks Chivas
Regal whisky, and has several attractive female friends or a beautiful wife. These displayed
trappings of wealth and status are the bases of his masculinity identity (in public at least). The
popular perspective of the macho man in La Salle is one who owns a fast Pulsar motorcycle,
wears expensive sneakers and an expensive pair of jeans, and likewise has the capacity to
captivate attractive girls. In both Lleras and La Salle, macho ‘success’ and status was established
through the accumulation of masculine capital, which is at once material and symbolic.
Although the specific material capital they accumulated were not the same given the
differentiated ‘masculinisation opportunities’ they have, the way masculine habitus played out in
both locations that disposition to seek locally accepted male identity, esteem and ‘success’ –
was actually the very same process. In La Salle ‘success’ was displayed most visibly by gang
members, which we will return to later in the chapter, whereas the macho men in Lleras were
more likely businessmen from ‘good families’. I could not help thinking that if the businessmen
had been born in the poor neighbourhoods around La Salle they would have grown up to become
gang members to achieve the same macho, alpha-male or hegemonic status. This shows how
differentiated tools or masculinisation opportunities lead to decidedly different actions to attain
the same goals of male status and power (see also Kersten, 2001).
Exclusion generates emasculation. When the acquisition and accumulation of masculine capital is
denied to men by structural obstacles rooted in the prevailing socio-political economy of the city,
they will invariably consider alternative means of attaining masculine capital. They do so, in part,
because masculine habitus will dispose them to reproduce culturally valued male practices in
their neighbourhood. Emasculation makes the relative riches of gang membership a standard
bearer of male success. In such contexts masculine habitus is more likely to lead youths to join
gangs than more affluent contexts with less gang presence and other attractive and legal
masculinisation opportunities. Therefore, urban exclusion creates fertile grounds for gang
membership. This was articulated best by gang members themselves.
Sayayo talks about growing up fast, selling sweets on the street at the age of nine. At the
age of fourteen he became a gang member:
Sayayo: I hit the streets to work when I was nine… by the time I turned fifteen I had
my own plaza [drugs corner], I was earning well, had my own place
Adam: How old were you when you felt like an independent man then?
S: At fifteen
A: And whom did you admire as a kid?
S: There were a lot of guys round here who were always in shootouts. When I was a
kid I admired Pablo Escobar [cartel boss] you know, a man like that who manages to
get so much money and so much power, you see? They’re the role models we’ve seen
in this country. We live in a country where violence, cocaine an’ all the money that
follows. Round these neighbourhoods the chances of you becoming a professional, a
lawyer and doctor are real slim… round here people paint the houses of the rich. The
difference between the two is huge.
Kids round here admire gang members because they drive about in luxurious cars
with pretty girls… you can’t go to university, get a degree, buy a car, a house an’ all
that… you don’t have any opportunities to get that stuff honestly… you gotta think
how you can get it, if not your gonna be poor your whole life, your whole life a poor
You know how many of my friends they’ve killed? They’ve kill more than forty of
my friends. I’ve taken eight to hospital. About ten of my friends have survived all this
time, but that’s because they’ve left these parts for good… The only one left alive
who’s still here is my friend from the football club… all of the rest they killed, the
motherfuckers. All of my friends from childhood, my brother, my cousin, they’ve
killed all of them.
A: D’you think that violence can become almost normal?
S: Of course, human beings become accustomed to it. It’s about getting used to it, you
know. But we did some good stuff, we killed a few rapists… The thing is, when you
have to live in a bad place, and you’re not a bad person, you’ve still got to defend
yourself. When I picked up a gun for the first time I felt content because I had
something to defend myself with, you understand? (Sayayo 30/11/11)
In the poor neighbourhoods of Medellín there is a perpetual lack of legitimate opportunities for
social mobility for most male youth. They are denied the education and steady remunerative
work that would otherwise enable them to attain dignified masculinisation opportunities as
young adults. Sayayo is an example, he began working as a street vendor at nine years old and is
acutely aware of the inequalities in his cities and the dearth of dignified opportunities growing
up. This is reflected in his narrative when he compares the impossibility of becoming a doctor or
lawyer, to the reality of low paid manual labour painting wealthy people’s houses. The sheer
violence of gang life is also made terrifyingly clear by the amount of his friends who were killed.
Half of the gang members interviewed explicitly referred to limited opportunities borne out of
poverty as a causal factor that led them to gang membership, precisely because gangs stand out
as instruments to mitigate the effects of emasculation, presenting themselves as an alternative
pathway to male identity and an outlet for youthful ambition. Pepe, in his early twenties, worked
for a community based organisation and was highly critical of gang membership. He spoke
lucidly about how gangs present themselves as alternative pathways:
I reckon it’s easier to join gangs because there’s economic motivation. I think that
when a lad has difficulties at home – and I’m not saying that I don’t have them – you
run out of ideas and you think ‘what am I going to do?’ Any opportunity that comes
along seems like a good one in those contexts. The first way out that comes along is
their first option… I think that they are models that reproduce themselves and they
reproduce with great ease and efficiency… imagine during this kid’s whole life at
home there’s not enough food or basic utilities; there are no loving relationships and
high levels of domestic violence; and the whole time they see this bloke who lives
locally who enjoys ‘accessories’. He’s got a motorbike, designer trainers, girls,
expensive clothes, all that sort of stuff. But he’s also got respect, recognition, power.
So of course the young lads round here say ‘fuck me, this is the ticket!’ (Pepe,
This suggests that gangs are a consequence of a struggle for male dignity within an urban context
of poverty and exclusion. Masculine habitus generates powerful underlying motivations for boys
and youths to seek pathways to manhood, which can encourage socialisation into the gang when
other pathways are unattractive or undignified. Whilst it helps us explain why the vast majority
of gang members in Medellín are poor, young men, we should be careful not to romanticise the
gang as a popular movement in a dystopian cityscape. This would be to deny youth in such
neighbourhoods their agency and obfuscate the fact that the majority of youths do not actually
join gangs, even in the most violent neighbourhoods (for a discussion see Baird, 2012).
Accumulation of Masculine Capital
The conceptual framework laid out in this chapter implies that youths navigate pathways to
manhood by accumulating culturally valued masculine capital. For many young men in Medellín
the gang is perceived in utilitarian terms, that is, as a reputational and economic project, a
mechanism to obtain wealth and status. Where exclusion impedes many male youths from the
legal and ‘socially positive’ accumulation of such capital, the gang emerges as an attractive
vehicle for obtaining and displaying masculine capital, where performing masculinity is crucial
to identity formation. Fast motorbikes, money in hand, sexual access to women, and ostentatious
drinking and partying, are predominant cultural signifiers of masculine capital amongst gang
members. As one gang member Ceferino noted:
The other thing is that you want to show off in a lot of ways, to be noticed by other
men, to make women look at you. Well, you get to a point where, it’s like, you
gotta stab someone up, ya know, the bloke who makes a name for himself, gets the
girls… Firing a gun gives you a fright first of all, but afterwards you don’t fell a
thing, you take it in your stride… It’s not the women’s fault though, gang members
are promiscuous, men are promiscuous (Ceferino, 05/11/11)
These performances provide reassurance for these young men of their masculinity. Wielding a
gun - or a knife - is a particularly symbolic masculine capital provoking fear, which they
interpret as ‘respect’. In fact, respect and fear are synonymous for gang members that when they
say ‘they respect me’, what they actually mean is ‘they fear me’. One gang member, Notes
(16/07/2008), pointed out the link between guns and masculinity in a matter of fact way: “Yeah
bro, you know what happens? The same thing that happens to all of us youngsters; picking up a
gun for the first time means putting on the big trousers”. This ‘respect’ helps generate a sense of
self-worth for these young men, and the ‘big trousers’ helps them develop a macho identity,
countering feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
Socialisation, admiration and duros
It was not uncommon for youths to indicate that they felt swept along by gang influences and
violence in their neighbourhood, shrugging their shoulders to say engaging with gangs was
beyond their control. This was often described as a matter-of-fact process.
The energy of the other person begins to stick to you. If you’re with a bad person,
you’re always gonna be with that negative energy, it sticks to you, so… you know,
no one’s like ‘yeah I wanna go an’ kill someone’, it’s just that this stuff creeps up on
you bit by bit, bit by bit, bit by bit… until pfffffum! It’s got you. And you’re in it.
You get me? (Tino, 20/11/11)
Gang ubiquity has a profound impact amongst children and youths in these neighbourhoods in
Medellin. As most of the interviewees related, male youth often find themselves socialised into
gangs because of the influence of friends on the street or siblings with whom they have grown
up. Yet there was a clear masculine logic underlying many youths’ decisions to join gangs.
Peludo was a mid-ranking gang member in his twenties who followed his older brother into the
gang4. He controlled a lucrative drug vending point at night on the edge of his neighbourhood
located high up on the hillside overlooking the lights of the city below. From up here, he
chuckled, we’re “just like the bourgeoisie”5.
[I joined a gang] to get a motorbike and girls. The girls, we’re never short of women,
never! They like our cars, our money from drug deals… You get used to that life, you
know. Women like men with guns, the shooters, because it gives you power [So
younger lads] look up to you and say ‘wow! I want to be just like you’ (Peludo)
The pursuit of masculine capital and the admiration of older gang members were indivisible
from processes of gang socialisation. Niñez explained why the older gang members
particularly the gang leaders or duros – were so admired:
The [duros] stand out because they’re well dressed, they’ve got cash in their pockets,
drinking, they ride a nice motorbike… You know what, a kid round here who’s 15 or
18 years old riding a good looking Pulsar [sports motorbike], with a chick on the
back… and he takes out one of those pistols… so a load of children see that ‘wow! I
wanna be like that guy on the corner with a Pulsar, a flashy pistol and a good looking
chick’. So that’s the role model that kids look up to nowadays, right? It’s very
powerful (Niñez, 20/11/11)
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Here space in the city is not just about geographic terrain, but also social relations (Rodgers,
2010). These relations are gendered, and as others have noted, male socialisation often figures
prominently as a form of violence transmission (Pearce, 2006; Gayle and Mortis, 2010; Barker,
2005). This is none more evident than in gangland territories.
Gender relations with street gangs in Medellín are both inclusive and exclusive: The gang’s
‘core’ or ‘full’ membership is a homosocial domain, a place of ‘homosocial enactment’
(Kimmel, 2004) which only permits, with very rare exceptions, hegemonic masculine identities.
This excludes femininities and a range of non-hegemonic masculine identities, such as
homosexual ones. Girls and women are almost never allowed to become core members of the
gang nor take part in the homosocial enactment of violence. These core activities are those that
generate a series of economic benefits of gang membership.
Girls and women in Medellín take on gang functions that do not involve direct violence, for
example, transporting drugs around a community, into a prison or a football stadium, or
collecting extortion money; but assassinating someone who does not pay up or engaging in gang
combat over turf is exclusively carried out by male gang members. Males are sanctioned to use
violence, to do this ‘work’, females are not. This gives men a position of dominance in the gang
structure and control of its economic rewards.
On the rare occasion women do become core members by engaging in systematic violence and
taking on leadership roles within the gang, they are obliged to go through a process of
masculinisation to successfully negotiate gang patriarchy. One ‘retired’ gang member in his
forties who was one of Pablo Escobar’s6 ‘lieutenants’ during the 1990s, commented: “There was
once a gang member who was a girl, but she became just like one of the men. In fact she was
even worse than the gang bosses, because being a woman she had to prove herself” (Jose,
20/07/2008). The oxymoronic ‘hyper-masculinised woman’ reflects the extremes that women
have to go to negotiate the patriarchal system within the gang. This casts light on why women
very rarely become leaders or power-holders. It was notable that during the research period,
which spanned six years from 2007-2012, I did not meet one female ‘core’ gang member7.
Likewise homosexuals or non-hegemonic masculine identities are excluded or marginalised by
the gang. Loquitas8 - softies or sissies are gang ‘hangers on’ who seek the dividends of gang
life without engaging in the risky crime and violence that pays for it. Other gang members,
unsurprisingly, frown upon loquitas. Junior, a 13 year old carrito9 and aspiring gang member
revealed that the older gang members he looked up to were “the most cunning, the slickest, the
‘badest’. The ones who kill the most earn respect and fear. You don’t want no loquitas(Junior,
6 Former cartel boss and archetypal drug baron killed by Colombia police and DEA in 1993.
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The Medellin gang is a socialisation space of male work and play where norms are deeply
gendered, reflecting an exaggerated form of patriarchy10. This is not to say that girls do not
interact with gangs; they do so intensively, and on a daily basis. These relationships deserve
more of our scholarly attention, to which we will now turn.
Gangland Girlfriends
A pillar of hegemonic masculinity is sexual access to women. In the patriarchal communities of
Medellín men are customarily expected to buy gifts and pay other expenses as part of the ritual
of wooing women, concomitant with globalised forms of western hegemonic masculinity. Most
young men living in poor neighbourhoods in Medellín, however, do not have the financial and
material resources to perform this ritual. One mother was asked if her son had a girlfriend, to
which she replied curtly, “Of course my son doesn’t have a girlfriend, he’s got no money” (Field
Diary, 2011). This appears a somewhat overstated response, but is a reflection of the pervasive
grip of patriarchy on gendered relationships in the communities where the research was
conducted. It was the norm for the youths interviewed to refer to sexual access to women and
girls as a reason for joining the gang and admiring the duros. In their perceptions at least, girls
pay much more attention to gang members than non-gang members. Ceferino’s narrative earlier
went so far as to claim women are at fault for compelling young men to become gang members
where “you gotta stab someone up [to] get the girls” (Ceferino, 05/11/11). This connection
between gang membership and the sexual objectification of women underscores gang culture in
Little is understood about why some girls and women seemingly seek to become girlfriends of
gang members. This can help us understand gang dynamics further, not least to address some of
the abuses faced by a number of these women.
Gang Displays in La Salle
Gang socialisation is undoubtedly complex. The focus here is upon how interaction with girls
and women serves to reinforce gangland identities by facilitating sexualised masculine
performance. In doing so of course, it highlights their position of vulnerability. What is the role
of girls and women in the construction of gang masculinities? If male youths are motivated to
join gangs, in part, to gain sexual access to women, what is the nature of the relationship between
gangsters and their ‘girlfriends’?
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The benefits of gangster life are performed publically - a display of masculine capital. The heavy
partying, designer clothes, women, drinking and drug taking are an entitlement, the fruit of their
labours or ‘spoils of war’, from controlling and profiting from their urban patch. Gang member
capital is an assertion of masculine identity, status; a locus of macho pride and self-esteem
rooted in territory. The gang’s socialisation with girls and young women is couched within these
boundaries, where their bodies are frequently sexualised, commodified and subject to control and
Gangland displays and relationships with girls and young women standout on weekend evenings.
One notorious place where gang members would party is known as La Salle. By day La Salle is a
typical main street in a poor neighbourhood way up the north-eastern hillside of Medellin. It has
mini-markets, bakers, butchers and the like. On weekend nights it transforms into a drinking and
partying strip - or zona rosa - lined with bars blaring out a cacophony of ballenato, porra and
reggaeton music. From around 10pm the motorbikes of gang members begin to pull up and park
in long rows outside bars where they sit drinking girafastall tubes of beer with a small serving
tap at the bottom aguardiente and rum, looking out onto the street. One former girlfriend of a
gang member Negra said “in those bars you only find junkies and gangsters. There are no law
abiding people there, not one” (Negra, 11/10/11). While the men sat drinking, it was unnerving
to see girls from as young as 11 and 12 years old11, although most were between 16 and 20,
dressed in short skirts and made up, parading past the tables of men outside the bars.
The gang members look on as the young girls parade past them. The scene is in some ways
reminiscent of a fashion catwalk. Girls would gradually accompany the men at the tables and
join them in drinking, which would progress to dancing and drug taking normally ecstasy and
cocaine – inside the bar later in the evening, which would ensue well into the next day, or even
afternoon. La Salle can be described as hedonistic and decadent. It is not uncommon for
moneyed gang members to get girls to dance naked inside the bars, competing for half a bottle of
aguardiente. Normative assumptions underlie these relations; men pay, the girls have sex with
them later.
What is striking about these exchanges is that young girls demonstrate agency, albeit within the
constraints of the social structures of La Salle, in their first interactions with gang members. This
happens despite the significant power imbalance, frequent humiliation and sexual objectification,
prevalence of sexually transmitted infections and numerous accounts of abuse and rape, pointing
to the insidious influence of gangland patriarchy. In a similar vein, Hume & Wilding argue that
the extreme nature of rape suffered by some women engaged with gangs “highlights the role of
loyal and submissive femininities in reinforcing dominant masculinities” (this volume).
Ironically, female agency plays a role in the construction of the ‘successful’ male identity where
‘the gangster gets the girl’, perpetuating the very system of ‘masculine domination’ (Bourdieu:
2001) that subjugates them. Where does this agency stem from and why do girls seek out gang
members in places like La Salle?
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‘El Power’ of the Gang
The young women interviewed concurred that gang members had numerous girlfriends. “Girls
round here say that gang members are sexy, exciting risk-takers and so attractive because they’ve
got guns. Boys join gangs to get the girls… I think 80% of girls in these neighbourhoods are
after gang members. If you’re not a gang member you’re not gonna be very popular! [laughing]”
(Negra, 11/10/11). Femina (13/10/11) explained why she was attracted to gang members:
“The father of my son is a gang member. And I’ve had a few gang member boyfriends. I
like the adrenaline, the fear that you might get caught by the police, el power12 and
everything… a gang member is interesting, they tell you stuff about their adventures and
all that, but a kid who’s not in a gang, well, the conversation is really monotonous.”
Many young girls feel attracted by the identity and dynamics of gangs (Umana Rikkers, 2012: 3),
but they are also attracted to the possibility of access to money, material benefits, status and ‘el
power’ associated with having a gang member boyfriend. Gang displays in La Salle are
captivating for both poor boys and girls where “money is power” (Femina, 13/10/11). As Negra
“You’ve gotta understand that a girl growing up round here will ask her parents for a
pair of jeans or sneakers, and the parents will say ‘wait until Christmas or your
birthday’. Then they can go out with one of these gang members and they give them the
jeans, the sneakers, straight away. The girls always say they go out with them because
they are in love, but that’s just bullshit, they go out with them for the stuff they can get
out of them” (11/10/11)
Girls are attracted to the ‘successful’ males in the community, in part because it is one of the few
ways they can access the trickle-down of capital from the patriarchal dividend. In this sense, the
motivations of girls and women to engage in relationships with gang members has a certain logic
- where girls’ options and opportunities to ‘get jeans and sneakers’ are hampered by exclusion,
entering into a relationship with a gang member becomes increasing appealing. This is powerful
enough to offset the risks of abuse and guaranteed infidelity of gang members as Negra explains:
Adam: So how is it that a girl gets together with a gang member?
N: They just come up and talk to you, but also the girls go up and talk to the duro. The
duro stands out the most because he’s got money, the money, the clothes he wears, they
drive 4x4s and motorbikes
A: Do the girls go out with them because they don’t even have the money to buy
themselves a beer?
N: It’s not like that. They go out with gang members because they want to, because the
gangster fame rubs off on them, so if they’re duro’s girlfriend, if anyone talks down to
her, the duro will turn up and give them a beating
A: What, you mean power transfers from the duro to his girlfriend?
N: Yeah, to his girlfriends [indicating the author’s naivety at suggesting that the duro
had just one girlfriend]. All Colombian men are unfaithful and gang members are really
unfaithful… and even knowing that the duro has a wife and kids at home, we still chase
after them” (11/10/11)
Girls’ reasons to become involved with gang members reflect the motivations of male youths to
join gangs: to achieve identity, status and esteem; in other words a type of ambition which has
been ontologically contorted by socio-economic exclusion and generations of gang domination.
For both boys and girls this leads to gangs being perceived as a site of opportunity, mirroring
Vigh’s analysis of war as ‘terrain of possibility’ for the most disenfranchised (2006: 31).
It was argued that male youths are utilitarian in their approach to gangs; they use the gang as a
vehicle to access masculine capital in contexts of exclusion. Without discounting the complexity
and nuances of genuine reciprocal attraction and the possibility of loving and lasting
relationships, many girls are similarly utilitarian in their engagement with gang members. The
difference is they are seeking to secure the multiple transfer of capital, such as: clothes, mobile
phones; and even payment for silicone breast implants, buttock implants, teeth whitening (un
diseño de dientes), and in some cases motorbikes; and also ‘respect’ and status as a derivative of
gang association: “Girls think that if they are sleeping with the duro [gang leader] then they’re
gonna be respected by everyone” (Diabilis, 13/10/11). Such relationships are immediately
attractive because they can alleviate, in the short term at least, the corrosive effects of exclusion
on young women’s esteem.
Mosas, Mujeres and Rape
We should caution against reducing young women’s relationships with gang members to
stereotypes or a simplistic forms of transactional sex. Two of the women spoken to here, Femina
and Negra, fell in love and had children with gang member boyfriends. They weren’t abandoned
by these men, their boyfriends had since left the gang and they both appeared to be in a happy
relationship. Gang members also have female friends, such as neighbours and school friends, and
sisters. However, the sexual objectification of girls largely stems from gang members partying
and wild nights out with a particular group of girls. Gang members are complex individuals,
often victims of traumatic childhoods, they are not committed to one single type of male identity,
behaviour or ‘gangster’ performance all of the time. They are renowned for revering their
mothers because you ‘only have one mother, but you father can be any old son of a bitch’
(Salazar, 1990). It is not uncommon for gang members to have la mujer the serious partner,
wife or mother of their children ‘at home’ who they treat with respect, and then when they are
out of the house engage in partying, have fleeting sexual encounters with and sexual abuse young
women and girls called las mosas (also amiguitas or grillas). This reflects divisions between
wives and mistrisses who become involved with gang members in other violent urban contexts in
Latin America (see Hume & Wilding, this volume).
There is not always a clear division between the respected mujer and the mosas party girls. It is
common for the mosas to aspire to become the mujer of a gang member, although as there are
always multiple mosas and just one mujer, only a minority ever make that transition. Diabilis’
narrative explains that young girls are attracted to the duros power and aspire to become the
mujer, but that they are destined to remain the amiguita.
Diabilis: I like the gang members that treat us nice, I mean they call us baby, sweetheart,
cutie, and if you need something they’re there to listen to you. He [ex-boyfriend in gang]
was really kind, he dressed well. Me, as a woman, I like a man who dresses well, who’s
clean, who’s got clean shoes on [laughs]
Adam: I’m glad I’ve got clean shoes on today [laugh together]
D: He’s gotta smell nice, ya know, he’s gotta be well turned out
A: And most girls think the same?
D: Yep. But I don’t like to get mixed up with gang members that have got the most money,
or the best motorbike, or the best car, I don’t like to get mixed up with them, ‘coz that’s
always gonna be more problems, ‘coz he’s always gonna have loads of women and we’re
gonna fight and they’ll rip my hair out. No, those guys I don’t want to go out with
The higher rank he’s got the more girls he’s gonna have. Why? Because those girls
nowadays think that because he’s got power [porque tiene power] and a motorbike he’s
gonna give me money, and he’s gonna give me a good lifestyle, or he gonna given me
something. But then, I mean the men, they aren’t looking for that, that’s what the girls
want, and all the men want is, excuse me for being vulgar, all they want is sex, to have
their way with us and that’s all. When they’ve gone out with you just three times then they
say, ‘ah ya know, I don’t like this one so much, she’s a bit of a pain in the arse’, and they
leave you. So you’re dumped there, still in love with them, and that’s it
Girls think that if they are sleeping with the duro then they’re gonna be respected by
everyone… They’ve got a saying, ‘the mujer is the mujer [la mujer es la mujer], the other
women are just bitches from the street’. But they’re not good boyfriends
A: So why do they have so many girlfriends then?
D: Because we let ourselves get seduced by the attractive stuff, the motorbike, money, like
they say. ‘Coz the young girls today think that because they go round on their bikes they’re
gonna become the mujeres, but they’re never gonna be the mujeres, they’re only ever
gonna be the amiguita… yeah they’ve got loads of amiguitas (Diabilis, 13/10/11)
Whilst amiguitas or mosas often knowingly enter into this exchange, they are objectified by the
gang, their bodies become sites of domination, reproduction and pleasure (also see Umaña &
Rikkers: 15). Mosas become an object for male sexual gratification and a fundamental part of
gang socialisation and displays. These complex relationships reinforce the gang as a symbolic
site of male ‘success’, drawing the gaze of aspirational young boys, tapping into the dispositions
of their male habitus, and contributing to the cycle of gang membership. The domination of
women’s bodies is palpable in the attitudes of male gang members who ‘pay’ for a night out,
which is synonymous with unfettered sexual access to mosas they are with sexual expectation
is compounded overtime and as a girl develops a reputation as a mosa – “they start when they are
11 or 12 and by 16 they’re complete sluts, and by 18 their reputation is in the gutter” (Femina,
Relationships involving these types of exchanges and transactions are common in patriarchal and
machista societies13. However, they become exaggerated or perverse in ganglands, given the
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extreme power imbalances at play. Objectification and domination make mosas vulnerable and
any initial feelings of empowerment they might have can swiftly evaporate.
When I went out with the duro I felt powerful, I was content. I felt like no one could
touch me, they’re gonna have to respect me, they’re not gonna talk down to me. I
thought [the duros] were gonna take care of me, but that was a lie (Femina, 11/10/11)
Sexual objectification shifts easily to obligation whenever a mosa does not consent to sex. When
she was 16 years old Diabilis was raped by several members of the gang in one of their houses
after she did not consent to group sex:
The gang did a lot of damage to me. I met this guy in my neighbourhood, a well-
known guy [infamous for being a gang member]. Supposedly it was love, a beautiful
love, an eternal love, but him and his friends raped me. She knows [indicating Maria,
who later told me details about the rape. Diabilis has tears in her eyes]. So, from one
moment to the next I left all that stuff behind. The only thing before that that I cared
about was going out with friends, going down the plaza, getting on one motorbike or
another, parties… my parents would come and drag me out of nightclubs (Diabilis,
Maria later told me that she was beaten and her clothes taken away from her as punishment,
probably for resisting, so she had to walk naked through the streets back to her house. Such
incidents of rape, which are unfortunately common in gang dominated neighbourhoods in
Medellin, reflect the exaggerated and male sexual entitlement that emerges through gang
socialisation with girls and young women, couched in a context of exclusion. This phenomenon
has been noted by other authors where “relationship between poverty and rape perpetration is
mediated through ideas of masculinity and the quest for ‘success’ (Jewkes R et al., 2011: 2).
Lamentably, gang socialisation is a symbolic beacon that has a gendered impact on young boys
and girls. Many boys aspire to el power that comes with gang membership. There is masculine
logic to these aspirations in excluded contexts where other opportunities are unattractive or
undignified; but this process also functions at a less than conscious level as boys are disposed by
the latent desires of the masculine habitus to seek out adult male identity.
A number of girls also seek el power through a gang member boyfriend. Again, like boys, they
aspire to the material and symbolic capital the gang can offer and the corresponding female
identity and status of being a gang member girlfriend. The glittering prizes, and the sheer fun,
drugs, drink and adrenaline of a night out with the gang are strong lures. It is not surprising that
many aspire to be a gang member’s girlfriend, despite the risks. The tragedy is that girls expose
themselves to potential abuse by going out with gang members, and in doing so act to reinforce
the cycle of ‘successful’ gang life, which leads to the regeneration of gang membership itself. La
Salle is always busy on a Saturday night.
As other scholars have argued, we should not separate youth decisions to join gangs from the
settings of poverty and exclusion in which they live (Barker, 2005; Jensen, 2008; Koonings and
Kruijt, 2009; Maclure and Sotelo, December 2004; Rodgers, 2003). In such contexts, the tools at
hand to become men vary dramatically where exclusion blocks dignified pathways to manhood.
In territories where gangs are prevalent, they stand out through overt displays of masculine
capital, and as such are often seen as the most appropriate vehicles to achieve male adulthood
that satisfies the dispositions of the masculine habitus.
Places such as La Salle distil the experience of gangland displays and bring to our attention how
gang riches are flaunted. This dynamic raised the issue of girls and women and their engagement
with gangs. The gang’s masculine capital is generated by threatening, dominating and
controlling their communities in Medellin. The bodies of the mosas are also subject to the same
domination, becoming disposable and prone to abuse and rape. Ironically, the agency that the
mosas show to engage in relationships with gang members serves only to perpetuate the
symbolism of the gang as an iconic site of male identification in the eyes of local boys and young
men. Whilst we cannot of course, reduce all gang activity to such nightlife performances, nor all
gang relationships with girls and women to transactional sex, the displays of wealth and wild
partying stand out dramatically amidst local struggles for existence in impoverished contexts.
These processes facilitate the continuum of gang membership. Worryingly, the presence of gangs
across generations, intensity and territory14, influences ontologically what it means to be a
successful man, whilst simultaneously offering the vehicle for achieving that success15. As such
gangs in Medellin have emerged as a significant masculine system of influence, which
compounds the reproduction of gangs and hence the possibilities of social violence.
Gang membership and socialisation is a deeply gendered process and should be regarded as a
dystopian expression of inequality and exclusion generated by the prevailing political, socio-
economic and cultural circumstances of the city. I have found that young men do not aspire to
become violent, drug dealers or rapists; they aspire to a dignified male identity and, above all,
they want status and social belonging.
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... Recent qualitative research by Baird [13] found young males from the poorer neighbourhoods were " seduced " by the banda lifestyle, because any " alternative and dignified livelihood opportunities are hindered " for these individuals. From interviews with gang members, Baird [85] found that for these individuals, there is a " perpetual lack of legitimate opportunities and social mobility " with half of the members interviewed explicitly referring to " limited opportunities borne out of poverty as a causal factor leading them to gang membership " [85]. A former government official and a member of a civil society organisation highlighted this lack of legitimate opportunities for individuals in the poorer neighbourhoods: " Young people [from the poorer communities] finish school and realise they don't have access to employment opportunities. ...
... Recent qualitative research by Baird [13] found young males from the poorer neighbourhoods were " seduced " by the banda lifestyle, because any " alternative and dignified livelihood opportunities are hindered " for these individuals. From interviews with gang members, Baird [85] found that for these individuals, there is a " perpetual lack of legitimate opportunities and social mobility " with half of the members interviewed explicitly referring to " limited opportunities borne out of poverty as a causal factor leading them to gang membership " [85]. A former government official and a member of a civil society organisation highlighted this lack of legitimate opportunities for individuals in the poorer neighbourhoods: " Young people [from the poorer communities] finish school and realise they don't have access to employment opportunities. ...
Full-text available
Latin America is one of the world’s most violent regions, with 40 of the 50 most violent cities, but with only 8% of the world’s population, and a staggering 33% of global homicides. At the forefront of these high levels of violence are gangs that are more flexible and persistent than previously thought. This paper provides a discussion on gangs in one Latin American city, Medellin, Colombia, where different non-state groups have contributed to changing patterns of homicide rates. The paper presents preliminary findings to show how, despite the city experiencing a 90% reduction in homicide rates in less than 25 years, violent non-state groups have become embedded as part and product of their environment, acting as coherent, logical and functional players, linked to the structural inequalities and institutional fragility of the larger society.
Full-text available
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".
One of the first comparative reflections of its kind, this book examines the challenges that young men face when trying to grow up in societies where violence is the norm. Barker, who has worked directly with low-income youth and witnessed first hand the violence he describes, provides a compelling account of the young men's struggles. He discusses the problems these men face in other areas of their lives, including the difficulty of staying in school, the multiple challenges of coming of age as men in the face of social exclusion, including finding meaningful employment, and their interactions with young women, including sexual behaviour and the implications of this for HIV/AIDS prevention. The book presents examples of evaluated programs that have been able to aid young men in rethinking what it means to be a man and ultimately focuses on 'voices of resistance' - young men who find ways to stay out of violence and to show respect and equality in their relationships, even in settings where male violence and rigid attitudes about manhood are prevalent.
Through the concept of "social navigation," this book sheds light on the mobilization of urban youth in West Africa. Social navigation offers a perspective on praxis in situations of conflict and turmoil. It provides insights into the interplay between objective structures and subjective agency, thus enabling us to make sense of the opportunistic, sometimes fatalistic and tactical ways in which young people struggle to expand the horizons of possibility in a world of conflict, turmoil and diminishing resources.
This book provides an account of the emergence, nature and impact of armed youth gangs in an East London Borough over the last decade. It describes the challenges these armed young men and women pose to their communities, those charged with preventing crime and those struggling to vouchsafe ‘community safety’. While the focus of the book is ‘local’, the processes it outlines and the effects it chronicles have both a national and international relevance.
La versión española de este artículo se puede encontrar en: review essay examines areas of research that have been developed in the study of masculinity in Latin America, some of the most promising have focused on questions of family divisions of labor, parenting, and housework; homosociality in friendship and social spaces; masculine identity construction; reproductive health issues concerning same-sex sex, active and passive sexuality, AIDS, and male reproductive rights; ethnicity and masculinity among indigenous, Afro-Latino, and mestizo populations; class and work; and the infamous matter of machismo.