Man a kill a man for nutin’:
Gang transnationalism, masculinities, and
violence in Belize City
Author post-print (accepted)
Original citation & hyperlink:
Baird, A. 2019, 'Man a kill a man for nutin’: Gang transnationalism, masculinities, and
violence in Belize City' Men and Masculinities, vol. (In-Press), pp. (In-Press).
DOI 10.1177/1097184X19872787 ISSN 1097-184X
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Man a kill a man for nutin’:
Gang transnationalism, masculinities, and violence in Belize City
Belize has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, however the gangs at the heart of
this violence have rarely been studied. Using a masculinities lens and original empirical data
this article explores how Blood and Crip ‘gang transnationalism’ from the USA flourished in
Belize City. Gang transnationalism is understood as a ‘transnational masculinity’ that makes
cultural connections between local settings of urban exclusion. On one hand, social terrains in
Belize City generated masculine vulnerabilities to the foreign gang as an identity package with
the power to reconfigure positions of subordination; on the other, the establishment of male
gang practices with a distinct hegemonic shape, galvanised violence and a patriarchy of the
streets in already marginalised communities. This article adds a new body of work on gangs in
Belize, and gang transnationalism, whilst contributing to theoretical discussions around the
global to local dynamics of hegemonic masculinities discussed by Connell and Messerschmidt
Belize is a small country of 350,000 people on the Caribbean Sea sharing borders with Mexico
to the north and Guatemala to the west. It is unique being both Central American, a member of
SICA, and Caribbean, a member of CARICOM
. Belize is also a fledgling nation, a former
colony named British Honduras in 1878 which gained independence 1981. Although
popularised as a tourist destination there is another side to the country. National murder rates
reached 45 per 100,000 in 2017 making Belize one of the most violent countries in the world,
comparable to its ‘noisy neighbours’ in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador,
Guatemala and Honduras (Peirce, 2017). Murders are driven by gang violence in the poor
Central America Integration System; Caribbean Community and Common Market
Southside area of Belize City located on the coast, which is so severe one local school teacher
lamented “young men round here have become an endangered species” (Greta 14/11/2017).
Despite copious amounts of scholarship on gangs in neighbouring countries, besides the
research presented here, Gayle et al are the only other international scholars to publish on
violence in Belize that draws from original data with gang members (2016).
This article explores how Blood and Crip ‘gang transnationalism’ emanating from the United
States of America (US) became established and then flourished on Southside, and why high
levels of violence persist today. Whilst this is a rare empirical contribution about gangs in
Belize, masculinities are front and centre of the analysis, which is built inductively from the
street (see Methodology below). The impacts of exclusion are gendered and on Southside
created a palpable masculine vulnerability amongst youths to transnational Blood and Crip
culture as an aspirational site of identity formation. In this way, the social terrain was rendered
receptive to the establishment of gangs, which is significant for contexts of urban exclusion
Whilst this provides a narrative frame for the rapid embedding of gangs, this article adds to
theoretical discussions around the global, regional, and local dynamics of hegemonic
masculinities. For the first time, gang transnationalism is conceived as a form of ‘transnational
masculinity’ after Connell and Messerschmidt, who have discussed the potential for localised
models of hegemonic masculinity (2005; 2018).
This article is mindful not reduce gangs to a rigid hegemonic identity, recognising that
individual and collective practices are multifaceted and complex, and that masculinities are
indeed multiple. It draws upon sociological interpretations of gangs to argue that the ‘gang
displays’ and performances – i.e. the gang ‘persona’ and ‘gangsta culture’ - established by the
Bloods and Crips in Belize have a concerted ‘hegemonic shape’ that has galvanised violence
and a patriarchy of the streets. Despite the rapid Creolisation (also kriolisation, see Hall, 2015),
and fragmentation of street gangs on Southside in recent years, the hegemonic shape of certain
gang behaviours persists. This article aims to provide a rigorous empirical and conceptual
exploration of gang practices as a form of localised hegemonic masculinity. Given that the
overwhelming majority of gang interventions are masculinities blind, understanding gang
activities as a form of localised hegemonic practice is presented as a way rethink and
reinvigorate the approach to gang interventions to reduce the harm done to marginalised urban
The article is structured as follows: (2) reviews the relevant literature subdivided into ‘gang
transnationalism’ and ‘gangs and masculinities’; (3) outlines the methodology used, which
draws upon the authors unique experience of designing the only masculinities focused gang
prevention programme on Southside; whilst (4) provides a contextual background to gang
violence in Belize City. These are followed by substantive analytical sections on (5) gang
transnationalism as a form of ‘transnational masculinity’, (6) and the ‘hegemonic shape’ of
gang practices and the continuity of violence.
2. Literature and contribution
Gang transnationalism is a subsection of the broader academic literature on gangs dominated
by the US deportation experiences of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio/Calle 18
gangs, often collectively termed maras. Up to 50,000 individuals were sent back to their emigre
countries El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua in Central America during the
1990s, although maras did not emerge significantly in the latter (Cruz, 2014; Zilberg, 2011).
Most research on gang transnationalism concludes that they are social forms of street level
youth gang with no clear federal or transnational criminal structure, and are migratory socio-
cultural phenomenon as opposed to the expansion of an international criminal network
(Jütersonke, Muggah, & Rodgers, 2009; Roks & Densley, 2019). Maras first developed in
Northern Triangle countries as a localised cultural capital populated by disenfranchised male
youths. Evidence of gang transnationalism as a cultural or subcultural phenomenon is
corroborated through studies of the Latin Kings and Queens who migrated from the US to
Ecuador, and later Europe (Brotherton, 2007; Cerbino & Barrios, 2008; Quierolo Palmas,
2009). As Rodgers and Baird (2015) have argued, the literature indicates that transnational
gangs are a globalised socio-cultural and political youth phenomena that tend to arise as a
diaspora in the country of return in contexts of persistent exclusion, either organised in situ by
migrant gang members, or by disaffected youths that aspire to gang membership.
Northern Triangle countries were contending with legacies of post-war violence, undergoing
transitions to democracy from dictatorship, military oppression and civil conflict, which shaped
the societies that gangs inserted themselves into (Levenson, 2013; Savenije & van der Borgh,
2015). A range of factors are attributed to the rise of maras including exclusion, connectedness
to organised crime and drug trafficking, and the role of politics (Berg & Carranza, 2018),
including counter-productive mano dura crackdowns (e.g. Gutierrez Rivera, Strønen, &
Ystanes, 2018; Wolf, 2017).
The literature on Blood and Crip transnationalism is sparse. Exceptions in the Americas include
include Flores, Gemert, Hagedorn, and Johns (2009; 2001; 2008; 2014) and Roks & Densley
in Europe (2017; 2019). In the Belizean case only Miller Matthei & Smith (1998) have focused
on transnatnioalism, although this research took place before the dramatic rise in gang violence
in the country. In stark contrast to maras, research on gangs in Belize is scarce. Although this
is not a comparative article, key similarities and divergences between the maras and the Bloods
and Crips will be referred to in section (4) to contextualise the Belizean gang experience within
the Central American region. Finally, amongst the gang transnationalism literature, this is the
first masculinities reading of the phenomenon.
Gangs and masculinities
Historically, scholars have written about the polymorphous threats of marginality that render
disenfranchised young men susceptible to the lure of gang life. The notion of ‘protest’
masculinity is not a new one (Adler, 1928) and early studies in the US referred to gangs as a
male backlash against socio-economic exclusion where working class young men were blocked
from achieving conventional male goals (e.g. Bloch & Niederhoffer, 1958; Cloward & Ohlin,
1966). These ideas permeated later studies where the gang has been consistently seen as an
opportunity structure for ‘capital acquisition’ or ‘masculine capital’ that generates status,
esteem and respect for men in subordinated contexts (Baird, 2012a; Mullins, 2006; Mullins &
Lee, 2019). The literature has tended to present gangs as a homosocial enactment, display or
performance, based on variants of the ‘code of the street’ (notable examples include: Anderson,
2000; Bourgois, 1995, 2001; Brotherton, 2007; Venkatesh, 2008). Bourgois’s framing of
young men ‘in search of respect’ has gained significant traction amongst those seeking to
explain the masculine dynamics of contemporary urban violence (e.g. Zubillaga, 2009). The
‘ganging process’ (Baird, 2018a) has been conceptualised as a form of gendered socialisation
that insulates boys and young men from the threat of emasculation in the urban margins,
reflected in findings across the globe (e.g. Barker, 2005; Buller, 2015; Heinonen, 2011; Jensen,
2008). Most notably in sociology and anthropology, gangs have been considered socially
generated epiphenomena of structural violence, and this frames the protest, resistant, rebellious
and compensatory reactions by young men to societal expectations to achieve predominantly
traditional, normative, and ‘hegemonic’ forms of masculinity.
Critically, feminist scholarship (e.g. Cobbina, Like-Haislip, & Miller, 2010; Maher, 1997;
Miller, 2001) has warned against masculinist criminological assumptions that essentialise gang
members to their aberrant or violent traits, and fail to recognise multiple masculinities,
glossing-over the textures of gender relations in gang settings (these debates are well covered
by Fraser, 2017; Panfil & Peterson, 2015; and Peterson, 2018); how violence affects women
(Saunders-Hastings, 2018; Zulver, 2016); and the strategies women use to negotiate violent
ganglands (Baird, 2015; Cobbina et al., 2010).
The richness of recent ethnographic literature shows that the pursuit of masculinity amidst
exclusion provides an important, although partial insight into the subjectivities that lead some
into gang violence (Levenson, 2013; Mullins & Cardwell-Mullins, 2006). Notably, labelling
gang members’ masculinities as a ‘hyper’ or ‘exaggerated’ has limited explanatory power when
presented as a monotone identity. Furthermore, de la Tierra (2016) roundly criticises the recent
work of Contreras, Goffman and Rios (2012; 2014; 2011) as one dimensional presentations of
‘perilous masculinity’ that obscure the potential range of situationally enacted, relationally
constructed, and hierarchical masculinities expounded by Connell and Messerschmidt’s
rethinking of hegemonic masculinities in 2005. However, scholarship in Latin America has
taken noteworthy strides in teasing out the meanings of masculinity, particularly how these
relate to violence (such as Gutmann & Viveros Vigoya, 2005; Theidon, 2007).
Contemporary analyses gangland masculinities have advanced sociological ideas about
violence as a situationally dependent phenomenon, where the ganging process promotes the
‘baddest’ to leadership positions (Baird, 2018a). As opposed to a reductive exercise that
essentialises the gang experience, this applies a masculinities lens to explain violence as one
component, albeit an important one, of a repertoire of potential behaviour. In this vein,
Levenson-Estrada refers to “the marero [who] has turned into a gendered killer/killed persona,
a male warrior” (2013, p. 97). This allows for multiple masculinities that are both contextually
and situationally dependent. In recent studies, gang members have been shown to be loving
fathers, sons or boyfriends in certain socialisation spaces, whilst murders or rapists in others,
all of which can occur within the same community, on the same day (Baird, 2018b; Fontes
2018). Fundamentally, the masculine ‘protest’ of the gang may be an insurrection against
structural constraint, but it rarely challenges local gender hierarchies that subjugate women and
non-hegemonic masculinities. On balance, they are more likely to reinforce them.
Progress in the theorisation of masculinities as configurations of practice allow for nuanced
interpretations of gangs as a form of localism that can be applied to contexts in the global south.
Jewkes et al (2015) have debated this at length reflecting Connell and Messerschmidt’s (2005)
efforts to rethink their concept of hegemonic masculinity, suggesting they can be analysed as
multiple collective hegemonic projects, at global, societal, and local levels. In 2018
Messerschmidt revisited these, arguing that at a regional level hegemonic masculinities can
provide cultural materials to be adopted or reworked, providing models of masculinity that are
important in local gender dynamics, practices and interactions (p. 53). These dynamics provide
conceptual leverage for understanding gang transnationalism as a form of transnational
masculinity established in the local.
This article argues that gang transnationalism is a migrant form of gendered localism that
requires a receptive terrain to bed-in effectively. Most obviously, the race, class, and rebellious
cultural dynamics of Blood and Crip gang identities appealed to poor young Creole Belizeans
as a site of opportunity, elevated gender status and aspirational manhood. The Bloods and Crips
brought Messerschmidt’s ‘model’ of masculinity with them, which was adopted, then reworked
and kriolised by vulnerable young men. Clearly, we should not reduce the gang experience to
hegemonic masculinity alone, likewise we cannot deny the distinct hegemonic shape of gang
practices, including violence.
Based on four research trips to Belize between 2011 and 2018
, the methodology was built
cumulatively as an ethnographic revisit, by layering together short-term trips of three to four
weeks. Whilst this is not an unusual approach to research, what gave the methodology
sufficient rigour to peer beneath the surface was the author’s experience of designing the
Southside Youth Success Programme (SYSP) in 2011 (Baird, 2011). This was the first
masculinities focused gang intervention project attempted in Belize, which ran in collaboration
with UNDP and the Ministry of Youth Development, Social Transformation, and Poverty
Alleviation, until 2014. This created a foundation of relationships with individuals across
government, state, and civil society, which were key to making short-term research trips
effective. For example, colleagues at SYSP facilitated numerous interviews with young men
from Southside that had passed through the programme. Being known as a foreigner who had
worked on Southside was a crucial in gaining trust from respondents who otherwise may have
been unwilling to speak candidly about sensitive issues. Belize City is a small town and locals
are understandably reluctant to talk about gangs, crime, and political corruption to outsiders.
Interviews were conducted with six active and six former gang members; eight male youth
participants in two gang intervention programs
; a local rapper and dancehall singer, both
former gang members; the wife a murdered gang leader; one individual from drug trafficking
family; and, six recorded interviews and numerous informal conversations with inhabitants
The author acknowledges the important role played by the British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, and Coventry
University in funding the research; further thanks UNDP Belize and the University of Belize for sponsoring a
Masculinities and Violence conference held in Belmopan, March 2018, to disseminate and discuss the research
Southside Youth Success Program; Belize National Youth Apprenticeship Program.
from Southside. This was supplemented by four focus groups on Southside, one with young
men, one with young women, a mixed group, and one group of mothers. Fifty-six local experts
were interviewed comprising of youth workers, teachers, NGO staff, academics, police
officers, prison wardens, magistrates, civil servants, politicians, UN and embassy staff.
The methodology included time spent on the streets with gangs, in youth detention centres, and
Belize Central Prison. However, interviewing gang members is clearly not without risk
was mitigated through the use of gatekeepers, including; a local Iman to enter the prison, a
well-liked youth worker who helped conduct impromptu interviews on Southside, and a
politician who arranged meetings with gang leaders at her office. The author’s experience of
gang research in the region also provided a foundation of ‘ethnographic safety’, an intuitive
understanding of the rules of the game around street violence (Baird, 2018b), although risks
cannot be assuaged completely. These experiences helped the collection of primary data with
gang members which is rare precisely because it is hard to obtain, although sometimes a little
fortune is needed: the first leader of the Crips in Belize (Angel, below) who was long ‘retired’,
was a driver contracted regularly during the fieldwork, although it took several years of
bonding before he finally revealed his former identity and agreed to be interviewed.
4. Gang violence in Belize
Below the Haulover Creek that bisects Belize City and it’s 60,000 inhabitants, Southside is
comprised of ramshackle neighbourhoods, many built on unforgiving peri-urban marshlands.
Southside and one notorious downtown street called Majestic Alley, has played host to gang
violence since the 1980s. Belize is a country characterised by elitism and inequality and
residents south of the creek have long been at the bottom of the country’s socio-economic strata
Ethical approval was secured from the Centre for Trust, Peace, and Social Relations at Coventry University.
(UNICEF Belize, 2011; Warnecke-Berger, 2019, p. 197). The country has decidedly mixed
heritage, with sizeable Mayan, Spanish, Mestizo, and Garifuna (afro-indigenous) populations.
The Creole minority of African descent makes up 15% of the national population but accounts
for the majority of Southside’s residents. It is therefore unsurprising as Gayle says, that the
majority of gang members there are black and brown (2016, p. 192).
In 1961 Hurricane Hattie laid waste to Belize City creating a national emergency. A lack of
housing in addition to already fragile livelihoods and severe unemployment prompted a
significant exodus north and by the turn of the millennium 30% of the entire population resided
in the US (Vernon, 2000). Migration to the US proved pivotal as the deportation of Blood and
Crip, red and blue ‘colors’, gang members back to Belize City was the spark for the country’s
Whilst Belize shares the Northern Triangle deportation model of gang transnationalism it most
noticeably diverges along the lines of ethnicity and language. The Creole, and to a lesser extent
Garifuna migrants that joined gangs understandably gravitated towards the English-speaking
African-American Bloods and Crips, not the Latino, Spanish speaking 18th Street and MS 13
mara gangs, thus defining the gang identities of future deportees. Those who joined the Bloods
and Crips in the US were deported for the first time in the early 1980s. These were the pioneers
of gang transnationalism in Belize, arguably pre-dating the emergence of the maras in Central
America. There are no reliable figures for 1980s deportations, but across a decade between
1992-2002 there were 1,122 deportees (Warnecke-Berger, 2019).
The first wave of Bloods and Crips met a nascent democratic system with limited
institutional capacity to enforce the Rule of Law. Angel, who was deported in 1981 for his
part in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles was due to serve the remainder of his sentence in
Belize: “I was taken to di plane in da US, then [when I landed in Belize] notin’ happen! [his
emphasis] I jus’ walk off di plane. I cum home to my aunty here in Belize City, in Majestic
. He went on to become the first leader of the Majestic Alley Crips in
1981. In contrast to post-conflict countries saturated with weapons in the Northern Triangle,
Angel noted the absence of firearms upon arrival when Blood and Crip street culture began:
Firs’, we were selling weed, crack-cocaine hadn’t even touched Belize. I started sellin’,
hustlin’, whateva, jus’ to mek a buck. There weren’t gangs den, jus’ little hoodies, guys who
hang out and try to hustle… There weren’t really any guns, we used to chase our enemies
wid a stick and machete… den we started ta walk round in blue rags, blue clothes, y’know.
Both Bolland and Shoman (1997; 2011) recorded the post-independence role of political
clientelism in underpinning the emergence of the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the
People’s National Party (PNP). Whilst there is no specific literature referring to the role of
political parties in gang development in Belize City, numerous interviewees, including gang
leaders Angel, Shorty and Vartas, referred to clientelist relationships that peaked in the run-up
to elections, “People only vote for what they getting off the politicians” (Shorty 19/11/2016).
Locals stated that the 1990s Generals (leaders) of the George Street Bloods and Majestic Alley
Crips were connected to political parties and ran a ‘tight operation’ with structure and discipline
that kept a lid on factional gang spats (Bill 15/11/2017; Muhammad, 2015, p. 71). One
frustrated local politician even regretted the eventual loss of the Generals “Boys don’t respect
gang structure anymore, they just want a gun… they steal, they lie, and are out of control”
(Shirley, 18/05/2016), reflecting the way clientelist control of the streets has declined.
By the early 1990s gangs were being taken seriously by authorities. In 1991 a Crimes
Commission was set up to create legislation responding to growing public concern around the
gang phenomenon. Responses included mano dura type crackdowns, representing clear
dissonance with clientelist forms of gang engagement, and for the first time in the country’s
Quotations from interviews have been written phonetically where the interviewees spoke with a pronounced
Creole accent. These tended to be young people and gang members, whilst expert interviewees would typically
‘lighten their tongue’ or ‘speak American’ for the benefit of foreigners.
history the Belizean Defence Force was deployed to the streets (Miller Matthei & Smith, 1998),
although present day responses are led by the specially created Gang Suppression Unit. As
with the maras these measures have proved to be counter-productive, driving the
“overutilization” of juvenile incarceration where young men are regularly held for lengthy pre-
trial periods on misdemeanour charges, as they say locally “fi wan stick o weed”, for one joint
(Peirce, 2017, p. 5; UNDP 2013).
The crack-downs of the 1990s failed, giving way to party-led attempts at gang negotiations,
but these proved unsustainable. Murder rates rose from 9 per 100,000 in 1995, to 17 in 2002,
to 30 in 2006, and 45 in 2017 (Peirce, 2017; UNODC, 2018). By 2008 there were over 30
gangs in Belize City with 500 youth members, and in 2015 gang membership had tripled to
1,500 as gang territories packed closer together (Haylock, 2013, p. 46; Peirce, 2017, p. 21).
One seventeen-year-old gang member said that in the St Martins neighbourhood alone there
were four gangs; Peace in the Village, Bacalan (Back-of-land) Crips, the Complex City Crips,
and the Third World Bloods, estimating that half of all young males in the area were in gangs
(Smalls 12/05/2016). Instead of becoming more institutional, organised criminal enterprises
like some cliques of maras, Southside gangs have splintered into ever smaller groups,
multiplying ‘beefs’. As one civil servant put it “It’s interpersonal violence at a gang level”
(9/11/2017). Shorty moved to Los Angeles at six years old, later joined the Bloods, and was
deported back to Belize in 2011, becoming a local gang leader. When interviewed in Belize
Central Prison he said:
It about small beefs, [gang members] be like chil’ren. One beef started because
someone step on someone else’s shoe in a club, and now they can’t even remember
what the original beef was about… Like a dog in a cage, then you put another one in,
and it ok. Then you throw a piece of meat in and they gonna kill each other… Man a
kill a man for nutin’, for no reason, it’s fucked up
This fragmenting process meant that, counterintuitively, gang violence has risen whilst gang
institutionalisation has gone backwards over the last two decades. Despite spanning some four
decades, gangs in Belize are currently very much at the margins of organised crime and
transnational drug trafficking networks. Although gangs sold crack-cocaine in the late l980s,
Shorty said nowadays cocaine only ended up on Southside when someone found a bale
jettisoned by traffickers washed up at the beach. This was corroborated during an interview
with a member of a significant drug trafficking family from the coast who said their clandestine
networks deliberately avoided street gangs (interview, 22/05/2016).
In 2017 Belize City’s murder rate reached 99 per 100,000, placing it amongst the top ten most
violence cities in the world, with an estimated rate on Southside at 128 per 100,000 (Arciaga
Young, 2019; Peirce, 2017). Violence and trauma amongst boys in the city is now estimated to
be higher than anywhere else in Caribbean (Gayle et al., 2016). Belize reflects the male
demographic of gang violence regionally, where the vast majority of victims and perpetrators
of murder are poor young men, or as Muhammad said in prosaic terms, Belizean gangs are “a
black thing, a youth thing, an urban thing, a poor thing, an unskilled, undereducated and
unemployed thing” (2015, p. 69).
5. Gang transnationalism as transnational masculinity
The modern identity of Belize has been moulded by colonialism and migration. One local
academic lamented “Colonial history means we have been taught to embrace and value the
foreign more than our own history. Everything that is great is fucking foreign, even Jesus is
foreign” (Raul 15/11/2017), and another that “there is an inherent sense of shame about
Belizean culture and history” (Nia 15/11/2017). A confluence of historic, cultural and socio-
economic circumstances on Southside contributed to a propensity amongst a number of youths
to “embrace that [US] ghetto culture… because Creole culture is not held sacred, young gang
members have no recollection of history” (Raul 15/11/2017). Evoking Espange’s notion of
‘cultural transfer’ (1999), US gangs represented a rebellious black youth identity that
transposed fluidly into Belize City’s urban margins as gangs “discursively appeared”
(Warnecke-Berger, 2017, p. 256) in blue and red:
Media images of the gangster in the 1980s and 1990s were the black youth of Los Angeles,
New York… his gait, his stance, his mannerism and language formed a prototype that was
made a global iconic figure… whilst these images were foreign in style, there were socio-
economic and historical conditions for our own crop of gang activity… in Belize today we
see more than the imitation of a foreign culture, we see the creations of [gang members]
with their own set of values and definitions of what society is about and what means they
will use to survive in a social environment they view as increasingly hostile and unfair…
they lost hope and as a result became rebellious to the status quo (Muhammad, 2015, pp.
‘His gait, his stance, his mannerism’ noted by Muhammad underscore the gender dynamics of
this cultural transfer, hence gang transnationalism can be understood as a ‘transnational
masculinity’ that makes cultural connections between local settings of urban exclusion; i.e.
from South Central Los Angeles to Southside Belize City. On Southside, multiple and historic
marginality generated masculine vulnerabilities to the foreign gang as an identity package with
the apparent power to radically reconfigure positions of subordination. From this perspective,
gang transnationalism is a migrant form of gendered localism that requires a receptive
destination terrain that reflects (at least some of) the intersections of race, class, and
subordination found in the originating locale.
Blood and Crip culture spread in a fertile environment. The aforementioned ‘global iconic
figure’ of the disenfranchised young black man striking back at structural violence was a
compelling symbol in a post-colonial Belize disposed to revere the foreign. Early Bloods and
Crips quickly gained influence over young men and boys pledging allegiance to them, as Carlos
an eclectic former gang member, then prison officer, and current youth worker explained:
Carlos: So [in the 1980s] Belizeans now have these American [Bloods and Crips] guys here
who are deported, saying this is how we have to dress… they would bring back a couple of
barrels of clothes, and den share dat wid de guys.
Author: So, they were building like a cultural identity?
Carlos: Exactly! Y’understand. Den when clothing come in, it would be basically for dat
specific gang… At da time you wud wear di khaki pants and da white t-shit, wid your red
rag, den you wud be a Blood… Or red pants, red shirt, red bandana. And di Crip wud have
di blue rag… dis ting was comin’ from America, y’undersand? Because we did not have da
finance to purchase them. So, di gang leader would distribute [clothes] and he would be seen
as good, ‘Hey! He’s looking out for us!’ So that is his defence now, he is giving them money,
clothes, he protects them, he gives them weapons as a form of defence. So, people [young
men] start to pledge allegiance to these guys (11/05/2016)
Two principle factions developed, the George Street Bloods and the Majestic Alley Crips.
Angel, the first leader of the Crips recalled how earnest beginnings scaled-up into lethal
My friend he started acting real gangster da way America does it, you know. He’s da one
dat decide dat Majestic Alley wud be blue, and anyting over swing-bridge [George Street],
Yeah, in ‘87, ‘88, we use to go fight at a local disco. If you from over di bridge, we pick a
fight wid’you, wid knife an’ machete. Dey were serious fights, but not really wid guns.
First, we were selling weed, crack cocaine hadn’t even touched Belize [in the early 1980s].
Da cocaine came in lik di ‘85. I started hustlin’, whateva, jus’ to make a buck. There weren’t
gangs den, jus’ little hoodies, there weren’t really guns. I tink I was about 17 maybe, I hold
ma firs’ gun, an’ da first man dat talk big, I shoot in his chest.
I buy my firs’ [gun] from a farmer. Den we go an’ kidnap di watchman, an’ took his 16
[gauge shotgun] an’ cut di barrel shaaf [shaft]. We call it saadaaff [sawn-off], you could stick
it in your side, you run up into your enemy and you jus’ bus-it [fire it] and run aff (Angel,
Smoking in Belize City predates transnational gangs, and relatively benign ‘Base Boys’ who
sold marijuana on the streets were swiftly subsumed by the new gang identities and began
selling small amounts of crack cocaine. Successful gang leaders achieved notoriety and by the
1990s Generals George ‘Junie Balls’ McKenzie a Crip form Majestic Alley, and later ‘Shiney’
from George Street Bloods (Muhammad, 2015, p. 169) had become iconic figures amongst the
local population and pivots for political party clientelism. It is telling that within a generation
the Bloods and Crips emerged as a standout model for young male Creole success across
Southside. Those with the capacity for violence such as Generals and gunmen were admired,
even reified, by younger generations as ‘big men’:
Yah. More money, more bigger you get. Den man com’ to trade gun for crack, gun for weed.
So, I sell weed, but if I have no army, man [rival gang member] com an’ tek it away. I use’
to pack a 9mm and a 357… dat a barrel gun, it sound lik a bomb exploded, so everybody
respec’ you. Dat a Big Man gun you know (Angel, 20/05/2016).
Being red or blue had become aspirational and ontologically salient amongst local meanings
of masculinity, mirroring gang research in Colombia and Guatemala (Baird, 2018a; Saunders-
Hastings, 2018). Whilst this analysis chimes with previous interpretations of gangland
masculinities as a protest against structural constraint, we should be wary of presenting gang
members straightforwardly as disenfranchised rebels. In the Belizean case the assertion of
transnational gang identities in the local simultaneously established the gang as a hegemonic
masculine project with negative outcomes for host communities. Whilst gangs are in part a
male reaction to deprivation, many of their activities reassert hegemonic practices that
reinforce a patriarchy of the streets. The gang persona becomes a vessel that vulnerable young
men fill with their gendered ambitions and fantasies of manhood built around their “soldier
heroes” (after Dawson, 1994).
Complex histories of poverty on Southside generated a deeply gendered vulnerability to gang
transnationalism which arrived as an aspirational and accessible form of masculinity at a time
when a young nation was finding its feet. The following section considers how the ‘hegemonic
shape’ of gang practices, particularly violence, have remained consistent across generations of
gang members, even when gang structures themselves have changed rapidly.
6. The hegemonic shape of gang practices
As Southside gangs began to splinter at the turn of the millennium, micro-level ‘beefs’
proliferated. Gangs are now broadly acknowledged to be disorganised with fast-flowing
ephemeral membership, a far cry from the early days of the Generals. As Shorty said “Gangs
here are childish, they don’t know what they’re doing… Everyone spend their money and be
broke the next day” (19/11/2016). The Blood and Crip identities that had previously been
adopted wholesale passed through a culturally syncretic process, blending with Belizean
identities. Whilst present day gangs still bear remnants of US gangsta culture, seen in the
ongoing use of red or blue ‘rags’ and imported Dickies trousers, the influence of the Bloods
and Crips as an organisational structure has been eroded over the last two decades. Local
politician Shirley surmised “Boys are confused about what they are fighting about, they don’t
know what wearing red or blue means” (18/05/2016). Gang leader Vartas added “Now it’s ‘an
enemy of my enemy is my friend’, Bloods and Crips don’ matter no more” (Vartas
This section draws upon Messerschmidt’s proposal that regional level hegemonic masculinities
can provide cultural materials to be adopted or reworked, providing models of masculinity that
are important in local gender dynamics (2018, p. 53). The arrival of the Bloods and Crips
reconfigured street patterns of masculinity establishing a gangsta culture with discernible
hegemonic practices. Jewkes et al (2015) suggested that multiple hegemonic projects can be
observed in the local, which supports the possibility of gang transnationalism being established
as a model of localised hegemonic masculinity. A key finding from Belize is that these local
models or projects of masculinity are not static templates, but culturally and intergenerationally
adaptable, which is why the term ‘hegemonic shape’ is used.
The original Blood and Crip structures in Belize City established a lasting set of social practices
perceivable in contemporary gangs; the aesthetics of language, the pose, the cars, or gold
chains, and the symbolic shotta notoriety and fear, sexual access to women, street parties,
drinking and drug-taking. This can be understood as significant ‘capital’, flaunted to an
audience in the ghetto to acquire meaning (Baird, 2012a; 2012b; 2015; Fraser, 2013; Sandberg,
2008). These displays are a version of hegemonic masculine localism, a set of socially and
culturally adaptable and relational notions, practices and displays, performed under specific
social and economic conditions.
This hegemonic shape runs through the history of street gangs in Belize. As the Bloods and
Crips fragmented and the Generals died off, smaller factions were run by new generations of
Big Men, Boss Men, Shottas, Killer Men and Strike Men who picked up the mantle as the new
gangsta personas driving the localised hegemonic masculine ideal. Tiger, a young man on the
fringes of gang life stated:
Tiger: Mi father was a member of a gang, but he ded. Mi brother a was a member of
Bakatown gang, but Ghost Town [gang] end up kill him, like tree year ago.
Author: Why they kill him, what was the beef about?
Tiger: Mi brother was [laughs self-consciously], mi brother was their killer-man. He was
the strike-man for Bakatown, and Ghost Town wanted revenge…
Author: Why do they fight?
Tiger: Dey fight for respec’ an’ ting. ‘Coz mostly ting happen when dey got a party on.
When all da gang members meet up, and ting just start to flick-up [flare-up]. Their beef
done start simple. Simple ting cause beef down here. They teef [steal] a bike down dere,
small tings! Den dey come up into bigger problems, y’know? (12/05/2016)
The narratives of young gang members discussed identities consistently linked to domination
and the rejection of non-hegemonic traits, where “Everybody wanna be a man, you da man if
you kill somebody, if you don’t do it, ya pussy” (Vartas 18/05/2016). Haylock’s research with
male youth offenders corroborates this “Everybody wants to be known as the ‘big man’ out on
the streets. We want everyone to think we are ‘bad’ enough, being a ‘killer, murderer, or a
prisoner’ is respected.” (2013, p. 31). Messiah, a former gang member-turned rapper,
connected violence to male status, “There’s niggaz who have respect from the streets and
niggaz know, ‘don’t fuck wid dat nigga ‘coz he will shoot the fuck out of you’” (16/11/2016).
These identities set out a gendered framework for gang membership. Sufficient numbers of
Southside boys learn these rites-of-passage to facilitate the fluid intergenerational handing-
over of the baton, what Jabaar refers to below as a fast ‘transition’:
Like, right now the leader of George Street is a guy dey call ‘Baby’, because he’s unknown,
he’s a young fellow, and he’s more ruthless coz he knows what happened to his seniors
[murdered gang leaders]. So, da killers are more ruthless now. Dey are new, dey are young,
and da transition is faster. Some are 13 years old. I saw a young guy who I know is a shotta
[gunman], and he is not more than 11 years old. So basically, what we have in Belize is child
A former manager of a gang prevention programme referred to the vulnerability of the young
boys she worked with on Southside who were almost all from struggling single mother
households: “The only men that talk to these boys are gangs on the streets, who they look up
to and idolise” (Sally 10/05/2016).
Boys think that being rude and acting like a gang member is how you get respect off
someone. There is no longer manhood. We have overgrown adolescents, right?
There’s no male role model. Actually, the role model that most of our young males
seem to be gravitating towards are gangsters. Back in the day, when you went to jail
you got scorned. Now, you get stripes, street credibility. So, street credibility has taken
over masculinity (Jabaar 11/05/2016).
The ganging process demands the practice and display of ‘baddness’ that subordinates non-
hegemonic masculine traits (Baird, 2018a). Gang performance asserts a patriarchy of the streets
encompassing the treatment of women and sexual violence, demonstrated by Shorty’s
Besides my other whores, I had this beautiful woman [goes on to talk about teenage
girlfriend. Shorty was thirty-three at the time]. The bitches who love gangstas only
love the dude for the stuff he’s doin’ on the streets… they all want the same, they only
like him because of his name, then they always fuck their best friends! Yeah, we train
[gang rape] them. I’ve seen ten gangbangers do one woman [called ‘Pleasers’]. Some
are forced, some wanna do it to show that they are down, it shows they love them…
the dudes don’t really hang out with the home girls, they hang out in their own groups,
they are separated. Women don’t hold guns… but I know one who killed two people,
because I taught her how to be a real, real, real home girl (19/11/2016).
This section has not set out to be an essentialist appraisal of poor young men, rather it uses
empiricism to demonstrate how gang culture plays a role in gendering identities of the street.
Particularly the gang persona occupies significant ontological ground in terms of local
meanings of masculinities because of its hegemonic power, displayed in the public practices
and capital of gang members. Arguably then, hegemonic masculine practice as a form of
localism is at the heart of gang continuity. A notable finding is that this hegemonic power is
derived from multiple sources. This allows Southside gangs to have influence through a range
of masculine capitals even if they may be financially poorer than more organised criminal
gangs in other contexts. For example, despite this relative poverty a recent report stated that
73% of gang members interviewed still felt the gang brought them significant ‘respect’
(Arciaga Young, 2019, p. 86). As one government official said, “gangs might not be well
resourced, but they are an important social organism in the human ecology of Southside. That’s
why people join gangs. It’s like a factory” (Bob, 21/11/2017).
Finally, reflecting on Beske’s work, who said that rising violence in rural Belize has come to
redefine the cultural order itself (2016, p. 63), gang transnationalism has come to redefine the
cultural order on the streets, whose hegemonic shape underpins the continuity of violence in
the city to this day.
By focusing on gangs in Belize this article has framed gang transnationalism as a form of
‘transnational masculinity’. Drawing on Connell and Messerschmidt’s (2005; 2018) notions of
localised hegemonic masculinity, models or projects (the latter after Jewkes et al, 2015),
empirical evidence has been put forward to argue that gang transnationalism has established
localised hegemonic gang practices on Southside, most visibly in displays of violence and
symbolic and material masculine capital, leading gangs to acquire and maintain prominence as
aspirational sites of male identity formation, leading to their self-perpetuation.
Much has been said about the social terrain into which gang transnationalism inserts itself.
Clearly, historical exclusion on Belize City’s Southside created vulnerabilities amongst the
disenfranchised, poor, male, Creole population to the lure of transnational gang culture. It has
been argued that gang transnationalism is a migrant form of gendered localism that requires a
receptive terrain that reflects the intersections of race, class, and subordination found in the
originating locale. The experience on Southside indicates that the transnational gangsta persona
can become established rapidly - within a generation – in vulnerable terrains, precisely because
it is a hegemonic masculine model that inflects the vulnerabilities of local men. This is a
significant claim, but one that opens lines of enquiry for further, particularly comparative,
research: Can other experiences of gang transnationalism be understood as a form of
transnational masculinity; do destination terrains need to reflect the setting where gang
transnationalism originates from, and; would comparative analysis make it possible to predict
where gang transnationalism may emerge in the future?
‘Localising’ hegemonic masculinities is in itself a challenge. To what extent can men
subordinated by race and class even represent a hegemonic ideal? In response, this article has
attempted to tease out some nuances of gangland masculinities. Although gang members have
not been cast as simple victims of ‘perilous masculinity’ (after de la Tierra, 2016) it is vital to
read the social terrain from which gangs emerge. Reading exclusion as gendered helps us
understand how gang transnationalism embeds effectively. The vulnerability of local boys and
young men was palpable during the fieldwork; for many, gang membership was a socially
cohesive sub-cultural guarantor of identity and dignity, a conduit for masculine power that
offset the multiple subordinations wrought by legacies of exclusion. However, the image of the
emasculated and imperilled Creole gang member striking back at the system as a form of
protest, rebellious or compensatory masculinity, is only part of the picture. Whilst gang
practices should be considered a subversive reaction to structural constraint, they rarely
challenge the gender hierarchies of the street that subjugate women and non-hegemonic
masculinities. In the Belizean case, the gangsta persona reinforced them, often with violence,
reasserting the patriarchies of the street and multiplying the harm done to communities already
We should be measured in our use of this analysis, however. Perceiving gang practices,
displays or performances as an expression of hegemonic masculinity may be an apposite way
to unpack the violence often inherent to them, but it should not be used to essentialise the lives
of individual gang members. Masculinities are multiple, relational, and setting dependant;
away from gang socialisation spaces, these young men are likely to be loving sons, boyfriends
or fathers. In short, gang members are part victim, part perpetrator; both vulnerable men and
violent hegemonic men.
If vulnerable young men respond to gangs, how can alternative masculinisation opportunities
be promoted in marginalised communities to prevent gang membership? These types of
questions are are rarely considered in gang focused interventions which are overwhelmingly
masculinities-blind. Therefore to conclude, it is worth reflecting upon the Southside Youth
Success Programme (UNDP Belize & Government of Belize, 2013), a masculinities focused
pilot project designed by the author that targeted school drop-outs and other youths at high risk
of joining gangs, such as those in conflict with the law. It was notable from interviews with the
participants on this program that they valued the ‘men-talk’ component as the only time they
critically engaged with meanings of masculinity. Most came from fractured homes and gang
members were often their male role models on the streets. The mentoring delivered at a drop-
in centre on Southside encouraged them to find positive pathways to manhood and to reject the
gang as a site of male success. This was further bolstered by weekly male ‘motivational
speakers’ who covered topics such as ‘Not choosing the path of a gangster’, ‘Losing a loved
one as a result of gang rivalry’, ‘Sexual exploitation’, and ‘Changing the course of your life’
(SYSP Annual Report, 2014). The program evaluation showed that the masculinities focus was
instrumental in reaching out to boys and young men who were tempted by the gang because it
gave them tools to critically appraise the gang as a site of male success. During the project life-
cycle from 2012-2014, 89 of the 106 participants ended up in work, a paid apprenticeship, or
back into full-time education (SYSP Annual Report, 2014). A key lesson from this experience
was that whilst masculinities matter, mentoring was only effective when twinned with tangible
alternative pathways for youths back into education or gainful employment; in other words,
visualised and viable alternative pathways to manhood prevented gang membership. The better
we grasp the masculine dynamics of gang practices, the better positioned we will be as scholars
and practitioners to reduce the harm done by gangs to already vulnerable communities,
particularly homicidal and sexual violences, and the pernicious impact of fear that lies just
beneath the surface.
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Adam Baird is a sociologist and ethnographer who uses masculinities as a lens to
understand gangs and community violence. He has conducted research across Latin
America and the Caribbean, including Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Belize.