GSPIA’s Ridgway Center presents a Roundtable on Security Challenges in Central America, Part 2

GSPIA’s Matthew B. Ridgway Center presents a scholar discussion on current and past security challenges in Central America. Five esteemed experts present their field experience and research on topics ranging from transnational criminal organizations to local gangs in the region. Following the individual presentations, the experts come together for a panel discussion that draws on their wide-ranging knowledge. Join us for this thought provoking and engaging set of discussions.

Guest Speakers: Douglas Farah, President, IBI Consultants and Senior Associate, Americas Program — CSIS; Steven Dudley, Co-Director of InSight Crime; Thomas Bruneau, Vice President of Global Academic Professionals; Juan Ricardo Gómez Hecht, Professor and Advisor of Public Security at the College of High Strategic Studies of El Salvador Armed Forces; Juan Carlos Garón, Global Fellow at Woodrow Wilson Center and a researcher for the United Nations Development Program.

This event is sponsored by the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh and by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh.

GSPIA’s Ridgway Center presents a Roundtable on Security Challenges in Central America, Part 1

GSPIA’s Matthew B. Ridgway Center presents a scholar discussion on current and past security challenges in Central America. Five esteemed experts present their field experience and research on topics ranging from transnational criminal organizations to local gangs in the region. Following the individual presentations, the experts come together for a panel discussion that draws on their wide-ranging knowledge. Join us for this thought provoking and engaging set of discussions.

Guest Speakers: Douglas Farah, President, IBI Consultants and Senior Associate, Americas Program — CSIS; Steven Dudley, Co-Director of InSight Crime; Thomas Bruneau, Vice President of Global Academic Professionals; Juan Ricardo Gómez Hecht, Professor and Advisor of Public Security at the College of High Strategic Studies of El Salvador Armed Forces; Juan Carlos Garón, Global Fellow at Woodrow Wilson Center and a researcher for the United Nations Development Program.

This event is sponsored by the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh and by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh.

A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture

By John M. Hagedorn (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); 200 pages; $24.95. Amazon.com

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

In A World of Gangs, John Hagedorn explores the international proliferation of urban gangs as a consequence of globalization.  Examining the impacts of urbanization, immigration, social marginalization, and even gangster-rap culture, Hagedorn arrives at three conclusions:

  1. Gangs are not a unique form but one of many kinds of armed groups that occupy the uncontrolled spaces of a “world of slums.”
  2. Gangs are shaped by racial and ethnic oppression, as well as poverty and slums, and are reactions of despair to persisting inequality.
  3. It is in this power of identity, including the more life-affirming currents within the hip-hop lifestyle, where we can nurture a cultural counterforce to youth’s nihilism, misogyny, and self-destructiveness.

In his foreword, Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, praises Hagedorn for expanding the discourse on the gang problem, depicting inner-city people coping with life in postindustrial cities as rational actors and disenfranchised citizens instead of demons from the ‘hood’ or romanticized outlaws.  Davis adds his own insight into the phenomenon of gangs as well.  The global gang is part of the continuum of crime and revolt that defines the new horizons of geopolitics in the twenty-first century.  From the standpoint of the abandoned and betrayed youth in ghettos and favelas around the world, all urban poor inhabit “failed” states and there should be no surprise at the angry social combustion that accompanies the economic polarization of this new age.  For Davis, savage capitalism, the kind celebrated in the Wall Street Journal and gangster rap, is the decisive substratum, and street gangs simply mirror the ambition and greed of society’s trendsetters as they fight over scraps from the table of the international drug trade.

 

A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria

By Daniel Jordan Smith; (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007); 296 pages; $39.95. Amazon.com

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

A Culture of Corruption takes the reader into the everyday world of the citizens of Africa’s most populous state as they encounter a society plagued by corruption.  From police checkpoints that demand bribes from motorists in exchange for safe passage to Internet cafés where thousands of young Nigerians craft notorious email scam letters to local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) created to siphon international donor dollars into individual hands, Smith offers a detailed portrait of the social organization of corruption.  He examines not only the mechanisms and contexts that explain corruption (patron-clientism, for example), but also how the intense Nigerian discontent with corruption propels contemporary events and stimulates the collective cultural imagination.  The book offers an interesting and sympathetic attempt at understanding the daily dilemmas confronted by average Nigerians as they struggle to get ahead—or just survive—in a state riddled with corruption.

Smith’s discussion of the Bakassi Boys, a vigilante gang originally formed to combat violent street criminals, is of particular note.  In its early phase, the gang engaged in what became known as “instant justice”: the apprehension and brutal public execution of alleged criminals, a practice typically supported by the local population.  Over time, however, the gang degenerated into the very criminals they were supposed to be fighting.  Smith explores why the population initially supported the Bakassi Boys, citing environmental reasons such as the insecurity of the state, police corruption, social class, and the belief that gang members were supernatural heroes fighting for justice.  On the invitation of local politicians seeking to reduce crime rates, the Bakassi Boys expanded their operations to other cities.  The group began to lose its popularity when it began abusing its power and killing critics of politicians, leading to accusations that the gang had been co-opted by corrupt state officials.  The federal government eventually cracked down on the activities of the Bakassi Boys, but the idea of violent vigilantism remains popular in Nigeria today.

Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America

Edited by Thomas Bruneau, Lucía Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner; (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011); 319 pages; $24.95. Amazon.com

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

In Maras, researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds explore the problem of gangs in Central America.  The book aims to balance the overwhelmingly sensationalist reporting on gangs in English-language media with an objective assessment of the mara issue.  In Thomas Bruneau’s introduction, maras are distinguished from local street gangs or pandillas, in their hierarchal organizations and extensive use of violence, both physical and sexual.  The group’s transnational activities across North and Central America offer a further point of distinction.  The maras are increasingly involved in the illicit drug trade as well as cross-border human and arms trafficking.

The book is divided into two sections.  The first consists of case studies on the four major Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, plus Los Angeles, California, where the main contemporary gangs in Central America originated.  In Nicaragua, unlike the other three countries, the pandillas have yet to evolve into maras, a development attributed to several factors, including the nature of the state’s security forces and the way they have dealt with at-risk youth and criminal activity.

The second section contains comparisons of different gang dynamics and responses to the mano dura policies of Central American governments.  Of particular note is Florina Christiana Matei’s essay on the deportation policies of the United States and their seemingly negligible impact on the gang problem in Central America. Christiana Matei’s position challenges critics who contend U.S. deportations have perpetuated a revolving cycle of gang members moving back and forth between the United States and Central America, inexorably strengthening the maras.  Overall, the essays within this volume set a standard for research and analysis that will serve as a basis for further study of the maras, as well as for innovative and enlightened policy making.

 

Gangs in the Global City: Alternatives to Traditional Criminology

Edited by John M. Hagedorn; (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007); 368 pages; $28.00. Amazon.com

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

Gangs in the Global City contains a variety of essays by international scholars who offer diverse and critical perspectives on the problems of traditional criminology.  In the traditional approach, according to this volume, the criminology of gangs has been based on three key assumptions:

  1. Gangs are deviant and temporary adolescent departures from a progressive path towards modernization.
  2. Gangs are paradigmatically an American form, a byproduct of industrialization and urbanization.
  3. Gangs are mainly youthful products of social disorganization and are not primarily racist or ethnic organizations.

These views originate in the study of gang phenomena in an almost exclusively American context, classically constructed as “interstitial” peer groups—adaptations to immigration and urbanization in the industrial city—and generally considered to be the product of social disorganization, broken families, or street socialization.  The essays in this volume revisit commonly accepted understandings and provide evidence for alternative conclusions:

  1. While most gangs are unsupervised teenage peer groups, many others are institutionalized in ghettos, barrios, or favelas around the world.
  2. Gangs are found all over the world and regularly respond to the changing spaces of globalizing cities.
  3. Gangs are “social actors” whose identities are formed by ethnic, racial, and/or religious oppression, through participation in the underground economy, and through constructions of gender.

Hagedorn’s own work in the volume, “Gangs in Late Modernity,” argues that the key to understanding contemporary gangs is found in the operations of globalization: the redivision of space, the strengthening of traditional identities, and the workings of the underground economy.  Each of these processes receives attention from one or two authors who cite real-world examples to illustrate their points: Chapters 1 and 12 discuss the role of prisons in institutionalizing the formation of La Eme and the Vice Lords, while Chapter 8 looks at the emergence of skinheads in Berlin.  As James F. Short Jr. notes, however, in his concluding essay, there is a lack of cohesion and unevenness in the volume resulting from the variation in methodological and theoretical approaches utilized by the contributors, which range from ethnographically-based field studies to theoretical exegeses on the impacts of globalization.  Nonetheless, the essays in Gangs in the Global City put forth provocative ideas worthy of further study.

 

Gangs: An International Approach

By Sean Grennan, Marjie T. Britz, Jeffrey Rush, and Thomas Barker; (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000); 479 pages; $9.91. Barnes & Noble

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

The international orientation of Gangs provides for a unique addition to a body of literature more commonly focused on the United States.  The groups covered include Italian, Jamaican, Korean, Vietnamese, and Israeli gangs, among others.  The authors explore the formation of these gangs, the history of their criminal activities, and their future in society.  The motivations of founding gang members, initiation rites, ethnic, racial, and religious makeup, and mechanisms of member mobility within the organizational hierarchy are also addressed.  The book attempts to provide a pragmatic in-depth look into all types of gangs, advancing our understanding of their history, structure, and philosophy.

In Chapter 2, the authors offer their definition of a gang, noting that researchers have come up with at least 14 different definitions in the past.  They concede that ambiguous definitions can be beneficial due to gangs displaying considerable variation in interests and methods around the world.  Nonetheless, according to the authors, all gangs exhibit six general characteristics: being organized; having identifiable leadership; identifying with a territory; continual association; having a specific purpose; and engaging in illegal activities. One crucial aspect has evolved over time, however—the use of violence.  Violence in the name of the gang promotes solidarity and secures territory.  Thus, the authors utilize the following definition of a gang:

A gang is any transpersonal group of individuals that shows a willingness to use deadly violence to claim and defend territory, and [sic] attack rival gangs, extort or rob money, or engage in other criminal behavior as an activity associated with its group, and is recognized by itself and its immediate community as a distinct dangerous entity.  The basic structure of gangs is one of gender and leadership differentiation unique to its particular location and history.

In their conclusion, the authors advocate a zero-tolerance policy to quash the plague of gangs in society.  While this strategy may work in some countries, heavy-handed policies have exacerbated the problem in others, particularly in Latin America.  As the authors themselves acknowledge, understanding the nature of gangs is a crucial step towards devising specific countermeasures to address violent groups.  This book, though, offers only one way to accomplish that goal.

 

Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, & Public Security

By Enrique Desmond Arias; (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); 304 pages; $21.00. Amazon.com

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

In Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro, Enrique Arias sets out to explore two related questions: why is there so much violence in Rio and what can be done to improve the situation?  In the favelas (shantytowns) surrounding Rio, Arias seeks to answer these questions by showing how the ongoing impacts of crime and violence are closely connected to the ways in which criminal gangs, state officials, and civic actors interact with each other in pursuit of shared goals.  Among these goals are the delivery of services to neighborhood residents and the pursuit of political support and legitimacy among both politicians and drug traffickers throughout the favelas.  The network structures utilized to achieve these broader goals enhance the ability of criminal actors to engage in ongoing illegal activities with minimal external opposition.  These networks have transformed state power at the local level in such a way that many government policies actually reinforce criminal activities.

Drugs and Democracy provides a conceptual framework for discussing problems of violence in developing societies.  In Chapter 1, Arias traces the political history of Rio’s favelas.  Chapter 2 then details the book’s theoretical contributions, examining the place of criminals in a changing society and the ways in which they interact with other political actors. It also analyzes possible ways to control the violence.  Chapters 3, 4, and 5 examine the main political organizations of the three favelas in which Arias conducted his research (Tubarao, Santa Ana, and Vigario Geral) to explain how criminal networking creates the conditions for organizing violence and disrupts democratic governance.  In Chapter 6, Arias provides a comparative analysis of other illegal networks in Latin America.  He concludes that an alternative form of networked organization between local state and civic actors dedicated to the reduction of violence in the favelas would help mitigate crime over the medium term.  To this end, the author calls for more micro-level research into the operations of criminal organizations and their impacts on state institutions and social groups to advance the search for solutions to social violence in the developing world.