The Deadly Compulsion to Belong

  • Written by  W. E. Gutman

My 12-year Central America odyssey began in 1994 with a visit to a number of prisons -- overcrowded, stench-filled dungeons in which minors are often incarcerated with hardened adult criminals. Detention, however brief, has a devastating effect on young, impressionable minds. Minors jailed with adults are eight times more likely to commit suicide; five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and twice as likely to suffer abuse at the hands of prison staff.

While incarcerated, fearing for their bodies and lives, youths often develop a silent if morbid admiration for the macho thugs who rule the roost. When released to the streets where most come from, many join gangs which offer them an imaginary sense of self-worth and identity. Once in, they begin a life of petty larceny often followed by more serious criminal enterprises.


Shaved heads. White T-shirts. Baggy pants. Tattoos -- some grotesque, some menacing. Inviting bullets, they loiter on street corners, flashing cryptic hand-signals or daubing walls with intricate graffiti that mark territory or warn of imminent turf wars. Striving to set themselves apart from the society that shunned them, they conform to other self-styled conventions that often cost them their lives.


It’s the “vida loca” at its nihilistic extreme: Filled with self-loathing, they seek each other out, poised for a kill. It’s a form of suicide by proxy. The enemy is a mirror image of what they have become. Death is the ultimate payback. Their last breath, they privately concede, is a final cry of anguish that can only be heard from the grave. Abused or neglected as children, now feral and aloof, they get even by inspiring terror and hostility in the communities they inhabit or have conquered. And, with unsettling regularity, they bring upon themselves bloody reprisals by a constabulary that is inept, apathetic or out of control.


According to the CIA, about 500 gang cells operate in Honduras’ main urban centers. The most notorious -- the Mara Salvatrucha and the “18” -- boast a membership exceeding 100,000. Their members wreak economic havoc to the tune of millions of dollars lost in crimes against property. They sow a climate of fear and bring on social devastation through violence, drug trafficking, addiction, loss of life and family disintegration.


Gangs, or maras, are not a new phenomenon in Honduras, where gang culture has flourished for decades. For many youths traumatized by poverty, family violence, sexual abuse and early life on the streets, gangs extend a tangible, if deceptive, sense of solidarity and belonging. For many, it is the “home” they never had as children. If need be, they will defend it with their lives.


Frustrated, short on resources -- shorter yet on imagination -- Honduras has reacted to maras  by reviving old counter-insurgency protocols that define gang members as “terrorists,” and reinstating methods widely used during the “dirty war” of the 80s against suspected leftists, namely wholesale assassination and later revived by ex-president Ricardo Maduro’s “Zero Tolerance” crime policies.


Despite reports of serious human rights violations by security forces, the perpetrators were never brought to justice. The moral outrage the crisis elicited also led to increasing curbs on freedom of the press as authorities tried to prevent critics from airing their views. To his credit, such bullying did not prevent distinguished veteran journalist and Tiempo  columnist, the late Billy Peña, from writing:


President Maduro was elected because he promised our people a ‘Zero Tolerance’ crime policy -- meaning the eradication of gangs and other criminal elements. Alas, this strategy has failed. The police have misinterpreted the spirit and corrupted the letter of this mandate. Gangs as a whole have not been eradicated but many of their members are being exterminated. Apparently, since there are no rehabilitation centers for delinquent youths, the easiest way to neutralize them is to eliminate them. What is sad is that Honduran society has turned a blind eye toward violence. Extrajudicial executions have become as common as bread and butter. Ironically, gangs still control the streets and entire neighborhoods. Nothing has really changed.


Sources close to this reporter have suggested that the Ministry of Security may have colluded with President Ricardo Maduro by falsely informing him that policemen accused of extrajudicial killings were being punished when in fact they had acted with total impunity and been accorded unconditional protection by police top brass. The president then went on to assure the nation that the police was not involved in criminal acts, thus shrouding -- some say by design -- a serious problem he chose to ignore.


Showing lamentable insensitivity, President Maduro later made things worse by arguing that the people had elected him to “protect the interests of honest people, not delinquents.” The statement was widely greeted as a subliminal declaration of complicity and guilt.


In urban settings, gun violence and assault form the pulsing backdrop of everyday life. The book Jesus and the Gang: Youth Violence and Christianity in Urban Honduras by John Wolseth, PhD, a visiting professor of anthropology at Luther College, examines the ways that young men and women in working class neighborhoods of El Progresso understand and respond to gang activity and how Catholic and Evangelical Protestant churches are stepping in to mediate violence. The absence of government and NGO gang prevention programs has created a vacuum that Catholic and Pentecostal churches, eager to gain new converts, are only too keen to fill.


Chronicling firsthand accounts of these youths and how they make use of religious discourse, narrative practices, or the inscription of tattoos images and words on their body to navigate dangerous social settings, this intensely personal, visceral and highly literate ethnography casts an unflinching look at how these young people attempt to turn away from violence and how Christianity ostensibly serves a society where belonging means surviving.


While the author does not directly address Christianity's declared agenda of world proselytism, there is an implied admission that “the protective path of God” may endow gang members with a false sense of invulnerability, offering them a haven for their soul but no tangible escape from the earthly realities of Honduras’s self-created socio-economic quagmire. Nor does he acknowledge the exploitative nature of evangelism: Not only are people forced to forfeit their traditional beliefs, they have to provide cheap labor to support interlopers who obliterate their culture and expropriate their land. Spanish Catholic missionaries did something similar in the colonial period, and the colonial records are filled with instances of abuse at the hands of their “saviors.”


Although it focuses on Honduras, the book will appeal to readers with an interest in Latin American social issues, urban anthropology and youth studies. With its focus on the lives of young men and women living on the edge, it’s also a compelling read for anyone interested in the plight of urban youths trying to escape the gang life. What exudes from Jesus and the Gang is the profound and alarming hopelessness, the paralyzing despair and the lack of indignation at the rudderless nation Honduras has become.


Ultimately, no analysis of gang life and violence is complete or fair without a probe into the arcane character of Honduras’ politics, judicial system and the lengths to which the executive branch will go to protect a neo-feudal system that keeps spawning criminals and which its people are powerless to defeat. (12/19/13) (photo courtesy Agence France-Presse)



Jesus and the Gang: Youth Violence and Christianity in Urban HondurasJohn Wolseth; 176 pp. University of Arizona Press. Paperback, US$24.95.


Note: W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and author. On assignment in Central America from 1994 to 2006, he covered politics, the military, human rights and other socio-economic issues. He lives in southern California. To view a list of his works, see W. E. Gutman


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