Gangs are frequently associated with violence and disorder, but they can also be institutional vectors for forms of social structuration. For example, gangs in 1990s Nicaragua emerged after a decade of conflict as veritable mediums for the organisation of local collective life in many of the slums and poor neighbourhoods of the country’s cities. Displaying a vigilante ethos, they sought to protect their local communities, engaging in activities that aimed at mitigating insecurity and unpredictability, patrolling neighbourhoods, providing “bodyguard” services, and engaging in ritualised forms of warfare that followed prescribed “scripts” and therefore provided local inhabitants with an “early warning system”. In a broader context of post-conflict strife and economic discombobulation, gangs were thus not just functional purveyors of a sense of predictability and security, but in many ways also constituted the symbol of local communitas.
One way of thinking about such patterns of behaviour is through the conceptual trope of “gang governance”. Governance is often associated with notions of technical efficiency but at its most basic, the notion relates to the act of governing, which in turn is fundamentally concerned with the imposition of a sense of order and regularity onto a given social reality, context, or process. Governance is obviously generally associated with states and their particular modes of action or regimes, but there is no reason why other institutions cannot play the same role, including gangs.
Having said this, an institutional hallmark of gangs is their volatility. Certainly, Nicaraguan gangs changed radically between the 1990s and the 2000s due to the rise of drug trafficking, which gangs became involved in as security apparatus. This led to gangs becoming vectors for the imposition of localised regimes of terror based on acts of arbitrary violence against local inhabitants that aimed at ensuring the smooth running of their illegal business instead of local neighbourhood protectors. As different as Nicaraguan gangs were in the 2000s compared to the 1990s, they still arguably promulgated a form of order, and can therefore perhaps be seen as a different iteration of the same general gang governance process, one which we might label “type 2” versus the “type 1” of the 1990s.
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