In May of this year, Duke University Press finally released Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death. The book is written well–a quick read at just under 150 pages of text–and the author, Deborah Levenson, has plenty of experience with the topic. In fact, Levenson helped author one of the earliest empirical studies of the gangs of Guatemala City in 1988 when she worked at the AVANCSO center for the social sciences. One of the most important strengths of the book is its historical perspective. Levenson compares the gangs of the 1980s with the gangs of the 90s onward and concludes that the gangs she studied in the 1980s were vastly different from the far more violent gangs that affiliated with the transnational/Latino gangs of the M-18 and the MS-13. In the 1980s, Levenson argues, the gang members she intereviewed had found a sense of liberation in their gang identity and many attached a political edge to their gang activity. Not so with the gang youth of today, few of whom were willing to talk with the author as did the earlier gang youth. She calls these new “maras” the “gangs to die for”–a sharp contrast with the more locally-based maras from an earlier time–and she works hard to make the case that the civil war, which reached its peak in the early 1980s, was the key contributor to this metamorphasis.
It is certainly true that the gangs underwent a transformation in Guatemala during the early 1990s. Many of the ex-gang members I interviewed in 2007 and 2008 spoke of a gang “evolution” that brought an escalation of violence, the introduction of “la renta” security taxes, and, importantly, a narrowing of the possibility for leaving or “retiring” from the gang. It’s also hard to contradict the notion that the war contributed to the evolution of the gangs. Indeed, there is little in Guatemalan society that was unaffected by 36 years of dirty warfare. But Levenson seems, in my view, a little overcommitted to drawing a straight line from the war to the transformation of the gangs. After all, if the war–which had essentially been “won” by the military by the mid-1980s–were the most important factor in creating the hyper-violent maras of today, it is difficult to understand why Honduras should have what is by most estimates, a greater problem with gang violence. Sure the war made a difference–thousands of children were orphaned by the war and some of these orphans ended up in a gang. But I am convinced that other socio-historical factors were just as, if not more important to creating a situation in which nominally delinquent youth gangs gave way to seriously violent ones. Chief among these factors are the rise of narco-traffic (which occasionally employed gang members, paying them in product and obliging them to monetize such payment by creating a local market for crack cocaine) and the colonization of the local street gangs by MS-13 and M-18 members, including some deportees, but mostly among those coming across the border from El Salvador. Both the narcotraffickers and the transnational gang missionaries greatly enhanced access to small arms, which were pouring into the Central American market through legal and non-legal channels. True, some of the military’s weapons have made it into the hands of the gang members but I don’t believe this channel was nearly as important as simple proximity to the largest small arms producer in the world (the U.S.).
Levenson also likes to critique Pentecostalism as a key culprit in keeping the Guatemalan government from addressing gang violence in ways that could be effective in the long run. She argues that after the Christian Democratic party tried half-heartedly and failed to address the nascent gang violence in the country, “the care of needy and troubled youth was turned over to Pentecostals” who then “assumed a role as social engineer” (107). This sentence, I’m afraid, greatly overstates the power and influence–not to mention the unity–of “the Pentecostals.” To her credit, the author does briefly acknowledge in the last chapter that some Pentecostal gang ministries appear to have improved upon their fire-and-brimstone harangues of the past–a caveat that makes room for the possibility that Pentecostals may not be all alike, nor all completely in the thrall of former dictator and Neopentecostal Christian Rios Montt.
Despite my disagreements with the author on some of these issues, I think Adiós Niño is a worthwhile read and I will assign it in my course on Central America. One of my favorite features of the book is its use of photographs featuring youth both during and after their sojourn in the gang. Unfortunately, we learn that some of these youth have become victims of the violence. And as is typical, we will never know by whom they were killed or why. Such is the life–and death– of the “killable people.” In a country with a “justice” system that investigates precious few murders, and brings to trial even fewer, the death of a former gang member is very, very low on the public ministry’s priority list.