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Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean

Studies / Revue canadienne des études latino-

américaines et caraïbes

ISSN: 0826-3663 (Print) 2333-1461 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rclc20

Gangs, drugs, and the state: violence and survival

at the margins of Latin America

Sonja Wolf

To cite this article: Sonja Wolf (2016) Gangs, drugs, and the state: violence and survival
at the margins of Latin America, Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean
Studies / Revue canadienne des études latino-américaines et caraïbes, 41:1, 114-125, DOI:

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/08263663.2015.1134077

Published online: 29 Jan 2016.

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Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 2016
Vol. 41, No. 1, 114–128


Gangs, drugs, and the state: violence and survival at the margins
of Latin America

Violence at the Urban Margins, edited by Javier Auyero, Philippe Bourgois, and Nancy
Scheper-Hughes, New York, Oxford University Press, 2015, 352 pp., USD 24.95
(paperback), ISBN 9780190221454

Narcoamérica: de los Andes a Manhattan, 55 mil kilómetros tras el rastro de la

cocaína, by Alejandra Sánchez Inzunza, José Luis Pardo, and Pablo Ferri, Mexico City,
Tusquets Editores, 2015, 328 pp., MXN 199.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-607-421-667-7

Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala, by Kevin Lewis
O’Neill, Oakland, University of California Press, 2015, 304 pp., USD 24.95 (paperback),
ISBN 9780520278493

US National Security Concerns in Latin America and the Caribbean: The Concept
of Ungoverned Spaces and Failed States, edited by Garry Prevost, Harry E. Vanden,
Carlos Oliva Campos, and Luis Fernando Ayerbe, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014,
220 pp., GBP 66.00 (hardback), ISBN 9781137379511

We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire, by Suzanna Reiss, Oakland, University of

California Press, 2014, 328 pp., USD 29.95 (paperback), ISBN 9780520280786

Prisons in the Americas in the Twenty-First Century: A Human Dumping Ground,

edited by Jonathan D. Rosen and Marten W. Brienen, Lanham, MD, Lexington Books,
2015, 258 pp., USD 90.00 (hardback), ISBN 0739191357

Latin America’s prohibitionist drug policies have criminalized consumers while depriving them
of adequate treatment options, contributed to prison overcrowding, and fed violence among rival
criminal groups and the state. Street gangs continue to draw marginalized youths into their fold,
and the social violence associated with them has grown more intense, particularly in the northern
triangle of Central America. Fragile state institutions and the absence of appropriate security and
social policies have not only provoked the persistence, and indeed normalization, of violence,
but also incited extrajudicial executions of suspected delinquents. All this occurs in a context of
corruption and impunity that leaves citizens with no one to turn to and gradually erodes human
rights and the rule of law. In short, there is an urgency to better comprehend the security
dynamics in the region and the challenges involved in formulating more effective state
responses. The books reviewed here, authored by academics from the social sciences, law, and
history as well as journalists, were all crafted in this spirit. In different ways, they seek to provide
a fuller understanding of the myriad faces of violence, expose the effects of restrictive drug and
gang policies, and unmask the ideological, political, and economic interests driving them.
Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 115

Territorial power
The edited volume US National Security Concerns in Latin America and the Caribbean
brings together eight essays that examine how the concepts of “ungoverned spaces” and
“failed states” slipped into US policy discourse and have been deployed to justify
intervention. The concern with limited state presence and its implications for global
security is not recent, but it gained greater currency after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The
scholars, most of them political scientists, consider how that rhetoric has been utilized to
create new security initiatives and boost the US military presence in the region. The
broader argument is that this renewed security focus has less to do with real fears of
terrorism than with defending the United States’ longstanding political and economic
interests against the rise to power of progressive governments. The country chapters are of
varying strength, mostly based on secondary sources, and – in some cases – poorly
translated or edited and in parts factually incorrect. While the book’s overall point is
valid, some of the chapters overstate the imposition of the US foreign policy agenda at the
expense of local political-electoral or commercial interests behind security and drug
strategies. Some of the more salient analyses concern conceptual constructions, gang
transformations in El Salvador, and US counterinsurgency efforts in Colombia.
In their chapter, “From the US Department of State, USAID, and Washington-Based
Think Tanks: The Search for Ungoverned Spaces in South America”, Luiza Mateo
and Aline dos Santos examine how the concept of “ungoverned areas” has impacted
foreign policy during the administrations of George W. Bush (2001–2008) and Barack
Obama (2009–2013). The authors depart from the post-Cold War designation of
undocumented migration, refugee crises, organized crime, and terrorism as so-called
new threats that surfaced in contexts of decaying or lacking state authority. For the
Reagan (1981–1989) and Clinton (1993–2000) administrations, such circumstances
emerged from the unwillingness of “rogue states” to abide by international norms. That
term, however, did not help in understanding security challenges that were tied to states’
inability to exercise an effective presence in parts of their territory. Discerning the
possibility that the arising power vacuum might be exploited by clandestine actors,
analysts developed new, yet still nebulous, classifications such as “failed”, “fragile”, or
“weak states”, and eventually “ungoverned areas”. In their review of the relevant policy
writings, Mateo and dos Santos note disagreements over whether such power vacuums in
fact exist or whether they are filled by some other form of authority. Drawing on the work
of defense and security specialist Robert D. Lamb, they suggest that the issue is not the
degree of governance in an area, but who governs and how.
This finding gains particular urgency in Harry Vanden’s chapter on “Maras,
Contragoverned Spaces, and Sovereignty”. The text deals at length with the Los Angeles-
based origins of Central America’s largest street gangs and the reintegration difficulties of
deportees, before focusing on how Mara Salvatrucha and the Dieciocho operate today. As the
scholar rightly observes, their evolution was largely a response to the mano dura (“iron fist”)
strategies that conservative governments had adopted in pursuit of electoral victories rather
than gang control. In his co-authored introduction to the book, Vanden claims that although
the US-sponsored Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) prioritized police
and military aid over socio-economic programs, the recipient countries accepted this approach
with different degrees of conviction. In his view, the Guatemalan government of retired
general Otto Pérez Molina (2012–2016) embraced a militarized strategy to gangs, while in
El Salvador the leftist administration of Mauricio Funes (2009–2014) rejected repression in
favor of a gang truce.
116 Book reviews

Puzzlingly, the chapter then makes no mention of the CARSI and barely alludes to the
mano dura policies and their effects on gangs and crime. Further research would have
shown that the CARSI expanded its prevention programs and that President Funes side-
lined his comprehensive security policy and chose to respond to a sudden escalation of
homicides with a renewed crackdown. Indeed, the collapse of the truce is a key factor in
this murder spike, because the gangs resorted to violence in order to pressure the
government into honoring the agreement. The ceasefire has had important institutional
and political ramifications that anyone hoping to understand the gang’s influence needs to
study. Anyone with field research experience in the northern triangle would concur with
Vanden that in gang-affected communities it is indeed these groups and not the authorities
that exercise real power. However, the empirical evidence presented to that effect not only
is inaccurate on issues such as gang recruitment and age distribution, but it also ignores
the Dieciocho split into two rival factions and does not show just how embedded the
gangs have become in marginal communities.
“Old Wine in New Wineskins: Incorporating the ‘Ungoverned Spaces’ Concept into
Plan Colombia” is perhaps the most engaging chapter in the entire volume. Drawing on
almost 50 US congressional hearings, John Dugas analyzes how the United States
gradually shifted its rhetoric but not its security assistance to the South American country.
Initially, this security aid had consisted chiefly of counternarcotics support to the armed
forces. By 1999, however, the United States had become increasingly concerned about the
stalled peace talks, the escalation in guerrilla attacks and kidnappings, and the growth in
coca cultivation in areas controlled by the revolutionary groups. Plan Colombia was
originally designed to revive the peace negotiations and bolster judicial reform, human
rights, and development. But under Washington’s guidance it was transformed into a
militarized counternarcotics-cum-counterinsurgency strategy aimed at rebel-controlled
As Dugas explains, the 9/11 terrorist attacks altered US policymakers’ perceptions of
the Colombian war and turned the concept of ungoverned space into a new framing
device. The latter permitted a reordering of existing concerns about regional instability
and helped justify continued support for Plan Colombia despite its negative results, such
as a flawed demobilization process and the military’s extrajudicial killings (the notorious
“false positives”). Contrary to other contributors to the book, who stress the US imposi-
tion of foreign policy goals, Dugas highlights the role of local actors in interventionism.
President Álvaro Uribe, whose father had been killed by rebels, calculatingly embraced
the narco-terrorist designation and capitalized on Plan Colombia funding to launch a
nationwide antiguerrilla offensive.

Experiencing violence
Violence at the Urban Margins, edited by sociologist Javier Auyero and anthropologists
Philippe Bourgois and Nancy Scheper-Hughes, brings together ethnographic research that
explores how violence has been shaping the everyday life of the urban poor across the
Americas. While some authors focus on its physical dimension, others examine its
symbolic and structural forms. All writers, however, share a commitment to understanding
the suffering violence produces and the individual and collective responses it generates.
Importantly, their collective endeavor reveals that the victimization marginal communities
are experiencing has its origins in unequal economic and political structures as well as in
state actions or inactions. The Introduction by Kristine Kilanski and Javier Auyero
reviews the broader dynamics of violence, including the shift from political to social
Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 117

and criminal violence as well as its geographic (urban) and demographic focus (poor
young men as perpetrators and victims). The 11 substantive chapters that follow reflect the
book’s main themes of moral economy, gender and masculinities, confronting and coping
with danger, and ethnographic positionalities. The value of the essays lies not only in the
in-depth research that preceded them but also in their reflections on the epistemic
difficulties in studying violence.
Adam Baird’s chapter on “Duros and Gangland Girlfriends: Male Identity, Gang
Socialization, and Rape in Medellín” seeks to understand the relationship between
masculinities and violence. Based on interviews with gang members, their (former)
girlfriends, and non-gang residents, the text begins by contextualizing life in the impo-
verished neighborhoods of Colombia’s second-largest city. With gang and drug activity
being linked to the country’s decade-long armed conflict, Baird describes how enduring
exclusion and everyday violence have severely limited opportunities for youths and made
narcotics sales their chief source of income. His interest, however, lies in the intersection
of gang socialization, violence, and gender, particularly how exclusion impedes young
males from achieving traditional male identities and that feelings of emasculation may
lead them to consider gangs a conduit to manhood. Drawing on French sociologist Pierre
Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and capital, Baird analyzes how the subjective urge to
become a man animates successive generations of male youths to accumulate masculine
assets through gang membership.
Machismo, the dominant masculinity in Latin America, is associated with sexual
prowess, wealth, and power. In the absence of legitimate social mobility, and the symbols
associated with it, gangs afford marginalized young men respect and status – at least
among their peers – and allow them to develop a macho identity that is otherwise
unobtainable to them. Baird admits that these findings are not new. But his research
arrives at two additional conclusions about the gendered nature of gang violence, and they
concern gang members’ rejection of homosexuality and their treatment of women.
Females suffer abuse and humiliation within the group and are utilized as extortion
collectors or drug mules. The prospect of material benefits and status is nonetheless
compelling enough to offset the physical and emotional cruelty.
In their chapter, “Chismosas and Alcahuetas: Being the Mother of an Empistolado
within the Everyday Armed Violence of a Caracas Barrio”, Verónica Zubillaga,
Manuel Llorens, and John Souto also address the subject of armed youth violence.
However, given the academic literature’s relative silence on female participation in
aggression, they examine mothers’ efforts to promote a ceasefire between rival fac-
tions. For two decades, women in the Catuche neighborhood had lost sons and other
male relatives to gunfire. Eventually, 13 of them crafted a peace agreement that local
youths were asked to comply with and created committees that would mediate in
conflicts and report accord violators to the police. Situating the women’s lived
experiences in contemporary Bolivarian Venezuela, the authors explore how they
were able to interrupt the cycle of violence, but paradoxically also helped reproduce
it. Fundamental to understanding these dynamics are the contradictions between the
socialist government’s discursive rejection of exclusion and the state’s weakened
pacifying role. Although social programs have significantly improved the situation
of the poor, housing and other needs continue to create conflicts.
In marginal urban areas, then, youths grow up with the sense that carrying a firearm
affords them respect and, indeed, is vital for survival and dispute settlement. State agents,
in Venezuela and in other parts of Latin America, routinely fail to protect citizens and may
even feed the violence through their involvement in the arms trade or extrajudicial
118 Book reviews

killings. Given the state’s debilitated security provision, the women on the peace commit-
tees were caught between the desire to reduce violence and the need to resolve community
issues. For example, the mother of one drug dealer, frustrated by land invasions that
blocked the entrance of the garbage trucks, threatened to have her son kill the disaster-
affected victims. The women’s other role in the perpetuation of violence relates to the
intergenerational transmission of grief over, and the desire for revenge of, the murders of
their loved ones. The research suggests that in the absence of the rule of law, people may
well take the law into their own hands, and that the lack of justice and psychosocial
healing are bound to perpetuate the violence.
In their chapter, “Managing in the Midst of Social Disaster: Poor People’s Responses
to Urban Violence”, Javier Auyero and Kristine Kilanski expand on citizen reactions to
interpersonal violence. Although the residents of urban slums may consider themselves
too frightened to confront armed actors, Auyero and Kilanski find that people adopt
different kinds of strategies to cope with or counteract their hostile surroundings. Based
on their fieldwork in Ingeniero Budge, a deprived and insecure neighborhood in southern
Buenos Aires, they constructed a fourfold typology of inhabitants’ responses to urban
violence: individual nonviolent measures, such as precautions in public space; individual
violent actions, such as the beating of perpetrators; collective nonviolent responses, such
as the public shaming of drug dealers; and collective violent responses, such as attacks on
the homes of rapists. Auyero and Kilanski affirm that overwhelming violence can rally
people together; they do not clarify under what circumstances this is possible.
In other perilous contexts, for example the gang-controlled communities in Central
America, residents have also adjusted their routines or even migrated. But if citizens in
some conflictive settings muster the courage to oppose violence, why do similarly
positioned individuals elsewhere decide against this? The authors maintain that people
may join forces to protect their community when law enforcement agents are thought to
be unresponsive or colluding with criminals. This belief, referred to by sociologists David
Kirk and Andrew Papachristos as “legal cynicism”, seems to be ubiquitous in contexts of
chronic insecurity. Even so, it does not explain what makes people overcome their
numbness towards violence or prevents them from doing so. Further research could
probe to what extent such decisions are informed by criminal actors’ readiness to respond
with violence or whether some forms of citizen mobilization – for example, vigilante
justice – may have gone unnoticed.

Drug commodities
Suzanna Reiss’s first book, We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire, is a meticulous
account of the policing of drugs, notably the coca leaf and its pharmaceutical and
consumer derivatives, in the early Cold War period. The historian is especially interested
in exploring how controlling and profiting from the relationship between drugs and war
allowed the United States to consolidate its global economic and political power. Reiss
argues that the country has never waged an anti-narcotics offensive, but used its ability to
supply, withhold, and regulate them, and to shape public debates about them, in order to
project its power in the post-World War II order. The volume highlights the role of the
pharmaceutical industry and the use of cultural narratives in demarcating the boundary
between legal and illegal drugs. More generally, it aims to shift contemporary discussions
of drug abuse from criminal justice and public health approaches towards the ideological
framing that has accompanied international drug policy. This ambitious study is essential,
Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 119

first and foremost, for understanding the US role in the design of the global drug control
regime, the political and economic interests behind it, and the biases within it.
Conventional accounts attribute the US-sponsored drug war to the Richard Nixon
administration. Reiss, by contrast, dates its origins back to the early twentieth-century
opium trade regulation and the subsequent creation of the international drug control
regime that culminated in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. As she
points out, this regulatory architecture is intertwined with the post-World War II balance
of power. Capitalizing on its newly won hegemony, the United States began using its drug
stockpiles to establish itself as the major world supplier of cocaine and pursue its foreign
policy objectives: promote a US-centered international economic order, replace European
and Japanese colonial influence in developing countries, and counter communism.
Reiss chronicles the transformation of the US and international drug control machin-
ery in order to underline the prominent role of Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner
Harry Anslinger at the newly constituted UN Commission of Narcotic Drugs (CND).
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the United States worked – independently and through
this multilateral body – to define the parameters of the legal and illegal drug industries. In
doing so, it built an economic order that favored US pharmaceutical companies and
helped project US political power around the world. Reiss marshals an impressive amount
of empirical evidence on this time period, but the real strength of her analysis lies in the
repercussions of the international drug control regime: the latter not only deepened the
economic dependency of certain South American countries, but – in different spaces and
times – also entailed an assault on indigenous cultures, revolutionary governments, and
civil rights movements.
The anti-narcotics system that the United States hoped to create would effectively
grant its pharmaceutical companies access to coveted raw materials (the coca leaf) and
stimulate the worldwide import of US-manufactured products (medication and Coca-
Cola). The legal framework that it sought, and that the CND would ultimately recom-
mend, limited Andean coca cultivation to that destined for export but advocated the
eradication of the domestic consumer market. Reiss’s concern, however, lies with the
US accomplices in this process – economic and political elites as well as scientists – and
with the ways in which UN officials ended up intervening in local conflicts over labor and
land rights. The background against which these events unfolded was the schism between
the export-dominating landowning elite and the coca-growing-and-consuming indigenous
communities. Much of the author’s discussion revolves around the UN Commissioners’
1949 visit to Peru that shaped, and was shaped by, domestic political developments and
scientific debates. The military junta exploited demands for international drug control to
justify a punitive shift in the country’s own drug policy and, in turn, garner support for the
new regime. At the same time, narcotics crackdowns served as a pretext to criminalize
political dissent and legitimize the coercive measures the junta pursued to consolidate its
control. Reiss casts an equally critical eye on local scientists who, dependent on funding
and political support, delivered conflicting assessments of the physiological effects of
coca chewing, its impact on social development, and its relevance as a cultural practice.
Following the extensive analysis of the birth of the international drug control regime,
the book’s final and most fascinating chapter appraises how in the 1950s the United States
deployed its drug war rhetoric to quell perceived foes at home and abroad. In the context
of reported drug abuse among Vietnam War veterans, conflicts about racial equality, and
growing Cold War rivalries, the specter of drugs was used to target those deemed a threat
to the status quo. Domestically, a burgeoning moral panic about narcotics crimes served to
recast dissent and nonconformity as contagions to society. On one hand, drugs, crime,
120 Book reviews

race, and communism blended into a toxic mix that criminalized certain population
groups, notably African American, poor, and immigrant communities. On the other
hand, increasingly harsh drug laws, combined with expanded police powers and mass
incarceration, developed into new mechanisms of social control. Overseas, drugs could
advance public health and aid rival nations in their competition for influence over Cold
War battlegrounds or, alternatively, act as a destructive force that could enter military
arsenals and contaminate the social order of enemy states. In the western hemisphere, for
example, Reiss shows how accusations of cocaine trafficking were leveled against the
Castro regime to politically isolate Cuba.

A critique of the US-backed drug offensive is also implicit in the captivating work by
journalists Alejandra Sánchez Inzunza, José Luis Pardo, and Pablo Ferri.
Narcoamérica, the culmination of a two-year journey through the Americas, is a
collection of chronicles that seeks to bring readers closer to the human drama behind
the drug trade. The trio concedes that they undertook the project without previous
experience in organized crime reporting, but thought that drug trafficking constituted a
window into the violence that mars the continent. This transnational phenomenon, the
narrative thread reveals, can thrive in milieus characterized by corruption, impunity,
fragile institutions, poverty, and caciquismos. The book’s eight thematic chapters not
only contain mesmerizing anecdotes of places visited and people encountered but also
offer intimate descriptions of marginal communities that help understand why someone
might feel compelled to turn to drugs, gangs, or sicariato. The volume covers the
entire chain of drug cultivation, production, trafficking, sale, and consumption. The
sober analysis of these processes is interlaced, however, with observations on a range
of specific issues, such as money laundering, extrajudicial executions, disappearances,
prison fires, street gangs, and self-defense groups. The book places more emphasis on
some countries than others. Its regional approach, however, reveals strikingly similar
dynamics throughout the Americas and, indeed, distinguishes it from other texts in
this – by now sizeable – genre. Its broader objective is to unmask the political and
economic interests behind the drug war and stimulate discussion about alternative drug
The relationship between drug trafficking and corruption has been widely examined,
but in Venezuela, Sánchez Inzunza, Pardo, and Ferri unearth evidence of military involve-
ment in this criminal niche. The Cártel de los Soles, named after an elite unit of the
Bolivarian National Armed Forces, comprises officers drawn from different ranks who
provide drug traffickers with security, surveillance, transport, and storage facilities. Its
cells operate mostly along the border with Colombia; an area that is also home to
guerrillas that emerged in response to the rise of criminal groups and have been inter-
cepting drug loads. Paradoxically, perhaps, military participation in the drug trade surged
when then President Hugo Chávez responded to the 2002 coup by promoting loyal
military officers to senior government posts. The Chávez regime routinely dismissed
judicial evidence of military ties to drug traffickers, and those who disclosed it were
removed from their posts or fled into exile. In the journalists’ view, the collusion between
government, security forces, and organized crime is a distinguishing feature of drug
trafficking in Venezuela and explains why the country has not tackled the crime effec-
tively. However, similar scenarios may well occur elsewhere in the Americas but have
gone undetected precisely because of entrenched corruption and inscrutability. The ties
Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 121

between criminal groups and their accomplices in the security sector certainly warrant
further research, particularly in academic circles. For Sánchez Inzunza and her colleagues,
Venezuela is indicative of a broader trend: the blurred boundaries between the state and
the criminal world.
A recurring theme in the book is the role of economic survival in motivating
individuals to get entangled in the narcotics trade, for example to work as drug mules.
Even though they occupy the lowest – and least profitable – tiers of this business, if
caught, they face prison sentences that are incommensurate with the offenses committed.
The authors highlight the repercussions of severe drug laws in countries such as Peru,
where the incarceration of Spaniards for narcotics crimes has grown exponentially with
the economic crisis in southern Europe. The experiences of indigenous Bolivians in
neighboring Chile, often struggling to make a living in the informal sector back home,
are even more dramatic. The journalists tell the chilling story of an 18-year-old girl who
agreed to transport cocaine pellets in order to supplement her meager salary as a kitchen
help and support her sick mother. Her detention disrupted her plans, but prevented her
death from overdose after one of the bags burst in her stomach. Another case concerns a
young man named Ramiro, who was tricked into moving a reduced drug load in order to
detract the police from another, much larger smuggling operation. The incident serves to
highlight a clause in the Chilean narcotics law that permits indicted traffickers to have
their sentences reduced in return for cooperating with the authorities, even if this involves
simulated drug deals. Like Ramiro, many “drug offenders” end up in prison as a result of
such set-ups.
One of the main concerns in the book – the development of so-called narco-societies –
is addressed in the Paraguayan city of Pedro Juan Caballero, a known drug-trafficking hub
situated at the border with Brazil. The prefix narco is now commonly placed before a
noun whenever analysts seek to convey the pervasive influence of drug trafficking on its
surroundings. In Pedro Juan Caballeros, the journalists contend, the trade has become an
accepted practice, to the extent that it has turned the town into a veritable narco-society.
To illustrate their point, they cite the case of an airport worker tasked with fueling
airplanes whose assistance is requested every time criminal groups need to bring in
cocaine from Bolivia. The discussion of this important subject, however, remains unsa-
tisfying. The preceding example only confirms that individuals in strategic positions may
be compelled to cooperate, but it does not show just how normalized the drug trade has
become, which is what the term narco-society suggests. For a team of writers that has
traveled the entire region and claims to have observed similar dynamics in different
locations, it is surprising that the argument is not extended to other areas and scenarios.
This could have included places with a long history of drug trafficking, such as north-
western Mexico’s golden triangle, and where criminal organizations wield power over
local politics, have formed a social base, and provide role models for marginalized youths.

God and gangs

Secure the Soul takes as its starting point the struggles of US-deported gang members to
build a new life in postwar Guatemala, a country in which neoliberal economic reforms
radically reduced the job options available to those maturing out of gang life. In this
intriguing ethnographic study, anthropologist Kevin O’Neill examines Christian gang
prevention and rehabilitation initiatives that promote self-transformation as a way of
saving the sinned. These integrated approaches, or “soft security” as O’Neill calls them,
became in vogue once the arrest-and-incarceration-focused mano dura strategies had been
122 Book reviews

discredited. Arguably, the blossoming of such gang intervention programs reflects

Christianity’s dominance of civil society in Central America, two aspects that have not
been systematically studied. The fieldwork conducted for this study encountered a number
of obstacles, including limited access to female research subjects. Nonetheless, its rich
empirical detail, together with a gang member’s life history that is woven into the
narrative, set this book apart from most in the gang literature.
Its central argument holds that Christian gang initiatives distinguish between worthy
and unworthy intervention targets. Most shifted their focus from demanding rehabilitation
work to prevention, often terminating program support for active or retired gang members
and effectively leaving them to return to the gang or even face death. The study is
constructed around Mateo, who, aged three, traveled with his father clandestinely to
Los Angeles, joined a gang to escape domestic abuse, in prison converted to
Christianity, was deported back to Guatemala and lives off remittances. Reflecting
Mateo’s own experiences, Secure the Soul examines gang intervention practices in a
maximum security prison, bilingual call centers, a reality television show, Pentecostal
rehabilitation centers, and child sponsorship programs. The last three sites have received
little consideration in the existing literature and are therefore examined more closely
Desafío 10 (Challenge 10) was a five-episode reality television show sponsored by the
US Agency for International Development (USAID) and aired in Guatemala in 2006.
O’Neill describes how 10 former rival gang members were selected and split into two
competing teams, given skills and seed money to create microenterprises (a car wash and
a shoe shine service), and spent time shopping, dining, giving confessions, and work-
ing out.
The project aimed to demonstrate to society that gang members could change, and
USAID depicted it as a success story. O’Neill, however, reveals the contrary to be the
case. The show had a limited audience and was marred by a biased selection process,
faltering businesses, and the subsequent killings of most participants. These drawbacks,
the author affirms, derived from the project’s underlying preoccupation with turning gang
members into consumers, rather than transforming their lives. Its most fundamental
problem was its assumption that individuals, not their contexts, needed to change. This
focus was largely pragmatic, because the Guatemalan state’s depleted resources leave it
unable to provide security and require citizens to police themselves. O’Neill reaches a
paradoxical, yet perhaps overly cynical, conclusion: Desafío 10 wanted to transform ex-
gang members into entrepreneurs, but rendered them poor both in a material and a social
sense. They could never expect to make much income from their microbusinesses, yet
they had to work harder for it and accept their allotted place in the class hierarchy.
Guatemala’s Pentecostal rehabilitation centers gradually transformed from gang hide-
outs or Christian conversion sites into drug treatment facilities. In the absence of state-run
clinics, the number of these private, heavily-secured, and unsupervised locations has
mushroomed. They are metaphorical black holes that suck in the patients and effectively
hold them captive, in abysmal conditions, for months or even years. By the author’s own
estimates, these centers keep more people in detention than maximum security prisons.
The disturbing findings also narrate how drug users are forcibly brought in, are held
incommunicado, and receive abuse but no rehabilitation. Perhaps the most astounding
aspect of these establishments is how accepted their existence has become, even by the
authorities. Since drug use is on the rise (no data are cited) and the prisons are full,
these private centers offer a solution – albeit at the margins of the law – that the state
appears ill-equipped to handle. This partial outsourcing of Guatemala’s drug policy may
Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 123

help unburden the country’s penitentiary system, but the unsaid implication is also
reduced pressure for an alternative narcotics control strategy.
Child sponsorship programs may seem unlikely gang prevention initiatives, but they
have developed into yet another lucrative enterprise that claims to be shielding vulnerable
teenagers against gang recruitment. This part of the research took O’Neill to a deprived
Guatemala City neighborhood rife with gangs, criminality, and drug abuse. The anthro-
pologist disapproves of the international agencies that turned their back on the commu-
nity, finding its situation too complex for prevention. But his criticism is overly harsh. In
comparable contexts, such as gang-controlled communities in El Salvador, the state has no
real presence except in its repressive form, and the near-constant confrontations as well as
the gangs’ stranglehold over the territories and their populations effectively place them out
of bounds. Child sponsorship programs connect charitable, middle-class evangelical
Christians with impoverished adolescents through site visits, letter exchanges, and a
monthly fee that is meant to fund their studies and keep them out of gangs. The selected
histories suggest that this support does indeed make a difference in young people’s lives,
but the programs are selective and provide only temporary respite from poverty. One
tragic case concerns that of a young man who was among the privileged few to be
assigned a benefactor, could not afford to move elsewhere once his participation had
ended, and was left paralyzed by gunshots. Overall, O’Neill insists, such initiatives may
make their sponsors feel good about themselves, but they have no discernible impact on
communities that require development and an effective law enforcement response.

Prison overload
Some of the justice system’s failures alluded to in the previous work are revisited in the
co-edited volume by Jonathan Rosen and Marten Brienen. Prisons in the Americas in the
Twenty-First Century is a collection of social science essays – mostly on South American
countries – that examine the current state of the region’s penitentiaries, including their
relationship with organized crime. Based mostly on secondary sources, the chapters adopt
an historical perspective that shows that the prison problems in Latin America and the
Caribbean are neither recent nor very different. The introductory essay “General Trends of
Prisons in the Americas”, by Astrid Arrarás and Emily Bello-Pardo, identifies the main
challenges in the region’s underfunded penitentiary systems. These range from subhuman
conditions, overcrowding, and extensive pretrial detention to ineffective prison manage-
ment, criminal planning and learning opportunities, and violence. The guiding argument is
that prohibitionist drug controls and mano dura gang policies have exacerbated this
historically problematic situation. Rushed readers will find all essential information in
this overview, since the subsequent country chapters offer similar findings and describe
local prison conditions, rather than analyze the factors behind them. The most perceptive
contributions deal with Haiti, Bolivia, and the future of prison reform.
Christa Remington and Jean-Claude García-Zamor’s chapter on the Caribbean repub-
lic is noteworthy for its discussion of drug trafficking and official corruption, rather than
prisons. It begins by explaining how persistent socioeconomic underdevelopment and
political instability have made Haiti susceptible to organized crime and hindered prison
reform. Domestic criminal groups, including urban gangs, militias-for-hire, independent
criminal networks, and former army officers, have operated largely unconstrained by the
still young, inexperienced and ill-equipped national police. Although gang activity began
to be controlled with UN policing assistance, it resumed in the aftermath of the devastat-
ing 2010 earthquake. Drug trafficking, in particular, has been entrenched because of
124 Book reviews

established patterns of collusion between governments and organized crime groups.

Nonetheless, the authors leave unstated to what extent this situation may have changed
under the Michel Martelly government. The discussion emphasizes the salience of the
country context in shaping prison conditions and creating obstacles to reform, since
Haiti’s resources are too precarious to simultaneously satisfy basic human development
needs and transform a broken justice system. The finding is surely applicable outside the
western hemisphere’s poorest nation, but it is not raised in the other essays.
Brienen’s piece on Bolivia analyzes the increase in incarceration, especially pretrial
detention, which judges are required to impose under threat of imprisonment.
Paradoxically, this punitive turn occurred under President Evo Morales, who had initially
rejected a drug law that contributed to an upsurge in inmates, but later faced growing
pressure to clamp down on crime. The essay, however, is striking for two prison features
that must be rare, if not unique, in the Americas: one concerns the generation of funds, the
other relates to the presence of non-offenders in the precincts. It is common that the
inmates, not the state, have control over the installations and economic transactions that
life within them warrants. But in Bolivia the detainees have created a network of
commercial establishments as extensive as one might find in general society, and the
“taxes” they pay are justified – even by the prison authorities – as necessary, given the
state’s inadequate budget. The more alarming characteristic of the facilities is that they
frequently house inmates’ children and spouses who have no place else to go. Since they
are not detainees, they can come and go as they please, but they are not included in prison
statistics and remain vulnerable to abuse. A more detailed description of their experiences
would have enriched the chapter, but the lack of fieldwork precluded such an analysis.
The concluding chapter by Andy Knight, which considers why and how states should
implement penitentiary reforms, reads in parts like a UN Office on Drugs and Crime
technical assistance manual on the subject. It assumes that alternatives to incarceration
ought to be expanded and prison restructuring be combined with broader changes in
criminal justice policies and systems. Specific improvements are suggested in the areas of
pretrial detention, prison management, substitute sanctions, and social reintegration. The
author does not question the fact that the entity making these proposals has also been
endorsing policies – notably drug prohibition – that contributed to some of the problems it
now offers to solve. While the recommendations go in the right direction, they are generic
and make no mention of a series of structural challenges that reform efforts need to
contend with. For example, how might corruption of, and threats against, prison guards be
addressed? How can resources be augmented in countries with high levels of public debt
and elites that remain staunchly opposed to tax raises? Or how might former inmates be
integrated if a society seems largely unprepared to believe in their redeeming features?
Some of the books reviewed here constitute a first approximation to the subject and
flag points for further research, such as prisons as a social setting or the move – in
discourse or in practice – towards alternative drug policies. Others, especially those that
employed ethnographic methods or the approach of investigative journalism, make
valuable empirical and analytical contributions to the literature. Some of the principal
conclusions are worth restating: social violence is structural in nature and therefore not
just a policing issue; some of the violence is committed by state agents and requires
institutional changes; marginalized communities are not passive victims of violence, but
develop survival strategies, although these may be bolder in some contexts than in others;
security and drug policies are motivated by political and ideological agendas, and
unmasking these is fundamental if more effective strategies are to be implemented.
Evidence-based studies about the nature and effects of public policies can mobilize
Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 125

citizens when governments – irrespective of their ideological inclination – put partisan

interests before the needs of the population. Even so, researchers focused on crime and
violence in the Americas will need to contemplate how to conduct fieldwork in hazardous
circumstances, how to access social groups with whom they share no racial, class, or
gender attributes, and how to enter institutional settings – such as prisons – that have
access restrictions.

Sonja Wolf
CONACYT Research Fellow - Centro de Investigación y
Docencia Económicas (CIDE)
© 2016, Sonja Wolf

The color of modernity: São Paulo and the making of race and nation in Brazil, by
Barbara Weinstein, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2015, 472 pp, $29.95, ISBN:

In The Color of Modernity: São Paulo and the Making of Race and Nation in Brazil,
Barbara Weinstein argues that “racialized images of modernity and progress have deeply
informed discriminatory policies and practices” in São Paulo, the industrial center of
Brazil and its wealthiest state. Drawing from a rich collection of sources (political posters,
film, speeches, maps, ephemera, photographs, print media, diaries, and letters), Weinstein
further contends that “the economic success of São Paulo has cemented the widely
assumed association between whiteness and civilization, between whiteness and moder-
nization, between whiteness and productivity” in Brazil (p. 14). By the 1930s, progress
and modernity came to be explicitly (if not necessarily overtly) linked to both cultural and
racial notions of whiteness in a nation with a large non-white population descended
primarily from enslaved Africans. Furthermore, the association of São Paulo’s progress
with its European-derived population contributed to the domestic “orientilization” of the
impoverished and racially-mixed north-eastern states of Brazil. This regional chauvinism,
Weinstein argues, provides insight into the complex layers of racism that inflected São
Paulo’s narratives of modernity by the first decades of the twentieth century. Through this
analytical lens, Weinstein further demonstrates how São Paulo contributed to a Brazilian
national identity that contained within it a “hierarchy of regions”, placing São Paulo, with
its industry, wealth, and Europeanized population, “at the center of the nation” (p. 9).
The book is divided into two sections. The first uses the 1932 Constitutionalist
Revolution (the armed uprising of São Paulo against the federal government of president
Getúlio Vargas) as a lens for examining the sense of exceptionalism felt by many Paulistas
and Paulistanos (residents of the state and city, respectively) vis-à-vis less developed
regions of Brazil. Central to this vision was the elision of the state’s Afro-Brazilian
population and the foregrounding of the European-descended population with its sup-
posed innate predilection for industry and progress. The re-imagining of the mixed-race,
slave-catching, colonial-era denizen of the Paulista frontier – the Bandeirante – as a hardy,
resourceful, and industrious figure that laid the colonial foundations for the state’s
twentieth-century economic ascendency was equally important. This section also exam-
ines the construction of the “Mulher Paulista”, an idealized female archetypal figure who
stepped out of her traditional domestic role to publicly support the uprising. Despite the