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Last Updated: 03/10/2005Clockwork Limón:
A Reflection on Violence, Gangs and State Repression in Central America
In A Clockwork Orange (Burgess 1962), a teenage gang
leader, Alex, encounters an extreme manifestation of state repression of
delinquency that seeks to annihilate his enjoyment of ultra-violence through a
novel experiment in legitimized torture.
In this reflection, certain themes from Burgess novel will be
appropriated to examine contours of
Since the 1990s, Central American authorities, civil
society and media have increasingly become preoccupied with debating, and at
times appearing to hope to divine, approaches to deal effectively with the
violence of the maras (so-called after marabuntas, a species of
swarming ants). Fundamental to the
different positions expressed within this discourse are divergent
interpretations of the meaning of dealing effectively . At one end of the spectrum are groups
such as the Centro de Prevención de la Violencia, which we visited in
Managua, that understand violence as a system linked to patriarchal and
authoritarian models of social organization and control that perpetuate
inequality and exclusion from economic and political opportunities (CEPREV
xx:6). From this worldview,
violence can only be prevented by creating a culture of peace and transforming
the modes of thinking and acting that promote violence in the home, in the
schools and on the streets (CEPREV xx:5).
Perhaps counter-intuitively, such approaches could have the insidious
potential to echo elements of Burgess sadistic state experiment that aimed to
recondition Alex to automatically reject violence. The question that emerges is whether
youth targeted by such groups are being programmed to mechanically espouse and
act on non-violence mantras, or alternately, whether they are becoming more
aware of an expanded set of options available to them and being empowered to
make more informed choices. Burgess
overriding theme is that unfettered free will may be destructive, but
annihilation of free will is ultimately worse. The wall posters that I have seen in
At the other end of
the spectrum are a number of high profile Central American politicians that have
defined their constituencies through the construction and advertisement of
populist zero tolerance measures.
The foundational text credited with spurring New York s zero tolerance
approach under Giuliani, which inspired the Central American variants, is Wilson
and Kelling s 1982 Atlantic Monthly article Broken Windows: The
Police and Neighborhood Safety .
Drawing on analysis of foot patrols in
Wilson and Kelling
reflect the perspective that dealing effectively with gang violence involves
removal of disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people (1982:2),
whether by imprisonment, or by displacement such as chasing known gang members
away from communities: In the words of one officer, We kick ass. (1982:13). In the case of Mano Dura, it
appears that a number of gang members and former members have been forced
underground to avoid arrest. It has
been suggested that some have migrated to countries with less aggressive
anti-gang policies, where they have recruited new members, and effected the
further franchising of the maras.
Meanwhile, as expressed by several commentators during our journey,
those gang members who are imprisoned often use their confinement to reorganize,
strengthen their cohesion and initiate new activities. If this is the case, then the repressive
state policies may have temporarily dealt to some degree with localised
violence, or at least public perceptions of safety, but may have on balance
assisted in the further consolidation, expansion and sophistication of gang
enterprises. This analysis has
precedent, mirroring, for example, the
As mentioned, repressive policies may temporarily deal with localized violence. If explanations of gang membership as related to social and political exclusion apply, then it can be surmised that aggressive repression and law enforcement may act to broaden and deepen experiences of exclusion. Additionally, as noted by several commentators during our journey, the indiscriminate imprisonment of youth who have committed no crimes or merely petty crimes together with gang members convicted of savage, violent crimes has led in many cases to the refinement of the criminal capacities of those youth. This evokes the description of Burgess Alex: the wretched hoodlum the State committed to unprofitable punishment some two years ago, unchanged after two years. Unchanged, do I say? Not quite. Prison taught him the false smile, the rubbed hands of hypocrisy, the fawning greased obsequious leer. Other vices it taught him, as well as confirming him in those he had long practiced before (1962:123). Supporting the hypothesis that the apparent success of repressive policies may be limited to a short time frame, it has been noted that the numbers of gang members had risen dramatically in parallel with the implementation of more repressive anti-mara policies.
The attraction of the zero tolerance policies is clearly their populist appeal. By placing the abatement of the fears of law-abiding citizens as an overarching objective, such policies by design resonate with the concerns of the voting public. The Republican Nationalist Alliance, the party of both Flores and the recently elected President Antonio Saca (who campaigned on a promise to continue implementation of Mano Dura), has been charged with inciting gangs to radicalize and simultaneously adopting repressive anti-crime policies in order to retain power (Swedish 2003). The spatially diffuse nature of this phenomenon is illustrated, for instance, by Tony Blair s populist crime slogans, such as Young Thugs Must be Caged from his 1997 General Election campaign (MacTernan 2002). This populism, as well as the media s role in both nurturing and responding to populist crime policies, emerges in A Clockwork Orange when Alex is drawn into a frenzy of television and press interviews in which he is a poster-boy for the success of the experiment conditioning his reflexive rejection of ultra-violence, the first graduate of the State Institute for Reclamation of Criminal Types: The rest of the day had been very tiring, what with interviews to go on tape for the telenews and photographs being took flash flash flash and more like demonstrations of me folding up in the face of ultra-violence (Burgess 1962:130). Meanwhile, what the Government was really most boastful about was the way in which they reckoned the streets had been made safer for all peace-loving night-walking lewdies in the last six months, what with better pay for the police and the police getting like tougher with young hooligans and perverts and burglars and all that (Burgess 1986:132).
(spatially, temporally) of aggressive crime policy rhetoric within national
politics is partnered with repetitiveness in the logic and agents of criticism
of such policies. Thus, it is
unsurprising that the aggressive and harshly punitive anti-mara laws have
been attacked by elements of the Central American judiciary and civil liberties
champions. For example, former Honduran Supreme Court Judge José María Palacios
commented in the Houston Chronicle on Sept 6 2003, "In penal justice you punish
someone for what they do, not who they are. Here what we see is youth being
punished for who they are even if they haven't really committed a crime". Critics also point to
the tendency of zero tolerance policies to promote both legitimized and illegal
brutality by the state and particularly the police. In
Burgess s final chapter (omitted from the American
edition more widely known by virtue of Kubrick s film realisation) points to the
redemptive capacity of a person who has formerly engaged in violence, but who
rejects such violence concomitant with their increasing maturity. Age is held to introduce a redefinition
of priorities (with marriage and children predominant) and a greater awareness
of options, heralding a movement away from a mechanical or reflex compulsion to
(re)act with brutality. While I was
Burgess, A. 1962. A Clockwork Orange, W.W. Norton
CEPREV xx (undated). Construyendo Una Cultura de Paz, CEPREV: Managua.
Gutman, W. 2004. The Fatal Compulsion to Belong,
McTernan, J. 2002. Cracking the Whip on Youth Crime, Scotsman on Sunday, 19 May 2002.
2003. Gang Violence Spreads
Wilson J. and Kelling G. 1982. Broken Windows: The Police and Neighbourhood Safety, Atlantic Monthly, 249 (3), pp 29-38.
Dr. Fayen d’Evie is a the Special Assistant to the Rector for Programme Development at the University for Peace.