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Last Updated: 03/10/2005
Clockwork Limón:
Fayen d’Evie

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 Central America s current dilemmas and experiences regarding aggressive state responses to the brutal violence of street gangs or maras.


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 Nicaragua exhorting youth-at-risk to embrace non-violence and the loudly proclaimed self-affirmations that I have heard from Salvadoreans enrolled in drug rehabilitation offer texts that could be deconstructed to inform analysis of Burgess contention.


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 Newark, Wilson and Kelling (1982) advocated a greater role for police in aggressive maintenance of public order as opposed to an exclusive focus on crime solving and law enforcement.  Primarily concerned with public perceptions of insecurity within their communities, or the fear of being bothered by disorderly people (1982:2), they argued that a gang can weaken or destroy a community by standing about in a menacing fashion and speaking rudely to passersby without breaking the law (1982:13).  Wilson and Kelling also asserted that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked and concluded corresponding linkages between order-maintenance and crime prevention (1982:8).  Evincing this logic, the Mano Dura anti-gang initiative, introduced by El Salvador's then President Francisco Flores in July 2003, endorsed the expansion of the powers of police and army to arrest and imprison suspected gang members explicitly for their alleged gang affiliation.


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 Chicago experience in which the mass imprisonment of gang members as a result of repressive laws enacted in the late 60s triggered the transformation of the gangs into illicit business enterprises run from the prisons.


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).


The repetitiveness (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 Honduras, the Anti-maras Law aimed at gang eradication (and which was a critical element in the election campaign of President Maduro) has been charged with triggering an increase in extra-judicial assassinations of gang members.  These execution killings have been linked to several high-ranking police officials, including the National Police Director and the former Police Commissioner (Gutman 2004).  Wallace (2000:52) reports on suspicions that the resurgent death squads in El Salvador that have claimed credit for the slaying of gang leaders are constituted by police moonlighting as contract killers.  In the El Salvador roundtable discussion, Juan Ricardo Gomez, from the Office of the Inspector-General of National Civil Police, also pointed to police abuse perpetrated in the process of implementation of the Mano Dura.  Thus, in the Old Testament tradition of proportional retribution, it appears that for some police and politicians, the pervasiveness and barbarity of mara violence presents a justification for reactionary aggression and even sadism.  As Burgess top policeman reasons with a holy tone, Violence makes violence (1962:70), while the Governor declares to the young delinquent: An eye for an eye, I say.  If someone hits you, you hit back, do you not?  Why then should not the State, very severely hit by you brutal hooligans, not hit back also? (1962:93).  The incidence of state/police brutality and clandestine activity throughout Central America also seems to provide a counterpoint to the argument that urban violence stems from marginalization and exclusion from social and political structures, and some support to Burgess contention that violence may spring from the self not only the environment.  Burgess strongly rejected environmental behaviourism and the thesis that greater discipline would lead youth to conform to social norms in deference to original sin and the compulsion of immature youth to do harm.


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 in Guatemala City, a newly married and expecting Guatemalan couple, who provided a testimonial to their rejection of the mara dieciocho, offered an almost caricatured illustration of this analysis.  However, Burgess s insinuation that such redemption and maturity also implies a movement towards greater free will is perhaps challenged by the third Guatemalan testimony, in which the narrative of redemption was linked integrally to religious awakening and the laws of God.  In this case, it appeared that the rules and directives of the church were now conditioning this man s construction of his world and his behavioural choices, replacing the rules and directives of the mara. 


Burgess, A. 1962.  A Clockwork Orange, W.W. Norton and Co: London.

CEPREV xx (undated).  Construyendo Una Cultura de Paz, CEPREV: Managua.

Gutman, W. 2004.  The Fatal Compulsion to Belong, The Panama News, Vol. 10 (9), 9-22 May 2004.

McTernan, J.  2002.  Cracking the Whip on Youth Crime, Scotsman on Sunday, 19 May 2002.

Swedish, M. 2003.  Gang Violence Spreads throughout Central America, Central America/Mexico Report. Nov/Dec 03,

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.