Latin America and the Caribbean

NACLA Report on the Americas
May/June 1994

By Alonzo Salazar

Chucho, a boy of 19, talks with great animation about the burial of the chief of the Medellín drug empire, Pablo Escobar--El Patrón, as he is known to Chucho--killed by state security forces on December 3, 1993. "I had to see it to believe it," he says. "I never believed the government was capable of killing Pablo. I believed that man was invincible."

Chucho was one of the 5,000 residents of Medellín--mostly young and poor--who attended the funeral. The mourners formed a compact and frenetic mass of humanity, determined to see and say goodbye to their idol. The crowd broke the windows of the funeral home broke into pieces, and spontaneously carried Escobar's coffin on their shoulders. Finally, the army had to intervene to restore order and end the funeral.

Most Colombians, of course, rejoiced at the death of Escobar. They identified him as the principal violent protagonist of a decade filled with drug trafficking, terrorism, murder, and political assassination. And for the first time in many years, they felt the triumph of the state s their own, hopeful that they had finally begun to overcome the long and extensive violence they had all suffered.

Chucho, on the other hand, thinks that things will remain the same. And when he affirms this, he thinks of his own fatalistic life. "Look brother," he says, "Pablo died but we still have the same poverty, the same unemployment, the same corrupt authority. So what road is open to us?" He lives in the Northeastern District of the city of Medellín, a densely populated area that extends up an abrupt and towering mountainside. There he joined a gang at the age of 14, beginning his participation, like most gang members, with simple activities like transporting arms. One day in a gang operation, he was obligated to shoot, and since then, he has become a paid killer--a sicario--at the service of drug traffickers. Although he has squandered much of the money that has come his way, he hasn't forgotten the promise he made when he decided to join the world of crime: to build a house for his mother.

Abandoned by her husband, Chucho's mother works as a domestic servant for a wealthy family, and though she is consumed with fear that her son will die a tragic early death like so many of his friends, she is thankful that he has provided her with a roof over her head. "Poverty is better than the risk of death," she tells Chucho as she ticks off the names of his friends who have met violent deaths. But he simply shrugs his shoulders and repeats the same phrase: "Only God knows when you should die."

The first cartel-connected youth gangs were created at the end of the 1970s. Adolescents from poor neighborhoods were recruited as sicarios for the confrontations between rival drug groups. Subsequently, as the state attempted to bring these gangs under control, these same young boys began assassinating policemen and judges. In 1983, a 16-year-old adolescent discharged a sub-machine gun, killing the minister of justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. President Belisario Betancur immediately enacted a treaty of extradition with the United States--the destination of most of the fleeing traffickers--and an armed battle began in which the young sicarios occupied the front lines for the drug cartels.

The killing of high officials highlights the role of the young paid assassins. Most are just like Chucho--from poor neighborhoods, abandoned by their fathers, school dropouts, and unemployed. Young boys with similar social profiles have assassinated newspaper editors, leftist politicians and state functionaries. One of the most frightening episodes for Colombians was the killing of Carlo Pizarro Léon-Gómez, presidential candidate of the M-19 party, a former guerrilla whose party had joined the electoral process. On April 26, 1990, Pizarro boarded a commercial flight in Bogotá to fly to the northern coast of the country. A few minutes after take-off, a young passenger unveiled a mini-uzi, turned it on the candidate, and killed him. Pizarro's bodyguards returned the fire and killed the assassin. After this event, the media spoke of these young killers as kamikazes--young boys who carried out actions so surprising and fearless that it became practically impossible for the government to guarantee the safety of anyone. Armored cars and bodyguards became part of the country's every day life.

Around the beginning of the 1970s, drug trafficking started to become widespread in Medellín and the surrounding metropolitan area. The data are very imprecise, but by the middle of the decade, police had noted the existence of 200 gangs and some 5,000 young gang members. Most were uninvolved with drug traffickers, but all tried to imitate their style. These groups became involved in territorial wars that bled the poor neighborhoods and through the 1980s, drastically raised the city's homicide rate. In 1980, 730 people died violently in Medellín. In 1985, homicide had become the city's leading cause of death, accounting for 1,684 victims, and by 1990, there were 5,500 homicides in this city of 1,700,000.

This is a complex phenomenon which is difficult to interpret. Why did these boys assume such suicidal attitudes? Why did they engage in operations in which they were so likely to die? The problem, of course, lies not only in these young delinquents, but also in the society that continues to produce them. Before juvenile violence became so widespread, many dramatic changes had occurred in Colombia. First of all, there are historical factors. The gangs emerged in areas characterized by massive rural migration. By and large, the state had completely forgotten these areas by the 1970s. Residents were condemned to the world of "informality"--a world in which the rights and obligations of citizenship were lacking. The sons of these migrants from the Colombian countryside grew up on the edge of legality. They were treated as second-class citizens, to be dealt with only by the police. When they organized themselves to protest their condition, the political system closed all legitimate channels; it criminalized and repressed them. These migrant families remained under the corrupt control of the traditional liberal and conservative parties, and their traditional forms of social cohesion disintegrated.

Toward the middle of the 1970s, when delinquency began to appear in these communities, the response of other sectors of society and state security organisms was in the form of the "social clean-up"--extermination--squads. Young people who should, perhaps, have been taken to rehabilitation centers for their resocialization were gunned down in the streets and outskirts of the city. According to reports of the Attorney General's office, members of the armed forces were involved in these extermination groups. In this way, the state began to lose its most essential public functions: defending citizens, regulating conflicts, and administering justice.

Death became a routine, first for the state and society at large, and then for groups of adolescents who grew up in the crossfire and amidst the indifference to corpses on the streets. The young sicarios were born of the absence of any binding principles which might have given them some respect for one another and for life itself. They were the result of the absence of moral and cultural prototypes, and of the multiple influences of new social actors who made brute force and the love of luxury the pillars of social relations. The juvenile gangs were the result not only of a socioeconomic crisis, but of a crisis of the legitimacy of social institutions. The actions of these young people questioned the meaning of life and death. We are talking of a generation that found its strength in a territory in which all limits were dissolved.

Pablo Escobar himself emerged as the chief of the Medellín cartel by sheer brute force. For a decade, his life and activities acquired mythic dimensions in the city. Among the poor, he was idolized, and he became a symbol of rebellion against the establishment. Under his leadership, the activities of the youth gangs were brought under the influence of the Medellín Cartel via the so-called "offices"--convenient facades, like car dealerships or real estate offices--where men of the cartel continue to recruit the chiefs of the city's youth gangs. These gang leaders, in turn, control their own sectors of the city, and their power is so great that no delinquent can operate without their authorization. Most of the gangs identify themselves with the name of their leader: Nacho's Gang, Crazy Uribe's Gang, Duvan's, etc. The leader holds the gang together, and acts with absolute authority. He decides questions of life and death and, logically, he is generous with his loyal followers, and the implacable scourge of those who betray or go against him. Most of the youths in the drug traffickers' "army" die in one of the many wars for which they are recruited. A few have managed to achieve such power that they themselves have become small-time capos and have amassed considerable fortunes.

Delinquency among boys between the ages of 12 and 18 grew during the 1980s. This was the result of a number of processes. The traditional institutions responsible for mediating between the individual and the social order had lost their efficacy. New actors began to play a dynamic role as generators of life styles. Vendettas became more common, as did the actions of paramilitary groups, guerrillas and social clean-up groups. Society began to unravel.

Neither in school, nor in the family, nor in church were there moral, social or cultural prototypes which could win over the new urban generations. The gangs became the alternative means of socialization. They became the way many young people inserted themselves in a symbolic and "normative" world. The family--the basic institution of socialization in our culture--is undergoing a profound rearrangement in all social strata. Among the poor, this crisis has been accompanied and exacerbated by other factors. The incidence of single motherhood, and the number of households headed by a single mother have grown. Women have entered the labor market in significant numbers. The phenomena of alcoholism and drug addiction, paternal irresponsibility, and high rates of unemployment have all contributed to a situation in which the father has disappeared from many households.

The family crisis is reflected in the growing violence against women and children. In Colombia, according to statistics from the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare, every year since 1980 has shown an increase in the number of registered cases of child abuse. The Institute estimates that there are between 50 and 100 thousand cases of physical, sexual or emotional abuse per year in the country. In just the first half of 1986, in the diverse centers of social assistence in Medellín, 7,500 cases of aggression against minors were treated. In the Medellín's municipal polyclinic, of 3,073 children treated for injuries that year, 74 were treated for gunshot wounds.

These statistics reflect the impact of violence on children, and the effects of an authoritarian and intolerant model of the family. Violence sinks its roots into this reality. In many families, not only family love, but the necessary family discipline which comes with positive models of authority is missing. This is most obvious when the father has abdicated his family role. When a young boy joins a gang, he finds in the gang leader the identity model he never found in his family. Mothers frequently maintain an ambiguous attitute toward their delinquent sons. They may not approve of what their children are doing, but they protect them, and they are with them until the end. When their children's activities imply a better material standard of living, the level of tolerance grows.

During adolescence, young people are inspired by great ideas of one kind or another. They look for paradigms and heroes. The youth gangs became an expression of the drug-dealing subculture, in which ideals and heroes could be found. Drug dealers, and in some areas sicarios were idealized in just this way. One of the aspects of the Colombian drug dealer that allowed him to be idealized was his image as a "benefactor" of society. Pablo Escobar, at the same time that he was stigmatized by the state and the mainstream media, was mythologized by large groups of Colombians, especially among the poor. They considered him a good man with great powers, on whom the country's traditional rulers were unfairly trying to pin all the evils of the country.

In a poll conducted last year in the schools of the Northeastern District, students were asked whom they considered the most important person in the country. Pablo Escobar was named by 21 percent of those surveyed; 19.6 percent chose President César Gaviria; and 12.6 percent named the goalkeeper of the national soccer team, René Higuita. Of all the children surveyed, 56.5 percent had a positive opinion of Escobar. Among many members of the community, the feeling persists that Escobar tried to do good, but the government's war against him forced him to do things he really didn't want to do. To a lesser degree, the middle-level capos and the sicarios from the barrios are also recognized as benefactors--as defenders of the well-being of the communities.

The young boys of the shantytowns grow up wanting to live with intensity, to exercise their own will, to say: "This is who we are; we exist!" And the exercise of violence has been one of the ways of getting society to acknowledge their existence. In the gangs, they have found what society at large can't offer: friends and allies with whom they share essential aspects of their lives. The close-knit crews from which the larger gangs are formed tend to represent "horizontal" space--space within which equals can build a life together. There is no submission to outside authority, or to norms they don't share. This gives the gangs a good deal of vitality.

The larger gangs have a system of codes and relations upon which their cohesion is built. Here, relations of authority are combined with loyalty and solidarity in a way that sustains the cohesion of the group. The gang leader is a substitute for all the leaders and structures of leadership that society is unwilling or unable to offer. Within a subculture, the recourse to crime and violence is not necessarily considered illicit, and those who behave violently do not always confront accusations of guilt because of their aggressions. The subculture of violence incorporates the youth into an order of values different from the formal code of society at large. The gang works as an isolated environment that protects members from attacks on their self- esteem. The boys lack society's conception of "good" and "bad." Many become delinquent without considering themselves "different"; they have their own positive self-image. These young men don't find in their criminal actions any reason to consider themselves "guilty." They have no clear notion that they are in any way acting against social norms or a symbolic order.

The boys are attracted mostly by the magnet of excitement, enjoyment and adventure. In this masculine world, status--and leadership--is attained by bravery and purchasing power. "That's a man," is said about someone who does something bold--who is not frightened by anyone or anything. In the Colombian gang, this requires the knowledge and use of arms. All the gang leaders are accomplished gunfighters, and know how to operate smoothly and efficiently.

If we look at cities like Caracas or Rio de Janeiro, we find a situation similar to that of Medellín. In those cities, major drug dealers have formed armies of adolescents in the shantytowns to safeguard their territories, and use these youths as cannon fodder in their confrontations with each other and with state authorities. If it weren't for the immense sums that the traffickers get for their commerce of illicit drugs, it would be virtually impossible to recruit so many adolescents, purchase sophisticated arms, and in general have the capacity to corrode and disintegrate society.

In 1990, after the assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Luís Carlos Galán, the government launched a frontal attack on the Medellín cartel. The security forces began by attacking the youth gangs considered to be the reserve army of the narcotraffickers. This offensive took place without the least respect for human rights. It used the same logic as the counterinsurgency war: classifying entire communities as enemies of society. To be an adolescent in a poor neighborhood meant to be classified as a sicario. The state offensive, in which thousands of people were illegally detained, augmented the resentment against the security organisms and the state. In this sense, the strategy backfired. Many young people identified themselves with the drug dealers and were radicalized against the government. Eventually, the national and local governments began to realize that the counterinsurgency model was a mistake, and these frontal assaults are now on the wane. Short of a total restructuring of the justice and police systems, and a substantial redistribution of wealth, there are some "social action" programs which hold out some limited hope. Using diverse strategies, some official as well as private institutions have committed themselves to the resocialization of delinquent youth. On the one hand, they have tried to offer programs of employment and individual social mobility; and on the other, they have tried to develop diverse mechanisms by which gang members--utilizing gang structures--might transform the negative quality of gang leadership. This latter process has meant working with the social and personal self-image of the boys. With the understanding that in the exercise of violence there is an eagerness for self-expression and self-recognition, the methodologies of resocialization attempt to offer new forms of social representation which are meaningful to these boys. Some of these methodologies are overtly political. Through the struggle for local political development, a fair number of young boys who were fearsome delinquents have been transformed into outstanding community leaders; groups that previously had fought each other to the death have signed peace pacts, uniting to fight for programs of community social development. Medelli'n today is undergoing a number of interesting attempts to reconstitute itself as a society. But this is happening with the full understanding that any solution to a crisis as profound as this one will be a long time in developing.

Pablo Escobar died, but he was neither the beginning nor the end of drug trafficking. Everyone knows that as long as the market for drugs keeps growing, new organizations will form to engage in this lucrative business. The developed countries ask the producers to continue the war, though we all know that the war is hard and useless. The war on drugs confronts the implacable logic of the illicit-drug market: as long as there are buyers, there will be sellers. For the boys of Medelli'n, like Chucho, drug trafficking has marked them for life. It brought them the fantasy of wealth and the reality of death. First it became normal to witness killing and dying; then, to kill and to die.

Juvenile violence became a way in which sectors of traditionally excluded youth--inhabitants of vast territories--sought the recognition of the state and the "other" society. Young gang members with their defiant actions profoundly questioned a social order sustained by discrimination. Violence allowed the "forgotten city" to be represented on the map of the collective consciousness. It made socioeconomic inequity more evident. It made the drama of the very poorest public. Youth violence made the state, which for years had treated the poor barrios as a police matter, begin to reconsider its legitimacy and its manner of relating to its citizens.


Alonzo Salazar is a Colombian jopurnalist and social worker. He is the author of Born to Die in Medellín (Latin America Bureau/Monthly Review Press, 1990). Translated from the Spanish by NACLA.

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