Gang governance, from the local to the global

By Dennis Rodgers
Research Professor, Anthropology and Sociology,
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

Synopsis: Thinking about order provision in spatial, organisational, and authoritative terms shows how gang governance has evolved locally and reveals examples of “gangsterisation” at the national and global levels.

Keywords: gangs, governance, violence, social order, Nicaragua

Gangs are frequently associated with violence and disorder, but they can also be institutional vectors for forms of social structuration. For example, gangs in 1990s Nicaragua emerged after a decade of conflict as veritable mediums for the organisation of local collective life in many of the slums and poor neighbourhoods of the country’s cities. Displaying a vigilante ethos, they sought to protect their local communities, engaging in activities that aimed at mitigating insecurity and unpredictability, patrolling neighbourhoods, providing “bodyguard” services, and engaging in ritualised forms of warfare that followed prescribed “scripts” and therefore provided local inhabitants with an“early warning system”. In a broader context of post-conflict strife and economic discombobulation, gangs were thus not just functional purveyors of a sense of predictability and security, but in many ways also constituted the symbol of local communitas.

One way of thinking about such patterns of behaviour is through the conceptual trope of “gang governance”. Governance is often associated with notions of technical efficiency but at its most basic, the notion relates to the act of governing, which in turn is fundamentally concerned with the imposition of a sense of order and regularity onto a given social reality, context, or process. Governance is obviously generally associated with states and their particular modes of action or regimes, but there is no reason why other institutions cannot play the same role, including gangs.

Having said this, an institutional hallmark of gangs is their volatility. Certainly, Nicaraguan gangs changed radically between the 1990s and the 2000s due to the rise of drug trafficking, which gangs became involved in as security apparatus. This led to gangs becoming vectors for the imposition of localised regimes of terror based on acts of arbitrary violence against local inhabitants that aimed at ensuring the smooth running of their illegal business instead of local neighbourhood protectors. As different as Nicaraguan gangs were in the 2000s compared to the 1990s, they still arguably promulgated a form of order, and can therefore perhaps be seen as a different iteration of the same general gang governance process, one which we might label “type 2” versus the “type 1” of the 1990s.

I make this distinction on the basis of key spatial, organisation, and authoritative differences. In the 1990s, Nicaraguan gangs actively attempted to control the neighbourhood territory, but in the 2000s, they aimed at controlling the community population. Gang members in the 1990s were also were deeply embedded in their local community social relations, partly due to the territorial nature of gangs, while in the 2000s, gangs often involved individuals who were not from the same neighbourhood, meaning that gangs were much more disconnected from their areas of operation. Finally, the authoritative basis of the two types of gang governance was also different, stemming in the 2000s from gang members’ ability to carry out unpredictable acts of violence rather than the imposition of predictable behavioural and cosmological frameworks characteristic of gangs in the 1990s.

This transformation of Nicaraguan gang governance raises issues regarding its long-term viability, and, more broadly, the ideal institutional vehicle for governance. The answer to the latter question can obviously be related to both the nature and the scale of gang governance, especially in comparison to state governance. Partly because gangs are local phenomena, nothing in their governance implies the possible development of an encompassing interest in the same way that the state’s does. The federating nature of the post-Westphalian state means that it marks the contours of a whole political community, at least conceptually. In practice, however, state governance is by no means monolithic, and there exist multiple forms. Indeed, the Nicaraguan state offers a case in point, having changed quite radically over the past few decades.

“What has happened in Nicaragua is in many ways a manifestation of a broader process of what might be termed “global gangsterisation”

In many ways, the evolution of the state’s governance regime mirrors the type 1 to type 2 gang governance transformation of gangs in the country. During the 1980s, the revolutionary Sandinista state in Nicaragua had had a deep regulatory presence, including particularly in cities, where life in poor neighbourhoods and slums was organised by so-called Sandinista Defence Committees that managed everyday life including primary health, clean-ups, regular vigilance, and local schooling. This arguably bears comparison with type 1 gang governance. Following a temporary absence during most of the 1990s, a reconstituted neo-oligarchic state developed new regulatory practices in the 2000s and 2010s, which included shock and awe police patrolling linked to the containment of violence in the periphery and protection of the elite core. In other words, the Nicaraguan state’s governance arguably became mimetic of type 2 gang governance, something that came to a head in April 2018, when Nicaragua was the theatre of a mass popular uprising that was violently repressed by the current government through a reign of paramilitary terror.

U.S. soldiers in tanks at the Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad
U.S. soldiers at the Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad

This episode can be read as signalling a “nationalisation” of gang governance in Nicaragua, from the local to the national. But this idea can be taken one step further. What has happened in Nicaragua is in many ways a manifestation of a broader process of what might be termed “global gangsterisation”. Certainly, an increasing number of geopolitical events can be plausibly associated to forms of type 2 gang governance, including for example the US interventions actions in Iraq, the Saudi intervention in Yemen, or France’s intervention in Mali. Thinking about this in spatial, organisational, and authoritative terms, such situations can be characterised as being about an external group in support of a small, oligarchic elite, that seeks to control only a limited area or asset – e.g. Baghdad or oil fields – rather than govern the whole country, doing so through shock and awe violence – e.g. drone bombing campaigns.

Whether viewed from a local or a global perspective, however, what the spread of gang governance and its consequences clearly highlight is how it carries within it the potential to cross over what Giorgio Agamben famously termed “the point of indistinction between violence and law”. This raises broader questions concerning the nature of violence and social order, as well as the nature of governance more generally, which when seen from the perspective of gang governance clearly has to be first and foremost defined ethically rather than technically. But in this respect, perhaps gangs and conceptual tropes such as “gang governance” can provide us with new viewpoints and a new language through which to get to grips with this critical issue.

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