By Franklin Moreno
I returned not too long ago from Honduras after the catrachos went to the polling stations for the national elections on November 26 and the firestorm of allegations of fraud and voting irregularities made by the political opposition and by the Organization of American States. While I was away in Nicaragua, my family, friends, and colleagues in Tegucigalpa –the political capital– and in San Pedro Sula – the industrial capital – were keeping me informed of the protests and violence. I heard of the unrest resulting in street and highway roadblocks, the inability to go to work, missed salary, bank closures and an overarching sense of frustration and political uncertainty. After consulting them, I decided to return to San Pedro Sula from Managua by plane and to stay in the sector of Chamelecón with friends and their family to continue my research given the political instability unfolding in the country. My plane landed as nation-wide curfews were being announced.
The current social and political conflict and uncertainty put in sharp relief the collective nature of mara-related violence that I have focused on in my developmental psychology research in Honduras these past two years. By collectivity I do not refer to groups of people cooperating in unified efforts towards a singular goal or outcome. Rather, I am evoking what Geoffrey Saxe refers to as collective practices that are the joint activities among multiple participants with shared and divergent goals, interpretations and evaluations, which influence the sustainment and changes of representations and practices across time (Saxe, 2012; Saxe & Esmonde, 2005). Although Saxe’s research has focused on the development of mathematical concepts in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere, his framework offers ways of conceptualizing the social complexity and contradictory nature of maras and their perceived and actual violence in which children and adolescents live.
On the one hand, in times of major social-political unrest, concerns for homicides, gang borders, and extortions remained consistent, as did certain aspects of violence prevention efforts. On the other, certain violent and non-violent features became more pronounced while others were co-opted, leading to shifting perceptions and sense of security. Notably, the flux of the psychological and actual parameters of the mara-violence is due to its relation to actions by the federal government, community members, police agencies, news media, political protestors, violent looters, and foreign governments.
I went to stay in the sector of Chamelecón so as to complete the research with children and adolescents given the stronghold of the mara borders. Although residents live with a sense of insecurity in their neighborhood due to the maras, under the conditions of political unrest, I learned of the limited sense of security they did feel from outside protestors entering their sector because of the gang-enforced borders. Friends living in various parts of the sector mentioned relative tranquility during the major protests and looting, even as a tollbooth at the entrance of the sector was burned and looted. However, as I continued my interviews in the days that followed, I spoke with children and adolescents whose families pay monthly extortions and whose personal movements remain constrained by the same gang-borders.
As social and political pressure against the incumbent president and electoral body increased regarding allegations of election fraud and irregularities, news media outlets began to publish claims that the oppositional candidate was hiring maras to incite violence and rioting—despite no evidence being provided. Friends and their families living in Chamelecón made sense of these news reports in a variety of ways. A few family members with whom I was staying believed the reports, causing more outrage towards the looting shown on the news feeds and the videos circulating on WhatsApp; while other members of the same family dismissed the claims as attempts to slander the oppositional candidate so as to discredit the concerns over electoral irregularities and fraud.
The collective practice regarding maras also includes the non-violent efforts in a sector considered to be one of the most dangerous. To contextualize the psychological and actual nuances of the violence, consider that taxi drivers refused to take me to the sector due to extortions. The taxi driver from the airport dropped me off at a gas station at the entrance of the sector from which I had to take a communal taxi that was allowed to operate in the neighborhood. Yet a number of residents felt that it was rare for them to hear the notion of ‘non-violence’ in the public discourse in relation to where they live. For example, the national headlines often leave out the efforts by a pastor and her husband who have led a community outreach center named after their neighborhood, 10 de Septiembre, in partnership with Project Genesis of FUNADEH, U.S.A.I.D, and some in the private sector to address gang violence and community needs. With staff and volunteers, they provide educational and computer courses, job training, youth development workshops, recreational games, monthly cinema shows for children with free popcorn and drinks, have a gym, host weddings, as well as organize festivals. Also absent in the news are the youth and families who socialize and create support networks to help one another in addressing individual and community concerns, and the children who play outside on the streets. This is a glaring contrast I experienced in the more affluent neighborhood of Juan Lindo where I was previously staying. Families there live in fortified homes with armed guards out on the streets; I rarely saw people walk outside the walls and socialize in the open. The only person I conversed with was a hired security guard on the street.
Recognizing the non-violent forms of social interactions and organization amid ongoing, collective violence gets to a central frustration and concern repeatedly stated: who dominates the narrative and representation of the violence and its public perception, and who can challenge such narratives? Friends and residents expressed their dismay over the single-sided classification they are branded with: living in one of the most dangerous sectors. The tension lies with recognizing that integral to the life of the neighborhood is how the non-violent and caring forms of community functioning and organization shift and change in reciprocal processes with existing forms of violence; as well as being attuned to how their boundaries and participants shift as well. For instance, what happens when efforts by community members to improve the quality of life for children, adolescents, and adults, especially around maras, are dismissed by peacekeeping authorities themselves? A friend recounted an incident he had a few weeks prior to me returning to San Pedro Sula. He, a well-known community volunteer in his early twenties, who has also been a liaison to the community police for years, attempted to de-escalate a situation involving a friend of his who was about to get his motorcycle impounded for not carrying his vehicle registration. The volunteer’s attempts to explain his community involvement and to mediate a solution were met with accusations of being a ‘delinquent’ (i.e., a slander of being associated with maras); he was peppered sprayed and arrested by the National Police. After showing me vivid photos of his eyes and face, he lamented that for him, the most harmful part of the experience by far was that his trust in the police had been shattered.
Examining the violence associated with maras has great implications for understanding how processes of violence and non-violence are integral to social functioning at many levels of social organization: national politics, local interactions with police or at community centers. I have not included in these reflections additional national and foreign participants in this collective practice due to space constraints; nor the dynamics of the three agencies that simultaneously patrol the sector of Chamelecón: the military, national and community police. In previous postings I have discussed the discriminations youth face by employers due to marginalization processes related to maras. Overall, children, adolescents, and adults experience the violence associated with maras in a multitude of ways. Certain forms remain consistent yet may shift in particular functions, such as with gang borders in times of political unrest. But understanding the dimensions of collectivity must also include the dedicated efforts by so many community members, staff of organizations and governmental agencies who address the actual and representational forms of the violence in peaceful ways, efforts that remain just as steadfast and defiant.
Franklin Moreno is a Ph.D. candidate in Human Development and Education at UC Berkeley. His current research in Honduras and Nicaragua focuses on children and adolescent moral evaluations and psychological explanations about violence in the contexts of gang conflict.