Maras and the Darker Sides of Globalization
By Marlon Carranza
In 2006 Arjun Appadurai published his book Fear of Small Numbers: an Essay of the Geography of Anger, to evaluate “the darker sides of globalization” (p.3). Appadurai’s main argument was that material goods and ideologies circulate now with such intensity across national boundaries that “a new order of uncertainty” (p.5) is globally created. This uncertainty has produced, of course, violence; but even more, Appadurai argues that violence itself has become “a macabre form of certainty”. For that reason, he continued, globalization needs to be analyzed in “this volatile relationship between certainty and uncertainty” (p.6).
Appadurai’s words resonate with my own research about Maras, a gang organization that was born in Los Angeles in the 1990s by initiative of Central American immigrants but that has been claimed to have expanded globally. There is nothing more volatile than trying to find evidence of the global presence of Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs in some of the areas where their existence had been claimed by the media and others. Let’s just take an example: In June 2015, an 18 year old man attacked a ticket inspector inside a Milan train after he had been asked for his ticket. The young man carried out the attack with a machete that cut off the ticket inspector’s left hand completely. According to the media, the young man was thought to be part of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Although the gang affiliation of the attacker was never confirmed, for those who read the news in Milan and around the globe, there was no doubt that there was at least some certainty about the event: a violent action and a person responsible. I argue however, that there are other certainties that are less visible, and that those are linked to the global circulation of violent events by electronic media. It is certain that confirmed and unconfirmed images (news, discourses, narratives, etc.) of gang violence have been used globally to reinforce different ideological agendas in multiple nation-states. Those images have helped to reinforce punitive immigration policies in the United States, the return of military power in Honduras, the increase of national security budged in El Salvador, the inaugurating of the first anti-gang task force in Costa Rica, and the creation of different versions of spaces of exception in all of the previously mentioned countries.
It is here, in this “volatile relationship between certainty and uncertainty” where I believe academia has a lot to contribute. For example, Maximo Conte, an expert on gangs in Italy, found that the first members of the Mara Salvatrucha in Milan were adults fleeing from the criminal violence in Central America. As soon as they arrived in Milan, they decided to live a normal life, they took up work, they joined different churches, and they stopped contacting other gang members. Maras in Milan only became a social issue when Central American kids that arrived in Milan at the ages of 7 or 8 grew up and found something compelling in the organizational style of Maras. They were the ones who (re)created this machete-version of Maras in Milan, so different and yet so similar to other versions of Maras in other areas of the world.
The globalization of gangs, I argue based on the above, is about different ways in which the idea of Maras is deconstructed and reconstructed within local spaces where there is, on the one hand, a convergence of different local forces (poverty, exclusion, unemployment, etc.) with, on the other hand, the transnational flowing of multiple imagined versions of them. For that reason, a research on Maras is more than a research on their members, but a research on the intersection of local and global forces that produce different versions of these gangs.
This particular approach to study the global phenomenon of gangs, gang violence, gang production and reproduction, differs from other analysis about Maras and globalization. I certainly disagree with the idea, frequently promoted by the public media, that there is a teleological rationality intrinsic to the organizational style of Central American gangs or Maras. In other words, I disagree with the idea that Maras have taken the conscious decision of becoming transnational as a strategy to expand their illegal activities. On the contrary, Maras, as any other street gang, obtain their power and legitimization from the syncretic relationship with the local neighborhood. Removing gangs from their local environmental makes them vulnerable to multiple risks that they need to face in their everyday life. Deportation and immigration, as in the case of the firsts Mara Salvatrucha members in Milan, have been the main forces that have pushed Maras to move transnationally and to reproduce different types of illegal activities from place to place.
I want to finish this essay reflecting about Appadurai’s title of his book. Maras, with the exception of the El Salvador and Honduras, do not involve a large amount of individuals. For that reason, I believe that the concept of the “fear of small numbers” needs to be revisited in the context of this particular global phenomenon. As a social researcher from Central America I feel the need to disentangle the different ways in which gangs have become a global menace. I believe that it is important to distinguish the real threat from the instrumentalization of the discourse of gang threat; similarly, it is important to know the local responsibility of the nation-states, but also the consequences of an unethical use of images and narratives of Maras by the global media. As a scholar I want to contribute to the discussion about crime, violence, and globalization; as a Salvadoran, I want to deconstruct the “geography of anger” that Central America has become in this decade.
Appadurai, A. (2006). Fear of small numbers: An essay on the geography of anger. Duke University Press.
Citation: Marlon Carranza, Maras and the Darker Sides of Globalization, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.06.2018 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10159.