24 April 2020
In late March 2020, amidst the global crisis caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, organized crime groups began to make headlines as caring social actors in their communities. In Southern Italy, local mafias acted as alternative social welfare-providers by financially supporting businesses that faced bankruptcy caused by Coronavirus-related lockdowns and by providing free groceries to communities. In several Brazilian favelas, gangs and militias took matters into their own hands, spreading information on curfews and other restrictions via social media and patrolling the streets to ensure compliance with the curfew. As the virus spread in those densely populated spaces with limited sanitation facilities, fears of its impact were real. However, Brazil’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro denied and ignored the seriousness of the coronavirus, calling it ‘a little cold’ and criticizing measures taken to counter its spread. In such times of crisis, the state’s failure to provide adequate citizen security feeds a popular narrative used by violent non-state actors to mobilize support. That gangs may seize the role of benevolent social actors that take care of their communities might come as a surprise to many, thus making headlines across the world. Yet, this is not a new phenomenon.
Examining urban violence scholars’ findings across the world shows that gangs pose a threat of insecurity and violence, yet their relationship with the local communities is ambiguous, intimate, symbiotic and based on reciprocal trust, coercion and compliance. Local residents face a high level of everyday violence, fear and insecurity while being part of an intimate relationship based on the provision of protection, social services, jobs and financial support.
Today, throughout the Caribbean, there are several instances of ‘un-civil society groups’ that emerged due to ‘a failure of the state to deliver on its core functions – providing a consistent set of public goods, including security, education, care, and basic infrastructure needs’ (Griffin & Persad, 2013: 86). Gangs take the opportunity to provide these services and in turn become legitimated ‘community leaders’ or even ‘functional equivalents of states’ (Davis, 2009: 226). Gang leaders in Jamaica, referred to as dons, rely on a significant level of support from their community members that is based on the dons’ provision of social security, physical protection, employment and an ‘alternative form of dispensing justice’ (Jaffe, 2012: 189). In a similar manner, gangs in Jamaica became judge, juror and executor of justice, employing so-called ‘jungle justice’, prohibiting robberies, disrespect of the elderly and sexual abuse of women in their community (Blake, 2013: 67). Dons provide food, school supplies and gifts and present themselves as ‘benevolent providers and protectors’ (Ibid). They perform ‘social and economic welfare roles’, which in turn grant them authority among community residents (Munroe & Blake, 2017: 584). In Trinidad and Tobago, gangs took over social roles as job and social welfare providers, protectors and law enforcers. Gang leaders became legitimated community leaders and even father figures to many of the children in gang-war-torn areas (Pawelz, 2018). In the 1990s, local communities in Honduras controlled by the MS and M-18 gangs did not perceive them as threats, but as ‘forms of protection, from burglars, delinquents, and other threats’ (Gutiérrez Rivera, 2013: 78). The 1990s Nicaraguan youth gangs, known as pandillas, were ‘recognizable social institutions that obeyed and imposed codified rules’ and reportedly refrained from harming local community residents (Rodgers, 2006: 153).
These instances, however, are far from unique to the Caribbean and Central America. Russian gangs turned into ‘agents of patrimonial power, acting as a structure of quasi-familial welfare and violent regulation’ in their area (Stephenson, 2015: 153). Local poor residents received financial support, hungry people were handed free potatoes, and play areas for children were set up (Ibid). Russian gangs in the 1990s perceived themselves as ‘bastions of order and morality’ and invested in halting street crime (Ibid, 154). Gangs in Albania’s urban centres were in search of public recognition and appreciation and felt responsible for maintaining law and order against the backdrop of a corrupt and incapacitated government. They imposed their own rules, such as urging gang members to refrain from sexual assaults of women and theft in their communities (Hensell, 2006). Likewise in Southeast Asia’s well-known tourist island, Bali, militia groups contest security and enjoy legitimacy at the local level in reference to the ‘community in need of protection and its core values’ (McDonald, & Wilson, 2017: 250).
The list is long. The many cases around the world indicate the ambiguity of the role of gangs, who serve as social actors and security providers for their communities and at the same time engage in cruelty and high levels of violence and terror, which I elaborated on in my paper ‘Hobsbawm in Trinidad: Understanding Contemporary Modalities of Urban Violence.’. In this paper I argue that by taking over benevolent roles, gangs successfully managed to install a system of local support, impunity and power. The positive image of gangs as social benefactors fosters recruitment cycles. The combination of a positive role and of the spread of terror and fear locks community members in the grip of compliance. Inequality and exclusion play a major role in nurturing opinions that generate legitimacy and support. In my interviews with gang members, I heard that they perceive themselves as victims of inequality, poverty and capitalism. The propagated narrative of victimhood is a means to construct legitimacy and in combination with a narrative of threat – either physical threat posed by police or rival gangs, or on a more abstract level as the threat to their community posed by capitalism, social exclusion and political neglect – it is commonly used to mobilize support.
Coronavirus gave organized crime momentum to shine and flourish, as times of crisis are easily instrumentalized by non-state actors to their own ends. Favela residents claimed that they felt left alone by the government. As the wheels of Italian bureaucracy moved slowly in providing financial safety nets for businesses, entities such as the Mafia were able to provide them with compensation due to their large financial resources. The provision of financial support or free groceries to community members is an effective means for criminal groups to create a positive image and, by this means, to further entrench their role in society.
Janina Pawelz is a researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH) and associate researcher at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies. Her research focuses on peace and security, urban violence, radicalisation and youth violence. You can follow her on Twitter at @JaninaPawelz.
Blake, Damion, 2013. ‘Shadowing the State: Violent Control and the Social Power of Jamaican Garrison Dons’. Journal of Ethnographic and Qualitative Research 8 (1), 67.
Davis, Diane E., 2009. ‘Non-State Armed Actors, New Imagined Communities, and Shifting Patterns of Sovereignty and Insecurity in the Modern World’. Contemporary Security Policy 30 (2), 226.
Griffin, Clifford and Rajesh Persad, 2013. ‘“Dons”, So-Called “Community Leaders” and the Emergence of “Un-Civil” Society in the Caribbean’. In Gangs in the Caribbean, ed. R. Seepersad and A. M. Bissessar. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Gutiérrez Rivera, L. 2013. Territories of Violence: State, Marginal Youth, and Public Security in Honduras. Springer, New York, NY,.
Hensell, Stephan, 2006. ‘Banden und Gangs in Albanien’. In Gewaltordnungen bewaffneter Gruppen. Ökonomie und Herrschaft nichtstaatlicher Akteure in den Kriegen der Gegenwart, ed. J. Bakonyi, S. Hensell, and J. Siegelberg, 1st ed. Nomos, Baden-Baden, 179–92.
Jaffe, Rivke, 2012. ‘Criminal Dons and Extralegal Security Privatization in Downtown Kingston, Jamaica’. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 33 (2), 189.
McDonald, Matt and Lee Wilson, 2017. ‘Trouble in Paradise: Contesting Security in Bali’. Security Dialogue 48 (3), 250.
Munroe, Michelle A. and Damion K. Blake, 2017. ‘Governance and Disorder: Neoliberalism and Violent Change in Jamaica’. Third World Quarterly 38 (3), 584.
Pawelz, Janina. “Hobsbawm in Trinidad: Understanding Contemporary Modalities of Urban Violence.” Conflict, Security & Development 18, no. 5 (September 3, 2018): 409–32.
Rodgers, Dennis, 2006. ‘The State as a Gang: Conceptualizing the Governmentality of Violence in Contemporary Nicaragua’. Critique of Anthropology 26 (3), 319.
Stephenson, S., 2015. Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.