I spent an enjoyable morning and early afternoon at a symposium at American University on gangs and gang violence in the Caribbean. The audience was largely bureaucratic–representatives from academia, diplomatic missions, international organizations. I did not see any representatives from the topic group, ie current or former or future gang members.
The presenters spoke about gangs in the community. No single legal or statistical definition of gangs exists, so comparing statistics in the Caribbean specifically or across countries in general is hazardous. They are groupings of people, we can agree. For the purpose of many studies, the focus is on groups of at least two people, combined to undertake criminal activities. So, we are not talking about what I may call ‘innocent’ groupings like romantic couples, families, scout troops, or sports teams. I suspect that many people have images in their head of what ‘gangs’ look like; as with common images of ‘criminals’, the stylized image may not be accurate.
Jamaica has a long history of gangs and their impact on communities, especially in urban areas, and around political parties, and around drugs trading. Other Caribbean islands are playing ‘catch up’. Violence has been on the rise in the region and ‘gang-related’ links have been seen as behind much of this rise. But, it is also understood that gangs and organizations related to them are meeting needs of people, which were going unfulfilled. Whether that is for some basic essentials in life, justice, relative peace, or other things, the impact of gangs can be and has been significant. Some jurisdictions would like to portray the gangs as ‘foreign’ and all to do with deportees or other elements that were not part of the original society. Perhaps they have an influence, but the ground has to be fertile for the criminal element to take hold, as with anything that will grow.
Jurisdictions are struggling to deal with what they see as problems related to gangs. Some are drafting legislation. Little evidence supports that route as likely to deter and bring success, and less likely if the society has not been primed to make the legislation enforceable. A community’s hostility or distrust for the police and legal structures, which help gangs flourish, will still be there if anti-gang legislation is introduced. That communal attitude is more present than merely in societies’ downtrodden places.
Many elements of societies are afraid of what gangs may wreak on them. Yet, it is funny how some of the things that tended to mark gang members have become part of ‘normal’ culture. Things that make gangs and their members identifiable to each other, and to the broader community–clothes, skin markings, hand signs, and language–have also become parts of everyday life.
Some researchers want to move focus away from street gangs and to look at organized crime, too. The business-end of crime is relevant for many reasons. One is that other ways can be found to do what street gangs may ultimately be trying to do: wield power and influence. Standard structures can also be folded to meet these needs. Infiltrating politics through corrupt legislators is one route. Infiltrating businesses so that the legitimate activities can cover the illegitimate ones is also standard transformation for criminal groups.
My economist and social scientist view on things led me to think about what motivates the actors as well as what values societies try to promote. It does not seem to me that the reasons people join gangs is very different from the reasons people join other groups or clubs. It may be pull factors, such as the purpose or objective that drives the desire to belong. It may be some sense of wanting togetherness–the camaraderie–another pulling factor. It may be push factors–‘alienation’ in a broad sense, that sense of not belonging that needs to be overcome. People may find value in belonging to gangs (as they do from joining clubs), and whatever rank they may gain there is worth a lot in their lives; the same way that some laud you with “I’m treasurer of the … society.” Gangs differ in that they are often on the harmful side of the line in terms of how they deal with other people; what good they may do for some does not usually compensate in the minds of most. Gangs may impose costs on members, or create bonds that are not as easy to pay off or break as with other memberships. They may also gain from inertia: once in, it’s easier to stay in than to leave. That is not too dissimilar to the bind many find themselves in when it comes to a job. For me, it’s worth looking at how people cling to gangs alongside the way people cling on to wanting to stay in any group–family-based, faith-based, interest-based, or otherwise.
A lot of gangs may do as criminal behaviour–and I am not selective in my view of what is a crime–like most human activity, can come down to incentives and risks and rewards. When those shift, so will behaviour. If getting caught in unlawful acts were highly probable, that would likely be an effective deterrent. Whether the ‘crime’ is speeding, filching funds, selling drugs, or whatever. White-collar crime is no better or worse than street crimes. Many would see suited financiers taking advantage of unsuspecting lenders as not so different from gangsters selling drugs to hapless junkies. Influence-peddling by politicians or vote-buying by businessmen can be on the same spectrum as gang-control in communities, if we choose to place them there.