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Living in the Shadow of Death: Gangs, Violence and Social Order in Urban Nicaragua, 1996–2002



This article explores the dynamics of the youth gang (pandilla) phenomenon in contemporary urban Nicaragua, drawing on longitudinal ethnographic research conducted with a Managua pandilla in 1996–97 and in 2002. Pandillas and their violent practices are conceived as constituting a form of local social structuration in the face of broader conditions of high crime, insecurity, and socio-political breakdown. This form of ‘street-level politics’ changed significantly between 1997 and 2002, however, evolving from a form of collective social violence to a more individually and economically motivated type of brutality. This transformation is related to wider structural processes, which are described as coming together and precipitating a form of ‘social death’ in contemporary Nicaragua.



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The author is grateful to Jo Beall, Ralph Grillo, Ann Mason, Maxine Molyneux, Viviana Patroni, James Putzel, Rachel Sieder and María Emma Wills for comments made in response to presentations at York University (Canada), the Universidad de los Andes (Colombia), the University of Sussex (UK) and the Institute of Latin American Studies (UK). José Luis Rocha and two anonymous reviewers also provided invaluable feedback on my initial draft. Finally, I thank Arturo Matute for his able transcription of my February–March 2002 fieldwork interviews.


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Journal of Latin American Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-216X
  • EISSN: 1469-767X
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-latin-american-studies
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