Street gangs -especially ‘Mara Salvatrucha’ [MS] and 18th Street Gang - and student gangs are feared throughout Central America. This study looks at the violent and criminal acts they engage in, the attraction they hold over other young people, the solidarity among their members, and the physical and social risks they face. It sheds light on an even more alarming phenomena: the dynamics of social exclusion and self exclusion faced by large groups of young Central Americans. The reproduction of exclusion not only intensifies the margination faced by young people, but also scars the general population and causes repressive reactions by authorities, that over time, could undermine the consolidation of newly formed democracies in the region. Despite differences between street and school gangs, both groups share important similarities: the majority are young people from urban marginalized areas, many of their punishable acts are carried out explicitly as members of these groups, and the use of violence is prominent. Their surroundings are characterized by negligence and abuse within their home, social fragmentation and deteriorating physical conditions of the communities in which they live, lacking social control in public spaces, poor educational quality and the absence of social and employment opportunities. These factors facilitate the strong attraction held by the street where they encounter their peers who dominate, using (the threat of) violence in order to ensure alternative forms of respect and social status. Within the world of the gangs or ‘maras’, there reigns extreme animosity and a constant threat of lethal violence against foes. In the face of all this, the gang offers its members a strong sense of social inclusion and a deep sense of belonging, providing them a chance to be ‘someone’: demonstrating themselves valuable, brave, daring and deserving of respect. Student gangs offer strong social inclusion for those that defend the honor of their school, violently imposing themselves on rival students. The school gangs challenge, attack and fight their rivals mainly in the spaces that connect their schools with neighborhoods. Different from many gang members, these young people do aspire to finish high school and go on to higher education or the labor market. This study argues that the histories of civil war, dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the Northern triangle of Central America, and a concomitant culture of violence are insufficient in explaining the dynamics of these street groups. The daily margination generates risks that alternative systems of respect and status, based on the use of violence, emerge among youth groups. The search for recognition crystallizes into group processes that push their members to risk their future, health and even life on a daily basis. Breaking this vicious cycle of alternative systems of violence necessarily means offering the young people in marginalized areas, real perspectives for improvement and a future, based on public policies that aspire to provide them with a quality education, productive work and social cohesion
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