Sometimes I wonder how I will die, by the bullet wound or a knife in my side.
Give my heart peace so I won’t have to fight. Heavenly father, please hear me tonight.
Sarah Garland, “In a Suburban Gangland, Young Lives Cut Short,” The New York Times, June 19, 2009.
It seems odd and vaguely disconcerting to consider that Latino gangsters who practice the cruelest imaginable violence (drive-by shootings, throat-slashing, mass beat-downs, etc.) also believe in and attempt to communicate with God.
They do. After a fashion. In their own way.
The plaintive doggerel quoted above is reportedly a prayer in favor with the gangsters of Salvadorans With Pride (S.W.P.), a rival of MS-13, in suburban New York. Jesus Malverde (illustrated above) is a cult religious figure in favor among the ruthless ranks of the Mexican drug trafficking organizations.
This intersection of criminal thuggery and religion strikes one as a great research project for a theologian and a gang expert. (Hey, a new book idea!) Is this religiosity just so much cognitive dissonance in the gangster’s minds? (“Dear Lord of Peace, please help me cut this throat just so, and forgive me for murdering this pendejo“?)
Or does it reflect genuine human longing for a redemptive connection with the eternal?
If, as many believe, personal redemption is the ultimate purpose of religion, gangster piety makes a certain sense. One can understand it in the same way that one can understand how aggressively religious politicians–the ones who, like so many oppressive regimes in history want to make their beliefs enforceable by law–are so often exposed as adulterers, philanderers, and poly-sexual transgressors of their publicly professed and state-enforced morality. Their spirit is willing, but their flesh is weak.
On the other hand, it could all just be a cynical front, or frightened whistling in the dark alley of human imperfection, greed, and lust. The agnostic’s prayer comes to mind: “O, God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.”
Here’s another example. The Christian Science Monitor has one of the better articles on the burgeoning use by drug traffickers of semi-submersible vessels, each of which is reported to be capable of carrying a load of cocaine worth $250 million. The crews of these vessels are apparently well-paid but expendable. They are not fairly described as “gangsters,” but their situations are similar to that of many of the mopes who make up the rank and file of your typical Latino street gang, i.e., exploited workers in the sweatshops of the drug industry. Here is a telling paragraph from the June 23, 2009 article:
“I don’t think anything will change, because the organizations take advantage of the poverty in Colombia to lure crew members to make the trip for $10,000 or $20,000,” says Mr. Montoya, a Mexican physician who was involved with Colombian and Mexican drug cartels until 2004. Montoya says the four- or five-man crews he met in the secret jungle shipyards went through a ritual the night before they set off. “They would pray to the Divine Child and to the Virgin. Then, they would be given a hearty meal. It was like they were on death row,” he says, adding that it was a well-known secret that many crews never returned.
In my latest book, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press, 2009), I describe and remark on the pious expressions of several members of a Mexican Mafia–18th Street gang combine involved in taxing drug traffic in Los Angeles, meanwhile merrily whacking each other with paranoid abandon. Several of the principals in this criminal enterprise make reference to such things as “trusting God,” and putting oneself in the hands of the “big man above us all.” This juxtaposition is amusing–in a chilling sort of way–but more basically illustrates the fundamental moral emptiness of the gang culture.
It will all remain a conundrum until someone invents the human soul reader, a Kindle of religiosity. (Someone, please, stop this metaphor before it kills again!)