In what may be the world's most populous city, youth gang activity is a North, South, East and West Side Story. The gangs are everywhere, and their numbers are growing.
In Mexico City's middle- and lower-class neighborhoods, not to mention its numerous poor and anonymous squatter colonies, there is hardly a vacant wall that does not bear the distinctive scrawl of a gang advertising its dominance over a few streets and alleyways.
The children of the rich imitate gang fashions and jargon in the hope of capturing some imagined magic from life in the streets.
Saturday-night rumbles are common. Purse snatching and auto theft are endemic. Some gangs have been known to commandeer a public bus, pull up at a store, steal everything in sight, then flee in their "war wagon."
As Mexican society has changed, so has the makeup of the gangs. There are gangs of girls who have tired of playing sidekick to abusive machos. There are homosexual gangs that defend their meeting places from bullies. Boys no more than 8 years old form junior branches of adolescent bands, and older men, unable to find work, hang out in gangs. According to the police and social researchers, these older gang members are particularly dangerous because their criminality is more honed and desperate.
In an especially disturbing trend, drugs--usually inhalants such as paint thinner and glue but increasingly marijuana as well--are replacing liquor as the gang members' preferred intoxicant.
Researchers estimate that at least a million youths, mostly boys, belong to gangs--a city within a city that is virtually beyond the control of any authority. Now, because of those growing numbers and because they are blamed for a recent surge in city crime, youth gangs are attracting more attention here than usual.
Police officials recently suggested putting a bounty on the heads of chavos banda --"gang kids" in Mexico City argot--as part of a crackdown on crime. Bureaucrats look for ways to channel the potentially explosive energy of the youth. Politicians, always in search of a way to build support, are trying to lasso the gangs into their ideological corral. Sociologists study them endlessly.
"Looks like everyone wants a piece of us, especially the police," said Javier, a skinny high school dropout who belongs to a south side gang that calls itself Born to Lose. And he added, laughing, "It's nice to be so popular."
The reasons for the boom in gang activity, the experts say, are obvious: no work, little education, few prospects in a crowded and unfriendly urban atmosphere. Simple demographics also contribute to the growing numbers. More than half of the 17 million people who inhabit greater Mexico City are younger than 20.
The Streets Become Home
Mexico's economy fails to provide enough jobs for the million or so young people nationwide who enter the labor force every year. Housing conditions are cramped, so the street becomes home.
Gang boys make their living in a variety of ways. The more upright wash cars or sell trinkets. Others steal.
"This is an army of the unoccupied," said Mauricio Schroeder, a university researcher who has specialized in youth gangs. "If it ever mobilized, it would be a major force in Mexican society."
Gang members seem not to think of themselves in terms of a social movement, however. They get together for fun, for protection, and because they have little else to do. Joining seems as natural as growing a scraggly mustache.
"In our band, we can get along together without fear of getting hit by our parents or the police," said Javier, 17, who left school last year and joined Born to Lose.
'It's Safer If We Go Together'
Cutberto, who joined Born to Lose three years ago, put in: "Suppose we want to go to a movie in another neighborhood. It's safer if we go together. You know what? If you walk alone in some strange neighborhood, some other gang will beat the mother out of you just because they don't like the way you dress."
The 20 or so members of Born to Lose gather in front of a record shop in Copilco, a district of the Coyoacan section of far-south Mexico City. Most Born to Lose members dropped out of school for reasons ranging from boredom to expulsion for tossing a classmate into a sewer.
Copilco is home to numerous gangs. The Animals, Black Power, the Ramones, the Punk Boys, the Devils, the Mohicans--all hold sway along some part of the Avenida de las Torres, a main local thoroughfare. Their meeting places are vacant lots, hidden alleys, doorsteps, garages.
Born to Lose is one of the less flamboyant groups in the neighborhood, in part because of the poverty of its members. They cannot even afford rivets in their jeans, a favorite adornment among gang members, much less the billowy shirts that are also in style. A few favor the cotton-candy hair style and thin leather bracelets that are the current rage.
The main activities of Born to Lose, besides joking and drinking, seem to be warding off the encroachment by rival gangs and steering clear of the police.
Fists, Chains, Primitive Guns
Straying onto someone's else's turf usually sparks a street fight, sometimes with fists, often with chains and rocks and, on occasion, some sort of primitive gun.
Born to Lose has recently been feuding with a neighboring gang called the Dangerous Ones. It started when someone on one side or the other fired a primitive pistol and wounded a Born to Lose member. Lately, the fighting has cooled somewhat.
When police patrols come into the neighborhood, the group scatters, taking refuge behind a high wall that shields a vacant lot. Capture can mean a beating. At the least, someone will have to pay about $5 to get the unlucky one out of jail.
Because the police sometimes make arrests based on fashion, orange hair, long a tip-off to gang membership, is no longer de rigueur --especially after a police official suggested to the Mexican Senate that the police be paid a bonus of $100 for killing gang criminals. Many bands have stopped wearing chains and carrying brass knuckles because, under the law, these are considered weapons.
"Now we look like everyone else," said Jorge, another member of Born to Lose.
Girl Gang Activity
Girls are increasingly interested in gang activity, scholars say. They say this is a reflection of the slow but steady movement of Mexican women out of the home and into all kinds of activity.
Margarita, who is friendly with Born to Lose, belongs to the Fleas, a girls' group in Copilco. She said she joined for the same reason boys do, to convivir, a kind of pacific getting-along that Mexicans value highly.
"We have more freedom among ourselves," Margarita said. "We can be with the boys or not."
The girls engage in less violence than their male counterparts, she said, "unless one of our boyfriends is getting beat up." But the girls are apparently no less vulnerable to arrest.
"I was picked up by the cops once," Margarita said. "They pulled me by the hair and said all sorts of dirty things. My friends bailed me out. It cost $5."
Elaborately Spiked Hair
Margarita, whose hair is elaborately spiked, is studying to be a hair stylist, and she expects to leave the gang when she gets a job.
Getting a job, in fact, seems to be the cue for most gang members to bid goodby to gang life.
"A good job means less time to prattle," said Miguel, who belongs to another gang. Miguel is not working but he has made contact with a government-sponsored coffee shop that plans to give gang members a meeting place and a place to put on a kind of street theater. It is one of the few experiments in turning the gangs into a productive element of the society.
The project, called Jabali, was supposed to be financed with part of $52,000 in government funds for developing youth cooperatives, but despite promises from the Ministry of Planning and the Budget, the money has yet to be delivered, and the coffee shop still has no kitchen equipment and no tables.
"All kinds of promises are made, but never kept," said Francisco Castro, who is trying to organize the coffee shop. "It is easier to vilify the gangs than recognize them as a problem to be solved."
Former Gang Members
Castro is a former gang member who is lobbying for money to give the gangs something to do. He is following in the footsteps of veteran gang members who in the western neighborhood of Santa Fe formed pressure groups in an effort to improve relations with the police. As a first step, he tried to persuade the gangs to stop battling among themselves.
But beyond a truce with the police, the incentive for the gangs to conform is not very clear. In Santa Fe, for example, there is a thriving rabbit-raising project as well as a coffee shop. But the projects hardly make a dent in the burgeoning numbers of unemployed, most of them actual or potential gang members.
"It is still more efficient to steal a radio than to try to find a job paying the minimum wage," said Pablo Cabanas, a longtime researcher of gang life in Mexico City.
Attempts by political parties to tap the resources of the gangs are hindered by the parties' lack of resources and the suspicion, shared by much of the population, that politicians are generally corrupt.
Still, there has been an occasional gang foray into politics. When striking university students recently took to the streets in a demonstration, gangs from Santa Fe and other southern neighborhoods helped swell their ranks to more than 100,000.
"The gangs are a potential social movement but have yet to realize their potential," said Martha Patricia Casanova, a government social worker in Santa Fe.
Whether the gangs, which are not likely to disappear, can at least be drained of part of their membership probably depends on a sharp improvement in the Mexican economy. Because the government is strapped for cash, social programs are in decline. Business is virtually stagnant, and factories can hardly take up the slack.
For the short term, though, it appears that millions of idle young people, in gangs or not, are born to lose.