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Anthropologist: Gang Violence Caused By Mental Illness

What causes gang violence?

James Diego Vigil, a professor emeritus of social ecology at the University of California, Irvine, uses the term “locura,” from the Spanish word loca (crazy) to describe what he calls the “quasi-controlled insanity” of gang members.

He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to explain.

Interview Highlights: James Diego Vigil

On what pushes kids into gangs

“One of the things that precedes street socialization is trauma and soul murder. The young kids have something happen to them. They may be physically punished or abused. They may be neglected. They may be left alone. That kind of trauma at a young age infuses their body with an overwhelming dose of adrenaline, and that, again, makes their mindset unsteady and geared towards surviving.”

On what causes the “locura” phenomenon

“We’ve had enough punishment, and we certainly haven’t seen results. So I would say that it’s a mental illness of social stigma and isolation to the point where they are, like, always feeling that the world is against them. So it creates a mental state of locura. There’s a difference, though, and the distinction I make is between someone who has had so many traumatic experiences and early soul murder, where they really become loco. That’s a mental illness. And then a lot of other kids that join the streets, they have to learn how to act that way. That’s why I called it quasi-controlled insanity: they know how to play, turn it on and turn it off, and that becomes a kind of a function for the gang, where you learn how to be loco. That’s why they call it locura, you know, going back and forth. There’s even more successful models within the Asian-American street gangs, Vietnamese in particular, where they become, you know, Jekyll and Hyde type of characters. We’ve written about this in a book, ‘Streetsmart Schoolsmart:’ some people are able to do the school work, then at night, they turn into the Mr. Hyde character.”

On what needs to be done to rehabilitate this behavior

“I think one of the problems we’ve had in the last almost a half century now, since the war on poverty, every year in Congress, we argue about whether we should fully fund Head Start, when we know that Head Start and follow through after Head Start makes a difference. And I think we need a lot more prevention-intervention programs, and I think recently, law enforcement is realizing they cannot nip something in the bud they didn’t start. This is started by social, economic, and historical kinds of forces that have created these isolated barrios and low-income communities, and street socialization. So I believe we, as a society, really had what I call a marshal plan for for the inner city — something to deal with youth — that, to me, is the key. Not to wait till they’re older and throw ‘em in jail, now show we’ll show ‘em who’s boss. There’s a lot of naysayers that don’t want any kind of coddling with lawbreakers, when, in fact, they’re kids. They’re just doing mischievous things at a very young age. It isn’t until they’re older when they get into breaking laws and stepping over boundaries, and affecting the rest of society.”


  • James Diego Vigil, a professor emeritus of social ecology at the University of California, Irvine.

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