SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) FROM the age of 13 Victor Toruño walked the dirt streets of Hialeah, a slum in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, with a shotgun in his hands. His gang, Los Cancheros (a cancha is a sports pitch), ruled the neighbourhood. “We felt that with guns we were like gods, we could do anything we liked,” he says. Gang members were his only friends; a tattoo of a skull on his left arm commemorates one whose head was cut off with a machete. “I was machista. I was the one who told everyone what to do. I was like a psychopath,” he says.
Mr Toruño, now 27, absorbed the codes of machismo from infancy. While he hid under the bed, his father would beat up his mother. His father later abandoned the family. Mr Toruño developed the same traits. He abused his partner, Martha, yelled at his two children and felt hatred for those outside his gang. Martha started to hate him, too. She considered stabbing him with a kitchen knife after he punched her in the face. “I was living with an animal,” she says. Eventually she left him.
In 2013 social workers from a Nicaraguan NGO, the Centre for the Prevention of Violence (CEPREV), approached Mr Toruño in Hialeah. They showed him crude cartoons that mirrored his own life of violence, alcoholism and domestic abuse. “I saw myself in every image,” he says. It affected him so deeply that he agreed to attend workshops to discuss the impulses that machismo had encouraged in him.
Machismo is a tricky topic to discuss, not just with hard cases like Mr Toruño. Sociologists say that though the origins of the word are Spanish, it is a lazy stereotype applied to Latin American men. Macho cultures exist everywhere, they note. Scholars seeking to explain the horrific murder rates in Latin America (see chart) point to the region’s role as a conduit for drugs and the gang culture that the trade brings with it. The few social programmes that touch on machismo deal with the damage it does to women, rarely with its effects on men.
Yet machismo helps entrench violence and worsens its effects. Souped-up notions of masculinity are not uniquely Latin, but they are rife in the region, especially among poorly educated youths. Women suffer greatly; men do at least as much. The murder rate among men aged 15-29 in Mexico and Central America is more than four times the global average for that age group, according to the UN. More than 90% of victims in the region are men; globally the average is 79%. A 2011 study of murders in Ciudad Juárez, on Mexico’s border with the United States, contends that the sadistic humiliation of victims that marks these crimes arises from the region’s corrosive understanding of masculinity.
Global forces exacerbate the problem. Young men, competing for jobs in a global market, have fewer opportunities; studious women have more. Denied the role of breadwinner, some men seek to prove themselves through crime, violence and domestic abuse. Often they have grown up without fathers because of divorce, war or migration. The result, says Monica Zalaquett, the head of CEPREV, is a “pressure-cooker effect” that cannot be contained in later life. Tackling machismo directly can lessen the chance of explosion.
During 15 years CEPREV says it has broken up about 90 gangs in Nicaragua by focusing on young men’s exaggerated sense of masculinity and the violence that it leads to. In 2012-13 CEPREV spent six months working in a slum adjacent to Hialeah where crime was rife. Social workers counselled gang members on their lack of self-esteem, their concepts of machismo, their broken families and their pent-up anger. They also sought to educate the police about the dangers of machismo. Citing police statistics, CEPREV claims that crimes such as mugging, theft and sexual harassment more than halved after its intervention. In neighbouring Hialeah, where CEPREV had not yet entered, crime rose 16% during the same period.
The agency cannot prove that its work caused the drop in crime; other factors may have helped. But the results are so promising, says Andrew Morrison, head of gender issues at the Inter-American Development Bank, that the bank is funding evaluations of CEPREV’s programmes in neighbouring Honduras, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world. If they prove successful, they could be expanded into much bigger crime-prevention efforts run by the government.
But funding for such programmes is scarce, not least because governments worry that they are touching a cultural taboo. Focusing on protection of women seems easier. Two years ago Sergio Muñoz was sponsored by the UN Development Programme to hold a series of crime-prevention workshops for police in Costa Rica, called “masculinity and violence”. He was baffled to discover that funding for such projects has dried up. “You can’t hope to improve the fate of women if you don’t work with the men, because these patterns of masculinity are repeated from generation to generation,” he says.
In Mexico a programme run by the interior ministry employs social workers to counsel children on the perils of machismo. Officials acknowledge that it is a new field, and that they were laughed at when they first proposed the idea of encouraging “new masculinities”. But it may be changing attitudes. In a particularly violent part of Gómez Palacio, in the northern state of Durango, children counselled on gender equality have painted street scenes showing men carrying cudgels and verbally abusing women. One young boy, César Vargas, came up to your correspondent and told him with no prompting that men are “very rough” and should learn to respect women. Older children are enticed into counselling with incentives like football coaching. Grown men are generally considered lost causes.
Mr Toruño’s experience suggests that is wrong. He is now reunited with Martha. At a gathering of family and friends their two children run excitably between them. “I used to think women were useless. Now I think they are a treasure,” he says. He helps at home with the children and the housework, and shrugs it off when others laugh at him. Los Cancheros do not laugh; he has persuaded his gang mates to renounce guns and enter counselling. Without it, he says, “I’d be dead, in a wheelchair or in prison by now.” Half a dozen wiry young men around him nod in agreement.