Why do Paramilitaries have Nicknames?

We have previously discussed Colombian paramilitaries McGuiver and El Gurre (see here and here). Other commanders of fronts in the same organization were called Terror and Pájaro (Bird). Even their boss Ramón Isaza was referred to by a nickname, El Viejo (the old one). Nicknaming was not restricted to the commanders. The junior ranks had nicknames as well. For example when McGuiver set himself up in La Danta he came with a group of 12 men called Tominejo (Small Bird), Chuki, Mafia, Abejorro (Bee), Boby, Pinganilla (Unimportant), Wilson, Automan, Tarzan, Monogringo (Blonde Gringo), Ruso (Russian), and Mandarino (Mandarine).

Nicknames are of course common in all walks of life but as political scientist Diego Gambetta pointed out in his book Codes of the Underworld, they are much more common amongst criminal or illegal organizations, particularly the Mafia. He argues that this is for two main reasons (page 240):

In Sicily the frequency of individuals bearing the same first name is high because of the practice of christening people with the names of a handful of patron saints.

So nicknames are a useful way of living each mafioso a unique identifier. The same naming pattern is very prevalent in Colombia.

Nicknames are also useful to conceal people’s identities, making it more difficult to catch them and blame them for crimes. Gambetta explained this as follows (pages 240-241):

While mafiosi have an interest in identifying each other accurately, they also have an even keener interest in preventing being identified by the authorities or rival mafiosi.

Gambetta produces some interesting evidence to bolster his argument. Using trial records for Italian Mafiosi which identified their role in the organization and whether or not they had a nickname, he shows that while only 26% of Mafia bosses had nicknames, 64% of hit-men had them. He argues that this is because hit-men were much more at risk from being in confrontation with the authorities of rivals and therefore needed greater secrecy.

In comparison with these facts the Colombian situation is starkly different. The head of every single paramilitary block had a nickname, and almost certainly so did every member under them. Paramilitaries were given nicknames during their military training. Part of the motivation seems very related to Gambetta´s hypotheses.

But unlike the Mafia, paramilitaries were involved in a real war against the guerilla groups the FARC and the ELN, so perhaps the desire for secrecy was even more intense. Another hypothesis about nicknaming is that the Colombian civil war is much more brutal and all-enveloping than the activities of the Mafia. It involves massacres, displacements and a lot of violence.

In addition to Gambetta’s hypotheses it could be that nicknaming is a way of dehumanizing a person, detaching the paramilitary with the nickname from the real person, thus severing them from their social conditioning and values. This might then make it easier for them to engage in activities like massacres. It may just not be a coincidence that nicknaming seems to take place during military training.

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