The Subterranean Scene
On the Rails with Mexico City's Reggaeton-Loving Subway Gangs
By Bernardo Loyola
The subway authorities move passengers to different cars so that the Sikarios will bother the least amount of people possible. Photos by Mauricio Castillo.
It's Saturday morning in a Mexico City subway station, and the members of the Panamiur gang are headed to a party. Their leader, Cidel, is wearing huge sunglasses, a fauxhawk slathered in hair gel, cargo pants, and a T-shirt with a giant 2 and 6 airbrushed across it—a reference to November 26, 2010, the date the Panamiurs were founded.
The four dozen kids surrounding Cidel are similarly adorned in fake gold chains, oversize shades, brightly colored baseball caps, and tight jeans. They shout chants at a member of a rival gang on the other side of the platform. "Jori's fucking mom is taking a bath, eh, oh!," they holler. "She's very close to our territory, eh, oh! With a huge dick in one hand and a rag with PVC glue in the other, eh, oh! And the gang says, we are gonna rape her, we are gonna rape her. Hard, hard in the ass! Fucking bitch!"
They are laughing because it's all a joke, but the rest of the passengers look anxious. Panamiur is one of a group of local gangs known as combos made up of reguetoneros ("reggaeton fans") in their late teens and early 20s who haunt the subway stations of Mexico City. Like all of the combos, Cidel tells me Panamiur is first and foremost about music, partying, and supporting the crew no matter what. From the perspective of the passengers, however, it's also about huffing pipe cleaner and industrial-strength glue from rags, throwing up gang signs, and yelling obscenities about raping someone's mother, so any nervousness is understandable. Especially considering the stories about the combos that have been circulating in the regional media over the past year.
The combos first made headlines last July, when more than 600 disgruntled reguetoneros, diverted from a canceled reggaeton show, decided to go wandering around subway stations in trendy neighborhoods instead. Signs were torn off the walls, fights broke out, and more than 200 kids were arrested and taken to jail for a bit before being released. A few weeks later, on August 4, a full-scale battle broke out at another station, when 50 combos were ambushed by 150 members of a rival, reggaeton-hating gang. Surveillance videos of that brawl, which depict improvised bombs exploding on the platform, went viral, and Mexico City suddenly had a new youth trend to worry about that had the public wondering if they were living in some Spanish-language remake of The Warriors.
While most combos are undoubtedly guilty of general rowdiness and huffing chemicals in public, like American greasers in the 50s and heavy metal fans in the 70s, they're not as threatening as their media profile might suggest. According to many combos there's been a concerted effort on the part of the gangs themselves to organize and avoid serious conflicts, mostly thanks to the efforts of a soft-spoken 20-something known as Brenan. In 2011 he founded FU Antrax—a sort of United Nations for glue-sniffing, subway-riding teenagers.
The Sikarios pose for a photo outside the Garibaldi subway station before heading to a club to celebrate their third anniversary. Their jersey incorporates the logo of the subway station where they hang out.
Brenan first interacted with the combos while working the door of a dance club popular with the reguetoneros. He noticed that attendance would dip whenever word spread that a certain group had a beef with a rival gang, and figured that he could organize better, bigger, and more peaceful parties.
"In the first meeting, they were all tense and skeptical," Brenan said, "but we talked out our differences and started with a clean slate." Later, some combos broke off from FU Antrax and formed a second federation of combos named La Familia. Brenan told me that although some of his people wanted to attack this splinter group, he talked them out of it. "People see me not as a leader, but more of a coordinator," he said. "I coordinate the people. I try to guide them so they don't do things they shouldn't be doing."
The occasion for this Saturday-morning gathering of combos is Brenan's birthday party. And while the event is intended to be entirely peaceful—just 300 of his closest friends from various combos getting loaded and dry-humping to reggaeton in a warehouse—its details are shrouded in secrecy.
We arrive at the venue, which is nondescript and without signage. At 4 PM the doors are locked. "The government calls our parties clandestine, but it's just because we can't have our own space," Brennan says. "If the government saw us getting together, let's say at a house party, immediately a bunch of police cars would show up to shut us down. Even if we weren't doing anything bad. People are scared of us."
There's no doubt that the authorities are keeping a close eye on the combos' activities. Jose Alfredo Carrillo, who oversees security for Mexico City's subway system, said that on an average Saturday his employees keep a close eye on 3,000 reguetoneros, soccer hooligans, and other potential troublemakers who ride the trains to parties or sporting events. "During the last few years, these groups started to represent a problem not only for the trains and our facilities, but also for other users and for themselves," he said. "They have become increasingly violent and aggressive, and we have to prepare operatives to be able to transport them and guarantee their security and the security of the rest of our users. Once they come in, we can't mix them with other passengers. We've seen them robbing people or fighting between them." Often, police officers in riot gear monitor the combos on the subway, clearing out train cars to separate them from other passengers.
I asked Carrillo if he thought the combos were criminal groups or just rebellious kids looking to have a good time. "We understand it as a cultural phenomenon," he said. "They are young people looking for a way to express themselves. Fortunately, they're not all the same; we've seen many of these groups that behave themselves. The problem is when they cross the line between what's legal and what's illegal."
The Sikarios, the biggest combo in Mexico City, celebrate their third anniversary at a club near the Ciudad Azteca subway station.
Some combos play into their stereotype as violent troublemakers, like the Sikarios, the biggest and most notorious subway gang in Mexico City. Boasting hundreds of members, its name is a play on the Spanish word for "hitman," and its logo features a graphic of an AK-47 where the k should be. But the Sikarios aren't associated with drug cartels or organized crime and aren't as dangerous as their reputation might suggest. Regardless, the authorities often target them. In December, they celebrated their anniversary by doing what they do best: bringing together 400-odd kids at a club and dancing, drinking, banging drums, and sniffing glue all night until the cops spoiled their fun.
"The police said that we had robbed a bakery, but that wasn't true," said Micky, the Sikarios' leader. "We were outside with our drums, and they just didn't understand what was going on. They took some of our guys, put them in the police car, drove them around, and stole their money and their cell phones… We have been stigmatized; they have made up their minds that we are drug addicts, violent people, and thieves. But that's not true." When I brought up the high-profile combo brawls reported last year, Micky blamed them on smaller, less-organized groups whose leaders can't control them effectively.
At his birthday party, Brenan agrees that the combos are unfairly profiled. "Just because of how we dress, [people] see us on the streets and think we're gonna rob them, when we're just on our way back from school!" he says. "Many think that we don't [work], but we do. For example, I have a degree—I'm an electrical engineer."
I ask about his friends huffing glue all around us, but he shrugs it off. "People don't do drugs because they belong to a combo or listen to reggaeton. Many have family problems and end up doing drugs to escape from that. And just because one of us does drugs, it doesn't mean all of us are drug addicts; just because one of us steals, it doesn't mean we are all thieves. There are politicians who do drugs, there are celebrities that do drugs, but I'm not gonna say they all do drugs… I'm not one to judge."
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