by Cyndi Trang
On January 19, 2009, Dennis Alfredo Guzman-Saenz’s body was found in a stream two blocks from Fields Road Elementary School in Gaithersburg, MD. The 15-year-old from High Point High School was stabbed 72 times (Montgomery County Government, 2009). Since Guzman-Saenz’s death, 11 people have been arrested for suspected involvement. The 8 males and 3 females are all Hispanics and members or affiliates of the 18th street gang (Montes, 2010). The Montgomery County Police Department states the motive for the crime is gang-related. Detectives believe the 18th street gang members spotted, forcibly abducted, and killed Guzman-Saenz because they thought he was a member of MS-13, a rival gang. Whether Guzman-Saenz was an official gang member or not is unclear; however, it is clear that the 18th street gang were “planning to find a member of rival gang MS-13 to harm” (Montgomery County Government, 2010). Guzman-Saenz just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Travis Hirschi’s social control theory helps explain why juveniles, like members of the 18th street gang, engage in acts of delinquency like gang formation and violence. The social control theory proposes “that people engage in delinquency or crime when they are free of intimate attachments to the family, the school, and the peer group” and when they have little aspiration to bind them to a conventional way of life (Conklin, 2010, p. 196). Essentially, social control theory explains the correlation between attachments to three different institutions and how these attachments, or lack thereof, affect delinquency.
The first institution is family. A critical primary group can influence morals, beliefs, behavior, and expectations of an individual. According to Hirschi, the presence or absence of attachment is closely associated with acts of delinquency (Conklin, 2010). Psychologist Diana Baumrind classifies parenting styles into authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. Authoritative parenting is the most successful form of parenting because it is a combination of moderately high control, warmth, acceptance, and encouragement of autonomy (Grace & Dunn, 2010). Overall, children raised in an authoritative way tend to be nondelinquent, “self-reliant, self-controlled, and socially competent” (Grace & Dunn, 2010, p. 192). Authoritarian parenting is characterized by highly controlling parents who exhibit little warmth and adhere to rigid rules. This limit compromises a child’s autonomy and causes them to become “dependent, moody, unassertive, and irritable” (Grace & Dunn, 2010, p. 192). Permissive parents exhibit high levels of warmth but little control. As a result, the child may become “self-indulgent, impulsive, and socially inept” (Grace & Dunn, 2010, p. 192). Social control theorists would be interested in whether the 18th street gang members were reared under either an authoritarian or a permissive parenting style. If so, social control theory would correlate the weak bond to their family with gang membership and violence.
Another factor that may have affected their family attachment is immigration. Physical separation from family members can lead to criminal activities, especially during adolescence and young adulthood. If an intimate family member is not present to discourage deviant behavior, more bad decisions may occur (Conklin, 2010). One of the murderers in the Guzman-Saenz case is 22-year-old Joel Yonathan Ventura-Quintanilla, who is an illegal immigrant. He admitted to escaping from an El Salvador prison in 2008 (Montes, 2009). Social control theory would explain that the absence of familial bond is why Ventura-Quintanilla bonded more with the gang and committed crimes.
Peers are another institution that can influence delinquency. Typically, most adolescents want to be socially accepted by their peers. While some may talk in the same way or wear similar outfits as their friends, there are those who go to extremes for social acceptance. One extreme is gang violence. In order to be accepted into a gang, some people may have to go through initiation rites like pick pocketing. Once they are part of the gang, they have constantly to prove their loyalty. In the Guzman-Saenz case, only five individuals initially accosted the 15-year-old, but by the next day, at least 11 people were involved in his murder. The additional six were called in to fulfill their obligations to the gang, by beating the MS-13 member (Montgomery County Government, 2009). The members may have committed the crime because they wanted the acceptance of their peers. This gang may have even rationalized the murder by appealing to higher loyalties. In other words, they placed greater loyalty to their gang than the laws of the state (Conklin, 2010).
Another important institution in Hirschi’s social control theory of delinquency is the school. According to Hirschi, high or moderate success in academics can help an individual bond with the school and behave according to accepted morals. Conversely, a lack of academic success can be discouraging and result in acts of delinquency (Conklin, 2010). An older illegal immigrant like Ventura-Quintanilla was most likely not educated in the U.S. Therefore, he may not speak English well and not be academically successful in America. The other 18th street gang members may also not understand English that well. Perhaps, they only had Spanish-speaking parents, thus were at a disadvantage in school compared to others who had English-speaking parents. This cultural and language barrier can affect their academic success in school. Thus, they may feel disadvantaged and resort to gang membership to feel acceptance.
Overall, social control theory would suggest that the 18th street members might have weak ties to their families and schools and a strong attachment to their peers, who are gang members. Consequently, they devote their time to gang activities. However, the social control theory does not decidedly explain the murder of Guzman-Saenz. The theory stresses correlations between attachment and the likelihood of delinquency, but correlation does not prove causation. This theory also does not take into consideration that delinquent behavior may cause weak attachments to the family and school, and not the other way around (Conklin, 2010). Nonetheless, although the social control theory may have its flaws, it is still a useful theory to for explaining the Guzman-Saenz case.
Conklin, J. E. (2010). Criminology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Grace, J. C., & Dunn, W. L. (2010). Understanding human development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Montes, S. (2009, May 13). Alleged gang members arrested in Langley Park teen’s death. The Gazette.
Montes, S. (2010, March 3). Eleventh suspect in gang murder arrested in Texas. The Gazette.
Montgomery County Government. (2009, May 11). Updated: suspects arrested in homicide of Dennis Guzman-Saenz.