Buddha and the Police Comandante

Meeting four is coming up tomorrow. In the meantime, things have become more complex, and getting to yes seems farther off—maybe fifty years. A few nights ago, one of the eighteen-year olds was not fast enough—too drunk or too stoned to run, and a police patrol with dogs caught him, took him to jail and, according to his mother, beat him.

This is what we wanted to avoid. The lad is out of jail again, and his mother is hopping mad. She is sure another mother called the police on her son. D. talked with her and told her when the police came the mother she suspected had been meeting with D. over a period of two hours and couldn’t have called the police.

Shortly thereafter, Hopping Mad—both women live within a hundred feet of us—ran into her enemy and told her that she had a cousin who had a gang and that she would tell him to bring in the gang if things went on the way they were. The threatened woman said she also had a relative in a gang and she would be glad to give them a call. We have a young neighborhood friend who is soft, diffident and overweight. When one of the feuding women told him about the gang she would bring in, our soft friend responded by saying if she did that, she would see a side of him that she had never seen before.

At our last meeting, excitement stirred, and I looked up the callejón to see what everyone was looking at. A herd of police dressed in dark blue was descending upon us, led by a neighbor who had agreed not to invite the police until a later meeting, after we had elected a steering group. One of the underlying principles was to be that we keep the police and army out of the neighborhood, so our boys at risk didn’t get shot or disappeared.

The comandante, short powerful man, reminded me of the murderous Guatemalan colonel D. and I once interviewed on his own base. We more or less asked him why he and his troops were wiping out Guatemalan indigenous peoples. He said he was only restoring Christianity to Indians who had come under the influence of Communism.

This police comandante stood looking down on us—his feet braced if he were on a heaving ship—and as his opening speech barked, “Hay preguntas?” – “Any questions?”

D. and C. got him and his troop to enter the meeting circle. There were seven men in total; each of them looked like a gang member who had come up through the ranks. The comandante turned out to be a mixture of Buddha and Nelson Mandela. He said the trouble started in the family; if a man hit his wife, the children would imitate this behavior. He said they had not come to fight with anyone. Then they described the war wounds – heridas de guerra – they had received in the line of duty, when people threw bricks down at them from rooftops.

His six officers shifted this way and that, their heads always turning, as if a sizeable hostile stone might already be on its way and they needed to see it coming. At one point—I missed the moment entirely—two of policemen walked quickly into one of the four callejones that feed into our meeting place. Someone had begun throwing very small stones at us from a nearby rooftop.

The meeting refocused as much as it could with people holding private conversations, talking over each other and bringing up old feuds. People complained about the lack of security. They described their fear. The comandante said there were only 200 police for the entire city area of about 200,000. I thought he had exaggerated the number of police by at least a factor of two. He said he had grown up in our area, and he promised he would send a patrol twice a day. He said we should choose a centrally placed store where the patrol could sign a clipboard each time. People made skeptical remarks. The two policemen who had investigated the pebble thrower returned.

The comandante said he would give the steering committee a direct number to call, to get the fastest response. The following day, everyone in the neighborhood wanted the direct number—thereby defeating the idea of a special direct line for real emergencies. C., the recipient of the number, an educated archivist, misplaced the slip of paper with the number almost immediately. When people asked me for the number, I simply shrugged my shoulders and said I didn’t know who had it.

At least two of the drug selling families sent representatives. One of them, it was reported later, was secretly taking photos of people in the group, redirecting the camera a little while pretending to photograph a family member. D. and C. intend to address this activity in the next meeting, pointing out that such activity is not conducive to trust building in an open meeting.

In the meantime, there are other issues to raise—like using telephones to call the steering committee first, before calling the police when you think another mother or her boy has offended you at any time in the past, present or may, you’re afraid, in the future. Like waiting for your turn to speak—a skill or training that appears not to be taught in Mexican schools. Like parliamentary or democratic procedure in general. And then, more advanced, conflict resolution skills in general.

For some time, I have thought the way to bend the social despair expressed in the ugliness of graffiti would be to get the graffiti sprayers to paint murals instead. With this goal in mind, D. and I tried to get our two most alienated glue sniffers (and most at risk adolescents) to go to a demonstration of mural painting being held nearby on the occasion of Day of the Dead. We were unsuccessful. K. and M., whom we met on the callejón, were already deeply numbed from drugs they had taken and, fairly politely, brushed us off—barely able to meet our eyes.
Tomorrow is meeting four—perhaps just one more step in a fifty-year project.

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