Tag: conflict resolution

The Threat Diary

The Threat Diary

Morning, November 25, 2012

~ Death threats. I have talked before about not understanding when it comes to culture. I suppose this has to do with any culture, including your own. It is good to arrive at a point where you know what you don’t know. I did not know to what extent we were touching up against dangerous elements in Mexican society. I still do not know. But this morning we found, slipped under the door, written death threats directed at us.

Background: The barrio organizing neighbors had held an election, and a man was elected as president. His approach is authoritarian: the law is the law—no drugs, no drinking in the alleys. The women (D and C) who started the whole barrio organizing had argued for talking to everyone, minimizing harm (drugs, alcohol, inhalants that destroy brains), not forbidding anything, simply trying to bring peace and security to the neighborhood. Ironically, and dangerously, those two women (and I) are the objects of the death threats. Next step: Try to talk directly to those who are issuing the threats—because they too probably feel threatened: their boys are out of control, their husbands sell drugs and therewith feed the family, they feel disrespected, they fear the army and the police. Breathe deeply. Be kind.

Evening, November 25, 2012

~ There is an emergency meeting of women, I think four, in our house right now, trying to deal with the death threat letter. It turned out to be only three. One of them may be (was) the aunt of the letter writer. The men have screwed this up up to this point. Conflict resolution always has to start at zero, just the way education has to. Assume nothing regarding what others understand or know, including oneself. Positive social anarchy, to use a friend’s phrase, appears here to start with women…

Morning, November 26, 2012

~ At the women’s meeting yesterday evening, E. read the threatening letter very closely and pointed out that it was really directed at the whole organizing committee, plus at D. specifically, and at a young man who lives kitty-corner from us. He is the lad who was involved in the brick fight some time ago. He received a death threat earlier, and we think we know what direction that one came from.

I have been counseled not to use the phrase “death threat.” I suppose because it might get the attention of people who make a point of killing people, as in the narco battles. Henceforth, maybe, I will not use that term and simply write the word “threat”.

Needless to say, we had a hard night. Threats put a strange strain on a couple: “Your activities have put us in this position;” “Your writing about it puts us in even more danger.”

But we have received support from various sources, as well as admonitions from friends to remain safe. The woman who gives me massages is an experienced neighborhood organizer. This morning she gave me good advice. While trying to organize her neighborhood, she and two other valiant women received threats. There was an illegal bar close by where you could buy women and drugs. Men and boys, drunk and high, trafficked the place and menaced the neighborhood. The community began to say the behavior in the alleys had to stop. People wrote her threatening letters with chicken blood, smeared blood on her door, threw mutilated chickens into her house. There were many threats—the usual ones of rape and murder (and implied mutilation). The women were not intimidated and continued organizing. The whole point, my friend said, was to paralyze me, make me stop, put fear in our hearts, shut us down, use threats to get their way—drugs and prostitution. The women made everything public; they went to the Presidencia and therewith put antecendentes in place, building a paper trail, so that if something happened the police would already know what was going on and who to look for.

Everyone feels impotent in this society, said my friend. Everyone feels menaced. When they feel pressured, they threaten those who are pressuring them. What you have to do is continue on. Furthermore, she said, this city is still “virgen.”

One weighs all this good advice against all the incidents of threats that are carried out here in this country. A person weighs and weighs. We are not investigating anyone. We are not trying to take your narco routes or markets. We just want a clean, beautiful, respectful, hopeful (for the children), and safe environment. Surely, you’re not going to kill us over that, are you?

At noon today, D. and I went to the Presidencia. We bumped into another couple from the neighborhood that had just come from there. They had dropped off a copy of the menacing letter. They are fine people; they are afraid but fearless at the same time. D. and I entered the great room where heads of departments hold court. We were soon in front of a young woman who represented Seguridad Ciudadana, public security. She was smart and welcoming. Things are already in motion. The Buddha-like comandante who came to one of our neighborhood meetings will be at the open meeting this afternoon, to calm things and to offer protection. The young woman also said there were agencies that could talk with the menacing parties. I mentioned that some of them were probably involved in illegal activities to feed their families and that we had no interest in interfering in such activity. She seemed to understand that.

So that’s where it stands. Threats, serious or not. A community that wants less police presence inviting the Comandante again. Neighbors that will send what in effect are spies and from whose corner will come more threats, until either we or they give up. And it won’t be us….

November 27, 2012

Yesterday, the neighborhood met. Fewer people came than ever before. The president of the steering committee, who is a man, overrode the method D and C had used, which was the personal touch: handing out flyers and talking to people. The president simply wanted them taped to telephone poles. He said that would suffice.

The second reason for the lower attendance may have been the threatening letter, whose existence was likely broadcast far and wide. Threats have an effect: fear. If you attend the meetings now, you may receive a threatening letter.

There is probably a third reason. The flyer—written by the president—was only about security, with no mention of community building. What was new and revolutionary, the idea of trust-building, had given away to the old authoritarian structure, which people know well and which they distance themselves from—for being more oligarchic than democratic. The old model of does not touch their hearts and minds, whereas trust building and community is something I think people yearn for. To correct matters, D and C have decided to form a “commission,” which will serve the committee but in the manner which will emphasize dialogue and reconciliation.

The president had also neglected to specify when the meeting would begin, and so people straggled in from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. One of the first to arrive was Cesar, a bright young fellow, who came to tell us about security cameras. He slipped off his motorcycle helmet and began to talk in a strong articulate voice. A minute passed before the four policemen came down the stairs on the callejón, preceded by the crackle of their radios. Alas, the Buddha-like Comandante was not among them.

In mid-sentence, Cesar stepped to one side. The police’s leader launched into a soliloquy in language the likes of which I have never heard: fast burst, then long streams, jumping this way and that, whirling in circles, every six or seventh word recognizable in the sense that the others, though audible, seemed not to be necessarily words at all, rather sounds the man had made up himself.

D and C showed him the threatening letter. He read a few of the disturbing lines about rape and murder then began his rambling again. He mentioned detectives and handwriting experts. I had never heard anyone mention detectives, even in newspapers. He said the letter was legal evidence. Everything seems to be careening in the direction of the heavy hand of the police, and away from D and C’s open palm. He said we had to go to the Ministerio Público and present the letter as an antecedente, prior evidence of a peaking behavior that—after the rapes and murders, I assume—would show premeditation.

I interrupted him to protest that the Ministerio Público wouldn’t do anything if the offenders’ names were unknown. No, a denuncia needed names, not a antecedente, said the president of the our committee, in a voice so soft that perhaps three people could hear what he was saying.

At about this point, the two probable letter writers strutted down through the meeting, doing a kind of gangbanger walk, throwing one shoulder then the other forward, dressed in white baseball caps and long-sleeved white baseball shirts, perhaps for the first time gracing us with their albeit moving presence.

The police had already deployed—three of them at a slight distance, as if in a combat zone. One looked down the callejón, another looked up it, and a third looked along a third vista, guarding our flanks from a not improbable attack. This was the attack, or at least gangbangers showing the flag. M had to pass very close to the lower policeman. As M passed him, the policeman looked at him the way our cat in California once observed a bobcat passing close by—without any reaction at all, but probably with complete recognition. I greeted M as he passed me. He started to mumble something; I greeted Q as he passed; he moved his head to look a little more away from me.

Cesar interjected, and the police leader stepped back. Cesar brought out his laptop. He gave it commands with his iPhone. He showed us what cameras could see by daylight and at night. The men especially gathered around. I did too. Then Cesar left.

A drunk came roaring up the callejón where the bobcat-observing policeman stood. Seeing the assembly and the four police, the drunk put his hands in the air and kept them there the whole time he protested his right to be where he was. The police treated him gently and finally got him to move along. Then the police moved along.

I had gone in our front door, returning snack bowls, a stool, and the plywood easel. I heard an angry voice and went back outside again. After all, the police had left, and I knew D and C were exposed. The broad-shouldered uncle of one of the gangbangers had appeared. He always sounds angry when he talks, whispered the president of the committee, but he’s all right. He got into an argument with an older woman wearing a poncho that I knew sold illegal beer from her front door. He claimed she had insulted his niece. When he wasn’t shouting at her, he stood like a French wrestler with his legs apart, his small feet shod with something like mountain climbers’ slippers, in below-the-knee trousers, tilting his head back like Marlon Brando and looking downward at no one through his squinting eyes, as if at any moment he might still leap forward and eat someone. He finally left with a woman that was either his sister or his wife. I still don’t know which.

I went in the house again for something but then decided I should go back out. Just then chief suspects Q and M came strutting up the callejón from the direction of M’s privada and passed through us leaving a wake of marijuana fumes and disdain. Another showing of the flag, but a little bolder this time, and slightly menacing—after the police had left. A., our local Herculean cargador with little or no education, plodded along behind but without being able to pull off either the disdain or the menace. I released my hold on my pepper spray. When I commented on their passing, quipping, “Ay, mariguana,” D and the president shushed me. “Don’t provoke them.” The gangbanger in me had slipped out for a moment.

November 28, 2012

Yesterday, we went as advised (by the young woman at Sequridad Ciudadana and others) to the Ministerio Público and made a denuncia. There were no good choices: do nothing would imply that it was all right to make threats; or bring the matter to the MP and, in essence, stand up to the people making the threats who then might become more desperate.

The MP took an extensive report. Did we have suspects in mind? they asked. Yes, but we had no solid evidence. Were we afraid seemed to be the key factor. We said, not really. Then I said, “I am concerned for D’s safety. One of the young men we suspect shows a violent streak. I once stood right next to a neighbor, after the brick fight, and Q came up to him and, without warning or provocation, struck him four times on the forehead with a piece of conduit pipe.”

When I explain this, the investigator nodded his head and said the document had now become a denuncia (and not an antecedente). I asked whether a threatening letter was considered a crime. He said it was. D asked what the penalty was. Prison, said the MP man. How long, a year? “Years,” he said. “And then they will come out even more angry and alienated,” I said. “Yes, crime school,” by which he meant prison. D asked whether there could be an alternate treatment. There could be restitution instead of prison. What restitution would look like in the case of threats, we don’t know.

Outside, D told me she thought it was likely the suspects would disappear for a while. The detectives/investigators would find no one home—and then what? Would the detectives just go away?

Now it’s dark and cold; the mountain winds are blowing, and I for one do not feel particularly safe thinking about people who are not completely rational and whose next steps we can’t really predict. By now they must have heard that the written threats are going to bring trouble, and because they are not completely rational they will look around for someone to blame, and they will decide the people who brought the denuncia are the problem—which could end up making us victims twice over. Not exactly the kind of conflict resolution we were hoping for.

November 28, 2012

I woke up this morning in good spirits, thinking about painting lines on the vacant lot, graffiti-covered walls to indicate soccer goals, for kids in the alley. I thought of restoring the basketball hoop I put up several years ago and which the adolescents destroyed, even though younger kids had loved using it. Planning renewed efforts on behalf of the kids in the neighborhood felt empowering.

We are also planning to put up eight surveillance cameras in our immediate neighborhood, and we will have a few of them guarding any new basketball hoop. Cesar, the cameraman, has worked out municipal wrinkles whereby the police can also see what the cameras see. He is also installing forty cameras on a street called the Calzada de Guadalupe (and other streets and alleys), so students can reach the University of Guanajuato without being mugged.

My writing partner and wise Mexican friend R. quickly analyzed the threat letter and declared the writers one adult and two pandilleros, which I loosely translate as gangbangers or wannabe gangbangers. There is really no good, respectful word. Teenagers? He did not sound worried. He counseled showing respect, cordiality, and kindness, no matter what happened. And I agree with him…mostly, since I still don’t know the exact parameters of danger.

November 29, 2012

The doorbell rang right on schedule, just as I was closing my eyes for an afternoon siesta. I looked out the kitchen window blinds, just to check on who was at the door. It was Manuelito, the boy no one washes—although I must admit his ears look cleaner these days. I think it was D, as I remember now, who told him he needed to wash one new part of his body each week if he was to continue borrowing books.

He held a beat up soccer ball. I pumped it up. That is my chief function here. D lends books to the boys (Manuelito is the only taker now), and I pump up destroyed soccer balls.

Jesús sat on one of the steps of the callejón, a little higher than us. He had a blank look on his face. I greeted him. I asked him if he was bored. He said he was. They’re both about 8, 9, or 10. I can’t tell.

I walked toward Jesús.

“How would you like to draw a picture on this wall?” I said, pointing to the nearby graffitied wall of the problematic vacant lot?

Jesús hesitated one beat, and then his mouth widened in a smile and his eyes lit up.

“How about you, Manuelito?” I asked.

He said he wasn’t that interested. I turned back to Jesús. “We could paint a landscape or people. We could paint faces,” I said, and I made a circle gesture around my face. Jesús beamed.

“I like to draw,” he said.

“I could do it with you. We could do it together. I can buy paints.”

I was making it up as I went along. I ran my hand over the rough brick face of the wall. To hell with a finished surface. We’ll just start painting. We will be muralists. And they will be young Mexican muralists, and I will show them examples from Diego Rivera and Siqueiros.

“I will get paints,” I said.

“I know how to paint,” said Manuelito. I already knew that. He had drawn pictures twice at the neighborhood organizing meetings.

We will start graffiti-style, but with paper masks as well as spray cans. We’ll make birds and horses like in the Chauvet Cave in France and Mexican Americano hens running with their heads down and portraits of Ratón, the Siamese I try to pet every time I climb up the steps of the callejón. And we’ll paint the things that are bumping around in Manuelito and Jesús’ heads—and mine, and all of Mexico’s.

December 12, 2012

Each morning now, I’ve stepped outside our front door to see if someone—especially the usual suspects—has destroyed Manuelito, Jesús and my mural efforts: a rabbit, a cougar, a French cave painting horse, and a similar elk.

Two days ago, I heard P. whooping out on the callejón, followed by loud cordial greetings to passers-by, who carefully maneuvered around him. He is a man of indeterminate age—but below forty, who long ago destroyed his mind with inhalants. He probably is also bipolar and a few other things to boot. He lives in a dark world most of the time, with brief breaks of drinking and exuberant mania. He lies on the alley, or stumbles around with a mad look on his face, unwashed, his pants dirty and falling down over his behind. Everyone avoids him, except for the person who gives him a home during his dark periods.

I noticed that my copy of the Chauvet cave horse was smudged. I looked closer. Someone had placed their fingers on the horse’s body, then pulled downward, as if to test the material used in the painting and leaving vertical chalk smudge marks. Or, someone had reached out to touch art, as a wise friend suggested.

A vandal, I think, would have rubbed his palm around in a smearing effect. Or sprayed a gang symbol across the horse and the deer, in black paint. But I suspect P. and I think he reached out to touch the image of the horse—not to destroy art.

There is another mystery. Why didn’t the gangbangers attack the animal paintings? I have a theory, and that is that Mexicans of all sorts have a certain knowledge of and respect for art. They know about the tradition of Mexican murals. They may not know the names Diego Rivera or David Sigueiros, but they know about artists who paint on walls. And I like to think that somehow the animal images that the gangbangers saw us painting on the wall penetrated, in some way I don’t understand, into their alienated and disaffected brains. That is the only way I can explain it.

December 12, 2012

(or as they say: 12 12 12, but not yet the end of the world)

I have lost count of the number of yesterday’s neighborhood meeting. Six, seven, or eight. Fewer people come now, possibly because word got around about the threatening letter. People don’t want trouble.

As far as I can see, no one from the Ministério Público has come to investigate. The steering committee president seems to have dropped out. His approach was authoritarian, and he could not tolerate D and C’s insistence on inclusion and reconciliation. Their two positions are, in my mind, emblematic of the on-going struggle here in Mexico: top down, or bottom up.

On Saturday, we had breakfast in a restaurant in the Jardín, the center of the old city. The restaurant’s clients are middle and upper middle class Mexicans. On her way out, an acquaintance approached our table. She introduced a man in her party–the mayor of Guanajuato. She mentioned that he was following our case. He said he was monitoring its progress. We thanked him and shook his hand. He is a pleasant, handsome man. I did not believe him.

A PEN friend recently told me that during Calderón’s six-year presidency, some eighty journalists were assassinated. Not a single assassin has been convicted. Some 300–600 women have been murdered in Ciudad Juárez over the last five or six years. Very few of these cases have been solved. Top down does not work very well when it comes to law enforcement. 60,000–90,000 people have died in the drug wars during Calderón’s six-year term; there is a long list of the disappeared during the same period.

Largely, no one bothers to investigate these murders—partly because it’s dangerous to do so and partly, I suspect, because the field of investigation—social and family relationships (narcos, Army, police, government, everyone)—is impossibly complex and dysfunctional, where no one can or wants to tell the truth, and where everyone already carries a quiver-full of remembered insults and slights.

The last thing on anyone’s mind is reconciliation. The mixture of remembered insults and alcohol (or certain drugs) can lead to havoc and mayhem—all fueled, of course, by the unexamined conviction that the other person is wrong.

Dianne was reading the accords that neighbors were to sign: “I agree that we want a clean and safe neighborhood”—an agenda they think better of now. The usual spies were in attendance. There was some movement from the troubled area down the callejón–a spike in foot traffic, a child or two running out in front.

At this moment, K—our chief neighborhood nemesis—stormed around the corner and leapt the two steps into center stage in the middle of the alley crossroad, waving his beer bottle and bellowing insults in all five directions. At his house, they had been celebrating the christening of his granddaughter. Just before the beginning of the meeting, D had called down to him, “Felicidades, abuelo!” Congratulations, grandpa! He had looked up, at first puzzled, then gave her a broad smile.

Now, minutes later, fortified with a mix of alcohol and victimhood, he was roaring with outrage. A menacing moment, where we all sat around like rabbits, frozen, hoping the pissed-off hawk wouldn’t notice. He wheeled back and forth, calling us putas, pinche perras, maricones, perros, pointing at people and spitting, “You have offended my family, it’s my house, you have no right…!”

K, with flair and emphasis, bent over and set his beer bottle on the pavement in front of him, with a force that should have made it break. A moment later, when he wasn’t looking, his wife and chief spy whisked it away. K mainly confronted women, accusing them of a whole long line of affronts toward him and his family, as if these women were the cause of all the neighborhood’s troubles—when it was quite the opposite, as all of us knew.

It was a menacing moment. I was sitting next to S, who is on the committee and runs the tienda at the top of the callejón. Handsome and tough, he isn’t afraid of anyone. After a five minutes or so, he got up, shook D and C’s hands and left. I was disappointed. I had felt safe sitting next to him. D deduced afterward that S had gone to the tienda to call the police, and last night he told us he had.

The women K harangued began standing up to him. They denied his accusations. A young woman with a baby gave it back to him. K said she had insulted his family. “You called my son a mariguano….!” Fearlessly, she put the tip of her finger under her right eye and said, “I saw him, he saw me.” That’s all I got of it; I didn’t have the whole history. No one was speaking high Spanish. Her baby started to cry and she left.

More people came up from K’s side-alley. A, the gorilla-like porter with little education, took up a position leaning against Manuelito, Jesús, and my chalk copies of the Lascaux and Chauvel cave paintings—the horse and the elk. He wasn’t going to miss the show.

K’s son T (the alleged mariguano) arrived. His hair was spiked and his appearance was newly gangbanger-ish. Which worried me a little. I had thought him the most level-headed of the at-risk lads. He kept coming closer to his father, in alliance, I thought. Two smartly dressed policemen appeared from the other downhill alley, climbing slowly, in no hurry, sort of easing into the theater, assessing the situation—the kind of social explosion they see all over the city.

Now things took another turn.

The young woman who have left with the crying baby and who had stood up to K now returned with her father, the man with similarities to a French wrestler who, if you remember, “stood with his legs apart, his small feet shod with something like mountain climbers’ slippers, in below-the-knee trousers, tilting his head back like Marlon Brando and looking downward at no one through his squinting eyes, as if at any moment he might (still) leap forward and eat someone.” He walked right up to K and, to my astonishment, began reasoning with him. French Wrestler is the uncle of the most dangerous of the gangbangers, a boy of sixteen who is already the father of a very young baby and who has already badly damaged his brain with paint thinner and glue.

Four more policemen, smartly dressed and professional looking (a new concept for Guanajuato), without guns or dogs or bright lights, descended from the direction S had gone to call them. One of them was our Buddha-like comandante. He seemed happy to see us. He greeted us and then watched as K’s wife and son tried to move K away from French Wrestler and from the stage in general. K resisted them, they grabbed him, he threw them off—a wildebeest not giving in to the lions.

I did not see what happened next; D and C did. K’s son T picked up a rock the size of the palm of your hand. Facing his father, he raised the rock high enough to bop his father on his head. A woman came up from behind and snatched it out of his hand. The tug of war continued.

What exit was there for K, trapped as he was in his outrage and injured dignity?

I am not a hero rabbit, and I am not young. But I stood up and walked slowly over to K, took his hand in mine and put my arm around his shoulder. I have known K for years, and we have greeted each other cordially for all these years. As his wife and son pulled at him, I held onto him and told him he didn’t have to leave this place. They pulled at him. I told him he didn’t have to go. I told him he was a leader in our neighborhood (I didn’t say he had been meeting his responsibility) and that I respected him and that we all wanted peace. His family pulled. I told them K didn’t have to leave.

K calmed down, and I honestly think he felt supported by the oldest guy in the neighborhood. He was not losing face. I think he knew I was speaking from the heart. I have always liked him, and if we do not respect each other—porters, gangbangers, rabbits, do-gooders, and grudge-holders all—then there is no hope for us. And K—the man who may have been one of the authors of the threatening letter—finally let himself be led down the two steps, exiting stage left, staggered around the corner, past the Chauvet elk and horse (now smudged by crazy A), past the other A, the carrier with no education, down the callejón to his house, guided by his chief spy wife and their patricidal son, K’s dignity partially restored, and the curtain closing for—proabably—anything but the last act.

D and C were in shock. The police walked over to look down the callejón on which K and his family descended. Later, unwisely I thought, they descended toward K’s domain, and I like to think they went right on down to the city center without bothering him further.

I was pleased, I said to D and C. The man we had not known how to (or dared) approach had presented himself of his own accord and, in a sense, joined our meeting. I like to think also that he and his family saw that we were not really their enemies. I do not know whether K, after the alcohol wears off, will remember that he left with a certain measure of dignity. I hope so. In the meantime, the elected president of the committee has not written or shown up—unable to grasp D and C’s concept of compromise and reconciliation, and we are all left once more with the possible promises of good-willed social anarchy as a way of bringing peace to our troubled community. In a few days, five cameras will go up on four different houses. And it remains to be seen how K and his kingdom will react.

December 14, 2012

After two full days of laying cable, planning, and figuring angles, workers finished putting up five surveillance cameras on four different houses. It remains to be seen how this affects the neighborhood dynamic. The installers’ manager returns tomorrow to adjust angles and teach us how to access and use the system. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Except that I prefer possible predators feel observed, and it’s not just me alone who has this experience. I have also decided—given the statistics cited by me above about the longevity of journalists—not to make accusations about people’s livelihood or night-time occupations. That’s because there are now a lot of people who can read what I write on both Facebook and my blog; and who knows who can find their way to this information, who also know English, and who might mention something to someone, who then mentions it to someone else, like in a game of telephone—but the consequences unpredictable. So, if you find me talking around issues, you will have some inkling why.

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.

Beside the Volcano

Other things are erupting in Mexico, not just the volcano Popocatepetl. For example, in my Guanajuato neighborhood, and it makes me wonder whether I should be living in this country at all.

We live at the crossroads of two intersecting allies, mostly consisting of stairs. Impossible for cars, but good for horses, mules, burros, and humans with strong legs. Our local crazy guy had just ended a period of dementia, during which he screams and shouts and carries on. I realized, the other evening, after years of avoided both him and his irrationality–probably from sniffing too much pain thinner–that if I talked to him normally, he would give me normal answers.

This is where the teenagers hang out in the evenings, conversing and cavorting, sniffing and smoking, often bleary-eyed and tongue-tied, often on the edge of aggression. There are rarely young women present. These are young males finding comfort in other young males who also have no good prospects: jobs, education–women.

We have invested years in socializing them, talking with them, greeting them. I always try to shake each kid’s hand when I pass—as a kind of in your face, respectful grandfather. I talk to them about paint thinner and glue and magic marker. What it does to their brains.

At about one o’clock in the morning, something banged against our front door. There were other sounds that were unusual. Was someone trying to break into the house? The voices in the alley didn’t sound right. I went to the front door and opened the small wooden window, peep hole-like, just a crack.

There were about eight fifteen- or sixteen-year olds, with long baseball shirts and baseball caps. Three of the shirts had matching colors, suggesting a team or a gang. It smelled of magic marker, so I thought they were doing a mass graffiti attack on our door. Except that the boys’ backs were to me. I could have reached out and knocked one of their hats off.

In unison, they were holding up short cylinders, vertically, aimed at the house kitty-corner from us. I still don’t know what they were for sure, but they could have been magic markers they had been sucking on (a cheap, brain-destroying high) and were now showing to their enemy in some kind of joint defiance.

Their enemy, it turned out, was my friend Eduardo–maybe seventeen–in the robin egg blue house kitty-corner from us. That is also where little Manuel has taken up residence. He is my love’s most frequent lending library customer—the one no one bothers to wash.

With a cry, the baseball shirts came out from behind their protective corner and charged. I closed the wooden window, latched it, and went barefoot out onto the terrace and climbed the steel spiral staircase, to our rooftop, where I would be able to see better–directly over the crossroads. On the way up, I could hear the high, tense scolding voice of a mother or grandmother trying to intervene. Other neighbors, I saw, stood at windows, stoops, doorways, and on rooftops. All of us transfixed, all of us fascinated and passive in the face of sudden violence.

The boys assaulted José’s black metal front door with rocks, then with bricks, with insults (the usual ones about mothers), and howls of anger–all of it fueled by an electric self-righteousness.

My young friend Eduardo–I heard a few minutes later he had been drunk–appeared above his attackers. He stood at his half-wall rooftop battlement, along with another lad–perhaps his brother, a few years older. In counter-rage, they pried bricks from their own half-wall and hurled them down at the attackers–from two and a half stories above.

During pauses in the rock and brick throwing, the mothers and grandmothers and sisters–and all variations on these–but always just the women–ran between the attackers, ordering them home, trying to escort them away from the scene. Men stood apart, doing nothing. Perhaps because the real fathers are absent—gone north, or just gone.

I have a very loud whistle, with my lips. I considered using it. Then thought better of it. I saw a tall lad, Ricardo, who had joined the attackers. I have known him for years. I yelled down to him, hoping to break the spell. In that moment, someone in a house higher up, threw a fused object. It exploded about fifteen feet from my head. He threw a second one, and I took cover behind my half wall. I think it was that person’s version of a distracting whistle. No one reacted.

Eduardo the Defender then sent two fairly large stones in my direction. He may have been aiming for the streetlight. He may have been aiming for me—lashing out at everyone.

I backed away from my half wall. I did not need a grave head injury. I saw dark figures coming down the alley steps. At first I thought, oh no, a gang of big guys. Then I saw there were police, perhaps eight of them. Two of them carried plastic shields, against rock throwers. Some wore helmets. They stopped in front of Eduardo’s house. The oldest woman in the neighborhood had appeared—that is the pattern in moments like this. She explained to the police that they had been attacked and that the attackers were bad people and had escaped down the alley to the left. The police filed down the alley to the left–past our front door.

The police are calm. They talk to the mothers and grandmothers of each group. The boys themselves have gone into deep hiding in their mothers’ houses. The police do not go in after them. The police have done this many, many times. They are not paid enough, or stupid enough, to go into people’s homes.

In that moment, I saw–and heard–Eduardo climb over his garden wall, get caught in the wire at the top, and land hard on the alley, injuring one foot. His women folk pinned him to the ground. He howled, in rage–I assume at being ordered to stay in the house and to stop fighting–and in pain. They forced him through the black metal front door.

The police filed by again, past our front door, and stopped in front of Eduardo’s house. The oldest woman in the neighborhood again confronted them. Somehow, Eduardo, slipped through them all and ran with a limp up the stairs of alley, in the direction the police had come from. Little Manuel and every other young person related to him ran up the alley after him—to protect him from his enemies, from God–but, most of all, probably, from himself. I thought he might be taking the long way around to get at his attackers. The police made no effort to chase him. They lectured the grandmother instead. She explained everything. This is what youth do. No one was at fault–except the attackers.

A neighbor woman asked me to descend and take pictures of the damage. I said okay. I think she though I might have a Polaroid or something and that I could just had the police a picture. I considered not appearing in front of our house. I decided I should go out, to show solidarity. I took my iPod. I took pictures of the rocks and bricks. A man came out of Eduardo’s black metal door. I took pictures of the dents in the door, of the broken window. The man may have been a defender, but he did not seem upset enough. He leaned against the wall on the opposite side of the alley.

We talked a little about what had happened. I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying. I think that is what the outbreak of violence does. Everyone is left incoherent. But it turns out, it was also because he was Eduardo’s uncle and cohort on the rooftop, and he wasn’t talking around it.

In that moment, two of the baseball shirt kids swept by me and went straight up to the man I had been talking with. One of them lifted about twelve inches of quarter inch pipe and struck the man on the forehead–with force, three times, quickly.

The man staggered backward and started to slump. I backed away. Women rushed to intervene. I had thought of taking the attacker’s picture with my iPod. But for what purpose? There is no way of transferring anything to the police–who would not respond anyway. Plus, I might have drawn the rage toward myself.

I went back up on our roof. An actual father had arrived to retrieve the boy who had assaulted my conversation partner. As he led the boy away, up the alley to my left, the oldest woman in the neighborhood, who had appeared again, cried out, “This is what marijuana does!” The boy’s father–well dressed and clearly enjoining more economic resources–in a great show of outrage and menace, re-entered the crossroads and yelled, “Are you accusing my boy of using marijuana?” The grandmother of grandmothers made a conciliatory sound, and the real father turned away. Eduardo’s people bent over the man will the bashed head. Eventually, they got him through the black metal door.

I got up early and climbed the circular stairway to our rooftop. I expected to see rocks and bricks everywhere. There was no sign of the fight. Everything had been swept clean. Except in front of our house, where there was a layer of broken beer bottle glass, rocks, and shards of brick—some of which I am sure had hit our mesquite door and woken me up.

We went for a drive in the country this afternoon, to the little town with a lovely church, visible down lower and to the west of Santa Rosa, at about 8,000 feet. The air was cool, it was trying to rain, and the air smelled of the tall cypress trees. We stopped at a little stand, where a woman was selling quesadillas and gorditas–tortillas to wrap or fill. She had a handmade wood stove made of tin, with tripod legs, about the size and shape of car tire. She fed wood into it. She heated the tortillas on the comal on the top of the stove. The whole thing had an African Queen steam boat feeling to it. We ate our gorditas filled with squash, potatoes, and egg–all of it flavored with wood smoke. We talked to her two little girls, Andrea and Renata.

Back home, when we parked and walked down the alley to our house, past Eduardo’s house, I called up to a woman who looked down at us. Was everything all right? She disappeared, I thought from embarrassment. But she came out her door and straight toward us. She wanted to talk, in privacy. We invited her in.

She was Eduardo’s mother. She told us Eduardo had had only one beer and that the boys were after him because he had a job and went to school. Apparently, he had cut himself off from them more and more. Except for the one beer, I thought what she said was true. She was very distraught. I thought she had said the police had arrested him. What actually happened was that the police had found him and the top of the alley and had called the Red Cross to see about his injured foot. He had then gone somewhere with the Red Cross and ended up with a plaster cast on his foot, because of a fracture. I asked whether he was in jail now. His mother said no. He was home, kitty corner from us. Then what was wrong? I asked. She said the boys had threatened to kill him “because he had won.” We asked who specifically had threatened him. Ricardo, the boy I had shouted down to.

My love told her she knew about a conflict resolution agency in the city, and that we would look into it. I mentioned we knew a lawyer, we could have some sort of writ served on Ricardo. My love said that would be an escalation, and we should bring in a mediator and discuss drugs and what it meant to be a young man with no prospects. Eduardo’s mother left feeling relieved, I believe. I said they could knock on our door at any hour if they needed refuge.

I asked my love why she thought it was that the boys–all of them–felt they could act the way they did, in their very own neighborhood. She said they were acting out the self-righteous use of force, just the way they saw it done in the movies—and in all the theaters of perpetual war. Narco and otherwise. The war on this and the war on that.

I also think the mere presence of audience–the mothers and the rest of us–had goaded the boys on–bathing them in a kind of negative attention. The whole neighborhood had watched them act out. And now Ricardo wanted to take it all to the next level. A killing. With audience.

I notice people reacting with alarm to my report. That is natural, from all you have heard. But I don’t think it necessary. This is what most of the world is like now—in the third word neighborhoods. There are Eduardos and Ricardos everywhere, and they need our attention.

Sometime during the day, someone swept up the glass, stone fragments, and brick shards in front of our house.

My love saw our ten-year old book borrower Manuel today. She asked him if he knew what had triggered the fight.

He said he didn’t know.

As for myself, this is still the place I prefer to live.