Dianne comes into the bedroom. “There are soldiers in the callejón, the alley,” she says. “At least people wearing helmets.” I go up on the azotéa, the roof, so I can look down on the alley, which runs right by our front door and along the upper edge of the house. I see police with helmets—and dogs. Mexicans are afraid of dogs. This is a new weapon for the police. The police have new uniforms, look well-equipped. I look down the alley, toward the Old City center. All of it is old city. I see more police. They are acting like soldiers, taking cover in doorways. I look farther down. There are other figures. They are harder to discern. For some reason, Army olive green at night makes them blend in with the things around them. These men have Army helmets on and the rest of the battle dress. They hold assault rifles in ready-to-fire stances. I mean, they point them at a few passers-by, one of them holding his hands in the air. The soldiers have the most powerful flashlights I have every seen. They spot me on the roof top and illuminate me. I wave, to show I’m friendly. The lights stay on me, then move away. From my position, I can see the “enemy” climbing over a wall—the gang banger, paint thinner-sniffing seventeen-year old’s climbing over a wall bordering a dead end alley where the Army has trapped them. Three of them jump down and run uphill through the overgrown empty lot I’m looking down on. The Army has no idea the lads have slipped the noose. The flashlights land on me again. I point in the direction the “enemy” is escaping. I think better of it. I can be seen as collaborating. The police run back up past our house in pursuit. Then the Army. They search the vacant lot. They come up empty handed. We go to bed. At three a.m. I hear the gang bangers in front of the front door again. They are whistling signals to gather in their compañeros. They are winding up for another go at scaring the neighborhood. I call 066, get an almost immediate response. The woman at the other end is professional and clear. She wants to know how many gang bangers. I exaggerate a little: six or eight, I say. “A patrol will be right there.” I lie in bed listening. The glue-sniffing whistlers seem to have left. Later, I think I hear the quick tread of soft-soled boots on the steps of the callejón.
The Narco Plague
Here in Guanajuato, Mexico, we learned you could ask for more police patrols, if you went to a certain office, or maybe to a certain police station over on Alhondiga. We went to the police station. We were told to go to the police outpost in our district. We went there, to Cerro de Cuarto, an area that has a bad reputation after dark, or even during the day. Gangs attack police stations or patrol trucks with rocks, then scatter when the black-clad swat fellows arrive–if that team is available.
We found the outpost. The ground floor was sealed off. We climbed a narrow iron spiral staircase to get to the office on the second floor. There was one police officer, sitting in front of a tiny TV and various hand-held radios that he was charging. He seemed skeptical at first, then, later, glad to have company.
Dianne explained our problem. The local paint thinner sniffers were morphing into gangbangers with uniform: white, long-sleeved baseball-like jerseys and white baseball caps, long black shorts, large white tennis shoes. The women of our barrio, she told him, were organizing; they needed increased patrols, in fact, on-going police presence at night.
We had already learned, you can hire police for an eight-hour shift for roughly $700 U.S. per month. You need two, for their own protection: $1,400. The officer said we would need four: $2,800 U.S. per month. We told him, no one had that kind of money.
A reasonable person might argue, it is the responsibility of the city to provide security. But there is no money. And, a reasonable person might ask, “Where did the money go?” There are two answers to that: one, taxes are not high enough; and, two, public funds often disappear into the pockets of elected high officials, as happens frequently through the country.
We learned–if we understood correctly–on any one shift, there are only twenty-five officers for the whole city. And a third of these are either sick or on vacation.
While Dianne’s discussed things, I peered out the one small permanently open window. I saw him immediately–half a block away–in his white uniform, a gangbanger, holding a liter beer bottle and, at three in the afternoon, drinking from it with easy gusto. He saw me as well, and his buddy, who I thought I recognized from our own neighborhood, stuck his head around a tree and gave me a small mocking wave. I have no idea whether he recognized me.
At about eleven that night, there was a knock at the door. Dianne peered through the wooden flap window in our mesquite door. A woman she recognized was whispering something to her. Dianne could not hear, but she looked behind the woman, and there were fifteen to twenty young men, in white baseball caps, sitting in such a way as to block passage through the alley. She shut the flap door quickly and called the police. She assumed that that was what the woman was whispering. They said they would come: the lads in black.
I watched from our kitchen window, through the Venetian blinds. The guys in white were older and from another neighborhood–a disturbing fact.
In a piece called “About My Stories,” in my blog at http://www.sterlingbennett.com–I write about the plague surrounding the storytellers in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and how, for writers in Mexico, it’s the narco-danger that surrounds. Now, the plague has gotten closer, and it’s difficult to judge its danger. The young neighborhood glue sniffers appear to be allying themselves with older, more sophisticated outsiders. And it has been stressful wondering what the gathering means.
One of our local kids, with cell in hand, appears to be coordinating their mission, whether it is to deliver, sell, or receive drugs in various areas of the city; or, to assign muggers to different neighborhoods. Their appearance, in any case, seemed like a show of defiance, of reclaiming the plaza (the center of Mexico public life) for themselves–and a social warning to those who would oppose their activities.
We have heard from many sources that the Mexican Army is coming in to patrol areas of the city. I am apprehensive about this. The Army is trained to use force. Their tendency is to abuse the people they detain—or worse. I suspect they will be seen as intruders, and the situation will escalate from the side of the small-time criminal groups, and that could mean weapons in the hands of the glue sniffers.
The solution, I think, is to organize the neighborhood, so that, when the gangbangers assemble, everyone calls the police. Over and over, until the municipal leaders start to allocate funds where they belonged in the first place: with the local cops.