Tag: police

The Police Retreat

Right on schedule the weather changes. It’s not even February and it’s suddenly warmer. For two days, people have been hanging out in the callejón, alley, right at the entrance to the privada, the side alley where much of the trouble seems to focus. A lot of drinking, a lot of hand motions while talking. We try to identify the figures through the closest camera. We can’t figure out why the sudden activity. Young men with a lot of swagger, more when they’re drinking. M and Q are among them.

Today, at the end of the second day, someone called the police.

D burst into the room. “A bunch of people just ran up to our door, then ran back down,” she said.

I went up to the roof. Just as I got there, the troops arrived. Maybe twenty men, some in dark blue with combat helmets, one of them with a dog; the rest in camouflage. They are worked up. But it’s like coming into the middle of a movie; you don’t know what came before. They storm into the privada where the trouble brews. I watch the wall that the gangbangers usually use for an escape. No one drops down from it, escaping the police-Army, whatever they are. For all we know, Army has been integrated into the Seguridad Pública, the local police.

In the midst of all the excitement, I see a movement. It is the neighbor’s Siamese cat Ratón—mouse. He is a private, somewhat aloof, mostly outdoor cat that has survived all kinds of hungry street dogs. He is walking along the top of an unfinished wall in the vacant lot, stepping carefully over curved re-bar, getting himself nearer to the helmeted troopers. It is, after all, his territory. He watches from close-up the whole time they’re thrashing around looking for the gangbangers.

Then, surprisingly, another twenty or so men arrive, from uphill, all in camouflage. They rush down to the privada, then rush back up past our door. One of them kicks opened the locked metal door to the vacant lot. Breaking a entering into private property—a technicality of lesser importance since the registered property owner is dead. They search the lot, then the woods adjacent to the lot. One man in blue spends a lot of time looking down onto the roof of M’s aunt’s house.

It is hard to keep track of all the platoons of troops. They are upset about something.

I open the door and tell several troopers how the boys escape each time they’re pursued. I have done this before. They thank me. I am closing the door when I see Buddha Comandante passing—joining the attack.

“Comandante,” I say. He turns toward me. “Buenas Noches,” I say, and smile at him and wave.

He recognizes me and smiles back, from under his helmet. “Buenas Noches,” he says, and charges on down the callejón.

D goes to the computer and finds the recorded event that triggered the whole invasion. We see three troopers walking quickly up from the privada. We see a group of about seven gangbangers mill around, then charge after the troopers. The latter rush into R’s little store ten paces from our front door. Several boys—young men—are throwing rocks, a few of them bricks at the store’s open door. Then the punks—high on thinner—turn around a run back down the alley toward the privada. The three troupers in camouflage come out of R’s tienda, stand in front of our door and shout down at bangers, “We know who you are!”

That was the part we missed. We don’t know why the three were in the privada in the first place. I guess it doesn’t matter in this pageant. Now there are police and/or soldiers swarming all over the place. We play the digital tape over and over. We recognize a few of the stone throwers. Others, we don’t. They are outsiders, perhaps from another gang from another part of the city.

The doorbell rings. D opens the little wooden flap-door. It’s a man in blue. He asks if he can come in. D unlocks, the officer steps in. He wants to know if we saw what happened through the cameras. D—thinking much quicker than me—says yes but he will have to look at the recording in the offices of the Seguridad Pública; he shouldn’t see the recording at our house because it compromises out own security. Politically, it would be unwise. We tell him C, who installed our cameras, is in contact with the Seguridad Pública and has told them how to access the recording through the Internet. We give him the exact time: 19:47, military time.

He tells us the gangbangers injured one of the three, of which he claims he was one. I am a little confused. I thought there were three police in camouflage. He is wearing dark blue, with flak jacket, radio, the whole works–very professional looking.

I tell him I have a question.

“Why is it you flee?” I ask.

He pulls his jacket away, showing us his automatic.

“If I use this, there will be no end of trouble for me. There are human rights laws. I can’t use this.”

I nod, and pull my canister of pepper spray out of my pocket. It is pink, the most popular offering on Amazon.

“What about this?” I say.

He pulls his jacket away from a different spot. He plucks out a canister four times the size of mine.

“That’s aggressive, too,” I say.

He nods. Clearly, they don’t use it. D and I figure it would not be a good idea to give the bangers the same idea. If one of the police got sprayed and was rendered vulnerable, they might do terrible damage to him with a brick or two.

He introduces himself. We introduce ourselves. He thanks us. His behavior contradicts much of what you’ve heard about police behavior in Mexico. There are other police where you would be right—but not in our neighborhood. When the door opens, another trooper calls out “Good-night!” in English. A few non-police, neighbors, I hope, are watching the policeman emerge from our door.

We think there may be some good news in all of this. We think we did not see either Q—or M, to whom I sent the offer of university tuition help in among the attackers.

That would be very good news, I think.

The phone rings. Q’s mother, who has rebuffed any number of D’s offers to talk, wants to talk to D.

“Why now?” I ask.

“Because she knows her children were involved (the middle boy) and that the cameras recorded it.”

D makes an appointment to talk to her in three days. We are very busy until then.

“She’ll have to stew a bit,” says D. “Think a little bit about her three boys—and about what they’re doing.”

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.

Army in the Alley

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.