Tag: public space

Broccoli Bandits and Just Plain Bandits

Cameras and Broccoli

After exactly one week, one of the local bandits walked through the unfinished building ten feet from us and, as predicted, stepped out onto a ledge and dropped a heavy rock on our neighbor’s replacement security camera—which had been placed by right below it.

I guess you could call it a war over the public space and how it should be used. The alleys are for whom? Arbitrary occupation and use by a few families, or for safe passage for everyone? It’s all more comprehensible if you think of bandit and non-bandit culture, for which there is a long history in Mexico. The bandit culture says, “I will take what I want and you can’t stop me—because I have rights, too.” Except that bandit or tribal rights exclude the rights of others. “There shall be no limits on my behavior,” says bandit culture.

So how do you resolve the issue, if you have to change culture in order to do it?

What about broccoli culture? It is entirely the opposite. We were returning from San Miguel the other afternoon. There was a big truck ahead of us, with high sides and back and an open top. It was loaded with broccoli, with a loose tarp over everything. At the smallest bump, the whole load jiggled like—well, broccoli.

I said to Dianne, “Bump the back of the truck (with our Honda CV-R), maybe some broccoli will fall off.” I was joking, of course. But then the truck came to a tope—a speed bump—a little too quickly. Three heads of broccoli fell off. I said, “Stop!” Dianne stopped, in the middle of traffic. I jumped out in bare feat. I picked up three heads of broccoli. Bandit work. After all, the truck had gone on. I offered one to a motorcyclist behind us. He shook his head grimly, as if the say, “Get out of my way, free the road.”

We drove on a bit. A man was returning to the sidewalk. He had two heads of broccoli. I whistled my loud whistle at him, motioned a throw, he prepared to catch, I tossed, he caught. Big smiles at each other. A moving broccoli pass-off.

Farther ahead, a young woman was picking up broccoli. I called, “Buen provecho!” Bon Appétit. Big conspiratorial smile. We crossed the railroad line. Farther along, a man had gotten out of his car to retrieve fallen broccoli. “That’s private property, you know,” I said. He didn’t know what to think. In a few seconds, he passed us on the inside and waved—smiling.

We stopped one more time. I got out and picked up a broccoli. A nice one. Then I saw that a woman had started across the road from a fruit stand. I walked to meet her. She came forward, we met in the middle of the highway. It was a sweet exchange. After all, we had all the broccoli we needed, and she had hoped for one.

What happened? you ask. I think we were performing bandit culture, but with a difference, in that we were sharing the public space—and the public booty.

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 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.