Sunday, June 10, 2012

Stories from My Mission: I Get to Know the Local Crime Boss

This story comes from my last area of my mission, in the city of Barranqueras in the province of Chaco. Barranqueras is a suburb of Resistencia, the capital city of Chaco. It is also a port city on the Río Paraná, and is the main port for all of Chaco. As a port city it is sort of a hub for all things illegal, including drugs.

Close to the port in Barranqueras, behind the local soda pop bottling plant, is a barrio (neighborhood), or a villa (slum), where the very poor people lived. The neighborhood had very little access to clean water, electricity and absolutely no telephone. Whenever people we knew spoke about this villa they would always remind us that we should not go there because it was too dangerous. Because I was new to the area I was not yet familiar with the names of all the barrios in the city. Thus whenever we were warned about this particular barrio I assumed that my companion knew which area they were talking about and was avoiding it. (It turns out that we were avoiding it, except for the few times that we went in to visit one particular family that lived there. For those brief visits we would enter the villa from the backside by way of the levee that ran along one side, but that is a different story.)

After my first companion left the area (typically we change companions every six weeks, though sometimes we go for 12 weeks together) and I became the "knowledgeable" companion I started to branch out into barrios that we had not worked in in my first six weeks in the area. It was a sizable area and there were many barrios that we just did not have time to work in in my first six weeks in the area. In one of these forays I unknowingly led us into the villa that we had been warned never to enter due to the danger of being robbed, beat up and/or killed. After passing by the vagos (a Spanish word that can alternately mean street urchin, or in some areas a general thug or "gangbanger"), I was a bit surprised to find an almost normal neighborhood with children playing in the street and house wives doing the laundry. Except for the fact that the neighborhood was underdeveloped (i.e. no street lights, one water facet for the entire street, most houses were mud or mud brick with mud mortar and the street was unpaved), it seemed like an OK place. We talked to a few people and at one house they said that "the man of the house was not there but that he would like to talk to us". We agreed to come back another day.

It was about this time that someone (I don't remember the particulars) gave us a reference to talk to a lady in a part of town that more well off. We went and found her and spoke briefly with her. She told us that the reason why she asked to see us was to give us the name and address of her brother who wanted to talk to us. Apparently her brother had previously talked to the missionaries about two years previously and wanted to talk to us again. We noted the directions (no address, just directions) and promised to visit. Using the directions and a map we figured out that the brother lived on the very street we had been on a few days previously. So when we had time we set out to find him and talk to him. It turned out that the person we were looking for was the same "man of the house" that had wanted to talk to us the other day. This time we found him and talked to him.

He told about how he had previously spoken to the missionaries and had even gone to church, but that was when he lived in another barrio and things were more complicated then which prevented him from attending more than once. But he explained to us that things were different now and some other things with his life would be resolved as soon as he talked to his friend who was a judge. As soon as he mentioned that it was like a warning bell went off in my head. The police and judiciary in Argentina tend to be very corrupt and when people talk about "my friend the judge" that usually involves some corruption.

Our new "friend" began to explain to us that he was very concerned about his young children and how he wanted them to have some type of religion that would keep them off the street (and that automatically ruled out the Catholic Church, he said). He was looking for a good family environment for his children where they could learn to be good people, and he decided that our church was the best option. That was all we learned that day, but over the next few weeks we met with him and his story filled itself out.

So in the city of Barranqueras there were a few sketchy neighborhood. There was one in particular that was quite bad, and had all the worst stories associated with it. But as I found out after talking to people, that barrio had been cleaned up by the police and while it was still bad it was not nearly as bad as it was. The clean up efforts occurred roughly a year and a half before I got to the area. At some point someone mentioned that all the people that used to live in the "worst part of town" had now moved to this other barrio that we were now visiting (which explained why people were so scared of it now). In other words, the major crime and drug ring of the city had just changed barrios. The clean up efforts by the police of the first barrio coincided with our new friend's sudden move to the new barrio. And as it turned out his sudden desire to move was due to the fact that he ran the drug and crime organization in the old barrio.

This realization also explained why we were allowed to enter the barrio without trouble from the vagos at the entrance. They all knew that we were friends with "el jefe" so they didn't touch us. But he was tired of the that life and wanted to get out, and now that he had three small children to take care of (and the fact that the police were after him) he wanted to turn a new leaf and start a respectable life. It was just so difficult to get out of that life. We worked with him as much as we could, but there was only so much we could do.

I never found out how the story ended since I had to go home before anything happened with him. It was just such an amazing experience to get to know someone like that and to see how much a life like that limited him, and his family, in what they could do. Even though he was the "rich" man in the barrio, they couldn't even afford a single light bulb. They only had a TV where they could turn it to a channel to have it display a blank blue screen, and that was their only light in the night time. The city could not (would not) run electricity or water to the neighborhood since no one paid any bills, and even if they did someone would most likely steal the wires and pipes to sell for scrap. So the trade off for being in charge of thousands and millions of dollars worth of drugs was that he was living in a mud brick hut with one electrical outlet that they had jerry-rigged so they could have the blue light of the TV screen at night. Even though he was a very nice and amiable person who sincerely wanted to change and have a better life for his family, he was trapped where he was by who he was.

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