Oscar and I were going to go get some juice between church meetings. Oscar noticed the group of youth obviously in conflict at the corner of my street before I did, when I did I stopped, kept watching from a distance and started thinking about what I could do or say. There were four young guys, between 17 and 19 I’d say, obviously threatening and running off an equally young black guy. I remembered a friend of mine recently telling me she and her church were praying their neighborhood not explode with violence again after the recent killing of one of the local gang leaders. What had happened there was that an Afro-Colombian family had huge speakers and loud music out all night, the gang leader and a friend came over, pushign they’re weight around, telling them to shut if off and the Afro-Colombian guy knifed the gang leader. The order was out now that not just this family but any and all Afro-Colombians had to immediately evacuate the neighborhood or they’d be killed, including completely unrelated church members and friends of my friend.
When I saw the three white guys threatening the black guy, that’s what I first remembered. Although in this case I heard the black young man clearly ask “What did I rob?”, leading me to believe it was more an issue of theft than a general “cleansing”. I kept watching. Oscar told me we should move on and get home. The truth is, much as I felt like I should intervene I also had visions of my last two weeks in Medellin suddenly including the local gang having it out for me and, honestly, I was scared. Besides, the black guy was walking away.
When we got to the house Oscar asked me “What were you going to do? What were you going to say?” honestly asking. The truth is I didn’t have a fully formulated plan, but I said probably just try to act as a buffer, help them actually talk rather than just threaten. At least be a witness, because here, as I told Oscar, I feel like they could have killed the young man in cold blood in the middle of the street and no neighbor would have dared say “boo” or even help with the body. Looking the other way is a deeply ingrained survial mechanism.
Oscar was upset, unsettled. He had seen one gang member punch the other guy in the jaw before I even saw them. “I want to be countercultural in these situations” he said, but he’d had an experience downtown of policemen beating up a young guy and when Oscar intervened and told them to arrest and charge him but not beat him up he was immediately taken aside by two paramilitary men and asked pointedly if he wanted to pay the man’s crimes for him? “The thing is, these things go in stages, they threaten and warn, and then once there’s a kill order there’s nothing you can do. If he robbed more than once there’s probably nothing to be done.” My comment: “What kind of an idiot would steal in this city?” And it’s true, to a degree. Paramilitary groups and gangs generally are extremely protective of their neighborhoods, and jealous of criminality in general; it’s something that gives them at least marginal popular support. But that doesn’t justify vigilante justice.
Maybe I would have intervened and at least surprised them, maybe they would have seperated faster; but I really doubt I could have gotten them to dialogue. The fact is these teenagers, who should be starting college, control the neighborhood. The hesitation I felt to intervene is not irrational– they could kill me, at the very least threaten me, or the church. Were we to call the police, they would very likely tip off the gang leaders. Or maybe not, maybe nothing at all would happen. But just like a Palestinian at an Israeli checkpoint, that’s the power of the control: you never know when it will matter, when it will end your life.
If you asked most people in Medellin if they live in fear, they would probably say no. But fear is only ever inches away; fear is the reason why people have streets and whole neighborhoods they don’t go to, why they avoid visiting strangers’ houses, why they stick their head in the sand so often, why most people don’t want to get too involved in local politics, or in anything.
I’m not scared. I actually have almost never felt scared in my entire two years here. I’ve actually felt extremely safe. I work with churches, I take public transportation, I do excercise, I paint, sing, drink, dance, lead workshops, I do everything I need to do and am not in danger. But when I started thinking about talking to those teenagers yesterday I was scared; and I’m worried about that young black man. But more than anything I’m discouraged and upset that nothing I have done or seen done in these two years gets to a solution on how to change the deep-seated control of this city by young violent gangs.
(Unless of course you count the ever-present evangelical plan to simply do enough evangelistic campaigns that everyone converts and leave all violence and vice behind.)