So this is ridiculous. It’s going on five hours now… What is going on?
Hold on a sec… Let’s start over.
The first week after I arrived in Rio, I remember laying in bed one night writing when I heard some popping noises. “Cool. Are those gunshots?” I immediately felt shame at my being thrilled at my proximity to violence and weapons, but the novelty and kick remained – for a while.
The first week after I moved into the favela, I remember walking down the street on my way home from the streets and seeing young men holding big guns – pistols, machine guns, rifles, grenades. “Whoa. Was that guy wearing grenades on his belt?” Again, the shame was there at my quick attraction to the destructive power represented by these black shiny tools and toys.
I grew up accustomed to a certain level of violence. In Peru, when I was growing up, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) fought a brutal guerilla insurgency. The province we lived in was declared a “red zone” (no-go) by the US embassy. I knew what to during the regular blackouts that occurred when the Sendero would blow up a generator station or power lines. I learned at a young age the difference between “tourists” and “terrorists,” between “guerillas” and “gorillas.” A judge’s home was destroyed by a car bomb one time while we were at school. He lived four or five houses down the street from us.
Missionary friends were captured (and then released). My family received ransom demands and death threats (they turned out to be hoaxes… at least we think so – nothing ever happened….) My friend’s dad was murdered because he was a pastor – that age-old enemy of the Maoist revolution. Thousands of Peruvians were killed by the Sendero on the one side and the PNP and Armed Forces and secret police on the other. The poor were the ones who suffered the most – those living in slums (pueblos jovenes) surrounding Lima, the Quechuan Indians in the mountains – trapped and forced to live under the thumb of the men with guns.
But even growing up in the midst of that, I was still just a kid. And by the time I was in high school, the Sendero was mostly defeated (at the price of democracy in Peru, but hey, we’ve all got to make sacrifices, right?) I didn’t understand.
I’m still fairly young – and I still don’t really understand. But I do know that some things just aren’t right. I don’t know who to be madder at – the CV and other drug gangs that control the favelas, arm teenagers and young men with assault weapons, and place them on the front lines of an urban conflict, or the police – often corrupt, poorly trained, prone to violence and overreaction, quick to shoot at anyone who lives in a favelas “because they’re all criminals and “marginalizados.” There are no good guys here. There are only the men with guns, and those who suffer are the poor caught in the middle.
Last week the police killed a 17 year old boy running across the train tracks because he was late for his soccer game. He was a good kid, according to neighbors and friends. A hard worker, a student, going to meet his brothers. The police shot him. Then they planted drug paraphernalia and a gun on him. Problem solved. They just killed a “bad guy” and no one will care. And if someone does care, they’re poor and they’re just “favelados” who no one will listen to. Later that week the police invaded, trying to catch a drug boss. He got away. At least 8 people were killed. “It’s OK,” said the commandant. “They were all criminals.” 4 more people were injured in the cross-fire. You don’t hear so much about them. Of course, the CV and other drug gangs are no better. The latest rumor going around is that they grew tired of street kids stealing and doing drugs in the community. So to “teach them a lesson,” they killed several, burnt others alive, broke a few bones, and chased the rest off. Problem solved.
Tonight the shooting started at 5:00 PM. Right about the time kids start coming home from school, fathers and mothers returning from work, and the streets are full with people doing last minute shopping for dinner. (My apartment is kind of isolated – ground floor with no windows directly out into the street, so if I want to know what’s going on, I have to open up my front door. I’m not usually comfortable doing that when people are shooting outside. All this to say, I am still unsure what exactly happened tonight.)
I assume the police came in to try to arrest someone in the drug gangs. They drive into the community in an armored car with huge machine guns, and kids scatter, mothers grab their young ones, fathers yell “Get inside!” while the CV takes shots at the armored car and the armored car shoots back. Or, if no one shoots at them, the police will sometimes start shooting into alleys and homes and stores and cars – taunting and pushing buttons and trying to make someone pay. The cycle of violence.
Five hours later, the shooting has finally stopped. Machine guns, pistols, rifles and grenades have finally quieted. The lights have come back on. The phones are still off. What was accomplished? I don’t know… If I find out, I’ll make sure and let you know.
It’s tragic. It’s sad. And yet the problem seems so big – how do you stop the violence? Not only the violence we see, but the violence that lives in men’s (and women’s) hearts? I don’t know. I pray the prince of peace will come and bring his peace. I work. I love. I talk with neighbors. We encourage each other. We hope. But is that enough? I don’t know. I don’t think so… It’s all so complicated. But recognizing the problem is always the first step. I just wish I could move beyond it, and figure out “What comes next?”