In Guayana, the fear of crime has inscribed itself physically into our city. As crime has risen, so have the walls around our homes. Little by little, bars, electric fences and remote-controlled security gates popped up on every street.
Every street but ours, because of three families who refused, as it would be “too uncomfortable” for them when they hosted parties to be opening the gates again and again. We should’ve realized, it would make us a target.
A few years ago, we attracted Edwin’s attention. He turned up out of nowhere one day, slim, with weather-beaten skin. Always in his shabby bera, the go-to motorcycle for thugs, with his .45 in hand. At the time he turned up, nobody knew his name, but Puerto Ordaz isn’t that big a city: inquiries were made soon enough.
He began small, as a raterito (a petty criminal) stealing cell phones and other valuables from people and from houses.
Hearing the screaming and begging of those being mugged or burgled by him became routine. Sometimes, you could open the curtains to see him attacking his newest victim. The people from the bloques in front of our street constantly reported car batteries and tires stolen from their parked vehicles.
As time went by, Edwin became bolder, more violent and his robberies more elaborate.
Edwin stole from more than twenty people only on my street alone. A couple of times somebody tried to turn him into the cops. But any Venezuelan can imagine the face of a police officer when you disturb him at his desk during a scorching day to tell him somebody just took your phone or your car battery.
As time went by, Edwin became bolder, more violent and his robberies more elaborate. Often, people would wake up and notice somebody had broken into their house at night and stolen some things. Other times, they would arrive after work to see their homes practically emptied out, with almost everything, including furniture, gone.
Once, a neighbor was leaving her house when he appeared. She did not have her cell with her, so he took her wedding ring and shoved her down to the ground, angry.
Everybody became paranoid, scared to go out and scared to stay in.
Another time, my mother was chatting with her neighbor who was leaning on our house garage bars. The usual sound of the bera gave Edwin away, mom and our neighbor knew what was about to happen even before he turned up. This time, he aimed his gun directly at our neighbor and asked for the usual: cell phone, wallet, keys. She told him she didn’t have anything and that he could shoot her for all she cared. He just pistol-whipped her and left.
Everybody became paranoid, scared to go out and scared to stay in. Our homes had become our prisons — the police station five blocks away, as useless as ever.
Finally, on December 24, 2014, somebody was arriving at their house after a party when he turned up. Edwin tried to steal his car, but the desperate and angry neighbor had had enough. He threw the keys over the wall to the porch. He was shot twice, but survived: it was the first time Edwin shot someone on our street.
After that, just like he’d come, he simply disappeared. Some say he’s in jail. Others, that he was killed. In this city without records, where disappearances are normal, nobody’s that surprised that he seemed to evaporate into thin air.
He was gone, but the paranoia stayed behind. Jaded and feeling forgotten by the security forces, the fellows in the bloques decided to arm themselves and take justice into their own hands. They let it be known they would shoot to kill from now on.
Last week, a car with tinted windows was parked on our street. Time passed, and by four in the morning somebody in the bloques, believing those inside the vehicle were waiting for a passerby to attack, decided to fire two warning shots into the air.
That’s the new normal on my street now: untrained armed civilians threatening to use lethal force on rules of engagement they make up as they go along.
The people in the car tried to get out of there, but since the only open route in the labyrinth of the neighborhood was our street, they had to turn around to go back out the same way they had come. As they did, at least other three guns joined the first, this time shooting at the moving target.
The bullets resounded all over the neighborhood. As it turns out, a friend was giving a neighbor’s son a lift. In typical Venezuelan fashion, he did not leave the car immediately but stayed there for a while drinking and chatting with his buddy, and ended up making people over suspicious.
Nobody was hurt. This time, police officers did come to the scene, and went door to door, asking for information. Nobody saw anything; nobody heard anything, and nobody said anything. The patrulleros arrested the naïve pair, thinking they must have been up to something, and left.
That’s the new normal on my street now: untrained armed civilians threatening to use lethal force on rules of engagement they make up as they go along. It’s just a matter of time before something terrible happens. We all know it.