My grandfather has just returned from the city. A friend of his had taken him to the Sam’s Club to open an account, and now that he is back at his tiendita he is telling his customers about what he saw. On their way back they ran into traffic. Authorities had blocked off one of the streets. They were swarming a bank. He could see men inside.
One of his vendors comes in to replenish his inventory. They talk for a long time about la situation, the uncontrolled violence in the city. They talk about God. They talk about having an honest work in the midst of this.
The world is ending, my grandfather says.
It’s around two when I wake up. My uncle is standing outside, in the darkness, looking out at the road through the chain-link gate. He says there’s a patrulla out there. Flashing red and blue lights. Something must have happened. He wonders what it is.
I go inside to get ready. My uncle is a taxista in the city, and I’m going to join him on his three to three shift. I wash my face, put gel in my hair, and go outside to wait with him for the taxi to arrive.
The city, for everything I’ve heard, is silent that morning. I return tired after an uneventful morning and sleep.
The next day at breakfast my grandmother tells me that a man was found at the side of the road early in the morning the day before. He had been thrown out of a vehicle, bleeding and covered in torture wounds, his tongue missing.
My mother calls me almost every day. We talk about the family, about my project, and about things we are thinking. Often she tells me about how many deaths there have been in the city, and often I tell her to stop reading the news. There’s a saying here that you can squeeze the newspapers and blood will drip out, and from what my mother knows I’m sure the news sites aren’t much better.
Children and teachers get kidnapped from schools; men are gunned down exiting supermarkets; honest working people are caught in crossfires and sprayed with balas. The city is painted in blood.
And while it’s not half as dangerous as el norte—while the numbers do not reach the numbing heights of the border towns—nobody cares. Because that doesn’t matter. Because everybody remembers the days when this was unheard of in this place.
Late on a Saturday evening, I’m with one of my cousins. He’s in college and is going to be studying for his classes the next morning. Now though, he’s reading the local news, and he tells me about a vigilante group that has recently sprung up. He shows me a picture of dismembered bodies with a sharpied note taped to one of them. It says that anyone engaged in trafficking, assault, or kidnapping will meet the same fate as these. It is signed Pueblos Unidos.
Two of my kid cousins come looking for me. I haven’t come over to play in a few days, and they’ve been getting restless. As we walk to their house, my prima says she’s not as scared now. Because I’m with them.
I ask if she was scared walking when she came just now and she says that she was.
My primo tells me to tell her that he’s come alone without any fear before, right?
I ask her why she’s scared.
She tells me that they steal children for their organs.
Here? In El Once?
But only the pretty kids. So they’ll steal her.
My primo says he’s safe.
My prima says that’s because he’s ugly.
My primo says that there are different sorts of people that steal different sorts of children, so he could still get stolen.
I look at them, unsure of what to say.
The man at the pulpit is talking about the importance of unity. About how everyone needs to live in community. And how a family can’t be a family, how a church can’t be a church, how a people can’t be a people, without unity.
He starts a saying,“El pueblo unido—”
And the congregation finishes,“—jamás será vencido.”
On another day, after another man speaks at the same pulpit, we sit around at a table eating, conviviendo. The talk turns to the violence. And then a story is told, of a wealthy man who was once being harassed by the maleantes.
Every week they would come and ask for their protection money, and every week the man would give his wealth to the violent men, until one day when he told them he wasn’t going to give them any more. And before the five men could lift their guns the wealthy man had shot each of them dead. He had long ago sent his family away under political asylum, sold all of his businesses and properties, and begun practicing his marksmanship.
He boarded a plane to Canada that day and never came back.
We are silent as the man speaks. In two months it will all be over, he says. The government has put together a covert operation. In two months, he says, they’ll complete their work.
The drug-pushers, the opportunist gangs, the corrupt cops, the sold military—everything will be over, he says. The unchecked crimes of law enforcers and their lawless employers will finally be met with justice. The streets will no longer run with blood. Two months and it will all be over, he says.
And though he says it with so much certainty in his voice, we all know—he knows—that it is just another myth. It is just another story for a people to tell themselves—a story of a people who will not be vencido.