Friday, April 30, 2010

Connections to the underworld

My connections to Quito’s underworld of drugs, stolen goods and delinquency came in handy last week when a Canadian friend of mine, S. had her apartment robbed while she was at work. She came home stunned to find an empty apartment with all her valuables gone, and even her front door ripped off. Of all the things she lost, she was most upset about her jewelry, computer and external hard drive (which included her backed-up Master’s thesis and other irreplaceable work). As soon as I found out about it I called V. my closest informant and friend on the street. She told me about the Centro Comercial Montufar, near where we work in the historic center, a “mall” that sells only stolen goods. More like an indoor market place, it’s filled with tiny store fronts where groups of people gather with electronic goods in hand, from radios, televisions, to hundreds (thousands?) of different types of cell phones, blackberries, are all yelling and heckling with store owners to get the best price possible (and likewise shoppers yelling and bargaining for the best purchasing price). It was an overwhelming scene. Not a lot of shops advertised computers, but I quickly learned how to find them. As soon as I started asking, the store owners would bring me to the back of the store and show me several models. But alas, I didn’t find S.’s computer anywhere.

My other friends on the street, robbers themselves, directed to me to several other hot selling spots. I went to the outdoor market, Plaza Arenas near the Basilica, also in the historic center, where other types of stolen goods are sold, not electronic stuff but household wares, clothes, mechanical tools, kitchen utensils, shoes, fabric, and jewelry. It was a random array of stuff—some stands just had heaps of “junk” on big plastic tables that you could sift through. It was like a giant a flea market, although again, most of the items are “recycled.” Just like the earlier indoor market, Plaza Arenas was swarming with people, all looking to sell or buy things. These are the shopping centers for Quito’s poor (and I guess for gringos looking for their stolen belongings). Again, I searched high and low, but didn’t find any of my friend’s stuff there either.

One of my closest “ladron” (thief) friends on the street, J., offered to accompany me to the most dangerous sector of the historic center in one last attempt to recoup my friend’s goods. I was heading off alone, having taken off my watch, emptied my pockets, left my bag with a sex workers and without even a jacket, I felt confident that no one would bother me. As I marched off to the streets above the central boulevard “24 de Mayo,” where all of Quito’s brothels were once located, J. called out to me and asked where I was going. When I told him he said, “You’re not going over there alone, no way.” Perhaps I’ve been feeling a little too comfortable at my field site. Indeed, J. confirmed, “Anita, on this corner and around here, no one is going to touch you. We all know you, but over there no one knows you.” Fair enough. It wasn’t the first time J. or many of the other sex workers, addicts, muggers, etc. on “my corner” had told me that if someone touches me, they “will kill them.” I always feel comforted by that. Do I actually belong to a “turf” and even have peeps in my turf that have got my back? It's so badass.....

I accepted J. as my bodyguard and off we went. Anyway, as he pointed out, he knows all the ladrones (thieves) of the area. In fact, as a long time resident of the Centro and as a frequent inmate at the nearby Garcia Moreno Penitentiary, he literally knows everyone in Quito’s underworld. J. adopted the mission as his own and acted as if it were my computer that had been stolen. Furious with the ladrones, we traveled in and out of every little nook and cranny of the decrepit streets and dilapidated store/homes around 24 de Mayo. On the way he pointed out different people to watch out for, and explained the difference between the drunks and the robbers (that drunks are harmless and dirty while robbers are always clean and wear the nicest clothes possible and usually aren’t addicts—not the serious thieves anyway). He gave me his personal philosophy on stealing: he can’t deal with the drama or possible violence of mugging so he limits his activities to breaking into cars. He waits for the owner to leave, breaks the window and steals everything of value in the car. He says he doesn’t even like to steal the whole car because it’s too risky, and just not worth it. Unfortunately, J. has been nabbed for several robberies he himself didn’t commit, or so he claims. He told me that once the police associate you with a certain group you become susceptible to random arrests.

J. says that now that his “wife” (K.—his girlfriend of 8 years with whom he has 3 children) is making fairly good money as a prostitute he doesn’t need to steal everyday anymore. Instead, he looks after their kids, as a few of the partners’ of the sex workers do. But J. and K. have a special needs child, D. who requires extra care and attention, which J. seems capable of giving, within his means. In fact, as we made this tour of Quito’s “most dangerous” areas, D. was with us the whole time. He might not be able to talk or walk yet, as a 3 year old, but no one is going to harm or make fun of D., there are already too many people looking out for him. Everyone in the Centro tries to help D. overcome his disabilities (“it takes a village to raise a child”). One of the reasons I’m close to K. and J. is because I’ve become attached to D. and help him walk along the iron rungs of windows on the street near where his mom works. J. and I took turns carrying him since he’s so heavy now. Obviously, my affection for D. has probably made J. willing to help me in my moment of need.

J. and I walked around the dark alleys and houses where people sell computers and other freshly stolen stuff. We didn’t go into any stores, per se, you had to ask people on the street where one could find computers (they weren’t sold in these stores, rather, people were hiding these more valuable stolen goods). I was surprised more people didn’t look at me as we crept through these very marginal, dark places, either they were too preoccupied with what they were doing (drugs, other stuff), or because they didn’t give a damn. I was with J. (and D.) so there wasn’t much they could do. Once we returned to “our” streets, our neighborhood, our turf, where I know everyone and everyone knows me I felt very relieved I hadn’t gone off alone after all. I definitely needed J. as my guide. We came back empty handed, but at least J. took me to every spot possible and spoke with every potential robber (i.e. his friends) in the area to see if they had any news. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to agree that my friend’s computer was long gone, sold within hours of the robbery. J. told me that if I hadn’t found it within 12 hours, it was gone. I was now on day 3 so I didn’t have much hope, but at least able to use “my connections” to conduct a search. I know how the “stolen goods” market operates in Quito and where to hit up, immediately. Unfortunately though, my underground connections didn’t prove to be fruitful for my poor Canadian friend this time….

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