The Gunman in Winter

Snapshots from the life of a Caracas street thug, retired at an early age, from Leo Felipe Campos.

He was 12 years old the only time his father asked him for a gun. That is his last memory of the father: He heard him saying through clenched teeth that someone had robbed him and he wanted revenge. The boy got him the gun, from an uncle on his mother’s side, and gave it to him. His father was married to another woman now, not to his mother. His father’s current wife had left him and now he went to look for her. He found her in bed with another man. He shot them both and then killed himself.

“What was your dad’s name?”

“Miguel, like me.”

He was also 12 years old when a classmate stole his pencil and eraser. But by this time he did not go by his name. They called him Miguelon. The boys came to blows. A fight between kids, until his classmate went running away to look for his older brother, who was armed. Miguelon went to tell his uncles, his mom’s brothers. The result was a gunfight. His first neighborhood culebra, as personal conflicts in working class neighborhoods are called. San Agustin, Caracas, Venezuela. The 1990s were underway.

“Did you go back to school?”

“After that, never.”

Years earlier he had already been defended in this way, when he went to visit his dad and a young man tried to rob him. He fled down a ravine and told his mother. She called her brothers and they responded with bullets.

“How old were you when you learned to shoot?”

“14.”

His stepfather, who was a criminal, had a daughter with his mother, and he was jealous of his sister. He says that his mother and stepfather abandoned him. He moved in with his grandmother.

“Where did you sleep?”

“I shared a bunk with two of my uncles.”

They killed the eldest uncle first, at a funeral. He himself had killed someone and that someone’s father came and got revenge. Later, it was his younger uncle’s turn: His own crew set him up. This is according to Miguelon, who looked for a gun from another part of town to protect himself. He had friends from other parts of Caracas because he played basketball in inter-neighborhood tournaments. His uncles sold drugs.

“And you.”

“Me, no. Not yet.”

Later, a guy showed up who humiliated him while playing basketball. He shot him and had to run for it. He told his mom: “No way. I’m not going to let them kill me.” He felt alone. He had his cousins, who were also burgeoning criminals, and a friend, but without his uncles it was not the same. That was when he bought his first gun. A 7-mm. Those who threatened him lived close by. That is the way it usually is: The actors in a culebra usually know each other from childhood. They have a conflict and because of that they get to know each other, swear death. They shoot. Mostly at night.

“How old were you?”

“17.”

He was part of a crime ring called “El Autobus”, which gained prestige in the underworld. For those who grow up in the ‘hood the cartel is king, and that means carrying a powerful gun and making sure people are afraid of you. No one is worse than no one, goes a common proverb in the slums. They call it respect. Miguelon sold drugs: marijuana and crack, mostly. He stole. He gained power. He took the “wheel” of the “car” in his part of town, which meant he made decisions in his group. He was a womanizer. He loved alcohol and sports.

“Did you still live with your grandmother then?”

“No, I already lived with Yelitza, my first wife.”

Yelitza got pregnant but lost the baby in childbirth. A woman was killed by accident in a gunfight. Stray bullets. He does not know if the bullet was from “El autobus” or another gang. That woman was the mother-in-law of his stepsister, and she, the stepsister, never knew that he was implicated in the death.

“You have a step-sister on your dad’s side too?”

“Yes, but I don’t get along with her. I just met my nephew, who is a criminal too. He came here and I gave him some advice. Twenty years old and we’d never spoken. That was just a little while ago, because my aunt died and I went down for the funeral. My sister didn’t remember me. She saw me and was scared. She thought I was going to kill her.”

“Why?”

“Because when my dad killed his wife and committed suicide, she came to my dad’s house and took her clothes off and burned them. She’s older. I was younger when this happened and they started to say things to me. I wanted to kill her and her mom too.”

“El autobus” became a target of the police, who entered the neighborhood to eradicate the criminals. Miguelon fled and hid in Caucagua, a town in the state of Miranda. There, he got a girl pregnant, but she did not say anything to him, he says. When things calmed down, he returned to San Agustin and unwittingly had a daughter. Later on, he got back together with Yelitza, who got pregnant again. He had another daughter. This one he knew about from the beginning.

“Are you still with Yelitza?”

“No, I’ll tell you about it…”

At one of the many parties, one of the culebras came in “spraying lead”. They killed one of his partners, shot one of his cousins in the eye, and he ended up with a bullet in his shoulder. They took him to the hospital. Someone told Yelitza, who was home with their baby, 11 months at the time. She went out to look for him and ended up trapped in gunfire between the party and the response from a nearby street. She was fatally wounded. They took her to the hospital where Miguelon was. They ran into each other in the emergency room. He was surprised, asked her what the fuck she was doing there.

“Why are you bleeding like that? Where is the baby?”

The doctors could not save her.

Miguelon knew then more than ever — more than when they tried to rob him for the first time, more than when his father killed himself with the gun he had given him, more than when they killed his uncles, more than when he lost his baby — that he wanted revenge, to exterminate someone, to end it all. He did not care about anything anymore.
He was 25 years old. Today he is 36, has five kids, seven bullet wounds in his body, and is in a wheelchair.

Miguelon’s story is not an anomaly in a country with a homicide rate of 70 out of 100,000 people, according to estimates by the investigator Dorothy Kronick, whose numbers are higher than government figures but lower than other NGOs, like the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia. Venezuela is one of the world’s most violent countries and the capital city is among those that contributes the most bullet-ridden cadavers. Among the 32 neighborhoods that make up Caracas, San Agustin, where Miguelon lives, has an officially-estimated 50,000 inhabitants living on its hills, and between just May and June of 2016 people interviewed in the neighborhood knew of at least nine murders. One was widely notorious because it happened on the gondola that serves as mass transit and connects the neighborhood, nestled in the mountains, with the lower part of the city.

Jesus Galarraga, who has lived in the area since he was born 33 years ago, says he was traveling in the next car and saw the homicide:

“The kid did not realize it. He was looking at his cell phone when the door opened and another kid got on, put a gun to his face and boom! They killed another one here not that long ago, right here,” he points to where we are. “The kid jumped down there and they were waiting for him. That’s why the station is closed and just that door is open, and that’s why the police are here.”

He is talking about the gondola in La Ceiba, which runs up to the neighborhood. A few feet down the street is a school run by the Catholic organization Fe y Alegria, where he went to school. Miguelon was there too before they kicked him out, and so were most of the residents in the area who come in and out of the station at all hours. Next to (that station) is the basketball court Por la Paz y la Vida, crowning an enormous five-story building, a project by the city’s chavista government.

On the lower levels there is a market and a pharmacy that are usually closed. On the next levels there are rooms for educational workshops, for theater and dance, for exhibits. They give classes in percussion and students from the Simon Bolivar Symphonic Orchestra practice there.

The sports complex is protected by fences mounted on low cement walls. The roof is high. Being on the fifth floor and on top of a mountain, the 360 degree view is first-class: It encompasses a baseball field, vacant lots, shacks, stairways and dogs, the green of a large glade, flowing avenues, towers and monuments like icons of the 20th century modern architecture, the branching and disappearing contours of the city. From there you can see a good chunk of Caracas. They play basketball at this altitude.

While I talk to Galarraga, a girl shows up at his side. It is his niece and she plays the violin. She has just finished a class for the symphonic orchestra. She asks for his blessing and says that the teacher is teaching them “some really crazy music” that she likes. They talk:

“And your mom?”

“She’s down below.”

“When are you going to come up? Come for the weekend.”

“I don’t know, uncle, it’s dangerous right now. I was going to go a while ago and mom told me not to, but maybe this weekend— God willing, if nothing awful happens.”

The girl leaves. The man pauses for a moment.

“See? Kids are already thinking like this. She’s barely seven years old.”

San Agustin has a criminal and cultural reputation in the capital city. Musicians, artists and athletes, but bad guys too — thieves, drug traffickers, murders — have come out of this neighborhood that encompasses thousands of homes across hillsides, alleys that wind underneath metal roofs, power lines, exposed rebar, cement block and clothes drying in the sun. It is like something is always unfinished. Here, the configuration of crime is different than in the other Caracas neighborhoods like El Valle, El Cementerio, and the Cota 905, areas that are linked and where the government has carried out its Operation for the Liberation and Protection of the People (OLP), an armed and repressive mobilization looking to combat crime rings with established alliances.

According to declarations from journalists, investigators, government officials and criminal themselves, these alliances — this “peace” amongst criminals — is an order that comes from the prisons, where the word of a leader — a “pran”, as they are called — can be a death sentence. The pranes decide what to do and what can be done in the prison cells and courtyards. And while they are prisoners, they also control the law as much outside the prison as inside: They have cell phones, money, and high powered weapons. They use their contacts and control networks that connect them with people in the cities, in gangs, and in the justice system.

Where there is “peace” between criminals there are rules of conduct that dictate prison escapes, robberies, extortion, kidnappings, selling drugs, murders, executions and hiding, dismembering and making cadavers disappear. They respect hierarchies and what criminals do in other neighborhoods because they have a common enemy: men in uniform, whether police or national guard. Those who betray the code of conduct are eliminated.

That “peace” amongst the criminals existed only for a short time in San Agustin because there are many gangs without a unified leader. It is the first thing Miguelon said to me when we met. Galarraga shares this view and refers to a police order in Venezuela that forbids police from patrolling certain areas run by gangs as part of a project started in 2013, called the Movement for Peace and Life. They say it worked for just a couple months.

“An official negotiated with the gangs so they would quit shooting and turn in their guns, but they took it as a break to arm themselves better and kept robbing in the streets. The people around here know these things. Then the problems came back and now it is worse. Why? Because these kids have weapons of war. There are weeks here when up to five people turn up dead.”

Official statistics on homicides in Venezuela are a mystery because of a lack of transparence in government, but between crime reporters, investigative organizations and human rights groups, numbers are put together that show up in the news. The number for June 2016 is horrifying: 500 bullet-ridden bodies were brought to the Servicio Nacional de Medecina y Ciencias Forenses, better known as the Bello Monte morgue. To date, it is one of the most violent months on record.
(…)
It is not an exaggeration to affirm that people in Caracas from all neighborhoods and social classes have been assaulted, kidnapped and extorted, or have a friend or relative that have been the victim of these crimes, or have even been killed. To combat this, the national government started the OLP, the twenty-second security plan in 17 years in power. The OLP started in July 2015, but it does not have any legal framework in the form of public documentation, nor do its parameters appear in the Gaceta Oficial, the organ that divulges decrees put out by the executive branch. At the same time, the leaders of chavismo point to an idea that they repeat like a mantra: They do not fight against common criminals, but against paramilitaries funded by “the right-wing”, abstractly, that form mega-gangs and train their soldiers.

In Venezuela, weapons are exclusively legal for the government, but the use of grenades, rifles and machine guns is common in criminal groups. How do criminals get them? Even though the government plays the victim, part of the problem is the soldiers and police who traffic ammunition and arms.

In its first year, OLP has wiped out famous drug traffickers, assassins, and ex-convicts, but it has not generated the peace or justice that it promised, according to an assessment done by Keymer Avila, an investigator for the Center for Criminal Studies at the Venezuelan Central University, and spokespeople from institutions like the Committee for Relatives of Victims (Cofavic). On the contrary, violence has gone up as a result of these armed confrontations and abuse of power.

The Venezuelan Education-Action on Human Rights and Human Rights Watch published a report in April 2016 recognizes mass incarceration, abuse of prisoners, forced evictions and at least 20 extrajudicial executions.

Alexander Torres is a father of two and, at 30 years old, has lived his entire life in El 70 de El Valle, one of the Caracas neighborhoods dominated by criminal activity. His house is close to a place that criminals use to meet and show off their guns. He negotiated the use of some land for religious purposes. He attends a Christian church and says he has never been robbed, but now that the police are in the streets with the OLP, the power structure has changed. The gang members fled and are in hiding, and the police killed their leader.

“I can be out whenever I want when the criminals are around— I even feel more comfortable when I see them. Right now I’m worried because they’re not here and the police take people’s money. They stop you and if they get some money from you they keep it. People don’t know their rights and the police are scary. They have guns. They can make disappear. You know how it is. Not all of them are like that, of course.”

“The criminals here stop robberies from happening the neighborhood?”

“They have a lot of respect for people, and even for me as a Christian. Sometimes they show up and say: ‘Hey man, give me a blessing. I’m having a problem with my wife.’ I’ve had visits from small-time drug dealers. One came to my house and cried. A few months ago some girls from Valencia and some criminals robbed them and killed them. The criminals were from here, but the leader of their own gang had them killed because they got out of line.”

Poisoned by hate from the killing of Yelitza, his daughter’s mother, Miguelon burned down her murderers’ house, which was empty at the time. He continued his criminal routine amidst parties and basketball games until he met a girl named Haiskel, who was 17 years old, and fell in love. She asked him to quit his life of crime. They had a son together and he started to move away from his misdeeds, but he was a womanizer and he wore out his new relationship, so he went to live with another woman.

His robberies were more and more sporadic, but during one of them he was captured by the police: They confiscated his gun and set him free that same night, after he paid a bribe. One of his buddies owed him money, so Miguelon threatened him: He told his buddy to pay the money or face the consequences. On June 6, 2010 he went to a party. He was still unarmed after the police took his gun. He was leaving when they put on tambor, a musical style made for dizzying hips and bodies looking to sweat. A mulata asked him to come back inside. He was dancing when he heard someone yell his name over the beating of the drums. He did not have time to turn all the way around.

One.
Two shots.
In the back.
It was his buddy.

He intended to kill Miguelon before Miguelon got him for the money he owed. Miguelon again ended up in the hospital. He wanted revenge, but his spinal column was severed and his legs did not respond. The specialists told him he would never walk again. He started his recovery in San Agustin with Cuban doctors. Haiskel, his son’s mother, convinced him to go to a Christian church.

“My mentality changed over time. Before I was scared to go out because I thought: ‘If the culebra comes around and I’m in a wheelchair, he’ll kill me.’ But I started to fight. I had separated with my son’s mother and was with another girl, who I got pregnant, but I didn’t trust her. I thought she was going to cheat on me for being like this, in a wheelchair, without being able to walk. We separated. I spoke with Haiskel. I spoke with my son. We got back together and she put conditions on me, helped me with the rehabilitation. It was a struggle, a tremendous process, but little by little I picked myself up by sheer willpower.”

In a few short weeks he was standing again. With the help of crutches, he can walk short distances, but he tires quickly and today he practically lives in a wheelchair. And in a wheelchair is how he faced the man who shot him. He told the man that he could have killed him, but he did not care anymore. He forgave him.

“The kid is still alive, but he’s worse off than me.”

“Why?”

“Because he lives trapped inside, or in hiding, not able to leave. They killed one guy here a week ago. He was there and they shot at him too. They had to get him out of the neighborhood.”

Basketball saved Miguelon. During the inauguration for Por La Paz y la Vida’s basketball court and the nearby gondola, he asked if he could coach some kids who wanted him to be their coach. He had never done it before and his condition would make it more difficult. He started with seven kids and after a month he had 30.

Now he is in charge of maintenance of the facility, which he does with his own money. He has the keys to open and close the doors. He practices with Caracas’ wheelchair team and for five years has been coaching the boys and girls from the Team Work school, to whom he repeats over and over that there are few options to keep them from falling into a life of crime. He presents himself as an example: Scruffy beard, sitting in his wheelchair in shorts or weathered jeans, he puts his index finger to his head where sometimes wears a hat and dryly, sarcastically, shows off his wounds. His legs are skinnier than his arms, practically bones wrapped in skin. He does not ask (his players), he orders them: Do not follow in my footsteps or you will end not being able to walk. Haiskel, his current girlfriend, says that she had her doubts about Miguelon’s role as a coach, because he did not change overnight. He kept drinking, kept making mistakes sometimes. But he talked to her about “saving those kids” and she saw he had other motives. When the Por la Paz y la Vida’s court was out of service for a while, he went to another court — called “El Plan” — that was further away and practiced there.

“The guy he was before was irresponsible even with his own kids,” says Haiskel, “but now he thinks about others first, especially the kids from the court. He supports their dreams and speaks to them clearly. He saves them from being idle, saves them from what they go through every day, the pitfalls of the streets.”

I met (Miguelon) through a civics program called “Caracas mi convive”, which aims at reconciliation and forgiveness, at creating activities that help people live together in places where violence is present. It is an initiative that started in 2013 and has spread out over 16 Caracas neighborhoods, always led by a community leader. Miguelon, who once was a criminal, a crack dealer, a killer, today is a leader. He leads. He gets donations for his players. He takes care of the space.

“You can’t say anything to these kids who are criminals now, but there have been problems around here and I have had to go down and say to them: ‘Hey, man, what’s up? You know I’m running with healthy kids, people who are into sports. I’m not into crime anymore.’ And they say: ‘No, of course, it’s cool. We know you’re at the court’.”

This Friday afternoon, from his wheelchair, Miguelon yells towards the bleachers. He takes his role as referee very seriously in this inter-neighborhood tournament that he himself organized. He carries a small notebook, thin and weathered, where he writes and checks the schedules of upcoming games.

Next to him is Yhaderlyn, a dark-haired girl who functions as the scoreboard: minutes, points, and fouls. She is 21 years old. She grew up in San Agustin, but when the gondola was built the government offered her and her parents another home and they moved. She has been coming back for the practices every week for three years and, like the other girls, respects her coach. They have his back. They like him. She is in her sixth semester at a national guard technical college. She plays on the university basketball team but says that the training at La Ceiba is more difficult and complete.

“Miguelon is demanding. He likes for us to have discipline, for us to behave ourselves on and off the court, to look at sports as a lifestyle. He tells us that even if we are lose badly, to never stop fighting, win or lose to go down fighting. Yesterday they killed a kid at a roundabout close to here and my mom told me not come. It’s something that kills your motivation. We have ridden out gunfights inside here. The holes from the gunshots are right here, but Miguelon talks to us about the situation and encourages us.”

Haiskel watches practice this afternoon with an eight-month-old baby in her arms: Miguelon’s youngest daughter. She says that the group has little support from parents and the rest of the community. There are events in the area with music, dance, and theater, but what the coach and his players have is the product of their own effort, money from raffles and tournaments or donations.

Miguelon uses plastic chairs and small cones to run drills, old balls filled with sand for strength drills, and the bleachers for jumping, running up and down. For hydration, he uses an old thermos. Before practice they look for water, which in general the personnel for the gondola give them, but this week they have had to get it from other places and today it has a green tinge. Some of the young people opt to not drink the water, despite their thirst.

Rommel is the tallest, over 5’9”. He is strong, a little fat, and his movements are not very fluid. He is unable to do a certain exercise: jump with both feet up to the next stair on the bleachers. He is afraid he will fall. Miguelon calls him over and asks him to jump on the ground. He does it. He then invites him to repeat the movement going forward.

“If you feel unsure you’ll never do what you want. Trust yourself.”

He stands him in front of some stairs and tells him to try it. Rommel hesitates, lifts just one foot. The coach encourages and the boy breathes deeply. He closes his eyes and clinches his fists. He jumps and, for at least a couple seconds, his conquers his fears. Two of his teammates applaud. The coach turns around with a smile on his face.

During the tournament, which can last months, Miguelon referees almost the entire time with a whistle in his mouth because he needs his arms to move his wheelchair. He goes from one to the other. Accelerates. Breaks. Goes forward. Goes backward. He makes a joke. He laughs. He has crooked teeth. His mouth is a city that has had an earthquake.

During the game, he goes off to the side of the court and takes a broom to sweep out some little puddles of water that gathered behind the bleachers, product of recent rains. He complains about the lack of resources. He says the kids are good players, but they do not have adequate shoes, and they deserve better.

When the games are over this Friday, some people stay talking and others practicing plays. All of sudden they hear gunshots. They come from a street adjacent to the first floor, next to a group of buildings where two of Miguelon’s players live. One of them watches everything from above as he texts on his cell phone.

The coach is excited. He moves his wheelchair closer to better see the gunfight, some 165 feet below. He laughs. People at the court get excited. They are curious. They make comments. They see several armed kids about their age run to hide inside a building. People look on from the street and the windows of apartments.

The echo of the gunfire makes it hard to locate the shooters, until a group of four young men and two women come out carrying a young man who is wounded. The cradle him in their arms. They try to stop a motorbike but the driver does not stop. They insult him, curse at him. The gunshots start up again. Five. Seven minutes. Almost an eternity. They finally get another motorbike to stop. From this distance it is hard to know where the blood is coming from. The kid cannot keep himself up. He is red jello from the waist down. They prop him up between the driver and another who rides with them.

Up at the court, Jesus Galarraga speaks: “See? That’s our culture.”

Another completes the idea, with a smile: “Welcome to the neighborhood, man.”

The bounce of the ball has given way to whispers. The kids cross their arms. They ask if anyone knew the wounded boy. They speculate. The balls sit on the floor. Basketball is over for the day. The sun goes down behind the city, imposing with its mountains and cement structures, like an oversized, immovable ant farm. Miguelon decides to pick everything up and close it down. He calmly tells the silent group: “Let’s go. This is getting ugly, man, and you guys can run. I can’t.”

The next day the tournament goes on. Today it is the girls team that Miguelon coaches: They will play a team of boys. Because of ethical concerns, he will not be the referee. He will give orders from the sideline, yelling and raising his eyebrows. He will clench his jaw and close his eyes, as he usually does when he does not like something.

It will be a tough game; hard fouls and risky passes. Spirits will overflow as a blanket of fine light drifts in through the fence. Miguelon will make a joke before rubbing his hands together to celebrate a shot. They will play hard. There will be cheers of encouragement. Passion will float over the court and drift down and cover the hillside like dew. For a moment, only this game will exist. There will be nothing more. In the end, the girls will lose by one point, but they will go down fighting, and you can tell from their faces: Up until the last second they will run to other end of the court thinking they can win.

This story was published in the book “Ciudades Invisibles”, edited by Quito’s Secretary of Culture and the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Foundation for New Ibero-American, with support from the CAF Development Bank for Latin America.)

Leo Felipe Campos Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard.