August 15, 2012
They almost lynched a man in my callejon this week. I had just returned from walking the dog, when I turned into our alley and saw a big circle of men surrounding something or someone in the center. I opened the door and let the dog into the house. This would be no place for dogs. I wasn’t convinced it was a place for most people. I grabbed my cellphone from the table, immediately called the police and said: “There is going to be a lynching in our alley near Iglesia San Francisco, please send someone fast.” I took a deep breath before taking one step further. Presence, full presence, is what this would require. I had no expectations. I did have this vague feeling of dread because Guatemala is a country where people take the law into their hands and lynchings are a popular way to do that.
As I reached the outside of the circle I asked the neighbor I trusted most to tell me the story. A thief had broken into our neighbor, Alejandro’s, house and Alejandro had caught him red-handed with his computer keyboard under his arm and some audio equipment from his house. There were no signs of a forced entry and worse still was that the thief was the husband of Alejandro’s housekeeper, Monica. She had been a faithful and loyal housekeeper for more than eleven years. The rumor was that she had given her husband the key and over the course of the day Alejandro’s camera and other equipment had been stolen piecemeal from his house. The thief had also broken in while Alejandro’s most prized and beloved possession, a small black terrier, was in the house.
“Whatever you don’t want to do is call the cops,” my neighbor told me. “They won’t do anything.”
By the time I reached the inside of the circle I saw a thin, short man around thirty years of age stripped down to his underwear and in the corner of the callejon against the wall. Surrounding him were the indignant, angry young men, the fathers, the mothers, the wives and then the smaller children clutching to their mother’s legs. It was the paralysis of a still life painting. There was very little motion, except by the younger men yelling obscenities at the man, inching ever closer with each obscenity, and pointing the finger at each other and then at the thief. Alejandro was next to the thief – orbiting him like his own satellite planet. His face was sweaty and red as he paced incessantly around the thief threatening him and shouting for the key to the house or for Monica, the housekeeper and the thief’s wife. He shoved his cellphone in the thief’s face and the thief cowered away, covering his nakedness by crossing his arms over his chest.
“You’re going to pay for this with your life, you stupid fuck!” Alejandro yelled at him and then swung a punch at the man’s face. His right white-knucked fist landed right below the man’s left eye where the skin began to grow white then red and then began to puff up. The man groaned, turned his face and curled into himself, while retreating quickly from Alejandro. The crowd was quiet for a moment and then “¡Eso! ¡Asi es!” That’s the way to do it, some yelled out. “¡Dale otra” Hit him again! As Alejandro turned to look at the crowd I came out of it and got in between him and the alleged thief. “Get out of the way!” He yelled at me in English. No, I said, you know this is wrong. His face turned red again and his eyes grew into globes.
“You know what’s wrong? That this asshole stole my stuff and I caught him doing it! So move!” I know, I told him, I heard he broke into your house and stole your stuff. That’s wrong and you should be mad because it’s wrong. “¡Entonces quitaté!” So get out of the way!
No, I told him, because doing a wrong doesn’t make another wrong right. This is wrong and we both know that. “¡Quitaté!”
No, besides I’ve already called the police, so I’m going to wait here next to this man until the police arrives. We’re going to use the law, Alejandro, it’s the only thing we have. We were speaking in English to one another. All the men were confused because they didn’t understand. What they did know is that women just didn’t get involved in these matters.
Alejandro saw my face and knew I would not back down. At that point, Brad and Kofy, our German Shepherd, arrived and stood next to me. I was not backing down. Alejandro pulled back trying to contain his anger. I told the thief to get dressed. I saw the police sirens pass and told Brad to get the cops into the alley. Brad left with Kofy and I went to speak to Alejandro.
Look, I told him, you’re right, he did do a wrong against you and his wife also did a wrong, and anger is the right thing to feel, but hitting a man, lynching him, killing him, will not get you anywhere, you know that. It’ll make you feel good because you’re angry, but nothing more comes out of it.
“What do you want me to do?” Alejandro said inches from my face, his rage making him bigger than life. “Let the asshole go with the cops? The cops will let him go in a few days and then what? They’ll have my stuff and I’ll be the stupid fuck who let him have it. No way in hell!”
I’ve been in your boat, things have been stolen from me, Alejandro, you can keep that man in jail as long as you provide the evidence and ride the fiscal and judge. I can help you, you’ll just need to be patient and take the first step.
“What’s that Miss Know It All?”
It’s making the denuncia, the official police statement.
“No way in hell!”
At that point the police arrived in two Helix trucks and Alejandro said one last thing in my ear: “You haven’t done me any favors, you know, just go home!” As he stormed off three of the police caught up with him outside the door to his house and the other three came over to the corner where the thief had put on his clothes. The man would not say a word, so the crowd yelled out the story at the polic. I followed Alejandro to hear his entire version of the story. Alejandro walked through the sequence of events, unlocking the door, entering his house, seeing the thief with his stuff, catching him and hurling him outside the house. One of the police wrote furiously while the other two just shook their heads. One of them said out loud: “You should just have beaten him to a pulp, that’s what I would have done.”
I turned and glared at him. “You’re the police, even if you think that, keep it to yourself,” I told him.
Who are you, he asked me.
I’m the neighbor who called you. I told the cop to walk Alejandro through the process of making a denuncia and what he could expect. What evidence did he need to provide? How long could they keep the thief behind bars? I got closer to the police writing the report and told him that it was important for Alejandro to be able to keep the things that were stolen with him until they were needed for evidence. I’m not sure he can do that, the policeman said to me. I asked him to call someone above his rank and ask so he wouldn’t get in trouble. He agreed and went off into a corner to call a superior.
Meanwhile the other cops had handcuffed the thief and then shoved him into the back of the truck. His cap had fallen off and all the young men leered at him and called his cap trash. One of them picked it up with a stick. I grabbed it and said “At least try to act mature!” I gave the cap to the man and he took it from me and put it between his legs with his two handcuffed hands.
Alejandro came looking for me and pulled me aside. “Look I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna try, but you gotta take care of my dog while I’m at the police station.”
Absolutely, I told him, pick him up tonight whenever you get done. Alejandro got in the other police truck and they drove down the callejon in a caravan. It was 8 at night.
At 2 AM that night, Alejandro knocked on our door. I had pulled up a sleeping bag and was sleeping outside in our patio with his dog because he would not stop howling for his owner. Little Crocker had fallen asleep inside my sleeping bag and when we heard the knock we both jumped up. I opened the door and saw Alejandro’s very pale, exhausted face. Crocker ran out and bounced into his arms.
How did it go? I asked him.
“It was long, but I did it. The asshole is in jail.”
Good, for how long?
“Until the judge lets him go. I told her I would present my stuff whenever she needed it. Now I want Monica in there with him.”
Do it, use the law to make it happen.
He stared down at the entrance to my house as he petted Crocker with his other hand.
“Hey look, I know I yelled at you. I’m sorry for that. I was mad. I just wanted to say, it was good you were there. So thanks.”
No problem, that’s what neighbors are for. Let me know if you need any more help with this process.
“It’s gonna take a while you know.”
I told him that this I knew very well. I still had to go to court to press charges against the thieves who stole our own laptops, more than one year ago. Animo, I told him, he was doing the right thing.
He kicked some pebbles by his feet and took in a deep breath.
“I hate this.” He said and walked away.