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Operativo – The Raid

I wasn’t surprised to be present when a full-blown “operative” was executed against our barrio on June 30th. What was surprising was how normal it seemed to everyone around me.

An “operativo” or redada (raid or operative) is when the OIJ (FBI equivalent), law enforcement dressed like SWAT, pour into every nook and cranny of the neighborhood and arrest a list of targeted criminals. The operativo is executed by special forces uniformed in black with helmets, masks, black stockings covering their faces, and toting high-caliber weaponry. The newspapers later reported that 13 minors and 9 adults were detained, and there was no resistance.

The raid began at 4.A.M., when I remember waking up to the rushed patter of feet running past on the dirt road outside my bedroom. I went back to sleep not thinking anything of it, because there are always noises of people or animals moving in the street outside my bedroom.

When I stumbled out of my bedroom a couple hours later, everyone was at the entrance to the house peering up and down the street. There are a lot of early risers in La Carpio leaving early for work or school, which generates a lot of bustle in the morning hours, even before sunrise. However, this morning there are visitors in uniform and cars with tinted windows rolling slowly up and down the street in front of our house. Four uniformed motorcycle police perched on the corner, with curious kids sitting around them and watching from the curb. My host brother squatted in front of the pulperia (house-store) and played with his yo-yo-top in the dirt around the policemen so he could watch the event unfold. People peered from doorways to witness the spectacle in case anything dramatic happened, but nothing abrupt broke out. Probably the more sensational entries had been conducted early in the morning and we were currently witnessing minor interrogations and searches.

I watched for a while and listened to the commentary of the people in the home, recounting how family members had narrowly escaped being questioned or ID’d. At this point, the exits to the main road were blocked by police tape and OIJ officers checking ID’s. Nobody made it through without being ID’d and searched – not people on the way to work, not teachers, not even kids in school uniform with backpacks. The family watched and lightly ridiculed students that ascended the hill to the main road, and then returned because they had no I.D. Estaci, my 10-year-old host sister, tried to make it through later that day but was turned around, and took a long side route through other parts of the barrio to get to class.

This was on the first day of an important international conference I had signed up for that discusses the use of a fun computer programming tool for kids that we use in our classes (Scratch). I was torn between staying to watch the event unfold and arriving for the conference. This was the first Latin-American Scratch conference, with people from all over Central and South America visiting to hear and share about how they were using this program in their classes. Even one of the creators of Scratch from MIT was there. After watching as several of the OIJ agents took off their masks and bought juice boxed drinks from the corner stores, it seemed like there wasn’t going to be any more activity, so I trudged up the hill following students and workers to the buses on the main road.

Sure enough, the entrance to our community was blocked off and two OIJ agents in SWAT attire were ID’ing everyone who passed. There was a large cluster of people and a television camera on the opposite side of the police tape that weren’t allowed in. As I approached the blockade at the top of our road, a masked OIJ agent waved me aside, ID’d me, and briefly peered through my satchel. “Usted vive aqui?” he asked politely (Do you live here?). “Si,” I replied, and said nothing else. The kids had warned me with giggles that I might get “violado” (violated/raped, but what they meant was frisked) along with the rest of the “chapulines” (a derogatory term for delinquent gangster youth). I didn’t suffer the same personal revision as they did, but I was actually surprised that they bothered to check me at all. I’d learned from reading accounts of other anthropologists, though, that having ID and an explanation for your presence as an obvious outsider is important because of situations like this. I didn’t volunteer any information, though, and the officer didn’t ask. As I rode the bus out of La Carpio I watched as cars blocked side roads and agents in black crawled in and out of the residences and businesses.

According to the newspaper article, the police entered 26 houses in La Carpio and faced no resistance. 300 officials were involved, from three of the four law enforcement departments. They detained 13 minors and 9 adults, and confiscated 270 crack rocks, 50 dosages of cocaine and 100 “dosages?” of marijuana. The round numbers recorded in the newspaper article make me suspicious, but regardless, the amounts are trivial. A fellow missionary recalls that while he and I were living by the language school in SF2Rios, in September 2009, a major drug bust seized 1,500 tons of cocaine in a warehouse within walking distance of where we lived… in fact, less than a few blocks from my church. The amounts recovered from La Carpio were miniscule. However, AD later explains to me that renting out a room as a “bunker” (drug stash) can bring in pretty good cash. The people can charge more, like 200.000 colones ($400), because they know what is being stored there. What I gather from what she tells me, then, is the obvious fact that large quantities of drugs are not kept or stored in the barrio… of course they are stored in warehouses in neighborhoods with more stability, protection, and order… like in SF2Rios where rich/middle-class foreigners live. The poorer, more marginalized sections of the city are then sourced with small quantities of these drugs to sell. And of course the head honchos don’t live in the barrios either… they source it from the outside and pay foot soldiers or local sellers to do the more dangerous work.

As the operativo was taking place, I was struck by the feeling of normality. Of course, it was the only topic of discussion when I left that morning and as soon as I arrived back in the house. When I walked into the house they were just giving a news report about it where they replayed that old interview with the kid from La Primera talking about La Carpio pandillas as “all against all.” I was relieved to see that some of the better-known youth connected remotely with our family hadn’t been picked up. However, many of the sketchy-looking youth that would “perch” on the corners had disappeared. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or uneasy about the group that would replace them.

There have been lots of raids/operativos in the past, but the only one I know to be infamous is the one that met with the most resistance. This one was met with no resistance. However, the whole time my mind was torn between the placid tranquility of everyone and the feelings of injustice within me wanting to react in some meaningful way that declared definitively that it was not OK for people’s homes to be invaded and for children in uniform to be turned back from school by OIJ agents with guns. But what was I to do? Take photos and video to send to the press? They’ve probably already got a database of sensational footage of police raids in La Carpio already, and all it results in is negative stigmatization against the place and its people. I felt extremely helpless. I can’t say for sure what one’s response in a situation like that should be, but I tell myself that the best option is to construct something better. That is, my energies are much more useful poured into teaching, helping, listening, and writing than into direct resistance. As Che Guevara said, “silence is argument carried out by other means.”

That afternoon, I saw the pain on the faces and heard the distress in the voices of the mothers worried sick about their sons. Maria delivers the spunkiest and most possesive claim on her husband of any woman I’ve met in La Carpio, while at the same time flirting with me and swearing she will clock both her husband and the seductress that lays a finger on him. She alternates between boistrous laughter and harsh, opinionated statements. When she starts talking about Guillermo, which she calls by his nickname (Mono), she delivers another angry ultimatum about never letting him back into the house. Her eyes are watering, though, and her voice is cracking. He needs his dad to sit him down and give him an ultimatum – “la casa o la calle” (the house or the street) she barks. He needs to go to beg Roberto for help… to give him a chance, to give him work. He needs to have that option laid squarely before him – choose – to be a man and start working, or to take to the street. What’s at stake here, following from the stories they’ve been telling about the raids and how the moms have suffered, or been arrested along with their kids, is that the whole family is implicated in the decisions of the delinquent.

As Gramma Vicki says – “somos las mamas que sufren por los hijos” (it’s us mothers who suffer for our kids). They suffer the emotional toll, which I witness now. They suffer the burden of taking authority and responsibility for demanding things of their sons. And, if things fall apart as in the case of so many families this morning when the OIJ came in and busted everyone in their beds, once again it is the mothers who will pay. Even Estaci expressed remorse for the “pobrecita mama” of Teletubbie and Enano that got picked up this morning. The family I’m living with feels devestated for the families involved – the families suffer for the sins of the children, they say. It seems to push to a head a lot of family issues regarding rebellious teens. They list off 6 of the “troublemakers” from our neighborhood that got taken, and list off the “bunkers” that were raided. But they finish off shaking their heads while they count off the list of those that still remain.

The arrest and raiding of houses that are known to have drugs, chizas, weapons, and stolen things does not seem to surprise or shock anyone. It is not described as “justice” though, either. People feel sad for the families. It is almost as if the arrest is like one more tragedy in a succession of hard luck. The first tragedy are the rebellious kids; the second one is their arrest and the family that is caught up in it. The people involved are not blamed for what happens to them, although it is acknowledged that they in some way brought things on themselves. But that’s not the main response… the main response is sympathy. Pity. Remorse. Nobody wants that for their family. Or their kid.

I feel strongly for Mono, Maria’s son. If there were anything I could do to get him off that track, I would. I can’t help but feel a pang of guilt for the days when he used to hang out in the computer lab. At one point I thought about giving him a larger role in the administration, but he stopped showing up. I didn’t know what to do for him then. And I don’t know what to do for him now.

I didn’t take the photos in this post. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself or cause a fuss. They are from the original news article, which can be found here: There were more images in the original slideshow but they seem to have disappeared. I’m certain the first photo is the checkpoint I went through at the top of our section of La Carpio.

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