There is a section of this city where the houses are big and grand, where the cars in the driveways are BMWs or bulletproofed vans, where the walls are high and sometimes tipped with shards of glass, where armed bodyguards serve as doorbells and where, across the street, the houses are of one room and have no water and where the security is nothing more than a crucifix on the wall. Sometimes that is not enough.
The barrio of the poor where we are now is across the street from such a row of grand houses. To reach it, you go down some steps into a ravine. It was here last March that gunmen came and rounded up the young men. They marched them off, but were stopped when the press got wind of what was happening. The young men were returned.
But four months later, armed men came back. There were four of them and they went down into the ravine and into a house. There, they waited for a father and son to return from work. The mother pleaded with the men, insisting that neither her husband nor her son was politically active, but when the men returned from their jobs at a local supermarket, they were taken away. First, though, the gunmen shot the family's two dogs.
Later, the bodies of the father and son were found in a working class slum on the other side of town. Their feet had been chopped off and they had been beheaded. The mother tells everyone that she does not know why. No one knows why.
This is a story told to us by a woman of the barrio. We met her at the tap where women come to fetch water. They fill up their large, plastic jugs and then, with great effort, hoist them up to carry on their heads. Some of the women have to cross the street to get water. This takes them past the grand houses with the high walls. They must pretend not to see the houses the way the people in the houses must pretend not to see the poor or hear the gunshots that killed the dogs. There can be no other explanation.
After a while, the poor become nearly invisible. Poverty becomes just part of the scenery. You do not take notice of it--of the wretched housing or the wretched people. There is so much of both it becomes commonplace and so it seems normal, routine, for there to be shacks built next to what would be million-dollar homes in America.
The woman we met at the water tap said her teen-age son was one of those taken away and returned. After that, they feared for him. They did not know why he was taken since he was not political--"no, no, absolutamente!" So the family determined to send him away. They took what money they had, borrowed what they could and sent the young man to America. It cost $1,000 but it was worth it. The woman produced an airmail letter from her son. He was safe.
By barrio standards, the woman's house is a fine one. It has three bedrooms, solid cement floors and walls and a roof of corrugated steel. There is electricity and a refrigerator and a Sony radio, but the bedroom window has no glass, and smoke from a nearby fire pours through and congregates under the ceiling. Ten people live in the house.
But the family's relative wealth is causing it some problems. The government, which gave the land to build the barrio, now wants it cleared of its present residents. It wants to resettle refugees from the country here, but the current residents, who have been here since the 1970s, say they have nowhere to go. The government says this particular family can afford to pay rent.
Since the time when the two men were killed, there have been no further incidents. When the woman was asked if there is less fear now in the barrio, she nods but says that is only because they have become accustomed to it. She says there is no telling when things will get bad again.
We rose to leave. We walked past the tap where the women were still fetching water and up the stairs to the street and the grand houses with the walls. It looks as if the the poor cannot see in and the rich cannot see out, but it is clear that this is not the case.
The war means the poor can see the rich. And the walls mean the rich can see enough to be afraid.