Why you should care
Because there’s more suffering under heaven on Earth than in your books of science.
It was late and the drugs had run dry.
Everyone assumed the house party was over. Then Javier, a garrulous Colombian friend, volunteered to walk down to the Bronx to buy more.
“The Bronx!” jeered the others. “¿Estás loco? At least go with someone,” they pleaded.
“I’ll go,” I said without hesitation. Javier laughed and shook his head dismissively. “Come on, brother,” I continued. “I’ll wear a hood. And I won’t say a word.”
At this point, my knowledge of the Bronx — Colombia, not New York — was limited to the near-mythical stories I had overheard from friends: A ruthless gang of young delinquents and former paramilitaries known as the Sayayines used the three-block area to traffic drugs, arms and people. The authorities, either unwilling or incapable of taking back control, tacitly accepted its presence.
“Police informants have disappeared inside,” said one friend. “I heard they fed their limbs to pit bulls.”
“No, they dissolved them in acid,” countered another.
She asked inappropriate questions and repeatedly grabbed at my penis, but in her presence I was safe.
It was hard to separate legend from reality, but it was clear the Bronx was a treacherous place — especially at 3 a.m. But Javier had been inside repeatedly and knew the area well. If ever I had an opportunity to experience this fortress of sadism, it would be with him.
Days later, the experience was still resonating. My mind flashed between images of people smoking crack, lifeless bodies next to burning piles of trash, and a fat foreign man in a suit disappearing into one of the derelict buildings that lined the street. The more I thought about the Bronx, the more I wanted to go back. I knew the idea was dangerous — if not outright stupid — but I convinced myself that carrying only a pen, paper and a few dollars would limit the risk. And if anyone asked, I was a sociology student researching poverty in Latin America.
So on a bright weekday morning, I changed into my shabbiest clothes, emptied my pockets and walked south. With every block, the streets became uglier; bodies in filthy garments roamed and stray dogs searched for scraps in deserted lots filled with trash and human excrement.
The Bronx was demarcated at opposite ends by waist-high metallic barriers manned by distracted police officers drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. I walked past them without question into the garbage-strewn street. On the sidewalk, in front of empty bars blaring ranchera music, children buried their faces in glue-filled bags; others used the bags to bandage large, puss-filled skin infections. Nearby, vendors sold plates of old meat and rice; others, crouched behind small wooden tables, peddled bags of marijuana, cocaine and bazuko, a local derivative of crack. Some dealers had their own couch, where clients would calmly consume their purchases.
I walked around for 15 minutes before moving back toward the barrier. Then, just a few meters from it, I was confronted by a tall, middle-aged man in sturdy boots, jeans and a leather jacket. I knew immediately he was a Sayayin. Towering over me, he spoke in an authoritative tone.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I’m a student from Canada. I came to do research.”
“Do you have a camera?”
“No, just a pen and paper,” I said, holding them up.
“Let’s talk in there.” He pointed to one of the bars.
I looked at the bar; it was dark and decrepit. A disheveled elderly woman sat idly by a slot machine. I noticed a door behind the counter. I imagined the worst.
The man, unimpressed by my hesitation, opened his jacket and hinted at the pistol in his pocket.
“Please, sir. I’m telling you the truth,” I said, shaking. “If you want to search me, please do it here.”
I followed his dark, menacing eyes as they examined my ripped shirt, worn running shoes and trembling arms stretched wide. By now, a few addicts had gathered around us. “He’s a gringo spy!” barked one. My heart raced. If I entered that bar, I was as good as dead.
“Go,” he said finally. “Now.”
I lowered my arms. All I could feel was gratitude for my tormentor. I thanked him profusely and extended my hand in appreciation. He walked past me without acknowledgment and disappeared back into the chaos.
A week later, with Javier’s help, I returned to the Bronx. His dealer, Catalina, a loud, lecherous woman related to one of the local drug lords, agreed to harbor me. She asked inappropriate questions and repeatedly grabbed at my penis, but in her presence I was safe. From her couch I could observe and listen to people trade stories about muggings and break-ins.
Last May, under the directive of a new mayor, 2,000 police officers stormed the Bronx and unearthed a surreal trail of misery: children tied to bedposts, rooms dedicated to satanic worship, torture chambers. Arrests were made, but the Sayayin leadership escaped and have since established new trafficking grounds elsewhere.
Javier told me recently that Catalina is still around. “She’s been asking about you,” he said. “She wants to know when you’re coming back.”