Monday, January 2, 2012

Colombian Justice


The other morning I was in New York City going about my normal routine and heading to the gym before leaving on a business trip to Colombia. A few hours later, I’m in Medellin, Colombia among a throng of celebrants for the big Feria de Las Flores festival, Medellin’s biggest annual event.

While on the way to the gym in NYC that morning I was crossing a busy avenue when, even though I had the right of way, some SUV cuts me off and had I not stopped, he would have hit me. Instinctively as the SUV made the turn inches in front of me I slapped the rear door panel with a t-shirt I happened to be carrying.

The SUV suddenly stops in the crosswalk. Uh, oh, It’s on, it seems. I stop too, not knowing if this guy is big, small, old, young, carrying a gun or knife or what, but I’m angry and am in the right and am going to let him know it.

He gets out and to my slight relief it’s an older guy in his 50s, pretty harmless but he’s angry too. “I had the right of way” I tell him, “Well, I have to move too” he angrily responds. I say “if you’d hit me it wouldn’t really matter” to which he yells “I wasn’t going to hit you and there is no need for the hostility hitting my truck”. I explain loudly that it was a t-shirt that slapped his truck and to “chill out”!

He proceeds to tell me to chill out. I tell him to learn how to drive and on and on. You get the picture. This is all happening while onlookers gawk and NYC rush hour traffic grinds to a halt on a major avenue.

If anyone wanted to see fists fly they were disappointed. In the midst of the tied up traffic were a couple of cops in their car and they hit their siren, a signal for us to go our separate ways or risk a weekend in the clink. It was a wake up call and the driver and I both promptly decided to go on with our respective days. I head over to the gym with an extra rush of adrenalin.

The guy had said my hostility was uncalled for and you know what, in retrospect, I think he was right. He didn’t really come that close to hitting me; he basically just cut off a pedestrian with the right of way. Happens all the time.
I was still pretty upset when I arrived at the gym, but I worked it out and pretty much forgot about the incident. Just another day in NYC really, though I regretted losing my cool. There are times to lose your cool and times not to. I should have let it slide. Not worth making an ass out of myself in front of hundreds of fellow citizens.

Just a few hours later I’m in a totally different world it seems. I’m in Medellin, Colombia and hanging with an American-Colombian guy, Ryan, I had just met. Ryan is American of Colombian descent, raised in the U.S. but now living in Medellin. He speaks perfect English and like me his Spanish needs work. We decided to go check out some of the chaos that is the last weekend of the days long Feria de las Flores party.

We walk a few blocks to the VERY happening Parque Lleras area. While there we stumble upon a disturbing scene on the sidewalk just outside one of the bar’s outdoor patio.

A guy is being held down and being kicked repeatedly in the head, stomach and butt by 3 others, presumably employees of the bar. The big sort of preppy but macho guy who keeps kicking him in the head is also holding a woman’s tiny handbag, leading us to believe the young man getting the s**t kicked out of him probably attempted to steal it.

One guy doesn’t seem into it and is just holding him down while the other two have soccer practice on his head and ass. He’s not bleeding and is conscious and is trying to talk to them but whatever he says they don’t like because they let loose with another round of kicks.

A crowd is watching and no one is intervening. I speak to Ryan and say something like “hey man, we should stop that before they really hurt him” to which he responds we should probably mind our own business.

It’s true, we don’t know the back story and it sure looks like dude stole something and they are dishing out some Colombian justice before the police arrive. I find out later Ryan is a mixed martial artist. Maybe that is why I thought he seemed to be slightly digging the scene but I’m definitely cringing.

At this point I’m ready to say “no mas” but something inside me made me hesitate. I felt threatened by the scene and felt like an outsider interfering. I had been in Colombia less than a few hours. Seemed a little premature to try and be the gringo hero swooping in to save the day when maybe the day didn’t really want saving. Somehow I don’t think anyone (with the exception of the thief) would appreciate my sense of morality.

You see, no one else protested on behalf of the guy, not even the girls who were straining to see the scene and while it didn’t look like anyone was enjoying this in particular, no one was going to intervene either it was clear.

In my safe U.S. world, I don’t think 3 guys should ever pummel a guy while he is down, no matter what. That’s not a fair fight. Hell that’s not a fight at all. It’s just 3 guys beating up another guy. In the U.S. I think I’d call the 3 guys cowards and would immediately intervene and call the cops which would hopefully arrive in short order.

Now granted in the U.S. I might get my butt kicked for intervening too, but I think I’d feel good about it because I did the right thing and somehow I feel right always prevails over wrong. I was raised that way. It’s not realistic and it’s completely idealistic but I still believe that. I have to.

Ah but In the U.S. we have it much easier in so many ways. Clear cut cases of right and wrong, black and white, no messy gray areas right? Well of course not, but a case like this one, with 3 guys beating up one guy, it is a bit more cut and dry I think.

In the U.S. presumably, the guy is held until the police arrive THEN justice is served. We count on the police and the justice system to take care of the bad guys and in general, they do. The very existence of our current society depends on this “rule of law” which sometimes takes the fun out of the place, I’ll admit, but one might argue also helps one sleep better at night.

No such thing in Latin America. When I recounted the violent scene later to another American-Colombian friend of mine now living full time in Medellin, he didn’t sound surprised and he told me that many police here might let petty thieves like this kid slide. So when a thief is caught, he is punished by the victims in just the way I witnessed.

I read that in India when there is a car accident, the motorist at fault is beaten by a quickly formed, witnessing mob. It is their form of justice when there isn’t a functioning official form of justice (tickets, points on your license, insurance denied, etc.) they can count on.

There was a case in rural Guatemala where allegedly a crowd of locals beat a Japanese tourist to death because they thought he was trying to kidnap a baby (he was actually just admiring the baby and unfortunately did not speak enough Spanish to properly explain himself).

In Recife Brazil I witnessed an older kid beating up a much younger kid in front of adults who did nothing to intervene. I did intervene in that one and none of the adults would even acknowledge me or look me in the eye afterward. Were they ashamed of themselves or did they think I had acted inappropriately?

I must say in general, I find Colombia to be a peaceful and safe place these days and the police have always been professional and respectful to me (the Gringo card perhaps?).

But for many years people in Colombia and countless other third world nations have been victims of widespread violence. Good hardworking people and their families were surrounded by violence that hit close to home, often killing or claiming friends and relatives.

I think this presumed, alleged thief was being pummeled not only for his crime but for every other petty theft crime where another thief didn’t get caught or the police let the criminal go. Maybe each kick to the head represented a general frustration that good, hardworking and honest Colombians had to deal with scumbags like this kid, always worrying about somebody stealing something if they dared to have anything nice.

In the U.S., in our “good” and in most neighborhoods really, we readily and freely wear our expensive clothes and flaunt our "bling" happily, usually without fear of consequence of getting robbed, kidnapped or murdered over them.

In South America, you may have to dress down, keep your stuff locked up at home or risk being targeted for theft or worse.

I bet it’s frustrating for Colombians who want to enjoy themselves and their success and maybe that was what each kick to the head represented? Colombian justice. Teach the thieves a lesson in the war of good vs. evil? Or maybe it’s the old wealthy minority teaching the old poor majority who is still boss in this country. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it? What do I know, I’m just an observer, an outsider looking in trying to make sense of a similar but yet very different culture.

However, it does occur to me that in the relatively safe confines of the U.S., earlier in the day I had chosen a potentially violent means as response to a feeling of disrespect. It’s not an isolated instance either. The past year I’ve courted conflict on several occasions and have yet to find it. I’m not looking to fight but I’m ready to fight if wronged. I have more than I need, why am I so eager to fight back at the first sign of disrespect?

In Colombia, watching this alleged thief get pummeled mercilessly while onlookers watched made me feel ashamed of my own behavior earlier in the day. Ashamed at my lack of self control and seemingly subconscious desire to find trouble, whether it finds me or not. Ashamed that I sought a violent solution to an issue that really didn’t warrant it when by all accounts I should be the happiest-go-lucky dude on the planet.

Why should I, of all people, have such a short fuse. Maybe that’s it. The “poor” fight because they have to, the “rich” because they want to. Maybe, even with violence there is such a thing as luxury of choice.

Sept. 7th, 2010
Last week an elderly lady (72) was mowed down by an SUV making the turn onto third avenue at the very same intersection where I had the altercation. Now that I’m back in the U.S. and walking the streets of NYC I feel I did the right thing, slapping the guys SUV with my shirt and standing up to him. I think he’ll be more careful next time, at least I hope so. It’s funny what NYC does to you, but I don’t feel like turning the other cheek anymore. Maybe a little Colombian justice up here would do some people good.

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