Monday, October 5, 2009

State of 'Exception'

Gray Days in Quito

The president has ordered a 'state of exception' for Quito, Manta, and Guayaquil. Police officers are flooding the streets, stopping traffic, checking identification, monitoring for nefarious behaviour, trying to reduce the incidence of theft and murder, which has increased significantly lately. Eric's experience with armed robbery is not an isolated incident; there have been two spectacular murders of foreigners in the past few weeks, and it appears that robbery was the motive. Whenever I talk to tourists, I hear stories about pickpocketing, slitting of purses, theft of cameras, phones, computers, cash. Knives and guns are frequently used. I remember reading all sorts of warnings on websites before I came, but I presumed that they were exaggerations. Clearly the president is taking the uptick in crime seriously.

I am feeling reassured when I encounter more police and security on the street. I leave the apartment each day with apprehension. I dress in dark colours, in simple pants and Tshirt and running shoes. I wear a black cloth bag slung over my shoulder, which carries a laminated copy of my passport, a few dollars, and my inexpensive camera. I watch my environment, I hold onto my purse, I anticipate. I walk with confidence, but look no one in the eye. I don't like being so suspicious, but I want to do everything I can do to avoid another theft.

I take taxis at dusk and thereafter, and I do not leave the house on my own after 6 PM. If I am carrying anything that suggests value, I take a cab. I feel safe in the apartment; there is a guard at the entrance to the building who monitors anyone entering and leaving. I am presuming that the guards are reliable, but there is no guarantee of that. I hear many stories about security personnel being the 'inside man' in thefts.

Maya's school has a high wall around it and is carefully guarded, with only one way in and out, and with security personnel checking identification, and when I bring the violin, they check inside to be sure the case has nothing other than a musical instrument in it. The schoolbus picks her up and drops her off in front of the building. I put her on the bus and I pick her up and I expect that she is taken care of while she is under the care of the school employees.

In my ordinary life, I would be offended by all the police on the street, but now I feel safer. The government has authorized the military to help the police if necessary. The police have trailers equipped with beds and desks and hopefully crimefighting equipment, positioned throughout the city. This past weekend, the police presence was heightened in the centro historico. There have always been a surprising number of police there anyway, and with the recent protests, the riot troops have been about in force. Ecuadorians appear to have many suspicions about the police, and many suggest that corruption is rampant, but I am not sure how likely that is today. When we were driving to the Mitad del Mundo on the weekend, we did see road blocks and police checking papers. Eric chose to take another route so to avoid having to explain why the car is registered to Virginia Tech, the insurance to Tom, and the driver is Eric. Tom decided to wait a few day before going to Pappallacta, again to avoid checkpoints.

This heightened police activity has happened before. Crime goes down when the government decides to clamp down. Usually there is a big show, the criminals stay out of sight for a while, statistics are favourable, and then the police lighten up and everything goes back to normal. No one expects much change. It just looks good.

The taxistas tell me it is the Columbians who enter Ecuador illegally and prey on tourists and Ecuadorians alike. Others blame the Peruvians, the Cubans, the blacks, other foreigners. The dollar is attractive to all nearby criminals. I am told that one of the reasons there is so much construction going on in the city is that the Columbians launder their money through building. I am not sure what to believe! One of the teachers at the school tells me that the Columbian government has sent the criminals to Ecuador as a plot to destabilize the country. The newspapers simply call the perpetrators 'delinquents'. Theft of personal property is an expected facet of life here. Amparo tells me she has only been robbed three times in the ten years she has lived in Quito, and that is a good thing, because her sister has been robbed ten times in the same amount of time. I am told over and over again to be careful, to watch closely, to be confident, not to draw attention to myself. Then I am told there is nothing I can do anyway, to expect to be robbed and there is little I can do to avoid being another statistic. I am told not to resist when I am accosted; better to live than to hold onto things and lose one's life.

Meanwhile, I am thankful and relieved to see police in uniforms with guns and camouflage gear. They are here to protect me, to reduce theft, to scare off criminals, to reassure me. There are moments when I wonder if this feels too much like a police state and I remember a time when I would have been disturbed by men in uniforms with weapons. Now I simply feel a little safer, but I will not let down my guard.

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