Enrique 29 years from Ejército de Oriente, Iztapalapa, Mexico City

I met up with Enrique a few days ago as I wanted to know more about his job.  

He is a Rapper at heart but has had to find a way of making ends meet so he jumps on public transport every day of the week to sing his songs and in this way earns money to provide for himself and his family.  

He is originally from the Morelos neighbourhood, a conflictive area of the city but no less so than Ejercito de Oriente which is a part of Iztapalapa, considered one of the most violent areas in Mexico City.  

Enrique started listening to rap music at the age of 11. He was always equally interested in action movies which portrayed violence and killings. He was particularly drawn to gang films like Blood in, Blood out and American Me, etc…  

At 13 he started to compose his first lyrics which touched on street issues and stuff like that. Enrique was all about projecting an image of strength and never allowed anyone to see him as a soft rapper.  

He reached a critical point in his life when he was sent to a young offender’s institution for attempted murder. He spent over a year there and it gave him time to write his first proper song entitled ´prisoner´.  

Once he was released he started to sing in freestyle mode but a friend of his linked him up with a well-established rapper in the city who helped him to record his first songs. 

His job as a rapper on public transport, specifically on buses has been going on for about 2 years. At first, he was pretty nervous and embarrassed about performing in front of a crowd of people who had no interest in listening to a young guy sing, - so he thought. 

His strategy has been not to rap about trivial topics, but instead focus on the everyday issues that affect normal people. Enrique tries to make people open their eyes to the problematic that encircles society in order to make everyone reflect on the reality we live. 

Similarly, he hopes to make people understand rap as a life style and eradicate its connection with delinquency and crime.  

In terms of how feasible his job is, Enrique says that the best days of the week are the weekends -that’s when people are most generous. The worst days are obviously Monday and Tuesday which is when people are not in the mood at all. He works from 8 am to 10 pm on average 7 days a week.  

Though he has previously worked at banks or security firms, he prefers this job as he is his own boss and will make the money he wants thanks to his own merits.  

Enrique explains that living in Ejercito de Oriente is tough. It’s an area with a great lack of opportunities for many and where most people live day by day. Muggings, kidnappings, and murders sadly take place all the time.  

It’s a place where residents think only for themselves. People are ignorant and lack principles. 

It’s sadly one of those places full of abandoned youth who are angry and lack respect for their families.  

Enrique recalls one very violent story –someone from his neighbourhood who was feared by many for his criminal actions was after him once . This person, who, among many other of his victims, had shot dead his daughter of 2 years old and his girlfriend was angry at the fact that Enrique had been the winner of a fight with a big bloke from the neighbourhood who was feared by many people.  

This person was angry and felt challenged since Enrique proved to be strong and fearless. In the middle of the night the guy turned up at Enrique´s home, banged the door and started to intimidate him.  

The aggressor tried to smash a gun against Enrique´s head but failed on the first occasion. At a second attempt, he caught his forehead. That infuriated Enrique to the point that they started to throw punches at each other.  

Suddenly, the aggressor pulled his gun out again and fired a bullet right at Enrique’s stomach which penetrated the middle of his stomach and exited right next to his spine.  

Enrique kneeled down holding his stomach very tightly to stop the blood from spilling out. That gave the aggressor a chance to point the revolver right at Enrique´s temple. 

That was a critical moment as Enrique knew the aggressor was cold blooded and would not hesitate to pull the trigger. Within a few seconds, he quickly threw his left hand towards the gun and bent the aggressors arm, giving him a chance to punch him in the head with his right hand until the aggressor fell to the ground.  

Once Enrique was in possession of the gun he fired it multiple times into the aggressor’s face and chest. After that he freaked out and ran as fast as he could to seek help as blood was spilling out of his nose and mouth, preventing him from breathing properly. 

On a more positive note, those terrible experiences have helped him get on in life and to understand that some of his previous actions had just dragged him into a life that would lead him either to prison or dead.  

The situation forced him to leave his home in search of a better life. He eventually found love and saw the marvellous birth of his daughter.  

Enrique now works for a decent living that helps his family get by; he is independent and enjoys a healthy and responsible existence. In conclusion, Enrique feels that he has suffered a kind of transformation that is leading him down the right path. Ultimately, a bullet did not kill him and, if anything it made him stronger…

Orlando, 29 years old, director of a college in Ciudad Juarez

Orlando is the Director of the CECYT 22 of Ciudad Juarez. Before I met up with him I was very surprised to hear that such a very young man was in charge of the whole operation of a college as it involves much responsibility.

He is in charge of the education of adolescents ranging between the ages of 14 and 19. He explains that it’s a huge commitment but he enjoys it very much. Orlando says his job is not easy at all as he must play various roles such as mediator of circumstances that may arise during the working hours, working overtime etc. but he is happy to be the director and the most important thing is that he does it for the benefit of his students.

His main aim is to help adolescents develop and to leave the institution with the necessary tools to progress in life, and consequently to become better human beings.

Orlando notes that his students see the institution as their second home. The students’ commitment to learning is what motivates each of them to keep going so that one day he or she can become someone in life and ultimately, leave a positive mark in society.

Right now they are at an age when they don’t quite know what to go into, and this is the reason it is so important to help them find the right path.

Orlando has implemented a policy at the institution that consists of inviting each student to reflect and be critical. He adds, ‘In countries where governments do whatever they want, we need critical minds that are capable of demanding their rights fairly and people who can change the spectrum of things’.

In terms of the extreme violence that was experienced between 2008 and 2014, he tells me that society as a whole in Juarez suffered from a sort of psychosis at the time. He was personally very cautious when he was out and about. He experienced shootings and saw bad things happen and he adds that over time, citizens of Juarez got accustomed to violence.

Today he says that the situation in the city has changed and that there is less violence; trust has also returned to the people.

With regard to the extreme migration policies being currently applied by Trump he poses the question, ‘why do Mexicans sometimes behave differently when it comes to following the rules in the USA?’ Orlando sees that over in the USA there is no corruption and there is a zero tolerance policy in relation to law and order. He believes that Mexicans are suffering from a certain cultural stagnation but very much hopes that the situation in the country improves.

Araceli (Student), 17 years old from Ciudad Juarez

I met Araceli at her college where she is studying mechatronics. She tells me that her city is much less violent now but when she was 10 years old she would not be allowed to go out and play. Her parents would not let her watch TV either as much of the violence that was taking place on the streets, specifically between 2008 and 2014, was transmitted at all times. Having said that, people’s confidence seems to have returned, fortunately, she adds.

Araceli is very proud of the many positive aspects of her city such as the artistic and cultural expressions that exist there; it is also an honour for her to have the inspirational Taraumara people living in her State –so many talented people around.
She enjoys walking with her family around the city centre every other weekend to visit the cathedral, the urban art manifestations on the walls, and the dancers who set up shows for the people, and she likes to see the Taraumara people playing their traditional music.

It’s very enjoyable to observe the huge effort people make to try and help their families make progress every day. 

One other aspect that she loves about her city is the food, such as the internationally famous burritos which are originally from Juarez.

She dislikes going to the United States of America as she feels that people there are controlled, oppressed and not free. Araceli does not see happiness in peoples’ faces when she goes to Texas in contrast with how she perceives the people of Juarez, who always have a smile and are very expressive. Overall she feels much freer in her city than on the other side of the border.

She thinks Trump is an unfair person as he does not put himself in the shoes of the hard-working people and families who have made such huge efforts to build a life over there and provided many things for the United States.

If she had President Trump in front of her she would tell him not to be unfair, and that as the President of that country he is supposed to help the people.She has family members living on the other side who are in fear of losing everything. They are obviously not at all in agreement with what is going on at the moment.
Once she finishes college, if she manages to get enough money together, she hopes to go to university to study forensic anthropology in Mexico City as that is currently the only city where that degree is taught.

The reason she wishes to study forensic anthropology is to discover what happened to all the women in Juarez that have been disappeared or killed. Her main aspiration is to discover the truth as she finds it very unfair that although the government has the resources to bring justice to the families it prefers to keep quiet about it all.

Ciudad Juarez to Araceli means personal development, change, inspiration and happiness.

Finally, if she could change anything about her city she would like to end the injustices that exist. She explains that there are many cases where the people have trusted the government to resolve the problems but the same government has turned a blind eye to the situation.

She concluded by saying that the Maquiladoras are killing people’s dreams …

Camilo from San Salvador, El Salvador

I met Camilo a few years ago in England. As a matter of fact, Roxana, my sister introduced us before Christmas, 2014, I believe… 

Camilo lived in the UK for about 13 years or so. He has a son who is very bright and talented and in fact he is into playing the guitar but he is also interested in other creative activities. 

I remember chatting to Camilo a few times about how complicated life in El Salvador is before he took off for El Salvador, yet, people have to put up with the violence etc. and smile to make the day a little less harsh… 

Once installed in San Salvador I started to ask him questions to find out more about him. Camilo told me that, as was the case with many people in the country back then, his family as members of the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) also took part in the war in the 80’s guerrilla forces. He recalls how they would be sent out on missions and used their house as headquarters to protect and hide other endangered members. Camilo used to undertake specific missions such as sending and collecting notifications that would be passed on to other guerrilla members across the country. 

After the war ended and the peace accords were signed between the FMLN and the Salvadorian Government back in 1992 at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, a new phenomenon of violence has struck the country. 

The U.S. government implemented a programme whereby thousands of Salvadorians were deported back to El Salvador. Such deportees had left El Salvador with the purpose of finding peace in the United States. Many kids who were born in El Salvador and grew up in the USA were forced to return to a country that they did not recognise. 

This would mark the beginning of what is known today as the MS 13 and the 18th St. gang war. 

I will not elaborate on this as it’s a topic of another story but I obviously discussed this with Camilo since it cannot be taken for granted as the violence not only affects gang members but the entire Salvadorian society. 

On my arrival in San Salvador I expected to see many gang signs on walls and gang members heavily tattooed walking around in full freedom. During the journey to Camilo’s house I perhaps spotted 1 gang mark on the walls –the rest of it was traditional graffiti sprayed all around. There is a policy of zero tolerance and extermination of gang members implemented by the security forces and paramilitary groups so gangs are always on the run and hide away though they are active in their communities. Camilo explained to me that the gangs control most of the city. As we were chatting, he showed me an area were the Mao Mao gang operates which is said to be the oldest gang in the country, established back in the 70’s. 

The Mao Mao, as it’s known, has existed for longer than the other two groups and was set up in San Salvador as opposed to the MS13 and the 18th St. which were established in Los Angeles, California originally. 

Interestingly enough, the Mao Mao’s modus operandi is the sale and distribution of drugs. According to the people I spoke to, that gang does not interfere in people’s daily lives, doesn’t carry out extortions and is not at war with other gangs. They have remained as what some describe as a ‘Narco’ group. 

Camilo’s former experiences living in El Salvador and the knowledge he gained later in the UK, motivated him to start a new venture back in his home town. He returned with the idea of opening a cooperative. 

The project has slowly gained strength with the support of a large group of people who share similar views of cooperation, solidarity and the defence of local farmers and distributors. 

Tukal, as it’s called, has been running for almost a year and the results have been pretty positive, he points out. There is still a lot to improve but it is slowly gaining ground and a local clientele is building up. 

Simultaneously, Camilo and 4 other associates started to produce and distribute a type of mushroom called Pleurotus which is commonly consumed. The vision they had has slowly been bringing the company small success. 

During my stay in El Salvador we engaged in many conversations, some which were based on mere stupidity and little content at all –jokes for the most part –but we balanced that out with more intellectually driven chats about the world we live in, comparisons between the UK and the countries in which we reside. 

Camilo’s view on change seems to be based on a more radical method, in other words, direct action to improve people’s living conditions is the way forward. He believes that the only way to see things change is by implementing drastic changes, visible things, confronting and questioning politicians at meetings , mobilising people to protest, influencing government bodies to stop policies that affect the majority and so on and so forth… 

He thinks that the way in which British activists make their demands for change is quite passive, which is why very little change has been seen there. Based on his experiences, he thinks that activism in the UK is quite passive. ‘Peaceful’ and friendly actions for change will not change anything he says. ‘A more radical approach is needed’, he notes, ‘if we want to see improvements in the world.’

Mercedes, San Salvador, El Salvador

Mercedes is a resident of the Santa Maria La Esperanza community located within Santiago Texacuangos, a part of the municipality of San Salvador. 
 She is a combative woman who has lived through many tragic and, at the same time, interesting episodes in her life. She lived right through the war in El Salvador in the 80’s and has been a strong and resilient woman who defends the rights of human beings and protects nature.

She opened up the floor by telling me that she is a strong devotee of God, not the God that is run by the church for the people but the God that is within us all.

Mercedes is a avid believer in liberation theology. She explains that God is an energy that attracts goodness, positive emotions such as happiness and is the combination of every element that exists on this planet.

Though she did not take part in the war of the 80’s, Mercedes closely collaborated with the Religiosas de la Asunción and the Maryknoll sisters, four Catholic missionaries who were murdered by the government during the conflict.

The sisters helped Mercedes and many others to prepare themselves to defend their lives and support the weakest, such as children, the elderly and women. They also taught them how to obtain medicines and clothes, etc. Mercedes’ mission was to support the displaced.

During those turbulent years, Death Squads set up by the repressive government persecuted her for being the coordinator of a group of more than 200 young Salvadorians who were aware of the situation and capable of reflecting.

Luckily they never found her but unfortunately her cousins did not enjoy the same luck. The army turned up at the house next door to Mercedes, found the cousins and executed them. She never found out how it was that they never found her but she attributes it to destiny and states, “Ultimately that was God’s choice”.

Mercedes’ dad is a Catechist who was one of the first people to be persecuted in his village by the government during the conflict. Due to this situation the entire family had to spend endless nights up in the mountains. That brought a lot of happiness to their lives; the connection with nature provided them with the strength to carry on and luckily that kept her dad protected from being assassinated.

The violence and all the negativity that was dragged along generated forces that made her stronger and more resilient, positive and optimistic as a woman as well as a human being. She adds, “through pain I could see hope”.

She is an arduous environmental defender and a tireless women’s rights activist. She is part of the committee of the citizens’ assembly and monitors the work carried out by the hospital to make the institution improve. Apart from those activities, she is a farmer and social worker and although she may not earn a living from some of these activities they provide her with happiness.

On a final note we touch on the violence that has been affecting Salvadorian society. Mercedes recognises that violence is structural and that it’s a consequence of injustice. She notes: “violence generates more violence in the end”.

She says that young people are victims of violence. Youngsters get together to find love and because they don’t find it, they try to get it by acting in bad ways.

She tells me something that stands out all of a sudden, that gangs do not exist in her community. This phenomenon which seems very peculiar is a result of the organisation that residents have set up within the village to defend the territory from malpractices. A key element that helps to explain this situation is that the community is comprised of people who were once displaced by the war so they have known how to contain the problem and fight so that gangs don’t infiltrate the area and at the same time gain the respect of the villagers.

When a young person has been detected acting strangely and they are suspected of being involved in gangs, the community immediately takes action by engaging in a chat with him or her.

The community has rigid rules that must be followed, such as:

No gangs are allowed in the territory, drunken people are not admitted, and when a resident sells his or her land it has to be to someone within the community and not to an outsider. In sum, ‘protectionism’ has been a key element to understand the positive functioning of the area, which is regarded as a model community for its peace and prosperity nationwide.

Anonymous, San Salvador, El Salvador

 I was 2 weeks into my trip in El Salvador when I had the urge to meet someone who could share their experiences about the situation in a gang-infested neighbourhood. 

I finally met someone who I shall refer to as Oscar. Oscar is a young kid who is in his early 20’s. He lives in a neighbourhood controlled by the 18th St. gang. 

His neighbourhood gives the impression that it’s friendly and free of gangs due to the organised surroundings. It has lamp-posts along the streets, paved roads, nearby amenities and there is a certain aesthetic that projects order in the area but that does not deter the gang from operating there. Either way, gangs will operate in middle, poor and extremely poor areas regardless.  

Oscar enjoyed playing football; his Dad influenced him to start and he has since adopted it as a way to escape from all his problems. He notes, “football isolates me from all my problems. I believe that quality education and sports could end the violence in the country”. 

He has never been attracted to the gangs and states that he hasn’t heard of forced recruitments where he lives. In his own words he explains, “After seeing many things around my house, such as killings, fights etc. I realised that belonging to gangs was certainly not the life I wished to lead”. 

He explains that neighbours, friends, acquaintances and even gang members admire him for never wanting to join the gang. 

Many young people, he explains, end up in these groups because they feel alone and lack love. At the same time, kids at an early age wish to emulate other gang members’ behaviour to gain respect and dress in designer clothes that the gang can supply to them if they join. 

Oscar had to drop out of school due to the violence generated by the gangs and recalls the time when he used to go to school: “in order to reach my old school I had to take a longer route to avoid entering the rival gang’s territory”. 

He made the mistake of entering the rival gang’s territory once under the persuasion of a close friend of his who told him that nothing was going to happen to him. The gang saw him, did not recognise Oscar as a local, questioned him and ended up beating him up. For that reason he remains within the demarcations of the 18th St. gang since. 

The police carry out many operations to tackle gang activity. Oscar says that they arrest many every time they turn up in his area but then the next day one can see many new recruits organising to counterattack the polices’ offensives. 

Overall, he says that although it hurts him to say it, as he grew up with many gang members, he believes the only way to end the problem is by exterminating them. 

On the other hand, and although it seems as if people trust the work that the police do overall, the youth is constantly under threat. Oscar tells me of a time when he was robbed by a policeman; he elaborates on the story: “I have suffered some muggings from the police in the past but one that I vividly remember involved an officer who was also an MS member. He was known very well around the area. After he robbed Oscar he turned his lower lip inside out to reveal that a letter ‘M’ and ’S’ were tattooed on the skin.  

I am particularly interested in knowing more about the rules and whether he could enumerate them. Oscar starts with the ones he remembers which apply to anyone in the area: no red shirts allowed, refrain from mentioning certain words such as Mara in allusion to the Mara Salvatrucha, refrain from listening to certain mainstream bands such as the Latino group ‘Calle 13’ –it is strictly prohibited to talk about the rival gang at all –a number 13 on shirts in prohibited, you cannot approach any girl  at your own leisure in the neighbourhood as they might be tied up to the gang, you have to stick to certain haircuts, do not dress in certain styles, certain Nike trainers are not allowed, and you must avoid tying shoelaces in the shape of an 8. 

Oscar feels watched, limited and censored all the time due to the orthodox rules imposed. For example he has to stop playing football and return to his house after 9pm as the gang has imposed a 9pm curfew on everyone, and everyone must obey. 

His dream is to be a photographer one day and study for a degree in psychology, but the financial obstacles make it hard for him to see it happen.  

Finally, Oscar says that God means everything to him and notes the following, “ God is the one who gives us a chance to live and protects us at all times”…

Isabel from Caracas, Venezuela

As I arrived at the International Airport of Caracas, Venezuela I was pretty confused and slightly nervous due to all the negative information that I had previously heard about the country in Colombia. Even the conversations I had on the plane with other passengers were pretty terrifying but I wanted to see Caracas with my own eyes and leave the media discourses aside.

Luckily, as soon as I reached my destination, Jesus, a friend of someone I know in Mexico was there to pick me up and kindly drive me around to a few interesting locations before eventually arriving at Isabel’s apartment block.

My worries about insecurity arose more knowing that I was actually in the city and I had to spend 10 days of intense tension there. Fortunately as the days went by I managed to settle in and feel much more relaxed.

Isabel is the sister of a well known rapper from Caracas, Venezuela. She lives in the central part of the city and is a devoted Christian whose interest centres on knowing who God is through the study of metaphysics.

She tells me that some changes have recently taken place in her neighbourhood. For instance two mision viviendas (social housing) projects were recently built. What was once a nice green space with trees and birds singing has now turned into a set of buildings for working class people, part of the legacy that Chavez left behind him.

Residents of the mision vivienda are pretty nice and hard working, Isabel comments, though there have been reports of minor issues about the loud music played at night. That said, it does not happen that frequently. Isabel says that people who live in these buildings are seen as criminals, and adds, “There is a stigma against people that live in these places as others think they are delinquents and live off of the government.”

On a positive note, the square where the metro station is located has been rejuvenated and looks a lot nicer now. Trees, green spaces and a nice fountain in the centre of the square embellish the surroundings, allowing people to sit on the benches and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet.

As we discuss the word ‘change’, Isabel asks herself, “what is the benefit of all this change?” She thinks that changes increase the population in an area, which I suspect is not a positive thing for her maybe.

As we sip on the coffee she kindly made she talks to me about her personal interests. Isabel is a volunteer at the religious centre where she prays, her job is to support people in need. She helps every day of the week with a smile on her face.

She also takes part in a course to learn who God really is through metaphysics, God is supreme, she adds.

I barge in to ask her what love means to her and she responds, “love cannot be seen but can be felt. She hopes God gives more love to the president of the USA, Donald Trump in order to cast light along his way and blesses his country and Mexico.

I shift gears and ask her a bit more about the violence that Venezuela is succumbing to. Isabel tells me that she does not leave the house at night. In fact, her brother warned me not to go out at night around the neighbourhood if I wanted to be safe.

She has never been robbed which is pretty uncommon in this country. Literally every person I spoke to told me that they had been mugged at least once at gunpoint.

Robbers will strip you of any valuables you carry, whether it’s a mobile phone, a wallet, a few Bolivares, a hat, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t have anything to give them you could potentially suffer a severe aggression or be killed right on the spot. This is one of the reasons why Venezuela has sadly been ranked as the most violent country in the world.

As I take another sip of the delicious coffee which actually burns my tongue as it’s still pretty hot, I ask her if she sees any future changes in the country. She responds, “I want the country to change. I want a change from the food crisis we are undergoing”.

Isabel tells me that there was a time when people had many food options and that’s when tons of food got wasted. Today’s reality is different; the scarcity of food has given people a lesson in life not to waste things anymore.

It’s pretty common to see people queuing for hours desperate to buy the basic staples, such as bread or flour at a cheaper price. It’s also frequent to see kids and mothers begging for food and people searching among the rubbish for something to eat. In the end, that is what the culture of the haves and have nots creates, pure inequality.

She says that God means abundance and adds, “God did not bring us into this world to starve to death”.

Finally she says, “Apart from all the problems that are affecting people in this country, people keep smiling, they are humorous and friendly…

Rodrigo (Photographer), 25 years of age from San Salvador, El Salvador

I agreed to meet Rodrigo who is also known to his friends as Toto at a march to remember the Archbishop Romero who was shot dead during a mass celebration on the 24th of March of 1980s in San Salvador. 

Before we started to get going I asked him the typical questions, how are you? how’s life? just to kick off the conversation.

Rodrigo is a photographer as well as a musician and a devoted protestant christian.

He grew up in a friendly household where his family supported him and allowed him to be free.

As we chatted along my curiosity was placed in knowing why he, unlike many young people in this country, didn’t end up in gangs. Rodrigo said that he was never attracted to them. He notes, 

“that stuff never caught my attention actually. I found a refuge in the church which protected me from falling into a negative path. The church has supported me all throughout my life”.

He is aware of the forceful gang recruitment procedure that happens to some kids in certain neighbourhoods. As a matter of fact, he knows the case of one guy in his early 20’s that refused to be part of them, hence, he had to run away from his house not to be seen again. After that, the gang started to intimidate and extort the Mom, forcing her to pay $150 then $200 and finally $300 if she wanted to be left alone. They finally warned her that if they located her son he would be killed.

Rodrigo thinks that the extermination groups, allegedly set by ex-soldiers and police officers are not bringing a solution to end the terrible violence that has shook the nation and made San Salvador fluctuate between the second the third position as the most violent city in the world according to some surveys. He adds, “In the end, gang members are human beings that also suffer and cry. It’s unfair that these extermination groups decide to take these kids lives away, regardless of the fact that they kill other people.

Some time ago, Rodrigo worked at a  without a pay. His Mom used to be opposed to the idea that he worked as a photographer since she argued that no money was made by taking pictures but Rodrigo has proved her wrong and little by little he has managed to secure a living.

As a matter of fact, when he joined the newspaper company; he felt very proud of his new job but never showed off about it to his friends as he dislikes the attitude of competition and arrogance.

It’s risky being a photographer he says and adds, “ It’s not easy being a photographer here because anyone can rob your equipment at any point. It’s also tough in the sense that it isn’t t easy to arrive at a crime scene and see a family member cry in front of his/her murdered relative. It’s those situations he has encountered that have made him strive to be a better person every day. He also feels their pain.

On one occasion he was driving alongside a work colleague to locate a homicide scene in order to carry out an assignment. When they arrived at the community, a gang member forced them to stop, flashed a gun that was tucked inside his trousers and asked them why they were there. The gang member explained that they had nothing against journalists but that nothing had happened there so they had to leave.

In terms of his goals in life, he means to set up in the future a small photography school for kids from low income families to teach them how to see the world in a different way. He wished that photography would provide them with a vision for their future. “ I would prefer a million times more to see kids carrying cameras than guns”.

Overall he isn’t scared of speaking out against the State nor is he worried on whether police would try and mess with him as he sees it highly unlikely to happen. What he does fear, like most Salvadorans, is about speaking against gangs.

With regards to human rights, I ask him to give me his opinion on that topic, “It’s a very difficult one actually. I don’t believe that human rights actually exist in the country. Just check the case of Monseñor Romero, more than 36 years have gone past and impunity still prevails.

On a final note he adds that perseverance will help him to improve as a photographer and artist, “ I don’t regard myself as the best photographer but if I applying patience and perseverance to what I do, I shall slowly get better at my profession and will become a more humble human being too…

The Police officer, El Salvador

I recently had the opportunity to meet with a police officer in San Salvador who gave me a brief insight into his life as a police officer, the adversities the corporation goes through on a daily basis and his general perspective on life in El salvador.

Before Carlos ( not his real name ) became a police officer he worked as a cleaner. His parents opposed the idea that he became a police man, although for a long time he wished to join the forces and embrace the profession with passion ever since.

I immediately open up the conversation on the subject of gangs in El salvador, which is a hot topic here. Most crimes that occur in this nation are attributed either to the MS 13 or to the 18th St. gang.

Carlos informs me that there has been an increase in female homicides in recent weeks, many of which are allegedly related to the gang wars.

So far in San Salvador I have heard of over 20 female homicides in 3 weeks, a shocking figure indeed. In fact, as I was chasing pictures yesterday night, a friend of mine informed me that already 5 female murders had taken place, and that is not adding the male murders that occurred.

Carlos reveals that in most cases, women in gang-controlled communities end up in the hands of these groups who can dispose of them whenever they want. Gangs have no respect for human life nor age, so for example, when you become a part of a group you must follow the orders or else you will be severely punished.

It’s pretty common to live in an area controlled by one of the two main gangs though in Carlos’s case, his neighbourhood is controlled by a narco group. He actually prefers to have that rather than the MS or 18 st. because narcos don’t interfere with peoples lives, all they care about is in making money and mind their own business.

Carlos assures me that no gangs operate in the area where he works, although on my way to the police station I noticed a few gang signs on the walls.

On a side note, Carlos disclosed to me that he once saw the previous head of the police station where he currently works meeting up with one of the drug leaders from his local area. He never found out why they had both met behind closed doors at the police station…after that, doubts about the credibility of his previous boss emerged…

As we jump back on to talking about the police policy to tackle crime, Carlos tells me that the force should not be undertaking prevention tasks to tackle criminals. ‘The reason why a staggering amount of police officers have died is because we don’t have authorisation to act aggressively against gang groups’, he comments. Last year a shocking figure of around 46 police officers and 22 soldiers were killed in confrontation with criminals or while they were off duty.

Carlos argues that an element that obstructs the police work is the fact that they need to look after the human rights of each gang member every time they confront them. He also sustains that police repression is the only way forward to correct this society. ‘As soon as the police assume control once again, we could gradually move back to applying a preventative policy but for now repression is the only way forward’, he adds.

I can hear a fair bit of anger and frustration in his words when he talks about his job. Carlos tells me that the main reason he feels that way is because he has to follow top official’s orders to undertake his police duties but that is not the way to act. Nevertheless, his anger against gang members has forced him to keep proceeding in a repressive way to combat the problem. If he needs to kill a gang member he will do it with no remorse and will show no pity towards him/her.

He tells me that a fellow parent of his once forgave a gang member’s life and let him live. As time passed on, the gang bumped into the police officer and shot him dead. For that reason he will kill if the opportunity turns up.

Carlos confesses that he has a young cousin who belongs to the 18 st. He is opposed to his cousin’s involvement in the group though there is nothing he can do to correct change his ways. Carlos is also of the belief that change is not possible in peoples lives. In other words, he has no hope in positive change…

After I hear him mention that he is willing to kill a gang member no matter what, I ask him if he would be willing to kill his own cousin and he responds that if he had to kill his cousin for a mistake he made he would do it without pity, regardless of whether he is family or not.

He feels powerless that he could not do anything to avoid the murder of his friend and police partner Yamileth, the first female officer to be killed by the 18 st. gang in El Salvador in 2015 on her way to the shop.

I am curious to know why Carlos never ended up involved in gangs. He explains that he was never interested in drugs and he always held a strong passion for football. His Mom and Dad were role models in his life and imposed a set of rigid rules while he was young. They provided him with love and understanding. Those are the reasons I did not end up in gangs, ‘Carlos says’…

I finalise our conversation asking him for the definition of a few concepts.

‘Optimism’ to him means being positive, to try and accomplish your dreams. ‘Family’ is everything that one fights for to keep going in life, ‘politics’ is nothing but corruption, people that live off of the rest. “Freedom’ means to be independent though nobody can be totally free.

I thanked him for his time and asked him what the best way to get to the bus was. On the way out I noticed a young person standing right by a lamp post. I did not think anything of it but as he saw me, he started to intimidate me by shouting, ‘gringo, get the fuck out of here’ several times. I then turned towards a wall and spotted another 18 st. mark on the wall. I carried on walking until I found my way to the bus…

Daniela, 29 years of age from Soyapango, El Salvador

I recently had the opportunity to meet up with Daniela who lives in Soyapango, a municipality just outside San Salvador.

Such area is known as one of the most highly populated areas of the country, where delinquent groups control most of the territory and inhabitants of the area live under constant threats.

Daniela has lived there all her life and even though the place is highly dangerous for anyone, it’s certainly much more for a person like her. When I ask her if she has considered moving elsewhere she responds that there is no point in moving to another part of the city as it could complicate things more. People already know her in her community which makes it ‘safer’ in some respects.

People in El salvador must be very careful where they go, what they see or what they say due to the gangs which are constantly monitoring people’s lives. There are unwritten rules that dictate for instance where one can go and where not to be. If one step into the wrong neighbourhood it can mean the end of someones life, and that is said with no exaggeration whatsoever. Due to such reason, Daniela takes many security measures before leaving her home and when she returns.

A typical day in her life is to go from her house to University and back. She must make sure that she gets home before 6pm as that is when things can get a little more violent; she also avoids leaving her house after 6pm.

When she walks towards the bus to University, she quite often gets insulted and worries that one day it could lead to physical violence.

She is currently in her 3rd year of a 5 year degree in educational healthcare at the National University of San Salvador. 

As we are chatting, I suddenly think to myself how hard it must have been for her to get to where she is today. Having been able to finish her basic education, knowing of all the obstacles that it involves, Daniella proves much courage, determination and passion, qualities that not every person carries along.

One of the few areas where she actually feels safe and free to hang around is at the University campus. Having said that, she has also been discriminated due to her sexual preferences. She has received threats and insults from students and staff. She has been threatened with a knife once by a member of staff, she has been spat at, etc…

Nevertheless, she remains strong and sticks to her beliefs in that she is confident that by working very hard, one day she will be able to change things for her community. Besides the adversities, a few things have been gained along the way like the fact that she is now recognised as a woman in certain departments of the institution but the work carries on.

Throughout her long standing battle as an activist seeking justice, due to discrimination against her she has filed around 300 complains so far at the attorney generals office. Daniella is determined not to stop until her rights are fully respected and protected by the law. 

As we chat I suddenly touch on the topic of prostitution and wish to find out why Daniela did not end up immersed in that life like most transexual women who do. She explains to me that due to a lack of love, understanding and education, transexual women recur to working as prostitutes to earn a living as it’s the ‘easier’ way out of poverty. In her case, she didn’t get trapped into that world thanks to the love that her parents have given her. The most important things for her family is to see Daniela succeed in her career and be happy.

I am interesting in knowing if, besides the fear that is generated regarding criminal groups that operate in the country, she has any worries of being hurt, disappeared of killed by the State due to her daily activism. She responds that she is worried, as the government is pretty corrupt and her complaints are hardly ever investigated. Notwithstanding, she is adamant to carry on with her struggle and will not allow any intimidations or harassment by anybody..

I shift the conversation towards asking what ‘freedom’ means to her which she responds that it is being authentic, being true to yourself. It also symbolised tranquility and behaving optimistically towards life. 

Daniela portrays herself to me as an independent person who transmits strength, who is not scared of what she does in life or who she is, on the contrary, she is proud of herself in all senses. 

She defines the concept of family as love. It’s a group of people who will be there to support you no matter what. 

I had the urge to know her impressions about religion knowing that it has acted traditionally as an agent that condemns sexual diversity as demonic and whatnot. Daniela tells me that religion to her means superficiality, it is something relative that is not so important. People in her community are highly religious, yet they are the ones who have discriminated her mostly. Religion destroys life and breeds hatred as far as she is concerned.

Another interesting element to denote regarding peoples perception on human rights in El Salvador is that such basic elements obstruct a process of peace. They think that the police cannot properly work to eradicate violence if human rights are applied to protect criminals all the time.

Human rights to Daniela is just a concept, it doesn’t have value. In several ocassions she has been denied the protection of her rights from the State. She argues that the attorney general’s office is the institution that least has respect of people’s human rights, especially those of the LGBTI community.

Due to the violence that has spread throughout the country over many decades, people have normalised the situation. Daniela says that she would love to become a promoter for social change.

She is happy with who she is today. She has changed what made her feel unhappy in the past and finally feels free…

Lastly, I ask her what is her own definition of ‘love’. She responds that it means satisfaction, passion, caring, understanding. She finds love in her family and her friends though she agrees that at times it’s difficult to find it.

The weapon on the bus…

I boarded a bus last week in order to head over to the Soyapango district to search for more clues for the work I am doing. The bus was jam packed of course as it was peak hours. Right beside me I had a police officer carrying a large rifle like the one shown in the picture. It’s normal to see all sorts of police units and the military to carry weapons at all times as a result of the high levels of insecurity in the country.

After a few minutes I started to feel something pressing against the lower part of my leg, just below my knee. I looked down and it was the head of the assault rifle the police officer was handling.

I believe it’s the first time I ever feel a gun being pointed at me, though this time it was unwittingly, luckily . I thought, ‘what the fuck!!’ What if the police officer shoots the rifle by mistake? It was pretty shocking to be honest…

Manuel de Jesus, El salvador

As I was hanging out in the heart of San Salvador the other week I noticed many people resting around the plaza. Some were enjoying a little rest from the intense heat while others were selling food or coffee, and so on and so forth. I briefly spoke to a man who told me that he used to live in Mexico. He loved it there and said that Mexico offered many more opportunities than over here. He is now planning to go back there to improve his life since El salvador is quite unsafe and hardly any opportunities exist. Another man selling coffee told me that he is married to a Mexican lady from Atlacomulco. Both men shared the opinion that Mexico is a place with more chances to succeed and they will both be migrating to Mexico quite soon.

After my quick chat with both of them I noticed another man further down. He was a religious devotee, passionately reading chapters from the bible and explaining them to passersby, etc.

I stuck around to listen and try and understand where he was coming from with his beliefs. I wished to understand this man’s passion. I had to admire the strength and devotion he had when spelling out each sentence in defence of God’s actions. I got the impression that Manuel truly believed in what he was sharing with everyone around the plaza who literally seemed to be ignoring him.

Later on, I approached him and introduced myself. I told him my name and praised him for his hard work under the intense sun. I eventually asked him if he felt disillusioned at the fact that nobody seemed to be paying attention to him. He responded that although it might look that way, people were subconsciously listening, the word of God is seeping into their minds without a doubt he said…
Manuel explained his reasons on why he started to share the word of God with people. He told me that he was close to dying at least 10 times throughout his life. Thanks to the respect he has for God is that he is still standing straight. Although this is not a job he gets paid to do, he is very happy to spare a few hours of his time on the weekends etc… to making this world a better place.

Apart from being a dedicated religious devotee, he works as a bricklayer most days for a living and to provide food for his family. As we kept speaking, my nose perceived the fresh and pleasant perfume aroma he was wearing. Subsequently that projected a perception to me that Manuel is a person that cares about himself and likes to feel proud of who he is.

Without wanting to manipulated any uncomfortable topics, he touches on the feeling of insecurity in this country. Manuel recalls an episode when used to travel to a community in the outskirts of the city without permission of the gang that operates there. One day, the gang approached him and warned him not to come back as he was unwelcome. A gang warning in any area of this country could mean that if you break the rule the chances of being killed are very high. 

Regardless of the waring, he decided to return to the community since he had a mission with god and he could not let him down. Manuel was inside a house when a sudden knock on the door occurred. Some members of the gang group had located him and were interested in finding out more about who Manuel was. They were basically investigating him in order to either grant him full permission to the community or something else…

Finally, the gang was able to check on Manuel’s legitimacy regarding his relationship towards God so they let him come back.

After that anecdote I could notice how Manuel’s eyes drifted in different directions. I identified that he was getting a little anxious or nervous. A man who was sat behind me was looking in Manuel direction. Such man was taking pictures with his phone and I immediately felt a little uneasy with the situation. It must be mentioned that a common thing for gangs in various parts of the city is to have ‘postes’ (informants) placed in areas in order to notify them of any strange activity. The level of fear and paranoia that exists in this country as a result of the violence makes many people feel this way and I don’t blame them at all.

Manuel decided to say goodbye to me and walked off… 

Nadia from Tegucigalpa, Honduras

I met up with Nadia in Tegucigalpa a few days ago to hang out and discover unseen places in the city.

Nadia lives with her Dad. She graduated with a degree in Psychology and conducted further studies in Psychodrama in Argentina where she lived for about 5 years. She currently works for various NGO’s as a freelance consultant, providing support and assistance to disabled migrants who return to Honduras. She opted to work freelance as there aren’t many stable job opportunities and salaries for the most part are pretty low which makes it very difficult to get by. Having said that, she says that she cannot complain as she receives love and support from her Dad who is always there to assist her if needed.

During her time living in Argentina she felt pretty safe unlike here in Honduras where she thinks that people here are sadly kidnapped in their own country.

After being away for quite a long time, Nadia decided to return to Honduras to reunite with her family and support them after her Mom sadly passed away. This tragic episode in Nadia’s life was due to medical negligence at the hospital, since the illness slowly intensified, hence an adequate treatment wasn’t provided in time to improve her health and save her life.   

I decided to shift the topic in order not to touch on any more sad memories. I proceeded to asking her what the area where she lives is like to which she responded that it’s pretty safe and peaceful. It would be regarded by Hondurans as a ‘colonia fresa’ which in english translates kind of like a ’posh neighbourhood’.

I suddenly picture her area in my head to be surrounded by fenced up houses ‘decorated’ with barbed wire all around them. This is not an unusual picture of course though due to the Honduran context it resonates even more so.

I had promised to myself before meeting up with Nadia not to talk about violence or injustices for once but the topic was inevitable. Nadia was curious to know how I have been doing so far so she asks the following question:

How have you felt in Honduras so far?

I internally laughed for a few seconds and then exposed a quick smile. I then responded that so far I have been ok, that I had slowly been adjusting to the stress of living in a dangerous country like this one. Bit by bit I had learned to live around fear without feeling too anxious about the situation.

I should in fact add that I don’t consider myself as a fearful person but being that I am in a place with such a bad reputation for all the bad things that occur one needs to be extra cautious.

Since we are touching on insecurity I proceeded to asking her the obvious:

Have you ever been robbed in Honduras Nadia?

She responds that never outdoors but once in her previous house. 

What happened was that two individuals who were carrying guns broke into her home to steal expensive items like jewellery. They were very specific about what they were after and did not force physical violence against anybody, fortunately. However, what they did do was to tie Nadia’s hands up to stop her from moving around. She kept her composure tight all the way and was even able to keep her friends calm as they were pretty nervous.

After two hours the robbers left the house and life continued as ‘normal’ for her though such event has obviously tainted her life a great deal. She tends to bring this episode up in conversations every now and again in order to alleviate the weight it has over her shoulders.

Finally, she concludes by adding that during that tragic episode she did not have any fear of dying.

I drastically turn the page over to talk about love, relationships, etc…

Like in all relationships, one can share similar things and have discrepancies as well. Even though Nadia and her ex boyfriend loved each other, they had ideological differences. 

Nadia tells me that it is not difficult for her to fall in love, nonetheless it is hard to find the right person to fall in love with.

Switching gears once again, I am curious to know how free she feels about express her ideas in this country. She bravely tells me that she won’t allow anyone to strip her off of exercising that right, although she has had to be careful about her thoughts and beliefs during some periods such as when the coup d’état was imposed in 2009. 

Overall she feels that their is a limited amount of freedom of expression in this country due to the State’s repression over its citizens.

Before wrapping up our conversation she finally tells me that as part of her artistic and creative skills she is particularly interest in intervening the public space as a mechanism for self awareness.

She recently recreated a performative act in partnership with a friend with the main objective of opening people’s minds about the immense value of their ancestry, the diversity of ethnic groups, the four elements of the planet (air, fire, water and earth) and culture.

Nadia is a strong person with a great personality, passion and strength who seems fearless, an element that one certainly needs to have in order to live in a country with high levels of insecurity but where lovely caring and generous people coexist in peace too…

Ruth from Guatemala, living in Costa Rica

I arrived to Costa Rica a little over a week ago. I did not know what to expect but I was warned about how expensive it was. An ex colleague in London told me it was awfully expensive after her return last year but I thought to myself, Costa Rica? a tiny country in the Central American region which is insignificant to the entire world, expensive? I also associated it to Honduras or El salvador in terms of insecurity and violence but it turns out to be a very safe country over all. In fact, one of the safest countries in the American region and has performed economically quite well, having a zero percent inflation for the past three years or so.

So, I finally arrived to San Jose at night and the taxi which took me all the way to my friend’s house ripped 15 dollars off of me, ouch!! 

Anyways, this story is not about ranting on how expensive this place is or about the deficiency of the transport networks in the city. I have had a great time over all, especially as I was around awesome people who have treated me so well.

I met Ruth last year in the UK during a visit she did to see her daughter. The encounter there was very brief and I hardly had any time to speak to her but for the past week I have been learning so much about her experiences in life.

She is literally a living encyclopedia. The more experiences she shares, the more I wanted her to keep going. She is so vital and strong. As she is talking to me I suddenly distract myself and without making it too obvious I go into my head to think about how eloquent she is. Ruth has lived many episodes that in many respects have made her stronger and sensible towards human life.

She invited me over for breakfast one morning. During our conversation she told me that her and her husband were strong admirers of formed Chilean president Salvador Allende. She also said that she felt very sad after Allende’s murder, backed by the US government which opposed his leadership at all cost and wished to get rid of him by any means necessary. The US feared that Allende would spread socialism and go against the American ideals of capitalism and democracy. 

Through a military intervention on behalf of chilean forces Allende was cornered right inside the presidential palace, known as Palacio de la Moneda in the capital city.

Ruth said that at the time she felt very resentful about that tragic episode. The chance of having a leader with a different view towards the world was suddenly eliminated by the US once again. What hope was there to view the world in a different way?

After two weeks of tears and sadness, Ruth’s husband asked her to be strong and keep going, that one needed to recover from such acts as life goes on, it’s unstoppable.

Another experience that she shared with me was when she met up with Francois Mitterrand’s wife, Danielle.

The encounter was set after Ruth exposed her case in France about a series of very harsh personal injustices she suffered from within her family. The former First Lady made a petition to meet with her to talk behind closed doors about her case and to propose a few educational programs to strengthen awareness about injustices.

I sense that Ruth’s life was always surrounded by strength and a strong eagerness to learn, to not give up even when times are turbulent. She has won many battles and has seen the results of her efforts through the lovely creative and talented family she brought up.

I feel very happy to have been a part of her life for a little over a week and I thank her and the rest of her family for allowing me to enter their inspirational life.

Enrique from Mexico living in Panama City

I finally left Caracas after spending 10 short days to try and understand the differences between that place and Mexico thought unfortunately I left with more questions in my head and wanting to return.

I arrived in Panama without a clear plan on what to do. My original idea was to visit Caracas, San Pedro Sula/Tegucigalpa, San Salvador and Guatemala City though I have visited a few extra places where I have had some great experiences and learned so much.

So, I met up with Enrique, a friend of Juan, an old mate of mine from Mexico City.

Enrique has been living with his wife in Panama City for the past 6 months. It has been a little hard for him to adapt to the place and find a job within  the animation industry but he is trying and will eventually find it, I’m sure about that…

As soon as we met up at his nice apartment located along the luxurious coastline of Panama City we immediately connected. 

It was easy to chat with him as I felt that he was, in many ways, similar to me in many aspects. He seems a simple person with no pretensions. 

As our conversation went deeper, he told me that he did not feel that happy living in Panama at the moment, that it has been a little hard to interact with the people, they don’t seem as friendly as he expected. He misses Mexican food, his friends and life in the city. I completely understand that as I felt pretty much like that on my last few years living in the UK.

Our chat moved on to talking about Mexico for obvious reasons. He is very interested in investigating on the drugs trade in Mexico and has read several books on the topic. He has also got a few tragic stories to tell, like many Mexicans have unfortunately. 

One of them involved a friend’s relative who was driving a van with a colleague of his in Durango, as Enrique recalls. 

So the two guys pulled into a parking lot to buy some stuff in a shop although the way in which they drove out of the parking area was identical to how the narcos in that state drive, it’s kind of like a unique mark that warns anyone who they are. They did not have a clue about this until a few weeks later when they were informed…

So, they drove off and minutes later they were intercepted by a pick up truck. The narcos road blocked them at gunpoint and forced them off of the van. Locked both of them in the car boot and took them to an unknown location. The narcos interrogated them for about 2 weeks about their gang affiliation but they obviously did not have anything to do with that. 

After some time, they were luckily freed by the criminals but before they were allowed to go they warned them not to turn their heads back or else they would be shot dead…

Weeks later, they were notified by the police in the area that the reason they were stopped and abducted was due to the peculiar way in which they reversed, being that that is the narco style. They were extremely lucky to be let off without suffering any physical abuse.

Enrique knows that the situation in Mexico is not as easy as many think. We keep chatting until I gently turn round to observe the flamboyant city scape that surround his apartment at night. Flashy lights and tall high-rise buildings disguise the city from its truth. Behind the long wealthy strip a different picture can be observed. One can decide which direction to turn to, whether to look towards the small wealthy touristy radius or to view the real Panama inhabited by ‘real people’.

We carried on chatting about Mexico and its beauties, when Enrique shared with me another sad story that involved one of his ex girlfriend’s friends sister. 

This girl who suffered this tragic episode, who I will refer to as Maria was on her way to work early in the morning in the Estado de Mexico, a part of Mexico well known for the increase in violence, including violence against women were feminised and disappearances take place more than in any other States in Mexico according to some national statistics.

Maria was walking when suddenly she was intercepted by a taxi. The driver and passenger forced her into the car never to be seen again by the family.

Time went by and the family finally found out about her whereabouts and the reason for the abduction. Maria had been confused with another girl who was meant to be taken away and killed by the aggressors under the boyfriends orders. The boyfriend had payed some people to carry out the job due to issues they had in a love affair ,according to the police.

Maria was confused with another woman. She coincided with the description provided by the man. The aggressors saw that Maria looked like the girlfriend and took her away, retained her and killed her in a very barbaric way.

After a long conversation revolving around the tragic misfortunes of Mexico, we decided to shift our attention toward more positive ideas. I kept on thinking about the huge differences in Panama and how people can cope with seeing a small portion of wealth emerge whilst the majority are living a very unequal reality…

Alirio from Guadalupe, Colombia

The first question I need to ask myself is, what am I doing here? Once I figure that out I will be able to understand why I spoke and photographed Alirio.

Before I start typing this story, yesterday I was having a delicious meal in a nearby restaurant in the Comuna 13, a place with way too much history to spill in a few lines, I was chatting to my host, Sergio.

I suddenly said to him, - mate, you know? I am trying to figure out why I am traveling on this trip. 

Ok, I admit that I’m here to photograph places and people, exchange experiences with friends and strangers and figure out what Latin America is all about. Paint some messages of hope and truth etc. But the central reason is to try and figure out what the meaning of freedom is, ‘freedom’ and ‘love’ actually.

So, I had the opportunity to meet with Alirio a couple of days ago. I figured that the man loved to talk a lot, more than me in fact. He invited me into his house to get to meet his family and friends; a very generous gesture on his behalf I would say.

He does not actually live in Medellin but close by in a community in the north of the city.

With lots of pride, Alirio tells me that he has been serving a transnational company called Noel for over 32 years non stop and his job involves packing all sorts of biscuits for many hours a day.

As I ask him how is it that he has preserved the job for such a long time, he responds that he got the job and has maintained it thanks to the holy God’s will.

I dare to ask him what the conditions are like where he works and he responds that they get fed Mexican food on a designated day during the week and insists that he works for the best international company of the entire country.

The way he found the job was interesting and he attributes it to his one and only friend, that is Jesus Christ and nobody else.

He left his village in Guadalupe when he was 20 years of age in seek of better opportunities. 

When he arrived in Medellin, he did not know anyone and was forced to sleep on the streets. On one occasion he bumped into a man who was selling mangos. Alirio was very hungry and decided to approached him and asked him if he could collect the mango skin that was dumped around. The mango merchant agreed and he started to build a mountain of skin. 

He placed it all in a plate and prepared it with salt and lemon which was provided by the merchant. He kept coming back to ask the man for more mango skin for the next few weeks until the merchant got curious and asked him where he was from.

Alirio responded he was Guadalupe and that he was looking for a job. For a strange reason, the merchant and himself had relatives in common and Alirio ended up working for the man and living in the humble house the merchant and his wife had.

He loved going out and selling the prepared mangos to passersby etc. With a bit of more luck he finally was offered a job at the place he currently works. He is lucky because he has a contract but he says that many other colleagues are offered temporary contracts which means that as soon as it ends they don’t get rehired and are forced to look elsewhere.

Alirio insists that the holy god is his only friend and that there are no real friends around. He is a spiritual person and devotes much of his time thinking about god and praying for wellness.

He built the house we are in thanks to his strength and resilience. 

His wife is also a strong woman who tirelessly works on the home duties, takes care of her 4 sons and daughter but non of that is recognized by his husband or his family.

I stayed with them that night chatting and getting to know them more. They offered me Colombian food which I was happy to try and while I carried on listening to them I kept asking myself, what am I doing here?

Sergio from Bogota, Colombia

Sergio from Bogota, Colombia

It was great being in Bogota last week. I had an absolutely great time in the company of great people who I exchanged ideas with and created great synergy. One of them was Sergio who was my host. 

Sergio lives in a neighborhood called Chapinero, located north of the city centre. Chapinero seems to be another area, like in many big capitalist cities which is slowly being gentrified. Sergio tells me that businesses have gradually started to move into the area. Tall apartment blocks are being developed and there has been a shift of faces moving in and out.

He grew up in the neighborhood and describes it as a cool place to live. It’s minutes away from the city centre, in fact,  I walked it to the centre and back every day in a matter of minutes so it’s pretty close indeed.

On one of the busy avenues that runs near his house you can still see a lot of strip clubs, though they are kind of hotel type places. I did not feel a hostile environment as I would probably feel in Mexico City in certain areas.

Sergio is an artists who has a political approach to his work though my understanding on the way he feels that change must be made is that too many political messages in an art piece can just confront people to the point of rejecting it. Instead, he thinks that in order to engage people with the real issues and invite them to look at the world from a different vantage point, we need to organize activities like parties. Parties with a political stance though not directly implicit. Kind of like subliminal messages that stick in peoples minds so that they reflect on such ideas when they step away in solitude.

Sergio runs a independent clothes company called Volketa which makes all sorts of items like shirts, jumpers, posters etc… The designs are kind of graffiti orientated.

As we chatted about graffiti he shared an experience he once encountered in Ecatepec, Mexico a few years back. 

Him and some guys wanted to paint some freight trains ( cargo trains that run to the USA and Canada) so they travelled to the outskirts of Mexico City until they arrived in Ecatepec. As they approached the tracks, they notice some unfinished pieces on some trains ( pieces refers to graffiti names ). 

They did not think twice and decided to get going. As they were filling in their pieces , two blokes approached them. Before Sergio could say hi to them, one of the guys smashed a rock in his head and started to beat the crap out of him. 

Whilst he was being severely punched in the face and body, he thought that was the end of life. When the guys left and stripped him off of his belongings, his mates ran back to assist him and take him straight to the nearest hospital.

His head had been cracked open and the whole thing was no joke at all. He tells me that when they approached the hospital he noticed many women waiting to be seen for injuries. The whole experience was dreadful.

I told Sergio that Ecatepec is a terrible place unfortunately, where for instance women are victims of abuse on a daily basis. It has actually turned more violent for women now than Ciudad Juarez was back in the 90’s to 2000’s, at least that is what the statistics indicate.

I thanked Sergio for his hospitality and wished him and his girlfriend the best of luck with their future plans. I also hope to see them again to keep talking about real issues that I am sure we will change in time… 

Kadir from Bogota, Colombia

I’ve had a series of really interesting conversations with the people I have met in Colombia. It’s still the first 6 days of my trip and I have already been inundated with a million of ideas, I am really inspired with the experiences shared with me.

I cannot help myself from making the obliged comparisons between countries whenever someone tells me that they are fed up with the way politicians are directing this country. 
In a few days time, Colombia will experience reforms in oil prices, penalties for dumping rubbish in forbidden places, defacing private and public property, etc. 
On my way to the airport, a few hours ago, the taxi driver tells me that he reckons Colombia will turn into a Venezuelan nightmare.

On that topic, Venezuela has been in my head for the past week. Everyone I have met seems to be talking about Caracas. It’s dangerous to walk it’s streets, people are desperate for food. The police are the number one thieves and will try anything in order to steal your belongings or ask for money but that is another story I will talk about later on…

So what can I say about Kadir? I have been hanging out with him for the past week… He has shown me a few interesting places around the city such as the infamous area called ‘The Bronx, a set of roads on the edges of the city centre and literally next to the military head quarters which were taken over by drug dealers years ago. The place was a hell-hole. If you are interested in investigating a little bit about it you can see plenty of videos on youtube that documented the situation there. The area has now been cleared up but that just means that the problem has migrated to another nearby location.

Kadir shared his Dad’s life as a guerrilla member of the M-19 back in the late 70’s and 80’s. He was an active member until his death. Supposedly he was involved in a ‘fatal accident’. At the funeral, Kadir tells me that when him and his Mom arrived to the hospital, the place was packed with important people, the likes of Gustavo Petro, the former mayor of Bogota and plenty of other influential liberals who were aligned to socialist and humanist way of understanding life.

Kadir was invited to a gathering with a group of people his age who were sons and daughters of ex M-19 guerrilla members a few years back. An important person affiliated to such group had launched a meeting with them all to discuss and debate the siege of the Palace of Justice in 1985 by M19 forces and recovery of it by Military forces two days later. 
The official story about the operation to occupy the palace was led and financed by Pablo Escobar. Escobar wanted all documents in the hands of the Supreme Court to be destroyed in order to delete any traces that could track the Medellin Cartel.

The Army broke into the Palace 2 days later and reclaimed the building, leaving damage, a massacre and many disappeared people.

During that gathering that Kadir had been invited to, the ex combatant’s main aim that day was to clear the young peoples minds with true facts. He wanted the audience to investigate more about the events and not just stay with the official media’s version. He added an important announcement, which was that if Pablo Escobar had indeed financed the operation, they would have had at least 300 guerrilla members and the weapons would have been of a much higher caliber than the ones they possessed at the time. In conclusion, Escobar did not finance the breaking in of the Palace of Justice.

Whilst riding the bus towards Chapinero, an area north of the city centre, we were both bouncing ideas about why we paint graffiti and what motivates us to do it. He is currently 26 I believe, and I am 35 which means that graffiti does not discriminate on age, race or social strata. We both agreed that it’s such a unique art form that knows no boundaries. In fact, it breaks them and unifies kids from the forgotten impoverished slums of Caracas or Mexico City to the wealthy green surroundings of London or Paris, for example.

Kadir has been painting graffiti for a number of years now. His style reminds me of European lettering shapes. It’s amazing to see how one far away country can influence another. He has travelled to a few Latin American countries to paint walls and attempted to paint the metro systems too.

I identified myself with his way of thinking. He is analytical and careful when expressing his views. He is objective and sincere, loving and supportive at the same time. I spotted those qualities as he was like that to his girlfriend who he treated with love and respect…

As I was about to depart, I shook hands and thanked him for his hospitality and attentive attitude, and hoped to see him soon either here or in Mexico City to keep the conversation and inspiration going…

Alberto from Neiva living in Bogota, Colombia

I was wondering around the city centre for a short while after being with a bunch of guys with whom I exchanged some really interesting ideas regarding so many different topics. 

We touched on the situation in Bogota and the long history of violence that has permitted all across the nation.

We then moved the topic to chatting about graffiti and what it means to each of us. We agreed that style is the key element to standing out in city. It was quite an overwhelming conversation.

Finally, Anthony, one of the guys I was chatting to had just returned from Caracas City in Venezuela. He was there for 18 days all together. Anthony travelled from Bogota by bus all the way to Caracas. That trip took him 30 hours, such a long damn trip to a land inundated with problems…

I was immensely curious to know more about the situation there. I asked him several questions like, what is it like to buy things in the shops? how violent is it? what is the political climate like right now? and so on and so forth.

He said that there was not one day that him and his friends did not feel unsafe. He took an entire wardrobe of clothes with him to wear while he was out there but decided to just wear the same clothes for his entire stay and not flash his phone out in the public, etc..

The streets are clear after 6pm, not a single soul walking around. Tension is a constant and poverty is much more apparent. He said that it’s pretty much like being in a conflict zone. 

He did paint a few streets and other places but I reckon it must be quite a risky act to be wandering the streets at night.

Since my stay in Colombia I have heard so many things about Venezuela that I it makes me pretty intrigued in wanting to visiting the country. In fact, I have been curious about Venezuela for quite a long time.

Anyways, back to the central topic which is Alberto. I bumped into him whilst walking along the 7th avenue; he was resting on a bench in a small plaza. 

I spotted him drinking some kind of soup coming out of a chopped coca cola bottle that did not look  appealing at all. I shot a picture of him conspicuously, but decided that I need to to talk to him in order to get to know get a better picture and legitimately use the image to describe a little bit about his life.

I shook hands with him straight after flicking the camera.

Alberto started telling me about himself and how he ended in Bogota. He is another forcibly displaced person citizen of Colombia.

He was kicked off of his land by the guerrilla in 2010. He used to plant coffee but was offered to grow poppy seeds to which he completely refused to. 

The local municipality or some sort of government official was aware of his situation and gave him the chance to move to Bogota to live. He is currently in his 60’s now although he looks a lot older to me.

He works in the city centre moving a trolley with products he sells, the likes of metal, wheels, fridges or anything that is sellable.

As we were chatting, I noticed a few dodgy individuals surrounding us so I just wanted to be cautious in case they wanted to try and grab my camera and run.

I excused myself for not paying attention to his conversation but I explained the reason. He responded that right were we were, 2 years ago a tourist was taking pictures with a flashy and bulky camera when all of a sudden a guy snapped him off of his device and ran like hell!

On another occasion Alberto was sitting a few meters away from a homeless who was being harassed by a police officer. As soon as the officer walked off the man, the homeless ran towards him, managed to grab his gun and shot the officer to death.

He said that it can be unsafe there but it certainly is not as it used to be. A few years back it was constant robbing all over the place. The notorious street called ‘The Bronx’ ( which was recently cleaned off ) was another place considered a red zone of the city. It was infested with drugs and crime. People used to go there to either buy or consume illegal substances and police officers could not even step in the place. I have watched videos of the street and it was a real sad and depressing a story.

Alberto was once offered to distribute drugs as a job in that area. He decided to speak to the guy who offered him the job opportunity. The pay was not bad but the consequence of not delivering to the boss’s expectations were tough. In the event that he messed up he was shown a pond with some crocodiles and a chainsaw. The boss said that if the money was not there in time, he would be cut in pieces and given to his pets as a dish.

I thanked Alberto for his kind hospitality and asked him if I could take a picture of him as testimony of our encounter . I explained that I would rather photograph people who to me are real monuments that keep the city alive than to take images of literal monuments…

I took off seeking more Colombian experiences and places to photograph…

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