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…

So what can I say about Javier?

Before I talk about Javier, also known as ‘El Jefe’ by many of his colleagues/friends, I will briefly mention where and when I met him.

So, it was my first day at Amnesty back in 2012 as a volunteer, I had luckily been selected to become a part of the Central America team at Amnesty International, something that made me very proud no doubt.

I had previously applied for other posts, also as a volunteer at the Americas Programme though I hadn’t been successful.

My first day collaborating with the team was quite intimidating I must say. I did not know anyone there and every member of staff was busy talking about human rights issues in technical forms, using acronyms and jargon…

With time I got to know more people and although things started to relax a little for me, I still felt that I would never get to be as bright and knowledgable about understanding human rights issues and how to work to help improve people’s lives, a very tough job I should add…

So, that said, I used to visit Fernando, a Brazilian chap who worked near Javier’s desk. He once told me that Javier was Mexican but that he lived in France for a very long time and then moved to the UK, that´s all I knew about him really.

As time went by, Javier would frequently come towards my desk and say hello, briefly talk about Mexican issues and make intelligent jokes which I sometimes would not understand as I am very bad at grasping them.

Even though I was told that Javier was Mexican I had some doubts in my mind. Whenever he spoke Spanish, he sounded French to me. It was strange, even when he spoke English he had a bit of a French accent in some of his words.

I had to find out where Javier was actually from… Eventually I was able to meet him at his desk and ask him where he was born. He responded that he was originally from Chihuahua in the north of Mexico. If my memory does not betray me (as that conversation were about 5 years ago) he then moved to Mexico City where he did his studies and became a teacher at the Universidad de Chapingo (Javier, please correct me if I am wrong).

Javier, like many Mexican students at the time, including my Mom in fact, were part of the 1968 movement, a social uprising by workers, academics, students etc. whose demand was related to a more open and democratic State, given that Authoritarianism ruled within the government at the time, and still does today…

I am shameful to say that I don´t have much information on the exact dates when Javier joined Amnesty but I believe he told me once that it was in the early 70´s when the organisation functioned under a different leadership and things were done differently, interesting times I believe…

At his final speech a couple of years ago, before he left the organisation after many decades of intensive work conducted with passion and devotion in seeking justice, one thing stuck in my mind. He explained that the work carried out at the Americas Programme at Amnesty was key towards strengthening Amnesty´s presence and importance around the world. OK, he did not say it in those exact words, but his point was that the Programme was fundamental to the entire work of the organisation.

I must point out and reiterate that from day one, Javier was and still is a friendly and simple person to me. In fact, sometimes I wondered why he spent time talking to me, given that he had fulfilled various senior roles as Director of different teams, directing the human rights program of the joint UN/OAS Mission to Haiti and before he left, he was a Special Adviser on Regions. He had vast amounts of experience and professionalism. So why would he want to spend time talking to volunteer like me?

In the end, I concluded that for most of his professional life as a human rights defender, he had worked alongside PEOPLE, and his objective was to improve people’s lives around the world, hence the reason why he treated people in such kind ways, always under a simple and friendly approach.

This short story on Javier does not really give credit or justice to his career so I send him an apology for my lack of information. I know I took the liberty to talk and write a little bit about him (obviously many of his colleagues and friends know so much more about him and can describe him much more accurately than I can) to express my gratitude to him for his kindness and generosity.

Abril aged 31 from Mexico City

I’ve been procrastinating for the past few days about writing this story but here I am again, keeping it going somehow!!

Before I move on to the central topic I just wanted to make a point about a heated conversation I had on the topic of security in Mexico with two people closely related to me. Both guys live in the UK and, to my understanding, they think that many ´well informed´ people in Mexico exaggerate when they say that this country is ruled by insecurity, or when people talk about the amount of killings which are carried out on a daily basis for one or another reason, the disappearances, the list of issues is too long…

My feeling is that when someone has never been a victim of such heinous crimes, it’s easy to say that everything flows with normality in Mexico. I strongly believe that we need to be more empathetic to one another in order to be compassionate and show solidarity, regardless of whether we have been a victim of an injustice or not.

In fact, injustices are committed closer than we think. Just two days ago, a friend of mine who lives in Mexico City told me that his friend was killed at gun point in the middle of the afternoon in his neighbourhood. According to some sources it was ‘La Union’ that carried out the killing to try and wipe out competition in the area. Their objective is to take control of the drug trade in Iztapalapa and apparently, killings have been taking place in my friend’s area week after week. 

Another friend also told me that less than a week ago, a girl friend of his was traveling on public transport to the north of Mexico City, in the Estado de Mexico. Two criminals boarded the bus and fired two bullets in her stomach for simply not handing over more of her possessions to them. The victim is currently in hospital being treated for her wounds.

That is just a small account of what happens in this country, where injustices remain ‘invisible’ to many people. 

So, back to the topic. I hung out with Abril on Saturday, right before the march started to protest against the huge hike in gasoline prices.

A few years back she was a victim of what in Mexico is called the ´Express Kidnap´. The crime consists of abducting a person for a few minutes or hours while he/she strips off his/her belongings. Otherwise, the criminals will call a family member to extort them. In some cases, if they abduct a woman, she can potentially be sexually assaulted.

Abril was late to her meeting that day so she decided to stop a taxi at around peak hours in the Portales area, located in the south of the city.

Abril boarded the taxi and suddenly noticed that the taxi driver moving to the edge of the road to let a second man into the car. At that point, she obviously knew that things were absolutely wrong.

The men started harassing her and searched her hand bag. She kept receiving punches in her head from which she has not recovered to this day. During the assault, they told her that they were not going to rape her so she did not have to worry about that.

At some point during the nightmarish journey which lasted no more than 30 minutes, they told her to get out of the taxi quickly and walk 10 steps ahead without turning her head round.

She did as she was told. A few minutes later, she called her boyfriend to let him know what had just happened to her. 

Abril told me that for the next 2 weeks or so she did not want anybody to touch her at all. She was left partially traumatized by that terrible experience. Today she tells me this without any apparent psychological scars.

To make matters even worse, Abril suddenly remembered that a day after her abduction, her ex-boyfriend’s family received a call from an unknown individual who alleged that he had kidnapped Miguel, the ex-boyfriend’s brother.  

Miguel had gone on a camping trip to the outskirts of Mexico City. There was no way to prove whether he had been kidnapped or not as there was no telephone signal where he went camping. 

In the end, the family was able to find out that it was all just a scam carried out by a nasty individual who wanted to extort the family.

As we were about to finish our chat, Abril mentioned another instance when her ex boyfriend’s Dad, whom I shall refer to as David, suffered a similar misfortune some 20 years ago.

He was driving his taxi in the middle of the day when three men, who looked like soldiers, hopped in and started threatening him. They proceeded to tie up David´s entire body with gaffer tape and locked him in the car´s boot. 

He did not have a clue where they were taking him. During the journey, he was able to look through a tiny gap and spotted a police car driving behind. Somehow he was able to break the lock and open the boot. He then dropped onto the ground and the police intervened immediately. 

They chased the criminals and managed to intercept two of them. The police arrested them and they were sent to prison, although throughout the entire trial, the two crooks claimed total innocence…

Abril is a determined girl with a strong personality. She does not let people mess with her but she is nice and kind at the same time. She is football fanatic and supports, the Pumas of the UNAM. She enjoys going to see the team play at the stadium. She is also a conscious person who will try her very best to help people in need. 

After the long chat we all marched towards the city centre to let the president of this country know that we are sick and tired of him…

Paul from Liverpool, England, UK

So after much though I have decided to leave my comfort zone for a bit to talk about people who I have encountered and perhaps made friends with at some point in my life.

Today I am featuring Paul (Not his real name) as part of my chronicles. Given that we met under very odd circumstances and shared the same space for more than a month while I was still in custody at Brixton prison back in 2012, I reckon it may make this story a little more interesting.

To avoid going too much into the context of how we both met, I will briefly mention that during the time I was locked up, I felt so bored at various times in my life. In a big way thanks to people such as Marina (my girlfriend at the time) my sister and my aunt as well as Paul that I found motivation to get by during that difficult period.

I had a very different idea of what prison life was like until I was sentenced and locked for what to me felt like years but in reality it was under 6 months only. Then after that, I had to spend some time under home detention and so on and so forth…

Once I was downgraded to serve time at a low category prison, as the internal authorities had determined that I was finally a low risk prisoner, I was transferred to Brixton in South London.

Myself and two friends of mine were moved to this new place we had no idea about. All we knew was that Brixton was not at all under the ‘category D’ conditions we so much expected to live under.

‘Category D’ just means that you can walk much more freely and leave the prison during the week to work; plus go and visit family on the weekends. In other words, you are almost done with your sentence at that point…

I don’t quite remember how and when I met up with Paul. Oh yeah, actually, I do. It was on my landing. He was chatting to a Colombian inmate in Spanish which was pretty unusual. I came up to them and kind of butted into the conversation. From there on I started hanging out with Paul more.

Paul had been sentenced to serve a 20 years plus custodial sentence (life without parole ) for drug smuggling. The judge determined that he was guilty of dealing LSD and stuff like that, a crime he never committed according to him.

In fact, he was a drug smuggler, though marijuana and hashish were his speciality. Actually, he sounded very proud of his profession, whenever he narrated stories on how he would pass the shipment from country to country, continent to continent, provider to provider.

He travelled across the seas, he was a seaman, he was untouchable. 
Paul knew the entire geography of Asia and Africa pretty damn well. 
At first I thought he was just another prisoner who loved to brag and exaggerate about his alleged knowledge but I soon understood that he was much more knowledgeable than I imagined.

On the topic of Latin America and the drug trade he did not know so much as he was not a cocaine smuggler but he damn well knew many things about certain areas. I believe he travelled there a few times but never for work-related matters, solely to get to know the culture and the territory.

When he talked about his travels across the African continent he knew the routes across Nigeria, Ghana etc. These are places he frequented. 
The same goes for Asia, such countries as India, Bangladesh, Turkey. He was well aware of how to go about his business and get away with it…

According to Paul, he was arrested after someone snitched on him and was blamed for something he never did. He decided to keep his head down and serve his time, leaving a wife and kids behind for a very long time…

He was sent to many prison facilities across the country, and spent some stretches in solitary confident for ‘misconduct’. I prefer to call it, for defending himself from the bully screws…

During his incarceration period, Paul studies 2 degrees at the Open University. The first one in Psychology ( I cannot remember the second subject I am afraid ) and an M.A. in Criminology.

At his release he was set to start a PhD, furthering his studies in Criminology but I am not one hundred percent certain he did do it as I lost track of his academic progress…

So, during our time in prison we talked about Latin America quite a bit. My usual subject to discuss was the war on drugs in Mexico, El Chapo Guzman and cultural differences between the UK and Mexico.

He was usually so interested in discussing things in depth that my head would spin and break into pieces. I could not keep up with his brain capacity to store ideas and elaborate on topics to the maximum possible detail.

I once lent him a book I was given by a friend about the Latin American Independence. Sadly I never bothered reading it as it was so think and long. Instead, I read several other books like Cocaine Politics by Peter Dale Scott, Los Señores del Narco for the second time by Anabel Hernández. Several books I was sent written by Julio Scherer like El Indio que mató al Padre Pro. Camisas Azules, Manos Negras by Ana Lilia Pérez, etc. etc. the list goes on…

Well, Paul devoured the book I lent to him in a matter of weeks and a new excuse for a conversation begun. Talking about the war on liberation of the southern countries in America; Simon Bolivar etc…

We would also kill the clock by playing scrabble, what an awesome game that is! A useful time-killer if you are ever bored and want to learn more about a language. I learned so many new words thanks to that game and became much better at spelling even if it is not reflected in my stories…

Moving on, I did end up meeting Paul a few times unlike other people I met inside who were keen to meet again outside but never did.

I visited Paul a few times at his home outside London. During our encounters, we drank tea and ate biscuits whilst we exchanged a few memories of our prison time. We joked an awful lot as he is a very sarcastic man, not surprisingly since he is a Liverpudlian after all.

Today I can say that we forged a good relationship and we keep in touch at the distance on a casual basis. It is nice to know that after all the people I met in prison only a handful of them stay in touch at least…

Marco from Ecatepec, Estado de Mexico 

As I was traveling on the metro en route to Ecatepec where I was set to meet up with Marco, a good old friend of mine, I was reminiscing on the months since I first landed in Mexico. I have been here for more than 5 months now and as I feared, I have come to acclimatise myself to the toxic environment of normalisation in incongruous situations. The hustle and bustle, the chaos, the I-don’t-care kind of mentality etc. –the list is very long. 

No!! I refuse to become like that, I thought!! I will resist the temptation to stop being caring towards others, of thinking individually only for my own benefit. 

I remember once that I wrote about heading over to central Mexico City and wondering for how long the feeling of compassion would last. How long would it be before I ignored the problems that stop this country from advancing? 

Even to this day I question myself over all the stuff I see around, the friends I have that are not following the right path, yet all they care about is making money in large amounts. Again, the list goes on… 

Anyway, I am shifting away from what I wanted to share with you today so I apologise… I finally met up with Marco at around 1:24pm at a metro station in the north of Mexico City. 

From there, we headed over to the studio where he has recorded some of his songs. He used to be a Rap musician but his musical interests have turned towards a new genre called ‘Trap’, which is a fusion of rap and special effects integrated that makes the melodies pretty slow. Most of the songs I have heard are boring and don’t inspire me in anyway whatsoever but I guess it’s another way to make money… 

As we arrived at the place, we sat by a sofa where we started chatting about life in general. Soon I was tempted to ask Marco, - Hey mate, if I ask you to think of a space or place where you think you feel freedom in your life, what would your answer be?

Marco responded, - I would probably say that it would be in my neighbourhood or in my home, on the rooftop of my house I think… I suddenly refreshed his mind on the period when he was unjustly locked up for a little over a month. 

He recalled the experience by explaining in detail how he got arrested. It was about 7 years ago. By that point, the State of Mexico was already being patrolled by the military, the federal police, state police, special, municipal police, the lot… A feeling of repression due to the way that security forces in the area operate is currently felt. The argument is that such treatment is needed in order to combat the high levels of insecurity and crime that affect life on a daily basis… 

So, back to the story. Marco and a bunch of his friends were hanging out in a mate’s house, playing video games and chilling out when they suddenly had a whole force of federal police officers breaking into the house at gun point. They had held one of Marco’s friends hostage with a gun pointed right at his temple. The police beat the hell out of Marco and the rest of his mates. 

He was so badly beaten up that he became immune to the subsequent punches. He told me he thought he was going to die. The police dumped them all like pigs in a pick-up truck and drove them away from the area. Marco told me that he thought that they were going to kill them all and dump them somewhere. 

At that moment he was just thinking about his family and the wrong things he did in his life, though there was no justification for this treatment as he had done nothing wrong. As soon as the police yelled, get off the truck now!! a feeling of peace and calm took over his entire being as he noticed that he had arrived at the police station and that he was not going to be executed. 

He says that that was the first time in his life that he felt OK to arrive at the police station… We turn a page to talk about other things as some friends of his joined our conversation. I got introduced and they all started talking about music projects for the future. For the most part I just listened to their chat but what struck me was when one of his mates asked Marco about finding a location to film his next video… 

Hey man, I want you to try and find a kind of really underground place where weird ‘shit’ happens. I want to make it look dark and sinister and stuff, you know what I mean? I don’t want to film another video with guns and drugs –that ‘shit’ sucks and it’s dated!! For that matter I could ask the people from ‘La Union’ to help out. Nah!! 

I want the kind of place where, let’s say, women are enslaved, where kids are sold, you know!! Everyone in the room laughed!! 

I felt utterly ashamed in being in that room, surrounded by people who don’t seem to have the slightest sense of compassion towards the suffering of millions of people who have been victims of Mexico’s reality. 

I concluded that the way to make money for these guys right now is by selling the suffering of others to young kids who are only just starting to form an opinion about the world they live in. We left that place and headed over to Marco’s house. I explained my case to him about what I had just heard and that I did not want to collaborate with those guys in any future projects as I totally opposed their views… 

As we carried on talking, Marco and I created some synergy from sharing similar views we have on the world. It seems that we both wish to make a positive change in the youth and in people in general, although for that to take place, we need to be in harmony with our beliefs and actions… hanging out and working with people that don’t think alike or similarly is only going to contradict our principles and objectives, at least that’s what I think… 

Before we jumped into the taxi that would take us direct to his house I asked him if he felt that Ecatepec has become a better place to live? Marco responded that he feels that it is the same… 

He said that just a few days ago, his mate was shot dead round the corner of his house in broad daylight. He heard the gunshots as he was smoking a spliff but did not think much of it. Suddenly his Mom came up and asked him if he was going to see him mate cos he was dead! He was like, - what? Is he the one they killed just now? Marco felt pity for him, he was saddened but did not seem that moved by it. I guess it’s pretty common to hear of killings in the area where he lives… 

Finally, we got to his house. His Mom was there to sort us out with a very nice meal she had previously prepared. On my plate I had red rice, diced meat with veg, refried beans and some guacamole and tortillas to accompany it all… Marco made some melon water which was also very nice. 

I got introduced to his daughter who is now 9 years old. I remember when I photographed her in Marco’s arms 9 years ago, when she was still a cute baby and now she was so tall and happy!! 

Marco and I chatted for a little longer until it turned 6:30 pm, which meant time to head back or else darkness would trap me by surprise. After spending over an hour on the metro I finally jumped on the bus that would take me to my final stop… I observed people’s faces all the way and kept asking myself questions… 

On the bus, a young man started to talk to the passengers; his accent revealed he was not from Mexico. In fact, he was an immigrant from El Salvador who was stranded in Mexico City. His dream was –or is –to reach the USA. 

He was asking for a few pesos to get by, grab something to eat and keep going. I was impressed with how many people showed solidarity towards him. Actually, earlier on while on my way to meet Marco I bumped into another immigrant from Guatemala who was begging for help… 

After all those experiences I wonder if we can find a moment to reflect and perhaps open ourselves up a little, shed a few tears in solitude to reconcile with what troubles us and try to empathise with other people’s misfortunes. I reckon that that would perhaps make us a little more human after all…

Federico from Colonia del Mar, Iztapalapa, Mexico City

I met Federico by chance very briefly whilst I was hanging out with some friends in Iztapalapa yesterday. It was a nice and sunny warm December day, typical weather for this city…

I noticed Federico sitting in his wheelchair from a distance. Meanwhile, I was chatting to a bunch of kids in their early 20’s. I was asking them about their jobs as mechanics or car technicians…
They were still quite young but with huge possibilities ahead of them.

Anyway, a few minutes later, Federico approached us to join the chat, though one of the kids started insulting him in a ‘joking way’. That said, the jokes to me did not sound at all as jokes.

The kid was telling him he was a ‘pinche puto’, which in english translates as a ‘cock sucker’ … All sorts of aggressive language was thrown on to the poor man whilst the rest of the kids laughed.

Federico was trying to contain his anger by staying calm. Every now and again he would lough only to pretend he was in the right mood, though I could sense that he was upset… I suppose that the type of aggression he suffered from yesterday happens on a daily basis as those are the rules in the streets. You must tolerate any crap that comes from anyone or else you are labeled as a cry baby…

Before the bunch finally left, I asked one of the kid’s age. He responded he was 23. I proceeded to pointing out the fact that many kids seem not to have any more respect for the elderly… That in my days, I would never dare insulting any person above my age.

A few minutes later, Federico started to tell me about his life… He asked me if I had any hobbies to which I responded that I was passionate for photography and art in general. I asked him the same question, - Do you have any passions Federico?

I do, he responded . He carried on, - I like to make porcelain dolls. I carry out all the process though unfortunately, people don’t appreciate this art form anymore. In fact, I find it harder and harder to get hold of porcelain nowadays. I used to be able to buy it in Cuernavaca but I now get it shipped from New York at a higher cost.

I told Federico that my Mom is a big fan of such dolls, she has many of them kept among her treasures.

Up until the early 90’s, Federico worked at the American Embassy in Mexico City where he lasted more than 20 years on various posts. He worked next to many Ambassadors like John Negroponte and Charles J Pilliod Jr. among others…

Federico said that working at the embassy was very gratifying and that meeting distinguished individuals was always bonus… I sensed that he had a big great admiration for US people by the way he expressed himself towards them.

Before he got the job at the embassy he used for Citibank. This was around the late 70’s to early 80’s when such bank was not well established in Mexico, I guess, though I don’t know the history of CityBank in Mexico.

Our chat went on for a few more minutes until I said goodbye and took off back to the confines of my surroundings in the south of the city…

Edgar ( El Peri ) from Mexico City

Right, where do I start? Since I have left a few days go by on writing this story already, I reckon I will struggle to remember everything I discussed with Edgar, a poet, musician and a good friend of mine. That being said, one thing I can certainly say about him that resonated within my mind after our conversation is that he is such a talented individual, sadly, a very unusual case within his own surroundings.

I first met Edgar through his brother Luis who lives in the neighbourhood where I have hung out for years. 
Edgar comes from a humble background. Hi brother is into black metal music, a Scandinavian genre that is typically characterised by antichrist lyrics and worshiping satanic symbols. His Mom makes a living from organising workshops teaching origami. His Dad used to be a watchmaker who used to fix old clocks and watches but given the decline in demand, he was forced to closed the business and currently controls the traffic in a public carpark, what is known in Mexico as el ‘viene-viene’.

I am fascinated by Edgar’s knowledge and artistic creativity as he differentiates himself from most people in his estate where no encouragement is provided by the local council to direct people’s attention towards the arts and culture.

Although Edgar is a poet and a musician, he does not personally feel entitled to call himself an ‘artist’ as he does not earn a living from his talent. I must admit that I also don’t feel I have the credentials to call myself a photographer neither as I have hardly been able to live off of my profession. However, it’s wrong that we, people only feel comfortable to categorise ourselves as professionals based on a monetary achievement.

By profession Edgar is a graphic designer and used to draw comics; he was specifically interested in political ones but his interest died out after a few years.

Edgar tells me that he used to be quite motivated to attend literary circles and to get to know other poets and artists. He used to submit his own poems to competitions though he despises that world nowadays, as with time, he felt a constant rejection. He believes that all doors have been deliberately shut on him due to the fact that artists who are recognised within the scene, fear that someone with more talent than them will take their position.

He has tried to enrol on a few academic courses at prestigious schools to improve and learn under an academic guidance but obstacles are imposed on him to impede him from improving. He says, - they just don’t want me inside their circle.

As I listen to his thoughts, I can see some anger in his facial expression. I get the impression that his life has been surrounded by obstacles and the fact that others don’t take him seriously has shaped the way he sees himself. Perhaps his family has never believed in him; they have not bothered to seen the potential he has to achieve his goals.

As we exchange thoughts, he keeps mentioning all these intellectuals and musicians who have marked his life, from Beethoven to Mozart and other poet and musician’s names who I have never heard of, though he certainly admires and sees as a source of inspiration to break the monotony or the life around him.

Edgar’s voice breaks a little bit when he tells me slightly more personal issues that have affected his development. I can also see his eyes becoming watery. I can sense a deep appreciation from Edgar towards me for listening to him and that makes me happy. My internal reaction is that he feels a need to talk to someone about his anxieties and worries.

I keep listening to his analysis on music and poetry but I cannot help myself from drifting into my own thoughts about his life. It’s overly fascinating to me to see a guy like Edgar who is eager to learn and curious to ask questions, I repeat, not a common example in his neighbourhood sadly.

I fill my mind with questions on why it is that he became interested in classical music? why does he like poetry ? why is he interested in playing the piano? why does he like to read intellectual novels and philosophy ? why does he aspire to elevate his mind and spirit?

For a little while, Edgar used to recite poems and read stories on the train carriages of the metro to earn a living but he decided to quite, as passengers were sometimes rude to him or simply did not pay attention, tough job!!

He now plays the piano at the World Trade Centre every other Saturday for a few hours but it’s not really what he wishes to do in the future. His dream, I guess, is to play in an orchestra and publish his poems to a wider audience, although he has already published many of his pieces in books and other sources.

I thank Edgar for allowing me to enter his world and sharing a few aspects of his life with me. I am very impressed with his talents and I hope to hear more of his poems in the near future…

Viridian from Mexico City

As I left my house en route to meet up with Viridiana, I walked past a kinder garden where an earthquake drill was going on. I noticed all the young kids leave the class rooms, walking behind the teachers who were leading them to a safe and secure place.

An immediate feeling of innocence called me and made me feel pretty damn well. The fact that I can still be sensitive towards certain things in life is a sign that I can still show empathy and love towards the most human elements. Sensitivity is something that has slowly faded away from people, or at least it certainly has among most of my friends.

I jumped on the bus and headed to the metro station, got on the train and arrived at the meeting point.

I had never met Viridian before though for the last 2 months or so, we have been trying to arrange to see each other, although we always ended up ditching one another.

She is the single mother of Daren who is 5 years of age, I believe. Viridian lives with her sister and nephew in an apartment block in the southwest of Mexico City.

As I enter her home, she kindly offers me something to drink to which I accept since it is steaming hot outside and I am well hot. 

I was intrigued to know how she managed her life. I mean, she is a young woman with a little boy whom she loves but I am sure it must be pretty tough at times…

In order to make ends meet and stretch the money to provide her son with a nice life, she has to work long hours.

Aside from the work routine, as a mother, Viridiana must carry out the tough mom duties which are not officially recognised as a job although that is exactly what they are. Her dream is to see her son advance in life by doing well at school and see him happy when he grows up. I believe that is the wish of any mother and father, though sadly, there are some exceptions.

Viridiana used to do graffiti not too long ago, before Daren was born. Back then, she says that she didn’t measure the consequences of her acts. She was younger and felt no fears of walking the streets at night, either on her own or with her girl friends.

She recalls once leaving her house without her family’s permission at midnight to paint a wall nearby. At around 3 am she was approached by a guy who harassed her and tried to mess with her. Fortunately nothing happened and Viridiana was able to return home safe and sound.

She analyses situations like this in retrospect and thinks that those actions were pretty stupid. Today, she is fully dedicated to her son; that is what matters to her and she wants the best for him. Graffiti is not important to her anymore.

A second question regarding harassment to women emerges. Viridiana, - may I dare to ask if you have ever been molested or has something ever happened to you? She responded that she has fortunately never encountered a violent situation herself, although a person she knows was raped at a party where she was present some years ago.

Viridiana described to me how it all happened. Basically, she was at a party near Santa Fe. The girl in question was not very friendly with Viridiana, in fact, they had a bit of a dispute for some reason.

The girl left the house and was soon cornered by 5 men who ambushed her, and proceeded to rape her. 

I won’t go into details about it as the story is pretty tragic. After the disgusting criminal act by these despicable thugs, she sought help by knocking on the doors along the road though nobody was willing to help her. Viridiana was quick to support her when she realised what had happened. She opened the door and gave her comfort. 

The girl was devastated and all she wanted was to escape from that hell she had experienced. Those vile thugs had just taken away her happiness in one of the most brutal ways possible…

Viridiana called an ambulance which took her to a nearby hospital. Since that tragic episode, she has not seen or heard from that girl again.

It’s a reality that women are prey of many vicious men in Mexico who have no respect for the opposite sex. They think that the only role women are allowed to play on this planet is to please men sexually and little else. Many of my own friends express themselves in terrible ways about women. I believe that they are not conscious of the vocabulary they use though I know they are not bad people. If only they thought about their mother, daughter/s or sister/s before they degraded a woman by calling her nasty names, then I reckon they would think twice about how they express themselves, let alone we would live in a much happier planet, I want to believe…

Viridiana finally drove me to the nearest subway stop where I grabbed the train and headed to la Condesa, in the centre of Mexico City. As I was inside the carriage, my eyes caught an ad that said: Due to it’s feminine discretion… It was a slogan that promoted a wome’s product but it had been changed by someone who placed a sticker on top of the message. The sticker said: I want you alive, in reference to the violence that women suffer in this country.

I hopped off the train and carried on with my journey under the extreme sun…

Marco (Soldier) from Mexico City

While I was on my way to completing the first portrait project I have been working on since August this year, all of a sudden, during a conversation with some friends, one of them mentioned something about a guy he know who is a soldier as well as a graffiti writer. I thought, - I have to include this guy in the project!

It’s pretty uncommon in my experience, to meet a person who’s job involves receiving and complying with orders to serve the nation, adhering to legal security processes etc. And on the opposite, has a strong affinity to break the law by paint his name illegally on the streets. Two interesting contradictions in life, the legal and the non legal way of life, a phenomenon that shapes this nation into chaos.

Anyways, I got hold of his contact via a friend and met him this week somewhere in Mexico City.

Amongst the topics we discussed, I was interested in knowing what his job and the environment within the military were like, why he decided to join the army etc. In fact, I was just happy with whatever he wished to share with me as my objective wasn’t to interrogate him but to take the pictures.

He was cool from the start and happy to chat about things. I asked him about some of the graffiti missions he has carried out and the implications, if any at all, of such illicit activities.

Although I would like to go into details about some of the points we discussed, I promised secrecy regarding certain details. Therefore, I will be pretty ambiguous with my description and I apologies if the story sounds unclear.

So Marco, - I remember a place you painted once, how did you get away with it? Marco responded, - Yeah, that was a funny night and it was a ‘mission accomplished’ for sure! 
To paint the objective, we jumped a wall along the compound in order to reach the targets. We then proceeded to paint the spot and after causing enough ‘damage’ we left, simple move! No problems on the night whatsoever.

Someone I know, who was also there that night, mentioned that, had they been caught in the act, he reckons they would have been badly beaten up and possibly even disappeared; pretty extreme to hear that but it is totally plausible given the place they had trespassed to paint.

As Marco keeps telling me about his extreme experiences as a graffiti writer, it seems no big deal to him. I can see a smile pop up in his face; I sense a huge satisfaction that the experience of painting has generated to him. 
And I can surely related to those feelings as I have found myself in the same state on many ocassions, regardless of the risks involved.

I move on to asking him about his profession. Marco, - why did you join the army? He recalls of a troublesome time in his life when he opted to hitchhike around the country to alleviate the pain. He went from Guatemala all the way to the north of Mexico discovering things he had never seen. That element of adventure was the motivation that made him join the armed forces.
During his time as a soldier, he has had the chance to travel across the country and help people. 
What is life within the army like? Marco responds, - it is normal, like in any other job. 
He tells me that there are obviously some army officers who want to stand out and pretend to be some the sort of Superman type of guy, - I am not like that though, he says. To Marco, it’s simply a job to make ends meet and continue to develop his real passions outside the mechanics of the daily routine.

Marco then tells me that he was once investigated for a minor misconduct at work. Such wrongdoing led him into being transferred to Tamaulipas in the North east of Mexico, as punishment . Such State has been run for a long time by the ‘Cartel del Golfo’, a bloody narco organisation involved in the drug trade. Such group has also had many disputes with rival cartels over control of the territory which have resulted in a war that has killed and forcefully displaced thousands of people in the region.

He was warned by other colleagues that things would not be easy there though he did not find it that tough. He would work one day inside the military headquarters and be left on leave for 3 days, week on week. That was much better a deal than in Mexico City, where soldiers have not got a designated holiday time. In other words, they could be conducting military duties for a whole month or so before they get granted a short holiday. Marco spent 2 years in Tamaulipas before he was transferred back to Mexico City where he lives today.

I get tempted to ask him about the military prisons, renown for its many atrocities such as torture, etc. . Marco, - is torture still a recurring practice within the army. He responds that unlike normal prisons, military prisons are very well set and human rights are respected for everyone at all times.

He was locked for 4 days due to a minor offence and never received any maltreatments. He recognizes that back in the days, torture was constantly used against prisoners but the army has modernised itself and is now very careful with its practices as international human rights agencies are constantly scrutinising the institution’s performance.

I moved on to ask him about the 43 disappeared students and what his take on it is. Marco did not offer much information to reflect upon, though he did mention that when any issue takes place, the internal army protocol is to report it to every single department within the institution, that is, to every internal high rank official. 
With that in mind, I presume that if the army were indeed informed prior to the disappearances and killings, then they surely own key information that they obviously won’t want to disclose as this could confirm many points which have been identified by many human rights organisation pushing for the truth.

We finally get to walk up to a place where I will be shooting the images. He quickly changes into his uniform, not the common green one that all Mexican soldiers wear but the presidential guard one which is entirely blue. Until very recently, Marco belonged to that branch and was able to visit places he never though he would ever have access to but due to certain circumstances he was demoted back to his original role.

After a generous amount of time granted by him, I was able to shoot enough images and I got to chat with him for a little longer before I said good by and parted ways, not before thanking him for his time and wishing to see him again soon.

Some names and places where altered.

Kenys, aged 25 from Los Toques, Venezuela

Kenys, aged 25 from Los Toques,Venezuela

I was in Canal de Chalco earlier today to meet up with Carlos in order to take a picture of him as I am currently working on a portrait series connected to incarceration/freedom.

Alongside the work I was there to do, I got to hang out with a few other guys I know, including Donovan and Kenys, a rapper from Venezuela who is currently in Mexico for a few shows around the country.

Before I started to ask Kenys about life back home, myself and a bunch of friends enjoyed a nice lunch and chatted about stuff in general. 

I asked Donovan how were things in his neighbourhood right now. He lives in San Francisco, Culhuacan, in the southern part of the city which is another places where high levels of crime and poverty exist.

Before Donovan responded, I mentioned the killing this week in broad daylight of a pregnant lady in her mid 30’s; she was shot dead in Apatlaco, right by a busy road. A source who lives in the area mentioned to me that she was involved in crime, hence the reason she got murdered. Very sad indeed!

Donovan then stepped in and told me that a mate of his was killed fairly recently. The victim was involved in illegal activities ( drug related issues ). Sadly, he was shot dead, and all the authorities were able to hand over to the family was the victim’s torso.
Days later, during the funeral, the killer/s apparently returned to drop the victims head, perhaps as a warning…

So many things happen on a daily basis, some very bad indeed. It appears as if nothing happened, as if life continued its course in plain normality… Situations like these become part of ‘normality’ and I keep hearing from friends that, ‘asi es aquí’, meaning that ‘that’s how it is here’…

I finally got to ask Kenys what life is like in Venezuela. He then asks me to be more specific so I re-arrange my question. I mean, - what is life like there in terms of security?
Kenys responds, - It’s pretty tough, especially for the past 3 years. The current government has made it pretty difficult for people to get by. Nobody escapes crime. Whether you belong to the rich or poor class, it does not matter, you need to be very aware of criminals and the police.

While he is sharing his views, I think to myself that Mexico’s reality in that respect is not far off either. Having said that, I feel that one can breath a certain tranquility/freedom in Mexico City, very odd indeed knowing that Mexico is undergoing a tremendously violent transition.

Kenys explains that without an exception, everyone has a family member that has gone through a tough situation in Venezuela. In fact, his cousin was recently incarcerated for robbing a bus. When I ask him if he did it out of necessity ( pretty stupid question ), he responds, - no mate, he did it out of mere stupid. I mean, - who in his sane mind would wanna do that to harm his/her own people?

As we continue to talk about life back home, I decide to shift the conversation towards his rap career, which is the reason he’s in Mexico right now. 

Kenys first got introduced to rap at the age of 11 but professionally speaking he has been doing it for the past 5 years or so. His main rap influences are US and Venezuelan rappers, the likes of ‘Vagos y Maleantes’ which translates as ‘Bums and Criminals’ among a few others.

Before travelling to Mexico, he was recently performing in Colombia before where he enjoyed it very much indeed. Having said that, he does not see a future as a rapper there. On the contrary, he thinks he has more chances to succeed in Mexico given its history and vastness. 

An interesting anecdote he shared with me from his recent trip to Colombia was that on one occasion, Kenys was in a rough part of Colombia accompanying some friends who were going to paint a few murals. As they arrived to the place, they needed to speak to the guy that ran the neighbourhood, rumours had it that the guy was an ex-paramilitary, by the way. 

As they got the thumbs up, the ex-paramilitary pumped his music up and Kenny ironically heard ‘Canserbero’, a highly iconic Venezuelan rapper that passes away almost 2 years ago, burst out of the speakers very loudly. 

Kenny explains that ‘Canserbero’ or ‘El Can’ as he is also known, was a massive influence to the Latin American Hip-Hop scene. His music was an inspiration to youngsters and grown ups alike from all across the continent and beyond. ‘El Can’s’ lyrics were carefully constructed and highly politicised at times. His rhymes provided food for thought surrounding the every day struggles of people.

After a long and interesting coversation with Kenys, I finished off by asking him if he wishes to return to Venezuela to which he responded that if he can find a way of staying here and making money, he has no intentions of returning…

My friend Michelle’s housing estate

I remember how when I was younger, round about the age of 13 or 14, I occasionally used to visit a skate park in Canal de Chalco. Although I was not into skating at all, I would specifically go and check the murals that were painted inside a place called The Ghetto where kids would often practice skateboarding. It was like a gallery to me and other graffiti afficionados who were eager to see graffiti and learn more about it.

Back in the mid 90’s (1995-1996) it was so uncommon to see any paintings on the streets, let alone any proper pieces, hence the reason I would visit that skate park and take many pictures of the pieces so that I could go back home and copy them on my note pad.

During the trajectory of my journey I remember how the bus would drive past a housing estate called Predio el Molino which, to my understanding, is administered by a long standing political organisation called Francisco Villa Popular Front, the name is in reference to the legendary Mexican leader who was in command of the northern division that fought during the revolution in Mexico at the beginning of 1910.

My intention with today’s chronicle is to throw some light on how I perceived that housing estate from the few visits I have recently made to meet with some friends who live there.

Like so many places in Mexico City , this one does not escape from the regular issues that tend to exist in a deprived and marginalised working class neighbourhood. general issues, such as lack of social services, poverty, poor housing conditions, drugs and violence.

During the walk with my friend Michelle, who lives there, I was curious to ask him what it was like to live in his area? 
He quickly pointed out that the neighbourhood is dodgy. Drugs are sold and violence is an every day issue. 
Though he immediately pointed this out, I am certain that those issues should not categorise the vast majority of the locals as outlaws. Most people, I dare to say, are hard working and honest individuals who have to struggle very hard every day to make ends meet.

On our way to his home, Michelle and I walked passed a long wall covered with messages denouncing the government. One of the messages described the Mexican Government as a Narco run State. Another one made reference to the recent killing of Joceline (around 2 weeks ago) who was brutally raped and beaten up, allegedly by her boyfriend. 
In fact, a girl that I know who lives there, saw Joceline’s body dumped on the ground, moments before she was picked by the ambulance. She told me that when she saw the situation she did not know what to do about it so she walked off. 
Further along the wall, posters of Luis Fernando Sotelo Zambrano, a young political prisoner covered the side of a street stall.

Finally, we arrived to Michelle neighbourhood.
Michelle told me that it is good to know the ‘right people’ living there since the area is pretty dodgy.

Suddenly, I felt tempted to take a few wide angle pictures of the housing complex in its entirely so I asked him if it was ok, to which he responded, -yeah man, go ahead! 
I took a couple of images and straightaway, Michelle pointed towards a side of the area. He then said, - Just watch out with that house to your left as it’s the spot owned by the drug dealers.

I was careful not to annoy anyone, though before I knew it, people were already aware of my presence. 
Of course! It’s obvious that anyone carrying a camera and snapping pictures would look suspicious, I would feel intimidated if I saw someone taking pictures in my neighbourhood.
I soon noticed some guys giving me some strange looks though nothing happened fortunately.

As we carried on walking, a couple of guys shouted, -Hey!! why are you taking pictures? Michelle shouted back that we were only photographing the facade of the flats and left. He explained that the guys that shouted were some of the dealers!

We walked towards a narrow alleyway, past an elderly man who was very kind, and suddenly met up with some of Michelle’s mates. before we shook hands with one of them, I blatantly spotted a guy passing something over to another bloke in a very dodgy way.

We hung out on a street corner for a little while and gradually, more of Michelle’s friends turned up. 
One mate of his came to say hello and shook hands with everyone. He was carrying a plate that contained a taco made out of plantain, rice and beans. He offered me a bite but I declined the offer as I was about to have lunch. The guy had a strong stench of PVC, a substance used to unblock pipes etc. also used inappropriately as a drug among the youth due to its easy access and cheap price.

Moments after I left the area, I took a bus towards the nearest metro stop. During the journey I spotted several typical Virgin Marry altars ( it’s very common to see them in Mexico) all over the place, pretty much on every street corner. Tons of street food stalls, all competing against each other to make a few pesos, posters advertising drug addiction support, Tarot readings services, people standing by the traffic lights to wipe drivers windshields.

I suddenly remembered the headline of a news paper article that a man was reading yesterday, it said: ‘Sufre pitonisa, fue violada por ocho hombres’, which in english translates in an utterly vulgar way, as, ‘A woman was penetrated and rapped by 8 men’. No respect given towards the woman at all!

The bus drove past a house which had a message that warned delinquents from breaking into the house, it said something like: Neighbourhood watch, you will be lynched if you try to rob this house. I also noticed many more not so agressive neighbourhood watch signs warning thieves.

I finally arrived to the metro stopped where I hopped off the bus to grab the train in order to reach my final destination, Cerro de la Estrella in Iztapalapa…

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