The landscape could become very similar to those found in Central American countries where the issue is out of control
Cubanet.org, Ernesto Perez Chang, Havana 20 August 2015 – Hector arrived in Havana at the end of 2005. He was only 15 years old when he had to confront a city where its residents’ greatest ease came from knowing how to survive amid so much uncertainty. Today he is 25 years old, and he knows no way of subsisting other than prostitution, pimping and gangs.
Hector was living in Niquero, Granma Province, when bad luck invaded his home: his father died in a domestic accident while he was trying to re-fill a gas cylinder for cooking. A couple of years later, his mother got sick with cancer, and he had to leave high school in order to go to work on the farm of his paternal uncle who, besides paying him very little, abused him sexually and even forced him to prostitute himself.
Although he was only 12, his uncle took him almost every night to the home of a friend who paid 100 pesos [four dollars] in order to rape the little boy who, with time, came to accept that the world was that evil atmosphere that surrounded him and from which he could not escape but could only adapt in order to survive.
“Here you have to survive in whatever way,” says Hector. He has only agreed to speak with me about his life because he was asked by a mutual friend who is none other than the doctor to whom he has always gone in emergency situations. “He is the only guy for whom I give my life. The only one who has helped me without any self-interest since I came to Havana at age 15.”
Hector has HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). They found the virus a couple of years ago when he was hospitalized due to gunshot wounds he received in a confrontation with other gang members from the Mantilla neighborhood in Arroyo Naranjo.
“Back then I was not in the gang [referring to the Diamond Gang which mainly operated in the areas surrounding Brotherhood Park and Monte Street up to the Train Terminal] but my cousin was. He had about ten transvestites who worked for him, but one was connected to a pinguerito [a man who lives from male prostitution] from Mantilla who was in the Blood for Pain [gang], because they are all queers there. (…) One day Lanier [the cousin] tells me that there is a party in Mantilla, and I go with him. I did not know that we could not enter Mantilla, and that is why I went, and we just went into the house and all hell broke loose. (…) They shot at Lanier and me, I took a shot in this leg and another in the back which almost left me crippled.”
According to Maria del Carmen Cordero, a sociologist participating in a study of the subject, although they tend to disband after a short time, five to ten new gangs emerge every year in Havana, made up mainly of adolescents who live in the poorest areas of the capital. An increase is also noted in the gangs composed of youth from the eastern provinces – especially from Granma (almost 40 percent of the youth) and Guantanamo (almost 30 percent) – who cannot aspire to a legal status in the city due to migratory laws that prosecute them as criminals.
“You have to keep in mind that, although some even have initiation rites and identity marks like specific tattoos, the gangs function as a kind of syndicate where the members get protection,” says Maria del Carmen who also explains what the protection consists of: “I have gathered statements from young people who say they have bribed police to let them operate in a certain area. (…) I don’t mean to say that there is a direct relationship with the policing institution, I don’t believe that exists as such, but that there are established relationships of compromise with the officers who usually patrol the streets.
“Those who walk around Brotherhood Park or Rampa by night – well, if they dare to do it – can identify the presence of gangs who control male prostitution and of transvestites, I have even seen transactions carried out, sex deals, in front of officers, and nothing has happened, which is a sign not of tolerance but of corruption. (…) If the boy, the girl, don’t join that syndicate, work becomes very difficult, getting shelter, connections. (…) Remember that they gather them up in trucks and deport them. Just like the dogcatcher with animals. It is a crime to be from eastern Cuba and spend more than the set time in Havana. Those regulations have created other phenomena related to regionalism, racism, the establishment of social hierarchies among Cubans themselves and have increased these ‘syndicates’ which is what the gangs are.”
Adrian, from Ciego de Avila, is 31 and for more than five years was tied to the Blood for Pain gang where he admits he committed several violent crimes but only under the influence of alcohol and drugs:
“There is a story about Blood for Pain. It is true that sometimes we told some new member to bug [wound with a knife] someone, whoever they wanted, but we did that for screwing around, you would start drinking, smoking a cigarette, and then see some wretch going by and we made the night with him. It’s not like people say, as if we were some criminals. (…) It is true that there were those who snatched a tourist’s wallet or camera, a gold chain, but that does not mean that it was the gang. What is always abnormal they want to say is by Blood for Pain. What is true about us is the transvestites and because they like that. Having the male that controls them, and I like that, to each his own.”
When Adrian was in jail, he broke ties with Blood for Pain to join a gang called The Angels, connected with drug dealing, pimping and male prostitution and which uses the swastika as an identifying mark although they say they do not agree with Nazi ideology. One curious detail is that some of its members are black, like Adrian himself who does not hide his racist thoughts:
“I am black, that is true, but I never hang out with blacks. I don’t know, but I have never liked hanging out with blacks. (…) The tattoo does not mean anything. I liked it, and I made it. So do those I hang out with. (…) I know what the Nazis did, but me putting that on myself does not mean I am like that. (..) I am not homosexual, but I like transvestites, and that is another thing, a transvestite is a woman.”
Although regional statistics do not classify Havana among the most violent cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, in recent years an increase in criminality associated with gangs has been noted. Psychologist Manuel Fabian Orta, who leads a group that assists adolescents with behavioral disorders, recognizes that the phenomenon could be on the rise and that, as a consequence, the landscape could become very similar to that of some Central American countries where the issue is out of control:
“The violence associated with criminal gangs is increasing and at a worrying pace. If something is not done soon, it will be like in El Salvador or Guatemala. That is what poverty brings. There is too much poverty. Spiritual and material. Family, social values, they have cracked, and a new mentality has emerged, a real “New Man” who does not believe in any value except money. Everything is fair game for getting it, and Cuban society, far from becoming a society with high values, as was supposedly the plan of the Revolution, turned into a boxing ring where one can only resist, fight, win, but in the worst sense of those words.
“Selling his body is not a problem for this “New Man,” losing his nationality is not either, and let’s not speak to them about national or cultural identity or of working for the future because they would understand nothing. The typical Cuban, the common man, only knows the present, the rest, as the young people themselves say, is ‘being dizzy’ (not being clever).”
Read here about the author: Ernest Perez Chang
Translated by Mary Lou Keel