Friday, May 09, 2008

Robbery by children

Roberto took us on the 2.5 hour trip from Samaipata to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. He was a good driver, cautious on the mountain roads, careful when crossing over the avalanche area in the dark. He got us back safely to the taxi cooperative office, then offered to take us home for the same price as a local taxi. Since we already knew he was trustworthy, we took him up on it.

We’d just moved a couple blocks from the office when we were stopped at a stoplight. The street was full with people leaving a soccer game, people waiting for transportation, selling things, visiting one of the many shops and cafes that lined the road. The buzz of traffic and people on the move surrounded us.

All of a sudden, several dirty, gangly young boys surrounded our vehicle. This in itself wasn’t unusual. We expected they were going to wash the windshield, or do some tricks in order to earn tips.

Instead, one of them opened the Roberto’s unlocked door. Another tried to open the passenger’s door behind the driver, but it was locked. A third stood at my door (I sat in front). While my door was unlocked and window was open, I didn’t think about that at the time. Like everyone else in the car, I looked over at Roberto as he struggled with the boy, who had the car door fully open and wasn’t letting go.

“What are you doing?” Roberto yelled. I could smell his fear and tasted my own.

The boy grinned at though he was playing, his eyes glazed over by glue sniffing.

A hand reached into the car through my window and I shouted, but not before the boy managed to grab something.

“He took some money from you,” a woman selling something in the median told the driver. Fat cascaded from her midsection in two large rolls.

I had money in my hand, but the boy hadn’t gotten that. He hadn’t gotten the driver’s money that was on a shelf. Nor had he gotten my duffel bag, which was on the floor in between my legs. I commented how stupid the kid was. If he had opened my door, he could have gotten away with all my belongings – a nice loot.

But I was sure I’d seen him take something. When I pointed for the second time to the general area of the dashboard where I saw something go, Roberto sucked in air, then exclaimed, “My radio!”

He’d purchased the radio only recently for $200. And he worked the entire evening to make $25 (minus his expenses). Those kids, aged 7 to 12, robbed him of several day’s income. He was so upset that he became distracted, missed turns, had a hard time following directions. At one point he even stopped on the side of the road, unsure of how to continue.

My colleague, Maria, advised him to stay in town for the night, and to visit Los Pozos market the next morning. There is a street in that market where only stolen goods are sold.

“I went there after my radio was stolen and I bought it back for $30,” she said.

The criminals unload their loot quickly and easily at these shops. And the owners resell it with a profit, but at prices much lower than retail. Everyone knows about this street, but no one closes it down.

For me, other than the unpleasantness of being attacked, tricked, and robbed, the overriding sentiment was one of sadness for the society. How could children hold up a car in the middle of a busy street and not a single adult does anything to stop it? How could the children have so much experience at such young ages that they were able to pull it off so professionally? The driver said there are probably older criminals behind them, ready with a knife for anyone who interferes. Where are the police? In a town with so many wealthy people, they can’t find the funds to implement public safety? And then there is the issue of abortion being legal. It’s only in a country like this, where abortion is illegal and it’s very difficult for the average person to access illegal services, that one can see the impact of forcing women to have children they don’t want and aren’t going to care for.

You get streets full of vagabond children, kids in training to become criminals far before the usual time, and underfunded orphanages full of kids that nobody wants. I visited one of those orphanages. On one street corner, there were four separate institutions, all full of kids. The one I visited took in boys, ages six to sixteen. Unlike countries where parents make a choice whether or not to have a child, the vast majority of children in this orphanage had living parents. But the parents gave the kids away because they were unable to take care of them.

The employee we spoke to said that most were single mothers and most had five, six, or seven other children. They could not take care of another. Almost 80% of the boys living there had a living parent in the area.

While this particular orphanage received foreign funds and had relatively nice facilities, the boys sleep 30 to a room, run around in ragged clothing, and eat food that leaves a lingering, unpleasant smell in the hallways.

As far as the employee knew, there had never been a single adoption. Nobody wants these children. No one loves them or takes the responsibility for raising them. But because some people insisted that they must be brought into a world that has no place for them, it is society that has to deal with the consequences of what they turn into as adults.

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