The steep road up along the abyss: Atucucho before and after its legalization

On July 23, 2007, the Afro-Ecuadorian Hólger Morales, nicknamed El Pisuleño, was killed by a crowd of more than a hundred people. The crime took place in Atucucho, a slum in the north of Quito built against the steep slopes of the Pichincha volcano. Shortly before, neighborhood residents caught El Pisuleño breaking into a house. El Pisuleño, accused of multiple thefts and robberies in the neighborhood, was kicked and hit by the angry mob. Two police officers on scene failed to stop the crowd. Under the eyes of the officers, El Pisuleño was tied up, doused with gasoline and set alight. He died of his injuries on the spot.

The lynching El Pisuleño was not an isolated incident in Atucucho. Founded in 1988 by means of a so-called ‘invasion’, Atucucho dealt with the typical growing pains of a neighborhood built out of nothing, largely out of sight of the municipality’s controlling institutions. It was within the context of rapid and chaotic expansion, fighting between residents over turf and power, and especially, high levels of crime and insecurity, that Atucucho residents gained a reputation for taking matters into their own hands. Three people were lynched in the period 2000-2010, including El Pisuleño, as I found out studying the neighborhood in 2010.

Moreover, the lynchings turned out to be part of a larger set of vigilante measures adopted by neighborhood residents. For example, in Atucucho’s most organized sector, Corazón de Jesus, it was not unusual for residents to burn the houses of thieves that did not stop terrorizing the barrio after a verbal warning. Next to a punishment for thieves caught red-handed, these acts of mob justice served as a warning for other criminals. Catchphrases such as “ladrón cogido, ladrón quemado” (a caught thief, is a burned thief) were spray painted on the walls throughout the neighborhood in order to scare off potential troublemakers. This, to put it optimistically, with mixed results. In 2010, the barrio of almost 18,000 seemed almost paralyzed by fear. Pandillas (gangs) were said to “own the streets during night time”[1], and few residents dared to go out on the neighborhood’s poorly illuminated streets after sunset. Also the police, with a presence of only ten poorly equipped officers divided over two little police stations, was accused of being afraid of the neighborhood’s criminals and sometimes even of cooperating with them.

Sector Corazón de Jesus, Atucucho

Outsiders

The lynchings, however, next to pervasive crime and a population at its wits’ end, revealed another, perhaps even more deep-seated problem. All three lynch victims, just like the majority of those subjected to other forms of mob justice, besides being considered ladrones [thieves], were seen as outsiders by the neighborhood’s dominant largely mestizo group. What constituted ‘an outsider’ became clear during a meeting I attended in 2010 of the neighborhood organization, Atucucho’s most powerful decision-making body, as there were no black residents among the approximately hundred attendants. Their absence, while constituting about 20 percent of the total population, was attributed to their lazy nature and indifference towards the neighborhood’s wellbeing. “The black population does not like to cooperate with us and to fight for the neighborhood. On the other hand, they like everything that is easy, they are lazy”, as said a man, repeating a popular belief within the neighborhood. Atucucho’s black residents, meanwhile, complained about the lack of support from the neighborhood organization, claiming that they were only asked to be involved in its activities when there was work to do. This, without reaping the benefits of their labor.

Moreover, the black population was held responsible for the barrio’s grinding insecurity; a stigma that seemed pervasive in the whole of Quito. Based on the dominant mode of thought in risk societies that ‘danger comes from the outside’, and helped by the fact that Atucucho’s black population was largely concentrated in La Campiña – a remote sector situated in the neighborhood’s upper part – black residents were seen as risk-bearing intruders by the majority of the people in Atucucho, instead of fully-fledged residents. The pervasive fear among Atucucho residents was projected on these outsiders, among which the literal outsiders coming from outside of Ecuador establishing themselves in the neighborhood were also counted. As Soledad, a mestizo neighborhood resident explained to me four years ago: “More people are coming: Colombians, Peruvians, Cubans. Those that already lived here aren’t bad. The bad ones come from somewhere else. [And why is this?] Because they don’t know it here, and we don’t know them. My neighbors, on the other hand, I know for years. That’s why they aren’t bad.”

El Pisuleño, as an alcoholic, womanizer, and a thief, and as a black man coming from outside of Atucucho – he moved from Pisulí (another Quito slum) to the neighborhood when he was little, hence the nickname – embodied all that was considered dangerous and perverse by Atucucho’s dominant class. His elimination, as much as a way of settling scores with a notorious thief, was an elimination of the symbolic evil as well. In a tormented neighborhood, lynchings, as well as other acts of mob justice, served for putting a uniform face on the myriad of threats permeating the space of everyday life, while at the same time taking charge of one’s own destiny. As an Atucucho lady told me with reference to an incident where she and other residents burned down the houses of two families accused of repeated stealing: “Through burning these houses, we as the community showed that we were a community”. Be it, however, a divided one.

Unorganized years

Atucucho’s history of organization, where gaining access to basic facilities such as electricity, drinking water and sewerage, was coupled with self-enriching and infighting leaders, not seldom squeezing neighborhood residents, showed that threats not only came from the outside. In fact, in the year El Pisuleño was lynched, Atucucho found itself in a state of “apathy towards everything”, as former neighborhood president Don Luis told me. The neighborhood organization fell apart in the early 2000s after Ecuador’s economy collapsed in the midst of a neighborhood’s attempt to buy the much desired escrituras, the title deeds that Atucucho residents lacked due to being a former invasion. Obtainment of these escrituras would not only make residents owners of their houses, but also provide the neighborhood with a fully legal status. This, in turn, would clear the way for both business and governmental investments.

Ecuador’s adoption of the U.S. dollar in 2000, however, meant that the money paid by residents to the neighborhood organization for buying the escrituras, in Ecuador’s old currency the sucre, almost vaporized. Part of the money, as is widely believed among people in Atucucho, disappeared into the pockets of the neighborhood’s president and his retinue. Unorganized years followed were Atucucho residents seemed averse to any form of formal organization – former presidents were called ladrones in those years. And if it was not for an infectious attempt by a new generation of Atucucho leaders in 2009 to reorganize the neighborhood in order to make another bid for the escrituras, adopting a more democratic type of governing, Atucucho’s organization most likely would have petered out like a damp squib. During my fieldwork in 2010, Atucucho found itself in the midst of this process, which included neighborhood meetings and three marches to the country’s National Assembly in order to prepare the way for the legal sale of the escrituras. Nevertheless, neighborhood residents remained skeptical.

Black people largely felt left out of this attempt to reunite Atucucho. “I only hear of meetings the day after they are held. On the other hand, if there are mingas [communal work] in the neighborhood they do know where to find me”, as told a black resident. Sharing a neighborhood seemed to be the only thing that the black population and the rest of Atucucho had in common those days.

Legalization of the escrituras

When I returned to Quito almost two months ago, I expected to find the same Atucucho that I left behind four years ago: a fragmented neighborhood, literally “tired of everything” (nowhere did I hear the word ‘cansado’ [tired] more than in Atucucho). However, the path set by Atucucho’s new leaders in 2009 culminated three years later when Atucucho saw its escrituras legalized by decree and brought fresh air into the neighborhood. Against many expectations, Atucucho’s directive lived up to their promises, creating momentum for the neighborhood. Tellingly, no lynchings had occurred in the years I was away, and house burnings and other acts of mob justice were said to have stopped. Even the graffiti warning thieves to watch their steps was removed of the walls. Furthermore, governmental investments are on the way to build a new health center and a police station, with a number of officers that matches the size of the neighborhood. In the words of incumbent president Don Manolo: “there is a before and an after the legalization of the escrituras in Atucucho”.

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Escritura of an Atucucho resident

For many, obtaining the escrituras literally meant a dream come through. Not in the least because of the 25 year long struggle that often preceded to this event. Shockingly, the first Atucucho resident to receive an escritura died later that day at her own party from a heart attack presumably caused by the excitement of the moment – how sour can be the sweet. Even the black population appeared to be more cooperative, as was noticed by a mestizo resident, with the purchasing process of the escrituras in full swing. In order for people to be able to buy the escrituras, with an average price of about 1500 dollar, a bank was founded by neighborhood residents to provide loans under favorable conditions. Perhaps exemplary for the ‘new’ Atucucho, one of the founders of this Banco Popular, and also vice-president of the neighborhood organization, is a lady of Afro-Ecuadorian descent.

Furthermore, the more inclusive type of governing that the neighborhood organization adopted in 2009, dubbed Gobierno Barrial [neighborhood government], seems to make progress as next year Atucucho hopes to welcome the first president directly voted by the residents, instead of only by those allied to the neighborhood organization (so-called socios). Already, important institutions in the neighborhood such as the health center, day-care centers, and sporting clubs were involved in the decision-making of the neighborhood organization. And although still lacking a legal basis for this attempt to create more involvement for both the neighborhood and the work of its organization, these developments sparked compliments from Domingo Paredes, the president of Ecuador’s National Electoral Council (CNE), during a ceremony where 63 new community leaders from Atucucho were handed their diplomas. They were the first in Ecuador to take CNE’s new course about citizens’ rights. It led to the previously inconceivable situation of other neighborhoods looking with envy at the occurrences in Atucucho. “We need a Don Manolo”, as told a lady from the adjacent barrio Cooperativa Pablo Arturo Suárez, that found itself in the midst of a dispute between leaders striving over the neighborhood’s presidency.

It is, however, more than just decisive leadership that brought Atucucho to where it now stands. Esmeralda, a founder resident and socio of the neighborhood organization: “This sector Atucucho has cost us so much suffering, work, and unity. It is unity that makes strength, because without our support, the president couldn’t have done anything.” And it is this unity that is now widely disseminated and celebrated in Atucucho. Indeed, Atucucho in 2014 feels like a more positive neighborhood, having seemingly brushed of part of the grim that led to years without organization and lynchings. Appearances, however, may be deceiving.

Lurking dangers

In a hymn composed in honor of the canonization of Padre Damián (Father Damien), the Belgian “apostle of the lepers” and patron saint of Atucucho, the neighborhood was described as “being so close to heaven, but at the same time to the abyss”.[2] This seems to be more true now than ever. While the recent reorganization and legalization have provided Atucucho with a reason to look up, certain issues, if left unresolved, will stand in the way of real progress to be made in the neighborhood.

For a neighborhood such as Atucucho, with relentlessly high levels of crime and insecurity and lack of basic services such as stable lighting supply, garbage pickup, and pavement of many of its streets, a certain amount of organization seems a prerequisite for further development. However, the unity on which Atucucho’s organization is based, the barrio’s self-proclaimed biggest strength, seems fragile, and, in some ways, non-existent. Several residents declare to mind their own business as much as possible in order to stay out of troubles. Dolores, a lady in her seventies: “I walk the streets with the cross of Christ pressed against my lips, to keep myself safe from all the problems and evil in the neighborhood. […] It is better to live a little bit anonymous here and not to interfere in someone else’s business, good day, good afternoon and see you later neighbor, that’s it for me.” Julia, a mother of six who moved to the neighborhood two decades ago: “I have very few friendships here, I don’t have time for it, and I don’t like it. In my country it is different, if you make a lot of friends, they will come to your house, then the gossip will start and then come the problems, and that’s why I don’t like it. Everybody knows me and salutes me here, sometimes I don’t even know who they are. I don’t have problems because I don’t give problems a chance. In the morning I take the bus to go to work and in the evening I come back, that’s it. I think it is six years ago that I went out for the last time here, to a party. I don’t like to go out, because of all the crime in the neighborhood.”

Atucucho residents during the diploma ceremony

Furthermore, obtaining the escrituras, although to everybody’s interest, did not seem to have brought Atucucho’s ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’ closer to each other. Tellingly, there was not one black resident among the approximately 150 attendants of the diploma ceremony, except for the neighborhood’s vice-president. She herself proved to be extremely critical towards the barrio’s black population and their supposed unwillingness to work for the neighborhood: “They aren’t integrated. They don’t participate, because they don’t want to. This project [Gobierno Barrial] is open to everyone, I am black. And why aren’t they here, simply because they don’t want to. They don’t like to participate, they have an inferiority complex, and excuse me for saying this, it is like they are feeling incompetent to do anything. And that is bad, very bad, because these are competent people, but it is as if they are afraid to make mistakes […]. They don’t participate here in all respects: in sports, I see very few, in the national assemblies, there are few, in church, there are few. They live in their own world or want to hold on to the traditions they brought from where they come from, but in their own little bubble. And they don’t want to leave that bubble.”

At the same time, she declares, the neighborhood’s black population is still wrongfully singled out and treated as the major source of insecurity. “That is what the people believe and see. It is because they created this mentality that when they see a black person, they change sidewalk or change street to avoid him. It is this way of thinking that we [the neighborhood organization] are fighting as well.” Atucucho’s black residents appear to be well aware of this stigma. Patricia: “The other day I was leaving at 4.30 in the morning to go to work and I see a woman and a man both with babies sleeping on their arm getting robbed. And I wanted to interfere, but I decided not to, you see, you don’t want to make a ladrón mad in such a case because he might have taken it out on the family, and because he was black [the ladrón] they probably would have thought that I had something to do with it as well. So it’s not worth getting involved.”

However, it is not just the black population that seemingly needs to be convinced of the importance of being organized. It fact, it is the Gobierno Barrial’s biggest success, the obtainment of the escrituras, that might frustrate its future plans and ambitions. According to a neighborhood socio, there is a growing sentiment in Atucucho that after achieving its primary goal, the neighborhood organization lost part of its necessity. Moreover, with more and more people in possession of their escrituras, the organization seems to lose an important power tool. Working before with a system where residents had to pay a fine added to the price of their escritura for not participating in a minga, the neighborhood organization was able to push people into taking part in the vigilante brigades that scoped the barrio on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings – a job not considered to be without risks. However, with a growing number of residents having their escrituras, and thus less means to control behavior, the neighborhood organization saw itself forced to cancel the brigades last year.

And although the Gobierno Barrial appears to be a way to create more involvement in the neighborhood and gain public support for the work of its organization, this development, at the same time, involves risks. As is proved by young democracies in Latin America, and most notably Central America, enhanced democratic rule is by no means a guarantee for a more peaceful coexistence. In fact, it is the democratization in the region, often coupled with state failure, which is now widely regarded as being an important driver of the proliferation of both the violence in Latin America, as well as the actors involved in it.[3] In Atucucho, were corruption and a lack of inclusiveness led to years without formal organization – providing the context for crime and fear, as well as for mob justice – much will depend on how the democratization process is shaped.

The period where neighborhood residents saw themselves forced to take matters into their own hands is still fresh in the memory, as I found out during a conversation about the work of the current neighborhood organization when an old man switched topics and told me giggling (and slightly exaggerating) that they had lynched seven or eight people in Atucucho. It reminded me of a conversation I had four years ago with a lady in Atucucho, who told me smiling that they “don’t hit people here, they burn them”, after I asked her if a simple beating would not suffice as punishment for thieves. I derived my title, “Aquí se quema” (here we burn), from it.

It was the centrality of lynching and mob justice in general in Atucucho in 2010 coupled with plain curiosity that incentivized us about a month ago to visit the place where El Pisuleño was murdered. Accompanied by two neighborhood residents, we took a stroll to the highly elevated Sector de la Escuela in the early afternoon – a time when the ladrones are said to be still asleep, “they would have strangled us during night time” according to one of our chaperones. The sector, that derives its name from the first school that was founded in Atucucho, is known as one of the most dangerous parts of the neighborhood; a place where the police is afraid to show its face according to its residents. When we near the place we are looking for, one of the ladies starts whispering, hinting that the boys sitting on the sidewalk are part of a gang. However, the seemingly harmless adolescents greet us in a friendly way and do not seem to be bothered by our presence – a few weeks after our visit a sixteen year old boy was murdered in the sector in what appeared to be a fight “between gang members”. We stop at a fence holding a big sign, saying: “Community alarm. Organized neighborhood”.

It is this community alarm that alerted neighborhood residents after someone caught El Pisuleño in the act of breaking into a house. The subtitle of the notice reads: “Mister thief, don’t put yourself at risk”. And ten meters from the sign, the place where El Pisuleño lost his life, marked by a seemingly new scorched piece of pavement and wall. More than seven years after date, the spot where El Pisuleño died looks like what it probably looked like right after the angry residents had their go at one of the neighborhood’s biggest troublemakers. A creepy coincidence, or is the thought of El Pisuleño as alive as ever in Atucucho; and if so, serves the smoldering piece of earth as a reminder of a bygone era or does it carry a warning – one that can burst into flames at the slightest hint of a match. Only the future will tell.

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[1] The 2010 quotes all stem from my fieldwork in that year. The results of this study can be found in: Peeters, Timo. 2010. Lynchen en sociale fragmentatie in Quito (Ecuador): “Aquí se quema”. Oisterwijk: Wolf Legal Publishers.

[2] Comisión de Canonización del Beato Damián de Veuster. 2009. Recursos II: Para la animación del año Damián. See: www.padredamian.com/documentos_recursos/MayoAOctubre.pdf.

[3] See for instance: Kruijt, Dirk and Koonings, Kees. 1999. Introduction: Violence and fear in Latin America, in: K. Koonings and D. Kruijt (eds.), Societies of fear: The legacy of civil war, violence and terror in Latin America, London: Zed Books; Rodgers, Dennis. 2006. Living in the shadow of death: Gangs, violence and social order in urban Nicaragua, 1996–2002. Journal of Latin American Studies, 38(2), pp. 267-292.