Istanbul Diaries: Nov. 3

Note to reader: If you’re actually from Istanbul, have mercy on my touristishness in these posts.

I’m inventing a term for that obvious lack of understanding of a place by which one feels compelled to go on and on about things that are quite commonplace for the locals.

In Mexico, when I overhear English-speaking outsiders try to make sense out of and talk authoritatively about the whys and wherefores of local Mexican customs, or when they write on and on about, say, chickens on buses…or traffic, I get a little impatient. The way Mexico does things is a mystifying world to them and I want to tell them that the way the U.S. or Canada or even England does things is a mystifying world to nearly everyone else on the globe.

But here I am in Istanbul and I’m about to do what a foreigner does. We write about what’s unusual to us, what we don’t understand and what embarrassing predicaments result.

So far I haven’t landed myself in too many cultural faux pas. Sure I wore my shoes into someone’s house instead of taking them off at the door, but they were also foreigners and looked kindly if not pityingly on my mistake. I also managed not to butcher a two-cheek-kiss greeting instead of the one-cheek I’m accustomed to in Mexico, but I’m pretty sure I made too much contact on the second cheek. I’m not quite sure what went wrong. I was just trying to do the basic air kiss, but maybe my distance or timing was off for having to carry on from the right side. I don’t know, but I smacked her good and proper. I’ll have to work on my left-side kiss. It’s kind of clumsy.

Then there’s the language. I’m sorry to say I’m just mostly throwing out English because my Turkish is “yok,” which according to my dictionary app could mean “there is not,” or “absent,” or “unavailable” or the one I like the best, just “nope.” That pretty much defines how much Turkish I have at the moment: nope!

Maybe in a month I’ll be able to ask for what I really want at the restaurant or even talk to my host family. Meanwhile, I’ll just point and be happy with whatever the waiter brings me and smile a lot to my family.

Beware of the touristishness to follow…

Justice a la Mexicana

I’ve had a lot of visitors from the north lately. Sooner or later they all ask some variation of the same question: How safe is it in Mexico these days?

I’ll be honest. If you look at the numbers – at the tens of thousands who have been killed violently over the last five years or so – it’s off-putting to say the least. But as an American old-timer put it in perspective, it’s kind of like the prohibition days in the U.S. – if you weren’t involved in bootlegging, you had nothing to worry about.

I’d say that’s about right, but there’s something else in play that may or may not have been a product of those days. I don’t know. I wasn’t around. The bad guys are somehow becoming the “good guys.” Or at least they’re becoming the law. Let me explain by way of a few stories:

“I’m part of an extortion.”

That’s how she started the conversation in December. Just out of the blue. When I asked her what she was talking about, she told me the story.

Over several months, she received sexually explicit text messages from a number she didn’t recognize. Through a little investigation she discovered it was a member of her church. (Yes, she’s a follower of Christ and a leader in the church.) When confronted, he denied there was anything wrong with what he was doing. The church disciplined him and when he refused to be disciplined, they threw him out of the church.

He continued to send messages. Some of those indicated he was watching her. She decided it was time to scare him off.

She called a relative who was a gang member and put in an order for harassment and a little extortion on the side. She told him what the man was doing and told them he had property enough to make it worth their while. She gave them his phone number. All she asked, she said, is that they not kill him. They took over from there.

He knew that she was behind it because the mafia told him. They were supporting her cause. When he denied any wrongdoing, or painted a different picture, the gang’s boss called her on it. She said she had texts to prove what he was doing.

Last week she told me she hasn’t seen or heard from her stalker in a month. I asked her what happened. She said she didn’t know. I asked if she was concerned he might bring charges against her for being part of an extortion. She said he’d be too afraid to do that.

When I asked her if she thought it was right, she said, “What other choice do I have? I can’t go to the police. He had family in the local government. At least the gangs offer another option.”

If my Christian friend sees it that way, I can only imagine how others might see it.

I know of at least two other cases for which the mafia has appointed itself the arbiter of justice. In one land dispute, the mafia called a meeting with one of the landholders saying, “we’re here to do justice.”

Another incident happened a month ago in the Sierra above Tecpan.  Javier, one of the seminary students, was present when gang members brought back a community member after two weeks of being tortured and held for ransom. The man was accused by somebody in the area of cattle rustling.

Javier said the pickup drove into the small village of La Cuesta and a few 18- and 19-year-olds with AK-47s jumped out. The older leader stepped forward and handed over the man saying that “he’s innocent. I don’t know why they had us pick him up.”

When one of the women of the village was somewhat hysterically thanking the kidnappers, the leader told her, “No ma’am, thank God. This was His work. We would have normally killed him.”

As they left, the gang leader said, “If we can be of any service to you, just let us know. God bless you.”

All that in itself is crazy talk enough, but the gang took all the man’s property deeds and cattle (valuing about $100,000 U.S.) and gave him and his family seven days to leave town – the cost of finding him not guilty of charges, I guess.

When I used this as an example to point out the injustice of their justice to my Christian friend over coffee, she wasn’t taken aback. She wasn’t even surprised. She was suspicious. “He did something,” she said. “Maybe it wasn’t what they said they picked him up for, but he did something. They don’t pick someone up unless they have a good reason to.”

I may be drawing too big a conclusion from a few anecdotes, but it seems that there’s more confidence in how the mafia conducts its justice here than in how the government does. I’ve heard more than a few people say the “law” is the gang controlling the area, not the police.

One cartel has even published a little booklet of their “code of ethics,” which has been handed out as propaganda all over the area. According to their booklet, a citizen should not feel afraid in the presence of one of their members. On the contrary, they should feel safe and protected.

When the mafiosos say they deliver justice (and can at least deliver vengeance from time to time), and when a police uniform symbolizes bottomless depths of corruption, is it any wonder that even the Christians get confused sometimes?

The comforting thing to know for now, at least, is that there is still a measure of respect by most mafiosos toward believers. On a number of occasions, Mexican church planters and missionaries in a particular gang’s territory have been told, “They know what you’re doing and why you’re here and they will leave you alone.”

In fact, the best story from recent years was when Pastor Audonias Rosas got his car robbed at gunpoint. At the time he was pastor of the First Baptist Church of San Jeronimito. When believers in a nearby town saw the vehicle parked with others, Audonias reported it to the police, but they wouldn’t go get it. They were too scared. Audonias decided to talk to a friend who had relatives in the gang. The friend got the word to the boss that his henchmen had stolen a pastor’s vehicle…a PASTOR’S… A few days later the car was found parked outside the church. The only thing missing, Audonias said, was the Bible he had with him at the time.

All this to say to my inquiring northerners: yeah, it’s safe enough when you’ve got connections…and I’m not talking about the human kind.