Letter from Lima — From the February 2012 issue

All Politics Is Local

Election night in Peru’s largest prison

To understand a place like Lurigancho, it’s best not to dwell on words like prison or inmate or cell, or on the images these terms generally connote. The 7,400 men who live in Lurigancho, Peru’s largest and most notorious penal institution, do not wear uniforms; there is no roll call or lockdown or lights-out. Whatever control the prison authorities have inside Lurigancho is nominal. They secure the gate to the prison, and little else.

The complex’s twenty housing blocks can be divided roughly into two sections: the better-off inmates live in El Jardín (the Garden), the odd-numbered blocks. The greenery withered long ago, but the name and its cachet have remained. Many residents carry the keys to their own cells and are free to wander the grounds as they wish, though some prefer not to leave the relative calm of their territory. The other side of Lurigancho is known as La Pampa (the Plain), the even-numbered blocks, home to thousands of accused murderers and petty thieves. The density here can be twice that of El Jardín, the conditions unsanitary and often violent.

Illustration by John Ritter. Source photograph by Paco Arévalo Varela

Illustration by John Ritter. Source photograph by Paco Arévalo Varela

Lurigancho is only a few miles from the center of Lima, Peru’s capital and largest city, and it remains connected to the life of the city. La Pampa is organized by neighborhood, each block corresponding to a different district of the capital. The blocks constitute an imaginary map of Lima’s criminal world — one for San Martín de Porres, another for La Victoria, another for San Juan de Miraflores, and so on — each section serving as welcoming committee, support group, and finishing school for the young delinquents who have the misfortune to arrive there.

Separating El Jardín from La Pampa are a high brick wall and a narrow alley known as El Jiron de la Unión, whose namesake was once the most aristocratic promenade in Lima’s colonial center. The prison version is an open-air market where one can get a haircut and buy soap, batteries, razor blades, old T-shirts, drugs, and popsicles. During the day the alley is crawling with the sin-zapatos (the shoeless), Lurigancho’s army of hopelessly drug-addicted inmates who don’t belong to any block. On any given night, 200 to 300 of these men have nowhere to sleep.

Because there are about a hundred inmates for every guard (the average in the United States is six inmates per guard), the authorities tend to look the other way when it comes to contraband like drugs, alcohol, cable television, and cell phones — the sorts of comforts that can make prison life tolerable. Drugs in particular help take the edge off the overcrowding and keep an otherwise restive population in an acquiescent haze. As one trafficker told me, “It’s the only way to control these beasts.” He found it frightening to contemplate Lurigancho without its daily fix. Overdoses are common, but there are only sixty-three doctors for the 49,000 inmates in Peru’s prison system, and just a handful of those are assigned to Lurigancho. Enough food for two scant meals a day is delivered to the prison gates, but everything else — from maintenance to discipline to recreation — is the responsibility of the men inside. Each block is run by a boss, a ranking figure in the Lima underworld, whose authority within the block is unquestioned. Block Seven in El Jardín, which is reserved for international drug traffickers, is an exception.

Block Seven houses many men who, by virtue of their occupation, have traveled the globe, hold multiple passports, and speak several languages. The standard of living here reflects the relative wealth of this elite. The traffickers are businessmen, accepting as an article of faith that most problems can be resolved, if not avoided altogether, with money. The majority are Peruvians, many from the coca-producing jungle regions in the east, but there are others, too: men from China, Holland, Italy, Mexico, Nigeria, Spain, Turkey. The walls of the yard show the diversity of its residents: painted maps of the European Union, logos of Colombian soccer teams, murals celebrating jungle life, one of which shows a small biplane, the emblem of the drug trade, floating high above green, forested hills. There are nearly thirty nations represented, and inmates range from the unlucky would-be drug mule who never made it past airport security to the experienced cocaine trafficker patiently serving out his third or fourth prison sentence in as many countries. There are ordinary inmates as well, men brought in to the block to work. The result is a uniquely cosmopolitan culture — in Lurigancho, but not of it — a gated community within a prison. Because the nearly 400 inmates there have little interest in or connection to the hierarchies of Lima’s dark streets, Block Seven is not run by a single boss. Here, there is democracy.

I arrived on a Sunday morning last March to find Block Seven in a particularly festive mood. The yearly campaign to elect a new governing body was under way. Pepe, the gregarious candidate at the top of List #2, was going door-to-door with his partner, Richard, the prosperous owner of the block’s chicken restaurant. (I am using pseudonyms to protect the privacy and security of all the inmates who shared their stories with me.) Their opponents were running a man named Barrios as delegado, but List #1 was really controlled by an Israeli trafficker named Avi. Each list had half a dozen positions: delegates for Food, Discipline, Economics, Culture, Sport, and Health, along with subdelegates in each of these areas. Many inmates were wearing campaign shirts — white with a blue star, or red with yellow letters reading pepe and richard, vote for change. There were campaign posters lining the walls, some drawn to look like the front pages of local newspapers, others citing fictitious block-wide polls. One featured a drawing of an old wooden tennis racket and the phrase ¡no más raquetas!, the slang term for police inspections. These are such rare occurrences, and the concept of contraband is so flexible in Lurigancho, that every raqueta is seen as an offense to the established order, and the hallmark of a bad delegado. The most recent one, in January, so shook the populace that it had become a campaign issue.

Pepe and Richard had thrown a party the day before I arrived, and multicolored flags emblazoned with the number 2 were still strung across the yard. A handful of shirtless men were breaking down the stage where a band from a neighboring block had performed. Pepe and Richard had even arranged for dancers from the outside to join the show, voluptuous women who’d made quite an impression on the electorate. While the music played and the women danced, Pepe had gone table to table, shaking hands with his fellow inmates and their visiting families, asking for votes. This, after all, is how elections are won, whether in prison or out on the streets. The party had been, by all accounts, quite successful.

After the party, Avi had released a new batch of hand-drawn campaign posters:

think, compañero:
will you let them
buy your vote
with a party?
no to spending
yes to investment
vote 1

I first visited Lurigancho in 2008, hoping to teach a creative-writing class, and went all over the prison, in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to recruit students. At the time, Lurigancho held nearly a quarter of Peru’s inmates, and overcrowding had reached a crisis point. The prison, originally built for a couple thousand men, had become home to more than 11,000. Shanks were sold openly, as were crack pipes, ingeniously fashioned from bent scraps of metal. Thin, bare-chested men slumped against the walls, covered in scars, wearing the downcast, narrow gaze of drug addicts. Tuberculosis was rampant. Lurigancho was producing some thirty tons of trash a week, much of it uncollected, while the poorest inmates fed themselves by sifting through this refuse for anything edible. A gray scarf hung from an old radio tower, the prison’s unofficial flag — a memento of a drug-addled inmate who’d escaped from the psychiatric clinic, climbed the tower, and hanged himself. So severe was the crowding that a few hundred homeless squatters had taken over an abandoned building to create an informal twenty-first housing block. In most prisons, if inmates had access to hammers, concrete, bricks, shovels, spades, and the like, one imagines they’d use them to escape. Instead, when I visited Block Twenty-One, I found the residents hard at work, building a wall around their new home so they could have a safe place to walk after dark.

In July 2009 government authorities declared Lurigancho closed to new inmates. Since then, the population has declined by nearly 40 percent, which is both a great relief and a serious problem. Lurigancho today is a calmer, generally safer place to do time. But because much of the prison’s economy depends on visitors and the money and supplies they bring, it’s also much poorer. The harsh reality of imprisonment is that the longer you’re away, the more likely it is that you’ll be forgotten. As one man put it to me, “That first year, even your dog and cat come to visit. After that, you’re on your own.” Fewer new inmates means fewer visitors, which in turn translates into tighter budgets for maintenance and security. Water often runs out, the overloaded electrical grid breaks down every few days, and vital repairs simply can’t be paid for.

The economic crisis has had repercussions, even in Block Seven. With the exception of a few very wealthy inmates, all of Lurigancho’s men, including the most drug addicted, must do some work to survive: there are painters, bricklayers, electricians, massage therapists, lawyers, doctors, and cooks inside. A fairly rigid class structure has emerged alongside the block’s democratic system: some men live alone in relative luxury, while others share a cell, one paying rent to the other, or both paying rent to a third. If they can’t afford that, inmates make their home in El Gran Hermano (the Big Brother) — named after the Peruvian version of the reality-television franchise. There, some thirty-five men sleep on triple bunk beds beneath a leaky roof, in conditions that have more in common with life in La Pampa. Poorer still are those living in La Candelaria, a narrow, dirty crawl space behind the kitchen, less a living area than a drug den with cots. Many of these men, known colloquially as rufos, are addicted to crack and are a skinny, unhealthy-looking bunch who hustle or steal to stay high. They are the cheap-labor force of Block Seven, responsible for much of the housekeeping and maintenance. A third of these men are not officially designated to live here but have been accepted on a conditional basis, as “residents.” They clean the cells of the moneyed inmates, work in the block’s many restaurants, and sweep the yard every evening. If a rufo’s drug use gets out of control, if he steals or starts fights, he risks expulsion. Even good behavior doesn’t give him the full privileges of citizenship: many can’t vote, for example.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays — family days — a rufo who hasn’t showered and shaved is not permitted in the block, so as not to frighten the women and children. And when the well-off receive guests, the block’s clean-shaven rufos and its working class attend to the visitors’ needs. They serve food and drink, ferry messages, carry heavy packages from the prison gate to the block. Some of the foreigners, whose families are far away, rent their cells out to poorer inmates who have no private place for a conjugal visit. Money is the prison’s lifeblood, which is why, though crowding was down, and the prison more livable, no one was really celebrating. For both campaigns, the dire economic situation would be the election’s most pressing issue.

I met Murat, a Kurd known around the block as the Iraqi, a few days before the election. He was tall and thin, with a narrow face and black hair tied in a severe ponytail. A blurry star was tattooed midway up his left arm. When Murat arrived in Lurigancho, he knew no Spanish, but now — five years later — he spoke well enough to run as one of List #2’s economic delegates. He’d learned Spanish by necessity, of course. There were no other Kurds or Arabs with whom to speak.

“Two Kurds,” he said, “and we’d run the whole prison.”

Although for this election they were on opposing sides, Murat and Avi were friends, and Murat took me to see the brains and prime mover behind List #1. Avi welcomed us into his air-conditioned cell with a warning: there wasn’t much to say about the election. “I hate politics,” Avi said, arms open in a kind of shrug. His smile told me otherwise: he grinned with the exaggerated sincerity of an actor trying to make his expression visible to the audience in the cheap seats.

Avi wore a pair of brand-new Nikes, blue track pants, a white T-shirt, and a yarmulke crowning his short salt-and-pepper hair. On a wooden shelf above his bed sat a framed photo of his two grown children, a reminder of the life waiting for him back in Tel Aviv. He caught me looking and explained that although his daughter was engaged, she refused to marry until her father could be present at the ceremony. Avi frowned. He was eleven years and five months into a twenty-year sentence.

The Israeli offered the Iraqi a cigarette, and as the cell filled with smoke, the two men slipped into a good-natured back-and-forth about the future of the block. A short, chubby-faced Peruvian named Morales joined our impromptu political salon.

“Has a foreigner ever been delegado?” I asked.

The three of them recalled a Nigerian named Michael who rose to the position after a Peruvian delegado was transferred. “When?” I asked, and here they fell silent. Who could say for sure? In prison, the days, months, and years often seemed to blend together: 2003, 2004, 2005? And really, what did it matter now that the Nigerian had been released? They did remember one thing: he’d run for reelection and lost.

“A foreigner can’t control us,” Morales said, a hint of pride in his voice.

Avi insisted that his role in the election was minor: “I have no reason to be a part of this. The winner of these elections must be the people. We need water and electricity, and no trouble from the cops.”

To combat the budgetary shortfall, Avi’s opponents, Pepe and Richard, proposed to raise taxes. As it stood now, every resident of the block contributed three soles (about a dollar) each week for maintenance and security. Traditionally, anyone who has been in for more than seven years is exempt. List #2 would do away with exemptions and introduce a new system: one to seven years would pay three soles, seven to ten years two soles, and over ten years just one. For Avi, it amounted to cruelty, an unwillingness to understand the realities of the block. His campaign had filled Block Seven with posters that read, no to shock!

“I can afford it,” Avi said, “but there are people here who can’t. How are you going to charge them?” Nor did Avi trust his opponents’ motivation: “Why do they throw a party?” he asked. “To get people to spend money.” Campaigning was a necessity, but his list had a different tack: they were giving away a chicken dinner that evening to everyone in the block, gentleman or rufo, citizen or resident, a celebration to end the campaign. There’d even be chicken for me, if I wanted.

“Richard’s chicken?” I asked, half joking.

Avi smiled. Of course he wouldn’t buy chicken from his opponent. “From the outside,” he said.

Richard’s Chicken brought a singular innovation to Lurigancho’s restaurant scene: delivery. Before the economic crisis, Richard sold up to 120 roast chickens a week, working only on visiting days, taking orders from all over the prison complex. Those were the heady times, when Lurigancho was flush with money, full to bursting; when every visiting day was a carnival. They could hardly keep up with the business. Now Richard’s sold half as many chickens.

Still, he was so identified with his restaurant that some of List #2’s campaign material spelled his name with a gratuitous ’s. Richard was, at heart, an entrepreneur. Previous delegates had lobbied for his support, but until 2010, when his co-conspirators had been released, making his own liberty suddenly seem possible, he’d always refused to participate in politics. “Now I want to leave something behind,” Richard told me. “I have this business, this chicken restaurant. I live well. My daughters go to a good school, but I want to leave my mark here.”

The same entrepreneurial spirit Richard brought to the campaign was what had landed him in Lurigancho to begin with. He came of age in Tocache, a rural town pivotal in Peru’s drug trade, at a time when the business was just getting under way. Coca grows easily in that region: three harvests a year, and, according to the traffickers I spoke with, you scarcely have to tend to the plants. There was lots of money to be made for a smart young man like Richard. He didn’t think of himself as a criminal — everyone in Tocache was a part of the trade. “It was normal,” he told me. Richard harvested and processed his own crop, which he sold to Colombians; in addition, he owned a disco and three diners in town. On the day of Richard’s arrest, a well-known papaya seller had been robbed in Tocache. Police searched for the thief, inspecting every passing vehicle. It so happened that Richard’s truck was holding thirty-five kilos of cocaine.

Pepe had been arrested in Lima in November 2006, after working for years as a pilot flying processed cocaine into Colombia. Tall, broad-shouldered, and charming, he was suited to the occupation. I found it easy to imagine Pepe flying placidly over the endless Amazon Basin. The main thing, he told me, was calculating your fuel: enough to get you there, but not a drop more. Every available inch of the plane must be filled with product. Now Pepe was four years into a twelve-year sentence. Like Richard, he shared his tale without pride, bitterness, or shame. Neither was the sort to indulge in the prisoner’s lament, that long, nostalgic list of all that had been lost — women, cars, houses, money, freedom. Both were grounded in the here and now, in Block Seven, their home, and they were determined to win the election.

Pepe was at the top of the ticket, but in truth he and Richard were running as a duo. All over the block, posters carried both their names, and the slogan on their official platform read: if we succeed, it’s because we’re a team!!!!

Pepe defended his plan to do away with exemptions. Everyone was going to have to pay. Referring to the dilapidated state of the block, he said that the poorer residents, whom he called “refugees,” could live like this because they were used to it. “This is how they live outside,” he said. But not him: men in his position were accustomed to better.

As for their chances, Richard answered for the both of them: “I’m one-hundred-percent confident we’re going to win.”

From the roofs of Lurigancho you can feel a measure of peace, or even solitude, while also beginning to appreciate the size and precariousness of it all. The skyline of crumbling three-story prison blocks is set against the sharp teeth of the mountains. Clothes flutter on a line, roosters squawk impatiently in their coops, and shirtless inmates sleep beneath the bright sun. Smoke rises from small fires as men perform intricate surgery to repair broken plastic chairs; there are water tanks of odd sizes, long coils of extension cord, and dozens of improvised television antennas — a local invention fashioned from broomsticks, soda bottles, and long fluorescent-light tubes. Each block has at least one inmate known as a techero (literally, a roofer) who keeps watch from the roof and protects it from attack. This seems easy enough on a breezy summer afternoon, but one imagines how lonely and frightening it can be on a cold and humid winter night. When I visited, the blocks of El Jardín were adding another few feet of brick to the walls that protected them from La Pampa and topping it all off with barbed wire.

In the distance are Lurigancho’s neighbors: the latest and most fragile outposts of Lima’s expanding universe, improvised shanties that cling to the hills in defiance of both logic and gravity. Transportation to and from the city is difficult. Much of the local economy is based on sustaining life within the prison, a captive market of thousands who must be fed and clothed and provided for. On Tuesdays, merchants, most of them women, push their carts full of provisions up to the gate: canned goods, gigantic bags of rice, and vegetables, along with whatever contraband can be hidden within. On Wednesdays and Saturdays the road leading to the gate is closed to traffic and crowded with vendors. Visitors to the prison can get sneakers, toiletries, care packages, or even a tattoo of their lover’s name on their way inside.

The techeros can see their neighbors in the hills and along the road, and for them even this bleak view can be intoxicating. “Maybe you can reserve a plot for me,” one young roof guard told me, pointing to the shanties going up just beyond the prison walls. He was raised far from Lima, in Puno, near the Bolivian border, and had spent only a short time in the capital before his arrest. “But you should hurry,” he said. “By the time I leave, they’ll be filled up.”

I met Block Seven’s most experienced techero, Efraín, during his last week inside. He was due to be released the following Saturday, after nearly a decade of imprisonment for murder. We talked about the election, but he wasn’t that interested; after all, his real life would begin in a matter of days. His wife had run off with another man, and now she and her new lover had fled the country in anticipation of Efraín’s release. They knew exactly what he was capable of. Efraín did as well, and he was anxious. “I pray to God I don’t run into her,” he told me. His broad, square face wore an expression of anguish. “If I come back one more time, I’ll die here.”

Efraín first arrived in Lurigancho when he was eighteen, in 1985, during what one inmate called the “Time of the Knife.” Lurigancho in those days was overcrowded and destitute and in a constant state of outright war. Gangs representing different districts of Lima fought for control of the prison, and shootouts were common — between thugs from enemy neighborhoods, or between inmates and the prison authorities. To this day, there’s an impressive arsenal hidden inside Lurigancho — pistols, rifles, even grenades — but back then these weapons were a part of daily life. At mealtime, each block sent men with shanks and machetes to escort the ration from the kitchen to the door of the block. Techeros were armed with handguns, and bodies were collected nearly every morning from the Jirón de la Unión. Gangs from La Pampa would sometimes kidnap men from El Jardín and hold them hostage until a ransom could be arranged. Efraín remembers a weak Block Seven, home to a handful of unlucky provincial drug traffickers stranded in Lima, men who had no choice but to invite a local criminal to lead the block and protect them.

It’s probably no coincidence that the consolidation of Block Seven’s democratic system, which happened sometime in the late Eighties, went hand in hand with the rising power of the Peruvian drug trade. More foreigners were locked up, bringing with them cash and connections. If a Peruvian from the provinces had little interest in the rivalries among Lima’s criminals, a Colombian or Argentine or Frenchman was even less invested. These were men who were accustomed to better living. They didn’t want to run the prison; they wanted to live with dignity. Little by little, Block Seven began to improve.

Efraín was originally in La Pampa, and he watched Block Seven’s fortunes rise from afar. At the start of his most recent incarceration, he settled in Block Six, which at the time was controlled by inmates from the Lima district of San Martín de Porres. Efraín wasn’t there too long before he was accused of trying to overthrow the boss. He was tossed out, with nowhere to go. He was homeless for a while. The only block in Lurigancho that would take him was Block Seven. A man of his reputation and experience could provide useful protection.

Efraín discovered a different way of life. “I couldn’t get used to it at first. The people were too relaxed, and I came from a very violent world.” He fought constantly, was expelled more than once, but over time he began to understand the culture of his new surroundings. In La Pampa, Efraín explained, calm is maintained through violence, or the threat of it. In Block Seven, “They don’t attack you. They’re peaceful. People here are more educated. I had to learn to carry myself.”

The proof that he’d learned was his position as a techero. Even these days, there is perhaps no job as important to the security of a block. The entire population places its trust in you: while they sleep, you are their eyes and ears. If there’s trouble, you must be the first to sound the alarm. That Efraín, a refugee from La Pampa, would be entrusted with this position was a testament to his integration into the culture of the block. He was justifiably proud of himself. He’d found a home.

Meanwhile, life in La Pampa has remained violent and difficult. In November 2010, a man was stabbed to death in Block Twelve only three days after his arrival. Last February, a fight between rival gangs in Block Twenty left seven injured and one dead of a gunshot wound. Shortly afterward, the longtime boss of Block Ten was overthrown in a coup. And one afternoon in March, the former head of discipline of Block Six was beaten nearly to death while dozens watched. It was the day before the man’s release.

The traditional high point of Block Seven’s campaign season falls on the night before the election, when the community gathers in the open center of the building, along the second- and third-floor balconies, to hear the candidates speak. This event, called the balconazo, provides the chance to make one’s case directly to the voters.

At the appointed hour the men began to gather, and a feverish sense of anticipation filled the block. The clotheslines were hurriedly cleared of drying pants and T-shirts so that everyone could have an unobstructed view of the proceedings. Night had fallen, and the heat had subsided. The loudspeakers blared Eighties pop, and although I’m not sure what musical prelude I expected, “Keep On Loving You” by REO Speedwagon certainly wasn’t it. A member of the electoral committee tested the microphone, his recognizably Colombian accent echoing through the block. I stood on the second floor, as men pushed past me to choose their spots along the balcony. From my vantage point I could see into a third-floor cell, its door open, where a paunchy man in an undershirt carefully painted a golden saddle on a black ceramic horse.

When everything was ready, the block lights were shut off, flushing the remaining stragglers out of their cells. A call echoed through the yard, and the men crowded in, standing shoulder to shoulder. The younger, rowdier set were stationed on the third floor and had come prepared with drums and noisemakers. The only question was which list had paid for their services. In Lurigancho, as on the streets of Lima, enthusiasm at a political gathering is a commodity to be bought and sold like any other.

The setup was simple: a five-minute speech by each of the candidates, followed by a three-minute response. First up was Barrios from List #1, a small, dark-skinned trafficker from a mining town called Cerro de Pasco. He wore a black shirt, having opted not to wear the campaign’s white Star of David T-shirt, which Avi had designed. The crowd greeted Barrios with light applause when he took the microphone. He coughed. “I’m not very good at reading,” he announced, and explained that an associate would be giving his speech for him. There was a murmur, a moment of confusion, until Carlos, the head of the electoral committee, stepped in and declared that this was not allowed. Every candidate must read his own speech. The crowd jeered, and Barrios seemed taken by surprise; with some reluctance, he took the microphone again. Whistles from the third floor, then silence, or what passes for silence in a place like Lurigancho. Barrios held his papers in front of him nervously, and began to read in a low, halting voice, the way a child might. I could make out only a single line from the speech: “The problem with the water,” Barrios mumbled, “will be solved.”

Pepe, in contrast, was received by a roar from the crowd, and began with a dig at his opponent: “I personally went door-to-door today to talk with each of you about my platform. I didn’t send some kid to do that.”

The rufos went mad, banging their drums, shouting.

“I have a business. I don’t have to work illegally anymore,” Pepe said, a reference to the rumor, often repeated, that Avi had not left his old life behind. As the crowd cheered, Pepe beamed confidently. He warned of shrinking revenues. Without new inmates, Pepe said, there was no money coming in, but the block didn’t need private investment, only good management. This was as close as he came to mentioning his controversial plan to do away with tax exemptions, but given the cheerful noise coming from the third-floor gallery, I had the sense he could’ve gotten away with saying almost anything.

The responses were less dramatic. After his disastrous opening statement, Barrios had more luck speaking straight from the heart. “You all know me!” he said, and repeated this idea again and again, nearly ten times in only three minutes. There was a pleading quality to his voice, as if he felt Pepe’s charisma was an underhanded trick. This time the rufos cheered him on.

Pepe, for his part, countered with a few more jibes, but spent most of his energy praising the men of the block, and democracy itself: “Tomorrow you will decide!” he said to great applause. “I invite you to choose me!”

When it was over, I made my way to the front, where I found Avi and Barrios surrounded by their supporters. Barrios nodded shyly but said nothing when I asked whether he thought things had gone well. Avi, imperturbable as usual, answered for his partner, gesturing to the group of young men around him. “If they’re happy,” he said, “then I’m happy.”

A List #1 supporter had squeezed a white campaign shirt over one of the block’s communally owned dogs; the nervous-looking animal had been placed atop the pool table, and now it whimpered and padded about until a man took it into his arms. The animal’s thin legs stopped shaking as it relaxed into this inmate’s chest. Barrios’s supporters began to chant their candidate’s name — Bar-ri-os! Bar-ri-os! — and he acknowledged them with a tentatively raised hand. It felt less like a rallying cry than an attempt to raise Barrios’s spirits, and in any case it didn’t last very long. From the other end of the block came the response — Pe-pe! Pe-pe! — and moments later the competing chants fell into an identical rhythm, effectively canceling each other out.

That evening I sat in the yard with a few men, including a Peruvian who introduced himself as Julio. He had emigrated years ago to Europe, where he and some partners found work robbing Japanese tour buses on their way from the airports to the cities. He was vague when I asked where, but he did tell me it was easy and fairly lucrative work, and that he’d never killed anyone and never been caught. One day he ran into trouble carrying a fake Brazilian passport, and his fingerprints were run, tying him back to a fifteen-year-old drug charge in Peru. Just like that, he was home again. Julio laughed, recounting this turn of events with wonder, the way an experienced athlete might speak of an upstart who’s handed him an unexpected but thoroughly convincing defeat.

Julio was sentenced to just twenty months in Lurigancho. An article in the Peruvian penal code called criterio de conciencia allows judges to convict the accused without evidence, according to their sense of his guilt. It was this dubious but commonly employed legal tool that had sunk Julio. After all he’d done, all he’d gotten away with, here he was, locked up, because of a judge’s intuition. He had such a goofy smile it was difficult to imagine him with a gun in his hand, scaring the life out of a busful of Japanese on holiday. But the judge had seen it, that germ of violence, or if not that exactly, at least he’d seen something. “He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You’re guilty!’ ” Julio told me. There was admiration in his voice, and he was proud it had taken a Peruvian judge to get him. “But there was no evidence! How did he guess? Do they have special training?”

The energy of the balconazo had dissipated. The time for shouting was past, and on this clear evening, some men played cards, others dice, and still others paced up and down the yard, a leisurely evening walk in a crowded and confined space. The block’s forty-two-inch flatscreen television, purchased for the 2010 World Cup by the outgoing delegates, had been rolled out and was blasting a dubbed American comedy to the dozen or so narcotized rufos who slumped before it.

According to the rules laid out by the electoral committee, campaigning ended at midnight the day of the vote. About ten minutes before midnight, a rufo stopped by our table with a new flyer from Barrios and Avi. At the top, in large type, was the phrase zero debt, and at the bottom, the number 1 with an X through it. As I held this document in my hands, I became aware of movement around me: new posters were going up along the walls of the yard, all bearing this intriguing new slogan. List #1 was promising to erase everyone’s debt. Furthermore, the flyer’s somewhat convoluted text argued:

Barrios can offer this because he has the backing of people with money, investors with experience in the delegature and not “new kids” who want their first opportunity to do experiments. The other list won’t respect exempted compañeros who have been jailed more than seven years, or seniors. Everyone will pay and they will collect all pending debts.

The last section, underlined for emphasis, read:

Barrios doesn’t have to talk much to work and make improvements for the block. LESS TALK, THERE IS NO OTHER!! JUST VOTE #1

I read the flyer over, more than a little impressed. Julio found it brilliant. His laughter echoed in the yard. I asked whether I could keep the flyer for my records. He took one last appreciative look, and handed it to me. He’d already told me his plan: he’d be released next year, leave for Europe, and never return. Tomorrow’s vote would be his last on native soil.

Groups of men had gathered in the yard to read Barrios’s provocative new offer. Even in the low light, you could see them nodding.

Voting was held in the block’s weight room, an area of the yard set off by a chain-link fence. It was another hot, bright day, and both campaigns had placed long tables just outside the voting area so they and their supporters could watch the proceedings from a distance. Barrios, Avi, and their people sat at the white tables, Pepe and Richard at the red, but the two rows were so close together and the atmosphere so convivial that one felt the opposing camps were actually mildly competitive branches of the same family. The dog from the previous evening appeared wearing a now-dirty List #1 campaign shirt, and Pepe’s supporters pretended to get upset. “Campaigning is over!” someone shouted, while another man scribbled a number 2 on a piece of paper, and fixed it to the dog’s back with a piece of tape. Everyone laughed except the dog.

At 10:00 a.m., when the voting officially began, there were more than thirty men in line. One by one they were called into the weight room, where, beneath cheaply framed posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme, to the strains of Queen and Peter, Paul and Mary, and under the watchful, deadly serious supervision of the three-man electoral committee and representatives of each campaign, the inmates of Block Seven cast their votes. Each man was given a ballpoint pen and a ballot printed on yellow paper. In the corner of the room an orange sheet hung from the bars of a weight machine. The curtain was pulled and the voter disappeared, emerging a moment later, having done his civic duty. The folded ballot went into a cardboard shoebox, and the voter pressed his thumbprint onto the register. The members of the committee crossed off a name and called in the next man.

There’s something special about elections, an undeniable hint of optimism in a line of citizens waiting patiently to have their say. Every vote cast in Block Seven represents a punch that won’t be thrown, a bullet that won’t fly.

In the block, the rufos slept, the loners sulked, and the foreigners sought one another out to commiserate in their native tongues. The midday meal was announced by a blaring alarm, and the men lined up to have their tickets checked before they could receive their food. The heavy plastic tarp overhead rose and fell in the summer breeze. The techeros kept watch for enemies, a hopeful eye on the dusty neighborhoods in the distance. These men, citizens of two dozen countries, speaking ten or fifteen different languages, have designed, with no help or guidance from the outside, a peaceful form of self-governance, which they have sustained for more than two decades — longer, incidentally, than democratic elections have existed in Peru. I asked dozens of prisoners how the Block Seven system got started, but no one could remember. While the rest of the prison solves its problems with force, in Block Seven, they form an orderly line and cast ballots. Drug mules, traffickers, middlemen, and the innocent — one man, one vote.

The last ballot was cast by four in the afternoon, and then the counting began. The head of the committee placed strips of yellow paper in piles. It was a tense affair. Elections in Block Seven are typically decided by fewer than a dozen votes.

If you’d asked me, I would’ve predicted Barrios and Avi would win the election. I felt certain that the offer to erase personal debts would make a crucial difference. But I was wrong. The electorate showed a lot of maturity — in truth, more than you might see on the streets. The pile of votes for Pepe and Richard grew. What’s more: it was a landslide. When it was over, the margin was more than sixty votes, a new record.

Álvaro, List #1’s campaign representative, was sullen and unsmiling. When the first count was done, each representative was given the other campaign’s pile so they could verify the ballots one by one. There are always a handful of first-time voters who scribble outside the lines, sign their names, or write campaign slogans across the back. According to the rules, all these ballots must be tossed out.

Álvaro went through List #2’s pile, seemingly resigned to defeat, until he suddenly stopped counting. He’d found an ineligible vote. “This is rigged,” he announced. “You’ve counted wrong. I can’t participate in this farce.”

For a long moment there was silence, and then Carlos, the head of the committee, tried to reason with him. Throw out all the votes you like, he said. The point of having you count them is to correct our mistakes. But Álvaro wouldn’t budge. He demanded the entire election be annulled over a single disputed ballot.

No one knew what to do. For the next twenty minutes, it was a stand-off. Outside, the voters were beginning to voice their impatience. They whistled and shouted for results, the noise rising and falling in waves. Carlos was apoplectic, and tension was high. What if Álvaro got up and walked out? What if he refused to sign? Even here, among the civilized, peaceful men of Block Seven, could we be sure nothing would happen? Would there be a coup? An interim government? Would this democratic experiment finally fail?

After nearly half an hour of impasse, Carlos was prepared to announce the winner with or without the agreement of List #1. He pointed a long, accusing finger at Álvaro. “If there’s any trouble,” he said, “I hold you responsible!”

This last comment seemed to shake Álvaro’s resolve. He dithered, shook his head, and then, as if he were doing us all a favor, began to count the stack of votes in front of him. He tossed out as many as he could. The committee glared at him.

Everything else happened very fast. The formal proclamation was prepared, and everyone signed it. Moments later, the committee was standing in the yard. Carlos climbed onto a table, and announced that List #2 had won. A cheer went up from the crowd. The yard was full, and the mood was celebratory. The members of the committee had agreed not to mention the bitterness of the count, but already the word was getting out. Álvaro stood sheepishly off to one side with Avi and Barrios, while Pepe climbed onto the tabletop to thank his supporters. Block Seven roared.

“I won’t let you down!” Pepe yelled.

At that moment, as if on cue, the techeros from the neighboring block cut the ropes that held up their side of the overhead tarp. We didn’t realize it at first, only sensed a kind of shadow. I looked up to see the techeros grinning as they looked over the yard. Perhaps this was just their way of making fun of their democratic neighbors. The tarp sank slowly and elegantly, like a deflating balloon. The yard began to clear. The election was over.

I went back to Block Seven the following day and was met at the entrance by a new team of guards. The transition had begun: the outgoing head of discipline had handed over the keys moments after the results were announced. Pepe and his men were in the delegature office, going over the books. There was nearly $1,300 in unpaid inmate fees — the debts that Barrios’s campaign flyer had promised to forgive — along with stacks of invoices for food and construction supplies. Reopening the shuttered second-floor bathroom had been one of Pepe’s promises, but a leak had been discovered in the ceiling. He hadn’t counted on this extra expense, and already he was sensing resistance to his austerity plan. “We’re going to have to talk to the people,” Pepe said. “I don’t know how we’re going to convince them.” Block Seven’s new leader looked tired. He’d slept poorly. Some men had gotten drunk the night before, and Pepe had taken his first disciplinary decision as delegado at 5:00 a.m., when he banished the offending inmates from the block for twenty-four hours. A year of this sort of nonsense awaited him.

Eventually I made my way out to the yard, where tables and chairs had been brought down from the roof in preparation for visitors’ day. A band played for the inmates and their guests as the briefly reunited families enjoyed a meal, a laugh, a dance. It looked less like a prison than a social club on a summer day. The block’s restaurants did a brisk business, rufos doubling as waiters, hurrying among the tables. A puppeteer performed for the children, his loose-limbed creation bouncing in time to the music. A few other kids had gravitated toward the jungle gym, which, along with a slide and a swing, had been set up next to the band in a bright patch of sunlight. One boy stood apart from the others, playing with a top, hurling it against the cement floor of the yard, then reaching down to cradle it in his palm as it spun. Whenever he managed this feat, he ran back to show his father and mother, who sat together, not talking, watching the boy play, their hands loosely entwined.

I spotted Avi near the front, seated at a table with two young women and a friend of his named Tito, who’d also been on the losing ticket. Avi called me over. We hadn’t spoken since the results were announced, and when he saw me approach, he raised a fist in the air. He smiled broadly. “I won!” he shouted.

Avi insisted I join them all for lunch. As far as the outcome of the election, he explained, he wasn’t bothered by it in the least. The block’s troubles, after all, were not his. The debt would not be erased, or at least not by him, but on the bright side: “Now I can save that money I was planning on spending.” This was cause enough for celebration.

Tito, no more than thirty years old, had run as the sports delegate on List #1. It was a position he’d held before: his responsibilities would have included organizing the block’s soccer tournament and opening and closing the weight room. Like Avi, he didn’t mind losing. His brother had run for the same position, on Pepe and Richard’s ticket. “You ran against your brother?” I asked, but Tito didn’t think it strange at all. It was just an election, and anyway, his whole family was locked up. His father lived in Block Seven, and his sister was in Lima’s women’s prison, on the other side of the city.

The band — a timbalero, a keyboard player, and a singer — rolled through a manic repertoire of local salsa and cumbia hits. A Spaniard wandered among the tables, performing card tricks for the visiting families, hoping for a tip. For now, he was still young and handsome, if a little dour, but he was a drug user, and unless he could control his habit, there were horrors in store for him. Most tables waved him away, and in each case the Spaniard bowed his head and moved on without complaint.

My lunch, a plate of rice and fish, was brought to the table by a rufo. Avi thanked him and put a coin in his hand, and the man disappeared.

The band gave a shout-out to Tito and his guests — they were using his drum kit, after all — and he acknowledged them with a halfhearted clap. A moment later, the roving puppeteer had made his way to our table. He bounced his puppet around a bit, but what he actually wanted, I quickly gathered, was my half-eaten lunch.

I wasn’t that hungry, so I offered it to him. The man tucked his puppet under one arm and took the plate with his other hand. He thanked us profusely and then found a place to sit just a few yards away: on his haunches, his back to the wall. He ate the leftovers quickly, using his hands.

The band played “Como si nada,” a local hit about heartbreak, and the girls at the table sang along, tapping their feet, hoping Tito or Avi would ask them to dance. But neither of them did. Tito had his eye on the hungry puppeteer. He told me he found the poverty and inequality of the block quite troubling. One day, he continued, out on the streets of Lima, an ex-con from Block Seven had crossed paths with a rufo, years after they’d both been released. Tito frowned. It was a story that men like him, the well-off inmates of Block Seven, told with horror: the rufo remembered all the humiliation and mistreatment he’d suffered inside, day after day just like this one, begging for food, and worse. The rufo killed the ex-con on the spot.

“It’s terrible,” Tito said, turning the old prison cliché on its head: “Out there, we’re all the same.”

From across the table, Avi called for my attention. “Excuse me, Daniel,” he said. “I have a small favor to ask.”

“Sure,” I said.

“I have two books that I need you to send to Israel.” His face was very serious. “Just a small package. Can you do this for me?”

The convicted Israeli drug trafficker watched me, holding his grim expression. The band played, loud and harsh, and I didn’t know what to say. I began to stammer an excuse, but then Avi stopped me and broke into a grin.

“That’s good,” I said. “That’s very funny.”

The table certainly thought so. Tito and the girls laughed, too. Upstairs, in the delegature office, Pepe and his men worked to save the block from economic collapse. Out here, a party was under way.

“I’m going to tell you something,” Avi said. “There’s no place like Block Seven. This is paradise.”

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is the author of two story collections, a graphic novel, and Lost City Radio, winner of the 2009 International Literature Prize. He is also executive producer of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language storytelling podcast.

More from Daniel Alarcón:

Commentary January 23, 2012, 3:24 pm

Rigoberto

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