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Daniel Alarcón is the author of two story collections, a graphic novel, and the novel Lost City Radio, winner of the 2009 International Literature Prize. He is executive producer of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language storytelling podcast, which launches in March. His feature “All Politics Is Local,” about elections in Lima’s Lurigancho prison, appears in the February 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
In 2001, I went to live in a section of Lima called San Juan de Lurigancho. In the imaginary map all Limeños have of their city, this district is indistinguishable from the two notorious prisons that lie within its borders. One of these is Castro Castro, a maximum-security facility holding most of those convicted of terrorism; the other is the district’s namesake, known simply as Lurigancho, a hellish complex originally built for 2,000 inmates, but now home to nearly four times that number. It is, by some estimates, the most overcrowded penitentiary in South America.
Of course there are some Limeños who don’t realize these two prisons are not the same place. To confuse matters further, they sit almost side by side, on a yellow strip of dry earth bordering a few rocky hills. You can walk from one prison to the other, or shuttle between them in a moto-taxi for just a few coins.
But the prisons are not the same: the feeling is palpably different in each. I asked one inmate I met, a young man known as Manchas, to compare them. He’d had the misfortune of being confined in both. We sat in the dining area of Castro Castro, having lunch.
He thought for a moment.
“Lurigancho,” Manchas said finally, “is Lima. It’s loud, fast, and violent. Castro Castro is the provinces. Everything is slower here. Everything is less dangerous.”
Manchas himself was from outside the capital; from a town in the jungle along a common smuggling route. I liked his answer, though I knew he’d spent barely a month in Lima before his unfortunate arrest for drug trafficking. Could he really say he knew the city well enough to make that comparison?
I asked him what he’d seen of Lima, and he tossed out the names of a few dusty neighborhoods, far from where we sat but basically indistinguishable. I knew them. Or if I didn’t, I could imagine them.
“And I don’t care if I never see the rest,” he said before I could ask him anything else, “as long as I get to go home one day.”
In Castro Castro, I met Rigoberto. He was in his mid-forties, and had been a member of Los Destructores—The Destroyers—a band of armed robbers who had terrorized the Peruvian capital in the 1990s. When we met, he’d just been transferred from Lurigancho. He was relieved to have left, though his new arrangement at Castro Castro wasn’t exactly ideal—it did not, for example, include a bunk. Rigoberto was sleeping on the floor of a cell he shared with two other men, but he assured me it didn’t matter. He’d been in worse places, he told me, and naturally I believed him.
Rigoberto was tall and strong, with giant hands and a broad smile. The authorities had brought him to Castro Castro in the dead of night, with no warning, but before leaving Lurigancho he’d managed to gather a few belongings: some clothes, a handful of photographs, and his most prized possession, the manuscript he’d been writing by hand for six years. It was the story of his youth, his early days on the streets of Callao, his initiation into the life of a criminal. He had little hope of getting out of prison, but while he was writing, the time seemed to pass painlessly.
In his new home, as at his previous one, Rigoberto kept his pages wrapped in a burlap bag, tied with a string and resting on the floor of his borrowed cell. Every morning after breakfast, he’d work on the text. At lunch, he would put it away and plan the next day’s writing. He had a lot to tell. Crime begets stories: cinematic episodes of thrilling violence, near-misses, escapes. Money—he said the word in the airy tone of a man recalling his lover. Then he frowned: incarceration brought its own set of myths. With these two elements, the book would be great, he was sure. At the beginning, he could barely write. Over the years, the writing had become his education, and this was something he was proud of.
As it happened, the manuscript was sitting on the floor of his cell when, early one morning, a pipe burst and flooded the entire tier.
Rigoberto left school around the time he started robbing people—age eleven. He had no education to speak of, but even when he was robbing banks and armored cars, he’d liked to write. No one in the Destroyers had much use for his hobby. In fact, they made fun of him for it. After a job, the crew might rent a house down by the beach and party for a few days, blowing off the stress with drinking, drugs, and women. Rigoberto kept mostly to himself: instead of celebrating, he would find himself thinking about what might have gone wrong. He liked to keep a record of what had happened, just for himself—papers that he would burn soon after writing them, out of an abundance of caution.
The morning the pipe burst, he was sitting outside in the prison yard. Normally he would have been writing at that time, but that day, for some reason, he’d decided to take a break. When he heard the news, he ran up to his cell, frantic, to discover that the ankle-deep water had pooled over his manuscript. He was devastated.
“I can imagine,” I said.
“No you can’t,” Rigoberto responded.
Each tier of Castro Castro has a yard, an irregularly shaped patch of cement that must be shared by the 400 inmates who live there. It’s a prized space: in the mornings it’s an informal market, and most afternoons it becomes a soccer pitch, or a place to sit, think blank thoughts, and look at the sky. The day the pipe burst, Rigoberto could think of nothing but rescuing his soaked manuscript. The yard was his only option, so he set his life story out to dry there, page by page. He placed a rock on each sheet, then spent the day tending to the pages, turning them over when one side had dried, straightening out others if the wind shifted them. He sat there all afternoon, his haunches resting on a pile of bricks as the sun passed overhead. The other inmates gathered to watch this enormous stranger among his papers, this newly arrived prisoner depriving them of their open space. In the established hierarchy of the prison, Rigoberto was no one. He had no allies, no friends. His crew was history, a footnote in the long, turbulent chronicle of crime in the city. There were murmurs. There were glares. Who did this man think he was?
Then an inmate dared to step out on the yard.
Rigoberto wasn’t having it. “If you fuck with my literature,” he said, “you fuck with me.” He stood up so the man could see what he was getting into.
It was a week later when we spoke, and the pages were dry now. Rigoberto showed them to me. They were crinkled and smeared, scrawled with his crooked handwriting, full of phonetic spellings and words capitalized randomly for emphasis. With some effort, you could read them. I started flipping through the pages, but Rigoberto pulled them back.
“I’m not finished,” he said. “When it’s ready, I’ll show you.”
More from Daniel Alarcón:
Percentage of British elementary-school students who think Isaac Newton discovered fire:
The earth once had three moons; the two lost moons may have crashed into the surviving moon, or been sucked into the sun, or flung out of the solar system to drift through deep space.
In Florida, an 87-year-old World War II veteran flying touch-and-go drills in a Cessna collided with an airborne skydiver. “There was a ‘woof’ sound,” said a witness, “like falling on your face into your pillow.”
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”