Panama City, Panama—Too much laundry was hung too neatly on a wire line stretched across the broken schoolyard. This boy can’t be that industrious, I thought. There was cooked rice in a dog food bowl under a mango tree, and I heard a tv. Several tattooed toughs gave us a sideways glance. Were they former gangsters, too, or… gangsters? With a pole and bent hanger, they were trying to snag a mango from the tree in the center of the schoolyard.
Angel kicked dust while Bob and I set up equipment among the ruins of the school. Countless skinny, mangy dogs wandered past. Angel had agreed to be interviewed on camera, but we were concerned that he’d have second thoughts. We tried to set up quickly. To use as a sofa, Bob dragged over the wooden frame of something long disintegrated. I sat down in the dusty earth and balanced a video camera on my knee.
Angel’s account of the pickpocket business was not too different from others of his plebeian level around the world. Basically, he practiced subsistence stealing, but his gang involvement added a vicious element. All Panamanian gang members carry guns, purportedly to protect themselves, despite the fact that if they get caught carrying a gun, they automatically get several years in prison. Regardless, they carry 9mm guns.
Angel lit a cigarette and showed us a recent bullet wound on his hand. He was shot by a rival gangster who didn’t know or believe that Angel had given up gang membership. He said it’s dangerous to live in this gangland without belonging, but admitted that it was equally dangerous to belong. He was covered with gang tats.