By Gonzalo Domínguez Loeda
Caracas, Sep 29 (EFE).- As the day ticks into the early evening, the residents of the humble Las Palmas neighborhood of Caracas return to their homes. But unlike two months ago, they no longer have to lock themselves away to avoid pitched battles between police and armed gangs known locally as “malandros.”
Despite the lingering fears, members of the community are slowly reclaiming their streets.
“Everything went down here, things you can imagine, and things you can’t,” one neighbor, who preferred not to give her name, told Efe.
Just behind her, some youngsters from the neighborhood are playing basketball on a makeshift court where the lines have been hand painted.
“This court is a community project. For many years we have wanted to recover this space,” Ángelo Rangel, a social activist and one of the motors behind the push to reclaim the streets of Las Palmas, told Efe.
He added that the sport helps to break down barriers, and keeps youngsters away from “vice.”
Las Palmas marks the beginning of a sprawling sector of Caracas packed with informal housing and scored by seemingly eternal staircases up the hillside.
Members of the community are still reluctant to show their face or speak on camera.
Not long ago, access to the neighborhood was controlled by armed gang members from makeshift sentry posts made of brick.
Las Palmas residents dismantled the checkpoints not long after the gangs were ousted following 72 hours of brutal fighting with security forces and now little remains of the brick parapets.
Authorities found it difficult to control the neighborhood, owing to its labyrinthine streets and steep inclines. Gang control of the territory was stronger at higher altitude.
“They were days of terror,” Rangel said, adding that members of the community feared that simply living in Las Palmas was enough for them to be judged as criminals.
Francisco Cádiz, a youngster from the neighborhood, said, however, that something positive arose from the situation.
“We were not in charge of the area but rather other certain individuals that many now know of,” he said. “For us it means a lot to take control of this space.”
He added: “We’ve been taking back our community, our court here, little by little, since everyone of us has had the guts to start from scratch. There are always opportunities, and taking back control of our space is pretty important.”EFE