Den of Thieves

There are few places in the world that I have been where there were more ingenious crooks, pickpockets and flim flam men then Iquitos. Everyone is working some sort of scam. I have a friend who was on his way home one night when he heard an argument ensue behind him. He turned around just in time to see a guy slug his girlfriend in the face. As she slammed against and slid down the wall the boyfriend took off. The motorcar driver was screaming that he needed his money as the girl was looking up with a bloody fat lip. Kevin tried to attend to the wounded girlfriend while the driver continued to demand his money. Finally he threw five soles at the driver and turned back to his patient. She reached out and put her arms around him as he helped her to her feet, asking if she was alright. She assured him that she would be okay and started to walk off. As she turned the corner Kevin realized that the woman had stolen his phone as he helped her up. He quickly ran after her, as he rounded the corner there was the girl climbing into the same motorcar with the driver and the boyfriend as they took off down the street.

Another friend was telling me that he had a friend who was losing chickens each night. He wanted to find out how the thieves were getting into the fenced chicken coop. First he tried putting a web of thread all around the coop thinking the crooks would break the string and clue him into the route the thieves were taking. The next day more chickens were gone but none of the thread was broken so he finally decided to stake out the coop. Late that night he saw a fishing pole appear over the fence with ball of bread for bait. The thieves were luring the chickens close enough to the fence to grab them and work them up and over the fence.

The other day they got me, I was giving someone a tour of lower Belen when someone grabbed my camera. My knee jerk reaction was to spin around and raise a fist at the scumbag. Thinking I had thwarted a snatch and grab robbery of my camera. What I didn’t realize until later was he wasn’t after my camera at all. At the same time he was hitting my camera, his hand was in my pocket snatching my cell phone. It was quite a bit later before I even realized it was gone.  Luckily he only got a $20 cell phone, I was smart enough to put my wallet in my buttoned back pocket.

In Iquitos a crook will steal something from you and ransom it back to you so occasionally when something is stolen and you can put the word out on the street that there is a reward for its return and the piranha network will cough the stolen merchandise up for the reward acting like they have performed a noble deed but splitting the reward between thieves. I knew it was a waste of time trying that method with a cheap cell phone. Just lick my wounds and pony up for a new phone.

Everybody knows that all the stolen merchandise ends up in the Mercado de Negro (the Black Market), so today curious about what this black market was like I announced that I was going to check it out. If I couldn’t find my cell phone then maybe I could buy one cheap there. All my friends looked at me like I had lost my mind. A gringo walking into the black market with a camera was like a lamb walking into a wolves den and saying “anybody hungry”? After trying to talk me out of my crazy idea they convinced me that at least I should take a Peruvian with me.

So I asked Max, one of the waiters at the Dawn, to take me to the black market. After a short motorcar ride we pulled up to an ominous gray gate. As we walked into the market, a gringo and a Peruvian dressed in a uniform, we looked as out of place as a hooker in the pulpit. People just looked up at us with a shocked look on their faces. Eventually a girl asked Max, “What are you looking for?” He responded, “Oh nothing” and she said “Good because if you were looking for a girl, I’m not her.”

Rather than throwing fuel on the fire I decided not to raise my camera and start shooting pictures so I kept the camera down just pressing the shutter as I went without looking at what I was capturing on digital film. I figured if they knew I was taking pictures, Max and I might end up as a lamb kabob appetizer. We made one quick circle though the market and out.

I can imagine the conversation as we drove off, “Did you see those lambs just walk through here?” “Yeah but any lamb crazy enough to walk into a den of thieves can’t taste worth a damn.”