On the morning of February 6, 1999, Buenos Aires police officers shot and killed seventeen-year-old Víctor Manuel Vital, better known as Frente, while he was unarmed, hiding under a table, and trying to surrender. Widely known and respected throughout Buenos Aires's shantytowns for his success as a thief, commitment to a code of honor, and generosity to his community, Frente became a Robin Hood--style legend who, in death, was believed to have the power to make bullets swerve and save gang members from shrapnel. In Dance for Me When I Die—first published in Argentina in 2004 and appearing here in English for the first time—Cristian Alarcón tells the story and legacy of Frente's life and death in the context of the everyday experiences of love and survival, murder and addiction, and crime and courage of those living in the slums. Drawing on interviews with Frente's friends, family, and ex-girlfriends, as well as with local thieves and drug dealers, and having immersed himself in Frente's neighborhood for eighteen months, Alarcón captures the world of the urban poor in all of its complexity and humanity.
About the Author
Cristian Alarcón is a Chilean author and journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone and other publications. He teaches at the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Latin American Journalism and is the author of Si me querés, quereme transa and Un mar de castillos Peronistas.
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María had her hands in a tub of soapy water when she heard the worst news of her life.
"Guys, come on! Let's go! The cops are all over the place — it looks like they've got Frente!"
María was washing a pair of jeans in the yard of her boyfriend Chaías's place. She had been living there for a couple of weeks after an argument with her stepdad, a lowlife dealer who belonged to the Chanos clan.
"Guys! It looks like they've killed Frente!"
The kids from the block, which looked like a decent neighborhood from the outside but was really just a bunch of alleyways, all ran out at once. But María didn't move. She didn't look around or react in any way. She had had a short but intense relationship with Frente that was already over. She felt ashamed to feel the way she did or to react how she wanted to react. Instead, she told herself: "I'll just play dumb." She figured that if anything really bad had happened, somebody was bound to come tell her. And so she pretended to carry on washing the clothes, resisting the urge to run too, faster than anyone, desperate to see the fate that had befallen the boy she still loved.
"They've killed Frente," said a woman on the other side of the fence some ten minutes later.
María absorbed the news. She'd always known that it could happen someday, but she never thought it would be so soon: she was just thirteen, and Frente was seventeen. She remembered those lengthy love letters about a future that seemed like the only one imaginable, even though now she was with someone else, even though her new boyfriend was one of Víctor's friends, even though the world now seemed like it might collapse all around her. Drying her hands on her jeans, she left the yard and walked three blocks, crossed the empty field, and went into the 25 de Mayo slum, heading straight for her mother's shack — the same one she had escaped to take refuge at Chaías's place. As soon as she entered, she threw herself into her mother's arms as she hadn't for a long time.
"Mom, come with me — I think they've killed Frente," she sobbed into her mother's shoulder.
COVERED BY NOTHING but a thin sheet, Laura was nevertheless sweltering from the humidity that, even at ten-thirty in the morning, heralded a coming storm. She was exhausted after a night at Club Tropitango with Frente, the girls, and the rest of his friends who were still at large, when she was woken by a din unusual for a Saturday morning, a commotion that somehow signaled the coming battle. Without so much as a "good morning," her mother told her, in a firm but kind voice:
"Lau, I think they've killed Frente."
Laura got out of bed feeling numb, oblivious to the heaviness of her body after the late night, the bottles of alcohol they had drunk as they danced again and again in the middle of the dance floor to the tortuous ballads of Leo Mattioli and his band. She walked the short length of alleyway between her and the deserted field from which she could see into the narrow entrance to the slum. Someone shouted:
"The place is crawling with cops! You'd think they were after Gordo Valor!"
Víctor's closest friends crept as near as they could to the shack where he had been cornered. They had heard the shots. A few people had caught a glimpse of Víctor and, behind him, Luisito and Coqui, two of the members of Los Bananita, running through the heart of the 25 de Mayo slum with the police sirens wailing in the background, crossing the empty lot that borders the San Francisco slum, and disappearing down one of the alleys into Doña Inés's shack. Thanks to the slum's speedy rumor mill, they knew that Coqui was captured halfway down the street when he tried to hide in the entrance to an apartment block instead of continuing to run. Since the moment the shots had been fired, there had been no more hint of what had taken place. No one knew if Luis and Frente were still alive. As more police reinforcements piled in, they tried to convince the neighbors to stay back.
MAURO EDGED HIS way forward between the shacks and managed to climb onto the roof of the shack — now surrounded by a squad of cops — where Víctor, alias Frente, and his buddy Luisito had tried to take shelter. Mauro was one of Frente's closest friends, a leading member of the previous generation of gang members who, after spending too much time in jail and after the death of his mother, had decided to distance himself from a life of crime and instead find a job working twelve hours, just to get by, giving up on any bigger dreams. Mauro had tried to influence Víctor with advice about the old ways, about the importance of respect and the code of honor between criminals that was rapidly disappearing. Mauro remembers vividly that he was asleep with his wife Nadia when the shots woke him. "I said to her, 'Shit, the kids!' Because every time you hear shots it's because some kid is getting into trouble. I got up, pulled on some shorts, and headed that way."
No sooner had he left his place than a little girl who lived round the corner and knew he was inseparable from Víctor — even though by then he was going straight — said to him the phrase so often repeated that morning: "I think they've killed Frente."
Mauro ran to the entrance of the San Francisco slum. A cop stopped him: "You can't go through."
Mauro charged on without looking back. The policeman called after him, but Mauro carried on anyway.
"I'm talking to you — hey you, you can't go through!"
"Of course I can!" said Mauro. "I'm on my way home — of course I can go through, there's no tape or anything."
For a few minutes he thought Frente might have escaped, telling Laura, "The son of a bitch got away!" He climbed onto the roof to make sure. From up there he could see Luis's body protruding from the door of the shack. He was lying still, playing dead for fear that the cops would finish him off. Mauro asked for a camera, and one appeared in no time. He snapped a few pictures to record what he suspected the local Buenos Aires police, the Bonaerense, would hide. He was afraid Víctor was wounded and, with him being a marked man, they would let him bleed to death without any medical assistance. That was why he threatened to rip the roof off the shack if the police didn't get Frente out of there.
Eventually, Luis couldn't stop his legs from beginning to tremble, and one of the officers noticed.
"Hey, watch out — this one's alive!"
Laura saw them take Luis away on a stretcher, his head bloody from the bullet that had grazed his skull. Chaías managed to get close to him. Luis was crying.
"Frente, check on Frente," he managed to say before they loaded him into the ambulance.
Laura panicked a few minutes later when the remaining ambulance left empty.
"Sir, what about the other boy?" she asked one of the officers, afraid of the answer.
"He's inside, it's just that he's fine," the cop lied.
"So why did one of the ambulances leave?"
"Because he's fine, lady," snapped the policeman.
AMONG THOSE PUSHING to see what was going on was Matilde, Frente's closest confidante, a staunch ally when it came to providing cover after a heist. She was a cartonera (scrap collector) and mother of Javier, Manuel, and Simon Miranda, Frente's best friends — the kids he had started out with on the road to crime at the age of thirteen. Matilde had managed to slip all the way to the door of the shack and was shouting to Mauro, still making a scene on the roof. She was pretty sure they had killed Frente when she heard Mauro's questions and the evasive replies from a man in a white smock who went into the shack holding a pair of latex gloves.
"What's happening with the kid? Why don't you bring him out?" asked Mauro.
"We'll see in just a minute," the paramedic said evasively.
"Tell me the truth, tell me if he's dead."
"I can't tell you anything," the man cut him off.
"Tell me the truth, man, it's all right. He's dead, isn't he?"
The paramedic didn't say another word, but as he came out of the shack, he lowered his eyes slowly in confirmation.
Víctor's older brother Pato was working a twelve-hour shift at the supermarket where he was a supervisor, and his sister Graciana was married and had gone to live in Pacheco. If no relative turned up, the police would keep holding Víctor in Doña Inés Vera's shack.
"Go get his mom, she's working in the San Cayetano de Carupá supermarket," one kid suggested.
Laura and Chaías set off in a cab. But Sabina was at the Virreyes branch. They returned to the slum. Crowds of people were still piling around the shack. Other neighbors rushed to Virreyes to find her. When they reached Sabina, they told her:
"Come with us, Sabina, there's trouble with the cops!"
"Ah, let them take the bastard, serves him right. I'm not going anywhere," Sabina countered, resisting as always her youngest son's passion for stealing, happy to have him put away in the hope that being locked up in a juvenile institution would turn him into a studious and exemplary teenager.
"Come with us — he's inside a house — come!"
They managed to convince her. Sabina thought: "He's taken someone hostage and he's waiting for me to arrive to give himself up, but before that I'm going to beat the crap out of him ..." It didn't occur to her that her son had died until the car turned into Quirno Costa Street and from the far side of the empty field she could see a TV crew from Crónica and a helicopter hovering over the crowd. "When I saw the swarm of people and police, my legs shook."
She stepped out of the cab and heard them shouting:
"His mom is coming! His mom is coming!"
She crossed the open field in despair, and people stepped back all down the length of the alley to let her through. It was at that moment that Matilde joined her as her faithful bodyguard, an expert in speaking up for her kids and fighting the police every time they got arrested. Together they arrived at the wall of cops guarding access to the shack. Her mouth set in a tight line, Sabina said, "I'm his mother," and went in.
AT THAT VERY moment, María, Frente's ex-girlfriend, was walking, propped up by her mother, toward the field that borders San Francisco on one side and the 25 de Mayo on the other. The first thing she saw was the thin silhouette of her boyfriend Chaías jumping up and down and shouting in the middle of the field. "Everyone was shouting, I felt giddy all of a sudden, I couldn't see or understand anything. I was really nervous, I was trembling, scared stiff though I wasn't sure of what — not until I reached the door of the shack, because everyone was letting me through, and I saw Sabina."
Sabina Sotello was trying to stay calm, wanting to believe despite everything that the little scoundrel had taken hostages. She asked, trying to appear composed:
"Where's my son?"
The deputy inspector in charge of the operation, a short-haired policewoman, looked at her but didn't want to answer.
"I'm his mother," said Sabina, giving her every reason in the world to reply. Sabina looked all around for Víctor's face but couldn't spot him. "I thought I was going to find him standing there or something and this woman wasn't telling me what was going on, so I lost it." Sabina grabbed the cop by her uniform's collar and pushed her against the small wardrobe that stood in the six-by-six-foot room.
"Where's my son?"
"Calm down, calm down."
"Where is my son?!"
"Calm down, take it easy."
Sabina would not have hesitated to strangle the woman if she didn't talk. She wouldn't take her hands off her until they explained what had happened to Víctor. It was then that she heard the clicking of a typewriter on a small table. "And when you hear that, you sort of know, don't you? When they start typing ..." The man was typing out a legal report on the events that had led to the death of Víctor Manuel Vital that February morning.
The report bore an address: number 57, on the corner of General Pinto Street and French Street. There, at his own front door, Víctor had handed to Gastón, Chaías's older brother, for safekeeping the chains, bracelets, and gold rings that he always wore to show off his status. Then he left, ready to "work," to meet another couple of teens with whom he often carried out robberies: Coqui and Luisito, both also seventeen, from another shantytown with a Catholic name, Santa Rita. These two, as well as two brothers who were the sons of a thug known as Banana, would become famous some time after Víctor's death for one of the first televised hostage takings. They had wanted to rob a family and, instead of leaving in a hurry, got distracted by the sheer amount of luxury goods they found in the chalet in Villa Adelina. Something similar had happened on that February 6 when Victor and his gang took too long to hold up a carpenter's shop just eight blocks from the corner of French and Pintos.
Gastón had tried to talk him out of it: he shouldn't go, the place had a mule (their slang for a private security guard), others had already tried it and failed. Víctor didn't want to believe him. In less than ten minutes, they were pointing a gun at the owner of the furniture factory. In fifteen, they ran out of the place, bad luck on their heels. The two police cars patrolling nearby received a radio alert about the holdup: "Three unidentified males, apparently minors, heading toward Villa 25," they heard. In Unit 12179 rode Sergeant Héctor Eusebio Sosa, alias "Paraguayo," and officers Gabriel Arroyo and Juan Gómez. In Unit 12129 were Corporal Ricardo Rodríguez and Jorgelina Massoni, whose tough-guy attitude had earned her the nickname Little Rambo. The police sirens could be heard coming ever closer. Víctor was in front: he was used to running away. Lately, he hadn't even been able to stand still on a street corner: just being there was enough for him to get arrested. Behind him flew Coqui and Luisito.
"I can't keep going. I can't!" they heard Coqui complain, as he fell behind the other two, his lungs ruined from glue sniffing. While laughing at their straggling friend, Frente and Luis ran into the first alley in the San Francisco slum. Alicia del Castillo, a generously proportioned neighbor, was walking along the path with her two-year-old daughter on one side and a bag of bread on the other. Frente grabbed her by the shoulders with both hands to move her aside. He didn't have the gun on him anymore. They quickly "slipped a shack," as the kids call taking refuge in the first friendly shelter. The woman who let them in to take cover, Doña Inés Vera, stood in the doorway as though just passing the time of day while the boys slid under the table like they were playing hide and seek.
But the police had seen them go in. They didn't even speak to Doña Inés, simply grabbing her by the hair and pushing their way through the doorway. The boys were waiting, unarmed: Luisito told me they gave the guns to Doña Inés, who tossed them behind a wardrobe. They got rid of them so that they could negotiate without a possessions charge in case they had to turn themselves in. The same with the money: Doña Inés hid it under a mattress, and the police found it, although there's nothing about it in the official report.
Crouching beneath the table, Frente put his index finger to his lips: "Shhh ... be quiet and we might get away with it ...," he whispered, as they saw the policewoman and two male cops enter the shack, pointing their guns. Sergeant Héctor Eusebio Sosa, Paraguayo, was in the lead, with his nine-millimeter pistol. He kicked the table with one steel-tipped boot, sending it flying into a corner. Víctor managed to shout:
"Don't shoot, we surrender!"
Luis says that the two then stammered a repeated "no": "No, no, no"; a "no" meaning that they couldn't believe they would be shot down. "We just covered our heads and said, 'no, no,' like when parents hit you when you're a kid," Luisito told me in a wing of Ezeiza jail on the day he turned twenty-one, doing time for the robberies he continued to commit after Frente's death, excited to be remembering old times after such a long while.
He described the final scene in a rush: in the cramped atmosphere of that miserable six-by-six-foot shack, five shots rang out at point-blank range. Luis realized they were being executed; as if propelled by a spring, he leapt toward the door. A bullet grazed his skull. He landed with his body half out of the shack, having made it just a few feet into the alley. Then he passed out. Frente tried to protect himself by putting his hands in front of his face as if he were blocking out an unwelcome ray of light. Luisito came to a few minutes later, but he remained still as a stone, playing dead.
Frente died almost the moment the police bullets tore into his face. The investigators noted five bullet holes in Víctor Manuel Vital, but there were only four shots. One of them went through the hand he threw up to try to protect himself and entered through his cheekbone. Another penetrated his cheek. The last two struck his shoulder. In the court case, "Paraguayo" Sosa declared that Víctor had died on his feet with a gun in his hand. But at the prosecutor's request, María del Carmen Verdú, the Supreme Court's forensic expert, carried out additional research during the trial. The specialists were asked to determine, given the trajectories of the bullets, how high the barrel of the gun must have been for them to have landed where they did. Accounting for the size of the room and the arrangement of the furniture, if the events had taken place the way Sosa said, he would have to have fired his gun from five feet five inches above the victim. This means that, to have killed Frente the way he described it in court, Sosa would have to have been at least ten feet eight inches tall.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dance For Me When I Die"
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Table of Contents
Foreword / Javier Auyero and Gabriela Polit-Dueñas xi Acknowledgments xv Prologue 1 Chapter 1 5 Chapter 2 21 Chapter 3 37 Chapter 4 45 Chapter 5 55 Chapter 6 73 Chapter 7 85 Chapter 8 101 Chapter 9 115 Epilogue 127
What People are Saying About This
“Cristian Alarcón’s book is so good that reading it almost feels like a sin. He brings out the full humanity of the survivors of addiction, drug dealing, theft, and murder who live in Buenos Aires’s shantytowns, and his magic with words makes you become enchanted by and forgive completely unforgivable characters. The world would be a better place with more writers as talented as Alarcón, who can render human suffering so beautifully.”
"Dance for Me When I Die is a multifaceted marvel: part investigation, part eulogy, and a nuanced, subtle description of a culture steeped in violence and fatalism. Cristian Alarcón is a masterful writer and an intrepid, sensitive reporter, and this book is a must-read. You'll emerge from its spell with a new understanding of youth and violence at the margins of Latin American society."