On Guard

On Guard

by L. Vocem

First published in Carve Magazine,
Fall 2020, Editor’s Choice Award Raymond Carver Short Story Contest


Me llamo Walter Gomez, I’m a Policia Nacional Bolivariano. I’m the guy you see holding the shield while those come mierdas of the opposition pretend to demonstrate but throw rocks, Molotov cocktails at us. They spit on our faces, call us names, and sometimes they hurl bags filled with shit at us. There’s only so much you can take from them. They are the children of the oligarchs, imperialist Yankees, corrupt industrialist that squandered the national patrimony and now that it’s our turn they are doing everything possible for the revolution to go backward. When they scream and chant to my face, I remain calm. I may push forward, but I wish I were one of my comrades with the plastic bullet gun. I wish I could get them point-blank on their faces and in slow motion see their teeth and blood come out.

I grew up in the barrio, up in one of these mountains around our great capital. I was what they called a níche, mono, malandro. So as a youth, I became that. But I also came down from the mountain with no running water, smelling of a mix of dirt and fried empanadas on my way to school. My mother, who at one point was a maid, a cachifa for one of those rich families with a large quinta, three cars, and a membership to some club, insisted to me that the only way to get ahead in this world was to go to school, go to church, and be a good person. But the barrio teaches you otherwise. There’s a survivalist cruelty to the place that makes you do anything you can to survive. Whatever it takes, and you make it happen, take care of yourself, provide for your family, particularly in these days when the Yankees have an embargo that has made our economy impossible. The oligarchs, of course, blame our leader, but I know better. It is them and the Yankees who are at fault.

It’s hard to make a living these days, so I have my usual job as a policeman, and then I work as a guard at one of the hospitals. That little job has its perks. People bring in contraband and drugs that were bought through the black market, so we take them away and fine them. Sometimes they pay us good money. Other times we sell it as well. Sometimes they are willing to do things to get that stuff back.

On my way back home from work, I drive my motorcycle by one of the nice neighborhoods and look around the huge gates and sneak a peek inside to the fancy cars and maids in uniforms. How is it that they are still making money while we starve up in our barrios? I notice on one of the cars, a small Cuban flag. Mi Comandante has told me not to mess with them. Whatever they are doing, they have connections high above. I see another family. The man has light skin, and the wife is a catira. Their children have light hair and look like the kids in the Gringo movies. They get inside a Mercedes-Benz.

When I get to our barrio I notice Pedro, the head of the Colectivos militia in our area talking to people. I stop and ask him what’s going on.

“Another girl has disappeared,” he says. “I’m going to get to the bottom of this since you guys do nothing.”

“That’s Metropolitan Police business, not ours,” I tell him.

We’ve talked about this several times. That they either kidnap the girls or lure them in with food and money and then turn them into sex slaves. They even take them all the way to Colombia, Panama or Ecuador.

I drive my motorcycle barrio adentro, deep into the barrio up the mountain. There are alleys and corridors between the red brick block ranchitos wide enough for a Jeep to go up. I get stuck behind three 4×4 trucks filled with passengers and honk at them. People sneak by the side of the trucks going up and down. I accelerate between the people and pass the trucks. I live at the edge of the electrical grid. There is about another kilometer of ranchitos past my place, but they don’t have electricity or water. We are lucky, we have electricity, and only last year were able to tap into the pipe that brings water this far up. So I installed a toilet and connected it to the makeshift sewer pipe that we created a few years back. Everything around here is hand-made, makeshift and brought in one brick at the time. This place is not like the city, with spacious avenues and tall buildings and old saman trees. We live by our own rules. There are no policemen that patrol this far up. I am respected not because I am a man of uniform, but because I came from the barrio and I know what justice is and how is dispensed over here. You betray that, and they will find you dead in a ditch with a knife wound to your stomach.

I arrive at my abode. Adelaida is cooking some pasta. She will serve it with ketchup that we were lucky to find at the abasto at the entrance of the barrio. I say hello and ask her if she could find any meat this time. “No,” she responds. “You need to get a new bombona de gas,” another gas tank.

I ask her where are the kids. She motions to the outside, playing, who knows what. I taught them how to make slingshots, and with sticks, they have made their own guns, so they are probably playing around shooting at each other. It’s good to be prepared for when the Gringos plan their invasion. We will defeat them like we did the Spanish Army during Independence.

Adelaida screams the boys’ names and tells them it’s time to eat. They do not show up. I am hungry and pissed. An hour later, when it’s already dark, they show up. I smack them hard. They apologize and say that they forgot what time it was and they were playing by the cañada. I tell them not to go there, all the sewers of the barrio end up in that cañada, and who knows what they are going to catch.

They serve themselves and ask if there’s any meat.

“No, carajo, there’s no meat.” I don’t know if I am mad at myself for not making enough money to buy some meat or at Adelaida, for not trying hard enough to find some at a reasonable price in one of the markets.

“You want meat? Come with me to one of the houses of rich people. Let’s catch one of their dogs or cats and eat them.”


Mi Comandante tells us to come to work in our riot uniforms. We pick our helmets, clear shields and sticks. They dispense the guns for the rubber bullets and we pack into a truck. We arrive at an avenue close to one of the hospitals in the city. The people marching are doctors, nurses and healthcare workers. I see a couple of nurses from the hospital where I am a guard. They don’t recognize me. They scream at us. On national demonstrations, the National Guard joins us and brings the Tanquetas with the powerful water guns and tear gas canisters. We didn’t bring any of that to this demonstration. Mi Comandante tells us that the Colectivos will take care of it, that we are just holding the line. These people are workers, just like us and with inflation being like five hundred percent a week, they can’t eat either. Also, there’s no money for medicines, supplies. Blame the Gringos, not us. I say to myself, keeping a stoic face.

During the demonstration, the Colectivos arrive on motorcycles and tell the demonstrators that’s as far as they go. They shout at each other. Several people turn over a small refrigerated truck that was trying to get through the avenue to the side and set it on fire. They completely block the avenue. People loot the small truck and take bags of cheese, sausages, chorizos and run away. I give a look to mi Comandante as if saying, do we do something. He squints his eyes and turns his head, saying no. They need to eat as well.

On the way back to the prefectura, mi Comandante asks me if I had time to do any scouting. I tell him that I have been working on it, but I don’t have anything yet.

I drive my motorcycle to a different part of town. Many of the streets are blocked with alcabalas filled with private guards. I see the gates go up and an expensive Hummer comes out of the gate. Jesus Christ, the driver is some teenager with his friends. What is it that their parents do to afford that car while we can’t even find meat in our markets? I know their type. They behave like they are celebrities. They love to order you around, or if you stop them for a traffic offense, they tell you “you know who my uncle is,” and after they see we don’t care, they offer to buy us. They are the ones that start all the corruption. After that, it’s all a matter of survival.


We have an apagón. I thought it was just our barrio, not the entire city. The whole country is out of electricity. The power goes out on the barrio all the time; transformers blow all the time. Sometimes the power company replaces them, sometimes they don’t do anything. So someone from the barrio that knows electricity goes to some other area of town, steals a transformer and places it in our barrio. On occasion, people that do not know what they are doing try to tap into the line, get electrocuted, and die. That’s when they remember that you’re a policeman and want you to take the charred stiff body down, dangling from the cables. The smell of charred human flesh is horrible.

There’s nothing we can do. We light candles around our four wall ranchito, and look down the mountain. At night, you usually see the lights of the city, the high rises, the other mountains across the valley with other ranchitos, but all we see tonight is a slight glow and the cars on the highway moving up and down as if we were looking at arteries and veins with blood going up and down. I hear shots down the alley. So I get my handgun and a semi-automatic gun and go down the mountain.

Some of the Colectivos are going around with guns asking people for their cedula ID. I ask them what is going on.

“The whole city is out of power. People are looting all over. We’re not going to allow that over here.”

We stay up half the night patrolling, making sure the mountain is safe. Every now and then we hear gunshots, other times they are engines misfiring, even though they sound like gunshots. I am asked to work extra time at the hospital. There are a lot of gunshot emergencies arriving. Whenever that is the case, we have to file a special report.

The city now has no water. People go by the Guaire River, which also serves as the city sewer to collect water from one of the streams that pour there. I caught Adelaida and the boys bringing buckets of water up the mountain from the cañada that runs through our mountain. “Are you stupid, woman” I chastise her. What is she thinking? What is she going to do with that water? She should know better, that water is dirty.

She tells me that there’s no water anywhere. That’s it. That’s all we got.

“Are you going to at least boil it?

“Have you gotten a new bombora de gas? We’re about to run out.”

The city is at its edge and we are asked to work extra time to keep people from looting. Some supermarkets and abastos are giving their meats, cheese and milk away. I call Adelaida to rush over there before is too late. Some of it already smells. Some of it is salvageable.

We have albondigas for dinner. Jorge and Manuel eat with abandon and ask for more. Adelaida gives me a look of desperation as if saying what are we going to do next.

El Presidente tells us that it was the Gringos that sabotaged the electrical grid. That from Miami they hacked our power plant. But the opposition discredits everything our Presidente says. Their fake media and the Gringo media say on the internet that the power plants are not computerized but manual, so it was impossible for anyone to hack them. I don’t believe so. They will say anything to discredit our great leader.

After the apagones I go scouting in a different area of town. This area of town is very modern, the houses are spacious with big gates and walls, yet there are not a lot of guardhouses. I look around for security cameras. It looks promising.

The head of the Colectivos pulls me to the side when I get to the barrio. He says, look around, what do you see. He points at the number of homeless kids, pulling food out of garbage cans.

“What do you want me to do? We’re not social services,” I tell him. I tell him the reality. Many people have fled the country. They just can’t make it. So they leave their older kids behind to fend for themselves. There are so many of them.

“I think I know who is the one taking the kids,” he says. “In a good area of town, this would be all over the news. Your boss may be forced to take action and have you investigate. But this is the barrio. We’re not worth shit.”

“So who is it?”

“Manuel Rincón, I believe is his name, but they call him Bachaco.”


I like my morning shift at the hospital the best. It starts quiet and as the city wakes up, people start to pile up. This morning I see one of those sifrina upper-middle-class girls that thinks that she is Miss Universe. Well, she doesn’t have the tits for it, but they all have the surgeries. She has jet black straight long hair with a streak of purple to the side of her face. She carries a large brown box. I motion her to come towards me. I look inside the box. Oh, contraband, narcotics, surgical tools. That is how they like to do surgery at the hospital because they do such a poor job sterilizing their own instruments or keeping the meds for the patients, so they tell them to buy the stuff on the black market.

I ask her for the official prescriptions and invoices for this stuff. She offers me some copy of a copy that a nurse gave her.

“I’m sorry, but all this is contraband. You can’t bring this to the hospital. You have narcotics, prescription antibiotics, tools. You’re going to have to pay una multa to bring this in.”

She turns red and starts to pitch a fit. I try to take the box from her, but she resists. I motion to one of the guards to restrain her as I take the box away. I take it inside a storage room that we keep with lock and key and issue her fine. She gives me that typical look of superiority people like her give people that live in the barrio.

“Here’s your multa,” I lean forward and whisper. “There’s a little mop room by the entrance. We can go over there, and this offense will be forgiven.”

She growls that she is going to tell the administrator and doctors. Yeah right. If they ran this hospital properly, people would not have to get stuff illegally in the black market.

I could use the extra money, and if she doesn’t have the money, who knows, this may be a nice little diversion.


Mi Comandante has us on a line. He passes photographs of what looks like students in one of the demonstrations throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at us. Some have their faces exposed. He shows us close-ups of those individuals and says that information indicates that some of them live in the area of El Marquez. So he wants ten of us, five motorcycles to go there, make visual contact and take them in for questioning. If they offer opposition neutralize them, but do not use lethal force.

We load the motorcycles. I get to drive this time instead of riding in the back. We get to the neighborhood with the tall residential buildings and the avenues that go up towards the mountain. Kids play on the streets. They are aware of us. Some of them run away, more than likely to alert others. We should have done this in plain clothes instead of uniform. I have to admit that I am never comfortable when we do these redadas. Whenever we find our target we swarm around them, then the men riding in the back dismount and pull the targeted person’s pants down. Why do we do that? I don’t know. Humiliation, maybe. Most of the time they do not run after that since they are more focused on getting their pants up. Then we pull them to the back of one of the bikes and sandwich them between men. Sometimes things get out of hand. One of our men kicked the crap of a guy resisting until his face was not even recognizable. Another time, another one of our men pulled a gun and shot them on a leg. Many times after one of these operations I have to hide at the precinct so they don’t see how shaky I get.

We have no luck this time, and mi Comandante screams at us that he is being pressured from above to get these shield boys in. After we disband, he comes towards me and whispers, “Any luck with our little project?”

I move to the side away from where anyone could hear us.

“I may have a location.”

“Oh, do tell.”

“That’s all I got, I need to scout some more.”

“Can you have something by the end of the week?”

“I’ll try,” I say.

He winks at me and walks away.


As I arrive at our barrio, Pedro is standing on a corner and motions at me.

“Can you talk?”

I stop, every now and then I rev the engine of my bike so it will not go off.

He tells me where Bachaco lives, he insists that we should talk to him, that we should go there now. I really don’t want to go, I am tired, stressed from the redadas but I accept. He gets on his own bike. I follow him. It’s a barrio not too far from ours. He points at the door. We dismount and I knock on the metal door.

A short, skinny guy comes out.

“Are you Bachaco?” I ask him.

“What is it to you?” He responds.

“Just need to ask you a few questions?”

“About what?”

I tell him about the girls disappearing and ask him if he knew any of them.

He gives me that innocent look like he has no idea.

Then Pedro lays it on him, “We know it was you. People have seen you.”

I give Pedro a stern look, that’s why he is not a policeman.

Bachaco utters a quick laugh.

“You guys don’t know shit.”

“We just want you to take your business elsewhere,” Pedro says.

“Who do you think you are? You don’t own the streets. Besides you want to know who is behind it. Candanga. You both know who Candanga is. He controls the drugs, the sex and even some of the kidnappings. And you know what else? You guys.”

Bachaco places a hand in his pants pocket. I go for my gun. He slowly takes out a wad of money, pulls out some of the bills and throws them on the ground in front of me.

“Some of you are already on payroll, so leave me the fuck alone.”

He turns around and goes back into his place and shuts the door behind him.

I caress my gun, realizing that the safety is still on.

Back at our barrio, Pedro tells me over a beer that Candaga, is the leader at La Plantacion Jail that is controlled by inmates. He had them built a basketball court, a shrine where they could worship Marialeonsa, extra cells for the privilege inmates and they have women come in and out as they wish.

“Maybe we should talk to him.”

“You won’t walk out alive,” Pedro says.


I visit that plush neighborhood and park close to a stop with a lot of vegetation and tall eucalyptus trees around. I look at all the cars coming down, at the expensive Range Rovers, at the teenagers driving daddy cars. I look at my watch. It’s probably about an hour after school let out. They came home, now they are going out to meet their friends or go visit one of those sifrina girls with a lot of money.


The girl with the black hair and long streak of purple comes out of a car and pulls an old woman wearing a housedress. One of the nurses comes over with a wheelchair and helps them. As the nurse passes, she points her finger at me and says in a stern voice, “Her mother is about to die, so get out of my fucking way.”

She disappears and the girl with the black hair stares at me.

“I need my medicines or my mom will die.”

I wink at her and tell her to follow me.

“I want all of them back. My brother is in the military,” she says right behind me as she follows me.

I unlock the door to the utility room and look around for her box. I take it down from a high shelf and place it on a table. She looks at the contents. I place my hand on her hip. She stops looking through her box but does not say anything. So I unbuckle my belt and pull down her pants. I hold her hips with both my hands and push into her. She looks out a small window high above the wall. She represents everything I hate in this world. How these good-looking sifrinas have everything handed to them in their big houses, live the life while we rot in the barrios, with no food, no clean water. I finish too soon. It makes me even angrier. I turn her around and lean forward to kiss her. She veers her face to the side and pulls up her pants, turns and picks up her stuff, and rushes out of the room without saying a word. I buckle my pants and lock the room behind me.


I park my motorcycle away from the stop sign and notice a large mango tree to the side. I pick a mango from the ground and throw it at the tree. Several mangos come crashing down. I pick the one that is slightly ripe but is still green. I pull my utility knife and cut into it. I wish I had some salt. When I was a kid this was breakfast for me as I went to school. So I always had a little pouch of salt in my pocket. I notice an old Mercedes with a young guy inside, maybe in his early twenties. I think he will be perfect.

On my way home I decide to drive to Bachaco’s barrio and look around. I spot him buying sorbet for some of the homeless kids. He sees me. He talks to the kids for a while and then pays the man with the little cart, gets on his motorbike and takes off in my direction. He stops next to me.

“How’re you doing?” He says with a smirk. “You know. Some people prefer boys, about eight to twelve. Don’t you have a couple of those?”

He revs his engine slightly and takes off.


I tell mi Comandante my findings and he is very happy. Later on, he arranges a meeting at an Arepera to talk about it. There are five of us at the table. He says that the less we know about each other the better. He tells us the plan, but he wants me not driving one of the motorcycles but to be the one that makes contact. I tell him that is not my deal. I don’t want to be that more involved. He tells me I will make more money, a bigger cut. I don’t want to argue in front of them. So I leave it at that. He indicates where to deliver the package outside of the city and where to take the car where someone will dismantle it and sell is as auto parts.

I am not too crazy about it, but I need the money since I didn’t get anything extra from the meds from the hospital.


We idle the motorcycles behind an alley and check our weapons. I do and undo the safety of my gun several times. I check my nylon mask and move it up above my head under the helmet. I mount behind my driver. I do not know his name. We follow the other motorcycle. I know where we are going anyway. We snake in and out of traffic as we head south to the plush neighborhoods where all the sifrinos and rich people live. I see the mango tree and the stop sign. We position ourselves at a distance on opposite sides. We wait. Several cars come to the stop, a Hummer, a Lexus, a brand new Mercedes-Benz. Usually, when we stand with our shields in the demonstrations, I am calm even with all the mayhem around. But here, waiting I am extremely nervous, fidgety, with every car that arrives at the intersection I feel my throat tighten. I stick my hand in my pocket and play with the safety of my gun.

It’s him. I see the old Mercedes coming down the street. I motion to the guys on the other side. We drive behind the Mercedes and as we reach the stop sign, park next to the window. I slide out of the bike, pull the gun out and get my hand inside the open window pointing it at his neck.

“Stop the car now!”

He looks in my direction, then ahead, and pushes the accelerator. I hold on to dear life with one hand while trying to keep the gun straight with the other. I hear a gunshot, then another and a third one pass behind me. He stops. I look across the windshield and one of our masked guys is pointing the gun now straight at his face.

“Get out of the fucking car.” I open the door and drag him out.

One of the guys throws him on the floor of the backseat of the kid’s Mercedes.

I get on the driver’s seat, quickly adjust the mirrors and take off. The motorcycles follow. I remove my helmet and mask. Behind me, our man takes off his mask. He keeps the young guy face down on the floorboard.

“Don’t move hijo-e-puta. You don’t want to give me an excuse to blow your brains out. We like you better in one piece. Unless your daddy doesn’t like you so much and we’ll have to start sending him fingers. Where’s your phone?”

We deliver the guy. I take the car to the auto-shop where it will be dismantled into parts and sold off. Someone else will call the parents and start negotiating for money. I don’t handle that part. I wasn’t supposed to even handle the gun. In the past, I was just the scout, and then just the driver. In the way home, I buy a bottle of agua ardiente and some rum. I get to our ranchito and start drinking. Adelaida asks me if I am okay. I tell her, no, but it’s just work. My hands are shaking uncontrollably. How did I ever get to be a cop? I am not tough. I pretend to be. Most of what I do anyway is be a riot and demonstration police, chase after members of the opposition.  And now this shit. I go down the mountain on my motorcycle and park in front of a taguara that sells booze. I see Bachaco across the street next to his motorcycle with a little girl. She can’t be more than twelve. The hijo-e-puta makes me sick. They get on his motorcycle and go down the avenue full of traffic. I follow them on my bike but keep a distance so he doesn’t see me. They stop at his place. He unlocks the door, takes the motorcycle in, the girl follows. Will she end up in Colombia or Ecuador? What promise did he make to her – food, shelter?

I park my bike down the street and walk to his place. I take out my gun and undo the safety. This time, I am not playing with it. This time, there’s something I have to do.

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