Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cuba: Drugs Fuel Cuban Disco Violence

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Drugs Fuel Cuban Disco Violence

Locals caught in the middle when gangs clash.

When rival neighbourhood gangs clashed outside the La Portada nightclub in Havana, a burst of gunfire was followed by street battles between dozens of youths armed with knives and rocks.

According to eyewitness Yusniel Bacallao, some gang members escaped by car, but others began attacking young people waiting for transport home.

Another onlooker, Frank Vidal, said that one gang member “whacked a guy waiting for transport in the face, for no reason”.

“They shouted and insulted everyone,” he added. “No one stood up to them, so they shoved some people in the face.... One of them started throwing stones at us, so there was nothing for it but to run.”

Cubans say such violent scenes fuelled by alcohol and drugs have become commonplace at state-run recreation centres, which turn into discos at night.

These centres exist in every municipality, and are financed and run by the local cultural office. But with few police around, minor scuffles can turn into serious brawling.

According to Yosvani Galarraga, a regular at La Portada, these problems often arise because of competition between rival drug gangs. The violence is intended to “scare the competition in any way possible, and to get access to those who want to buy drugs, particularly those who take pills”.

Residents say the principal victims are not the gang members, but people caught in the crossfire.

At La Portada, students are constantly harassed and sometimes assaulted, according to Galarraga.

A worker at a nearby state-run café that is located at a bus stop where fights regularly break out, said staff there regularly closed up early to avoid trouble.

“We have to close when the ruckus start,” he said. “If not, they come in and loot the cafeteria. On other people’s shifts, they have forced entry, taking money and items on sale, nearly always bottles of rum and cigarettes.

“By the time the police arrive – if they do turn up that night – they’ve already taken what they liked and done what they wanted with you.”

The Cuban government flatly denies that there are any drug problems in the country.

“In Cuba there are no drugs,” President Raúl Castro said earlier this year. “They’ve attempted to bring them in. There are more than 250 foreigners in detention for trying to bring just a bit of marijuana. But there are no drugs, and there never will be.”

The reality is different, with a range of illicit substances available. According to sources who asked to remain anonymous, cocaine sells at 50 convertible pesos (50 US dollars) a gram.

A marijuana joint made from imported Colombian or Egypt drugs costs five to ten convertible pesos, while one made from local marijuana is two pesos.

Rubén Bernal Camejo, a 23 year-old from El Caney near the city of Santiago, says fights often break out at his local recreation centre.

It is a recipe for trouble, he says, “bringing together hundreds of young people from different areas… drinking alcohol and taking marijuana and pills”.

“In every corner you’ll see someone smoking weed or buying pills to get high… It’s like a time bomb that always explodes,” he said.

Camejo has first-hand experience of the consequences – he was stabbed in the ribs during a brawl at the El Caney centre in 2011.

Others recount similar experiences. Luis Jérez, a 36-year-old who lives next to the El Caney club, says he witnessed the fatal stabbing of a youth there a few years ago.

As violence breaks out every weekend, Jérez said, the authorities close the disco down from time to time, but it always reopens within a few months.

The recreation centre in El Caney houses as a theatre, restaurant and café as well as a disco.

Another resident, who did not wish to be identified, said that whenever the centre reopens after one of its periodic closures, staff boast about how much money they are pulling in for the cultural affairs department of Mayabeque province.

“That’s why they can’t keep them closed for long,” he added.

Other serious incidents this year include a machete attack on Antonio Echavarría at his home in Managua, Havana. He tried to intervene when three youths came to settle a score with his son Pavel after an argument at the San Antonio de las Vegas recreation centre.

Echavarría said he wanted to “persuade them not to do something crazy”, but they slashed, causing multiple injuries that required repeated surgery.

At the beginning of July, 20-year-old Lázaro Roberto Lozano Ceballos was stabbed in the back during a brawl at a disco in the Güines municipality.

“In the chaos, no one saw at what point he was stabbed, not even him,” his friend Danisleidis Lomba. “When the fight was over, some guys standing behind him noticed his back was covered in blood. They told him, and seconds later he collapsed.”

Lozano Ceballos was taken to hospital where doctors had to remove a perforated kidney. After several operations, he contracted peritonitis, and he remains critically ill in hospital.