Editor's note: Jim Sack is a Fort Wayne resident who will share his experiences periodically while traveling abroad.
Carrasco is one of the nicest residential neighborhoods in Montevideo, Uruguay, and, by extension, in all of South America because Uruguay is still a South American haven among states where grinding poverty, coup d'états and economic instability reign.
But Carrasco is reflecting a “state-sponsored” fight between the haves and the have-not-quite-enoughs.
Every house in this upper-middle-class suburb is a fortress. Most houses have a surrounding wall, fence and hedge in defensive combination. Atop most of these walls are electrified wires, or razor wire or both … usually both.
Iron fences look positively medieval with sharp points in the style of a German halberd. At the top of corner posts and pillars a collection of sharp glass shards or small crescent-shaped metal blades add to the defensive ring. Behind the fence is a Rottweiler, Doberman or German shepherd.
Guard shacks stand sentinel at many intersections. Inside, perhaps a former soldier keeps an overnight eye out for burglars. Some homeowners have guard shacks within their fenced compounds. Private security officers with displayed pistols prowl the malls, stand guard at the doors of larger downtown shops, or hold awkward vigil inside trendy boutiques.
Because many houses here share common walls, metal rebar has been installed in attics to make break-throughs less likely. Security cameras tell residents if someone is waiting to rush the automatic rolling gate as the family sedan exits the compound. Windows all have stout metal grillwork through which deliveries are received. No chances are taken.
Mad Anthony's fort was probably much less secure, and his troops less tense.
It gets worse. On the way to work, be on the lookout for motorbikes, especially those where a passenger hangs behind a helmeted driver. Too often, motorists are attacked while waiting at a traffic light. The young men on moped break out a window to snatch a purse or whatever is close.
Small shop owners worry the next customer will carry a gun and be high on something synthetic. Street crime is daily filler on the TV news. Walking many beaches in this coastal town is enchanting, but there are stories of packs of young men attacking from the bushes. Many — too many — murders are cold cases, long unsolved.
What or who is to blame? Victims blame a lenient attitude toward criminals by the current government. Recently, the president of the country said rich people brought it on themselves for having property. The minister of the interior all but told the women of the city not to carry purses, not to wear jewelry and not to drive nice cars, as the criminals cannot be blamed when confronted by such juicy targets.
Recently, that same president, a former guerilla, criticized the media for reporting crimes. He suggested the government may withdraw advertising from papers and TV unless media presented a more positive view of life in Uruguay. Meanwhile, the security business is booming.
In over three weeks in Montevideo, I have seen just five police cruisers perhaps on patrol. Five. Hmmm.
Private security takes up the slack. The only other time I saw police was when a political convoy passed with a dozen cruisers, lights ablaze and sirens blaring.
Fort Wayne is just the opposite: Mayor Tom Henry putts around alone in an small Chevy and, if a citizen calls 911, Fort Wayne Police Department officers are usually a minute or less away.
By comparison, Montevideo makes Fort Wayne look like a model of citizen honesty and governmental efficiency. Here, in Montevideo, if a bicycle is left on the street, it will quickly disappear.
Overnight, shop windows are protected with metal grilles or a steel curtain that descends over storefronts completely covering windows and doors. As in the tony neighborhoods, roofs are protected and barbed wire tangles make the city look like a sullen urban battlefield anticipating the attack of Soviet troops.
There is plenty of glittering wealth here, there is a broad middle class and there is the usual strata of poverty, not unlike Fort Wayne. But, in Montevideo there is also a substrata of poverty that looks grindingly reminiscent of the worst slums of 1980s Odessa, of Bangladesh or the ramshackle of west Africa.
There is a broad shanty town on the outskirts of Montevideo where a cobbled frame, a few boards and lots of plastic suffice as homes for the abjectly poor. You can see them here on the streets panhandling, begging and juggling for money. Grimy kids work the bus stops and entrances to grocery stores.
Frequently, you will see someone on a horse-drawn “recycling” cart plying the congested streets. The horses look on their very last legs, so sad their coats, so fallen their heads. Traffic whizzes by, and horses are killed in collisions.
The cart is a mountain of debris. Recyclers dive in dumpsters that are everywhere in the city. In front of the nicest of homes, these large, industrial-size, battered containers sit surrounded by what the divers toss on the ground as they scrounge for a few valuable scraps. It is an ungodly mess.
On Montevideo's stunning beaches, the debris pokes from the sand. Again, compared to Fort Waynes sterling recycling program, the picture here is positively ghastly.
Back in the shanty town, the piles of plastic are mountainous. More filthy kids play in the trash, and filthy adults work in it. Grungy, torpid dogs walk from one foxhole to another in search of a better class of fleas.
For the socialist city and national government, the poverty in these slums calls into question the efficacy of their 25-year rule in Montevideo, the capital. Promises, promises, promises are uttered, but results are the yard stick. Fort Wayne “slums” look positively inviting by comparison.
In Uruguay, the current government is a coalition of strange bedfellows. The Communists, Socialists and others snuggle in coalition with the Christian Democrats, a rare political ménage, indeed.
In opposition are the two old-line parties, the faded, impotent equivalents of the Republicans and Democrats who cannot build a coalition, shrug a lot and consequently fail to find enough common ground or popular support to retake city and national government. They seem more in love with their past glories than asserting leadership. One longs for the cross-party cooperation and the hard-headed pragmatism of Fort Wayne city leaders Smith, Shoaff, Harper, Hines, Buskirk, Brown, Henry and the rest.
Compounding matters in Uruguay, the current president is considered a buffoon by the middle class and up. He is not. But he was a terrorist, and implicated in murders, they say. His wife, too, the First Lady, was sought as a killer. They were member of the '60s Tupamaro Guerrillas. He spent some 17 years in a prison and has plenty of street cred with the down and out, as well as begrudging respect with the more affluent. But his policies do not seem to work, even for the betterment of his base. Thanks to a mandatory, semiannual 6 percent, across-the-board pay raise- inflation is ballooning, staples are bought at Manhattan prices, taxes are among the highest on this continent, education is slipping fast, and the infrastructure is crumbling.
In Montevideo, trash liters streets, yards and beaches as if no one cares, or feels able to make a difference. Rampant crime is the No. 1 concern of citizens, according to a recent survey. As Carrasco fortifies, the thieves move toward less-affluent neighborhoods that are less able to defend themselves. The poor, the government's base, suffers most.
So, there is much to be said about the benign nature of life in Fort Wayne and about our government. We drive to work without much fear of thugs on bikes smashing and grabbing, we don't fret about horse carts colliding with Hondas, and we don't suffer the grinding poverty or the fortress mentality regarding our homes. And our beaches are pristine.
One of the many benefits of travel is in comparisons that usually remind us life in Fort Wayne is pretty darn good, despite our daily travails.