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Gangsterism "de cabo" style

Gripping.

"In those days, I had no fear. I felt nothing. I had no compassion for anybody."

That's Gonzalo, a 38-year-old crack-smoking killer and drug smuggler who's now in prison in Mexico. He's featured in the book "El Narco", in which author and journalist Ioan Grillo chronicles the rise of the country's drug gangs. It's pure coincidence that I'm reading this as gang violence flares up - yet again - in the Western Cape.

I'm not sensitised by the killings and poppy growing stories in Mexico. The names and terms are exotic: Durango. Baja California. Rio Grande. I attempt a Spanish-sounding pronunciation, slowly mouthing the words.

I don't do that when I hear about a gang-related shooting in Lavender Hill or Hanover Park. I work in a newsroom. It's what I've come to expect. In diary meetings we talk about the importance, the necessity of telling ordinary people's stories. Of focusing on how families and children and schools and mothers are affected. But I've become sensitized.

I'm not affected, at least not directly, by the chilling control these gangsters wield or the destruction they sow.

Thanks to an array of historical, social and economic factors (including my past, my education, my income etc) I live in a middle class neighborhood, in a home monitored by a private security company. Blue beams swoosh up and down our garden and passageway at night, alerting us to a leaf or branch swaying in the wind… not to mention the presence of a dreaded intruder.

Thousands of families living in Hanover Park, Lavender Hill, Gugulethu and Manenberg are not so fortunate. And even if they had an alarm system, it wouldn't help.

I cannot imagine having to raise a child in a community where gun shots are a daily occurrence. I cannot imagine sending her away for the holidays, because keeping her at home would place her life at risk. I cannot imagine the anxiety as I send her off to school, knowing there's even the slightest possibility she may not return.

Irvin Kinnes is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Criminality at UCT. He told a recent gang-related talk shop that there were 31 cases of a gang presence on school premeses last year. Even more frightening was that there were 63 gang related shootings within 100 meters from schools in the same time period.

Nor can I imagine keeping her indoors 24/7 to avoid her being shot at - or recruited -- while playing in the garden or walking to her grandmother who lives just a few doors away.

We're not talking about the barrios of Mexico City or Ciudad Juarez. These are communities only tens of dozens of kilometers from where I work and live.

I don't want to pontificate about the feasibility of deploying troops to Grassy Park or Gugulethu. Even when reporting on the violence we "drop in" for a few hours. The big difference is we're able to leave. Local families can't.

Callers to the radio station I work for have presented just about every argument - for and against - known to man. Some say sending in the soldiers is a knee-jerk reaction attempting to treat the symptom of a much deeper socio-economic problem. Probably.

Tonight I'll whiz past these gang-controlled communities in my comfortable and well secured car, rushing home on the N2. To a well-protected home in a relatively safe neighborhood where children still ride their bikes and play cricket in quiet cul de sacs.

Thousands of other Cape Town families only dream of such an existence.

What would I do if my daughter was wounded or recruited? I am not noble. I can imagine myself seeking any revenge possible. Because my family is all I have. I doubt I'd be able to be sane or logical - or patient - if harm came to her.

Families in Hanover Park, Lavender Hill, Gugulethu and half a dozen other areas have been patient. Many are terrified. Some must be beyond caring, so worn down by poverty and their circumstances they've become numb. They have not taken the law into their own hands… yet.

But they have pleaded for help.

Dare we refuse them?

Tessa van Staden is the Deputy Editor of EWN in Cape Town. Follow her on Twitter @tessvstaden

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