Mary Beth Meehan

ViolenceUnseen-Boston Globe

ViolenceUnseen-Boston Globe

“Violence Unseen” is a response to the preponderance of street crime against Guatemalan immigrants – people of Mayan origin – who have settled in the port city of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The photographs and stories were published in the Boston Sunday Globe in February of 2014.

Marta – ViolenceUnseen

Marta was holding her sleeping son inside her doorway one morning last spring when a man pushed into the entryway and pressed a knife to her neck. “He asked me for money and took my keys. It was a very sad moment – I thought he was going to kill me or my son. He touched me everywhere – I didn’t know what he was going to do. He touched me everywhere.”

Her previous apartment had been broken into and ransacked twice, which is why she moved to this new building. She says she spends her days, and especially her nights, afraid: that someone will break in while she’s sleeping, that she will be hurt in the street and her son will be left alone, that she’ll get in trouble at work for not having the right papers. These new fears, particular to her life in New Bedford, have mingled with a deep and abiding sadness that she has felt since the war in Guatemala, three decades ago.

“I am working really hard. I have to wake up at three in the morning. I work in a fish company, cleaning and packaging fish. I work to pay the bills and buy food. I don’t have extra money – just for food, milk, so my son can eat. I also have my mom, who lives in Guatemala. At her age she can’t work at all.  .  .  .

There is no peace anywhere – not in Guatemala, and not here in the United States. We were persecuted in Guatemala, during the war. My father died; my three uncles were assassinated by soldiers. My dad’s house was burned. Since I was little, I can say that I haven’t had a peaceful life.  .  .  .

I am 36 years old. These scars, on my arm and leg, happened when my mom was running from the war. They had taken my dad already. We never found out what happened to him. We didn’t know where he was killed – nothing. They killed my dad first, then they started to scare us. Soldiers came into the house and asked where my mom was; they asked for my brothers. I was five years old. They would beat my mother and ask where her husband was. She wouldn’t answer. She sent my brothers away to live with other people, so they wouldn’t be taken by the soldiers. She then started to burn all the pictures of my dad and my brothers, so they wouldn’t ask any more questions.  .  .  .

My mom took us out to the forest, to hide us, in the rain. We were hungry. We would walk a lot and hurt ourselves when walking; I would hold my brothers’ hands. The smallest was one year old, the other was two, and I was five.  .  .  .

I decided to come here so that I could move on, and overcome everything that had happened. We lost everything in the violence, and I thought I could buy us a new place to live. But I haven’t achieved anything. Everything that we lost, we haven’t regained. One would like to make one’s life better, to find a way to succeed, have a fine future. But here it is difficult. One doesn’t have papers, one doesn’t feel welcomed, doesn’t know the language. It is very difficult.  .  .  .

I just want to live here, in peace, with my son. What we want is to live in peace, and work in peace.“



In September, Efraín was assaulted on the street by a group of kids, no more than ten or twelve years old. He says he saw their faces clearly. He was walking home from work on a warm Sunday afternoon; there were lots of people milling around. Three boys and a girl approached and taunted him, asking, in English, “Is your name Jack?” He answered “No,” and they beat him on the back of the head, knocking him to the ground. When a neighbor shouted at the kids, they ran. He did too. He did not go to the police; he says he’s afraid of the police.

But in the following days, his head really hurt. Efraín had attended a workshop on immigrant workers’ rights given by Jennifer Velarde, a bilingual attorney in New Bedford who has made it her practice to help immigrants. He went to see her, told her about what happened. She told him he must file a police report.

Together, Efraín and Velarde went to the station nearest where the attack had happened, in the south end of the city. Velarde communicated with the English-speaking police officer, who questioned why he hadn’t reported the crime immediately. She tried to explain about his fear, and insisted that a report be completed. She then asked for a copy of the report, and was told that she had to request it the following day at police headquarters, on Rockdale Avenue.

The following day, she and Efraín went to Rockdale Avenue, only to be told that they had to go to District Court for a copy of the report. They went to the courthouse, where they were showed the report, but were told that without the name of a defendant in the case they could not have a copy. “I was in shock,” Velarde says. (In a separate interview with the police chief, David Provencher, he has insisted that one only need the name of a victim to obtain a copy of a police report, and that this can be done in the records department on Rockdale Ave. But this was not Velarde’s experience. She still does not have the report.)

In the course of all this Efraín told Velarde about other assaults he’d suffered: On July 1st of this year he entered his apartment where two men were waiting for him. They dragged him in, punched him, and locked the door. They pressed two pistols to his head and asked him for money. He directed them to the living room, where he had placed $150 in cash on the table (he had paid the rent earlier that day). The robbers took the cash and tried to get into his brothers’ rooms, but they were padlocked. Before they left they punched him in the chest and, in Spanish, told him that they often saw him out walking, and if he called the police they would kill him. Plus, they reminded him that he was an immigrant and the police could deport him. They were wearing black and white Halloween masks, so Efraín didn’t see their faces.

The following day, Efraín came home from work and his apartment door had been broken in and the rooms ransacked again. This time the robbers stole two watches, two video cameras, and some change. But luckily there was no one at home. Because the door was broken, he called the police and made a report.

Then just weeks ago, in October, Efraín was in the north end of the city on a Friday, around 7:30 p.m., headed to meet his brother when he got out of work. In the darkness, three men approached him from behind and surrounded him. With their faces obscured by bandanas and their heads covered by hoods, two of the men held knives to his neck, while the third patted him down, looking for money. One of the men with a knife told him, in English, that if he moved he would kill him.

The men took $100 in cash he had in his pocket, then hit him in the back of the head. He fell and his face hit the sidewalk, and the men ran off. Efraín had stashed his phone in his underwear when he realized he was under attack, and was able to call some friends, but no one answered. Finally he met someone he knew on the street, who gave him a ride to the police station, and this time he made a report. The police asked him if he wanted to go to the hospital. He said “No,” this time because he was afraid he wouldn’t have the money to pay for a doctor.

By Monday he was still in pain, and Velarde again insisted that he seek help. He went to St. Luke’s Hospital and was treated for “physical assault, head injury, facial contusion, concussion.” He has received two bills: one for $250 from radiology, the other for $511 for an office visit. At his job, where he cleaning and processes crabs, he earns approximately $250 for a full week’s work. He is still paying off his medical bills.

Leonidas – New Bedford

Leonidas – New Bedford

Leonidas has done well at his job in New Bedford. He works at one of the many scallop processing plants in the city, progressing over the past three years from floor worker to manager. He now oversees inventory and operates a forklift, in addition to working with the scallops themselves.

It was just before Christmas, in 2011, when Leonidas was attacked. He had worked all morning and walked home for lunch. When he entered his first-floor apartment he could see that the bathroom window had been broken, and that the place was in disarray. He heard footsteps upstairs, and realized that a thief was in the building.

He remembered there was a machete in his roommate’s closet – it had been left there by previous tenants – as he heard the thief running down the stairs. He picked up the machete and ran outside, catching up with the man. He grabbed him and shouted at him to drop the bags of stolen things. When the man refused, Leonidas hit him in the arm with the blunt end of the machete, trying to loosen his grip on the bags. What he didn’t know was that the man was carrying a long knife, serrated on both sides. The man pushed Leonidas to the ground and began stabbing him: in the chest, the shoulder, the abdomen, the back – seven times in all. The worst stab wound was inside his mouth, under his tongue.

Leonidas stumbled back to work, and his boss immediately called the police. An ambulance took him to the hospital, where the police came to conduct their investigation. They asked Leonidas a series of questions, and showed him a set of photographs. He was able to identify the thief because he’d seen his face clearly, mostly from a conversation they’d had. In Spanish the thief had yelled: Let me go, I have a family! Leonidas had replied: If you want to support your family, why don’t you get a job?

After a long recovery – he could not eat for two weeks – Leonidas eventually went back to work. He moved with his father into a second-floor apartment in the same neighborhood. The police arrested the man who’d attacked him, and Leonidas appeared in court several times, cooperating with the prosecution and providing his testimony. The man was put in jail for attempted murder, but Leonidas doesn’t know if he’s since been released. He says he’s afraid to run into him again.


Antolin – New Bedford

Antolin – New Bedford

It was on this block of New Bedford that Antolin was attacked, walking home from work at the fish house, at about 6:00 p.m. But it was December then, and it was dark. He saw five or six guys up ahead across the street as he walked, and when he got closer to them, they ran toward him and quickly encircled him – a few in front, a few behind. With their hoods pulled up over their hats, he couldn’t see their faces.

“One of them had a bat, and he hit me in the back of the head. I fell on the ground – it was like a fire in my head,” he says. He put his arms up to protect his skull, but he could still feel the bat as they battered his head again and again, and the feet and hands of the others as they struck his sides. He heard their voices, but the pain filled his mind and his head began to swim.

He heard a neighbor scream that he’d called the police, and it was then that the group of men ran – “or else I think they would have killed me there, in the street,” Antolin says. They took everything he had – about eighty dollars, his bank card, his Guatemalan passport, his cell phone, even his lunchbox. The only thing they left in his pocket were his keys.

Antolin found his way home, unsteady on his feet and groping with his hands – como un borracho ­– like a drunk, he says. When he got home his brother-in-law drove him to the hospital, where he stayed for four days. For two months he was in pain, unable to work – “I lost my mind,” he says.

Because he didn’t show up, he lost his job, and he was afraid to go out of the house. Playing with his kids made him forget his pain, made him feel better. But the peace didn’t last. Since then he has found work in another fish processing house, but he still feels very shaky – tembloroso, traumatized, even. His head still swims, his back still seizes with pain, people tell him things and he continues to forget them. He hasn’t had any follow-up medical care. And he says he is still so frightened, afraid to leave the house, afraid to do his errands.

Since the attack he just doesn’t feel the same.

Rubén  – New Bedford

Rubén – New Bedford

Rubén has worked for 11 straight years in New Bedford ­– moving blocks of cement, hauling loads of fish – hard physical labor that he says he enjoys. He was happy in his last job, sailing for days at a time on a lobster boat out of Westport, watching the sea, pulling the lobsters out of the traps. He was able to pay his rent and bills, and send monthly support for his family back home: his wife, his daughter and his 9-month-old grandson. Some months he was able to send them eight-hundred, nine-hundred, sometimes a thousand dollars.

He had only been at his new job for about a month, last April, when he was attacked. He had just paid his phone bill and was riding his bicycle back home, when he heard someone say: “Give me some money!” Before he knew it he was on the ground. “I didn’t understand,” he says, “he didn’t rob me, he didn’t take anything. He just stabbed me and ran.”

When the police arrived they reported him as “bleeding profusely,” with his shirt, lower body, and the sidewalk where he lay completely covered in blood. The wound had severely – and permanently ­– damaged the nerves in his back, and since then he has lived in a cloud of pain. He has spent the last six months in the house, moving stiffly and tiring easily; even tidying up the house leaves him exhausted. He sometimes walks to the park and talks with friends, until they all go off to work themselves.

So he watches TV, and frets about his mounting debts, and thinks about his grandson, who’s awaiting surgery for a deformity of the leg. Without his work, they are all stranded. This week he received a call from his boss to go back on the boat, but because of the pain, he had to decline. He knew his cousin was looking for work, so he put him in touch with the captain; needing the cash, he sold him his waders.

Rubén received a letter from the Massachusetts Attorney General that his medical bills – nearing $12,000 – will be paid by the Victims Compensation Fund. But these other worries dominate this mind. And his roommate, whose wife is set to arrive from Guatemala next month, has asked him to find a new place to live.

“I came here to work to support my family,” he says, “and since that boy attacked me I can’t work at all.” Yo no sé qué voy hacer, he repeats, over and over: “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

No sé qué hacer,

No sé qué hacer,

No sé qué hacer.

the watering hole

In the past weeks I’ve had two conversations with David Provencher, New Bedford Chief of Police. What follow are excerpts from those talks.


MBM: I’m trying to understand what’s going on with Guatemalan immigrants and the Mayan community, and the attacks perpetrated on them. How do you see the situation?

DP: We’ve worked with at least four different groups representing the Mayan community, going back as far as 2000. I have to be honest, it’s a very difficult community to integrate into. Understanding the cultural issues, and pervasive fear of government and institutions, and immigration status – all those things – we’ve tried to address them as clearly as we can. I’ve gone so far as to say “I don’t give a damn about your immigration status, I want to protect you.” And our biggest hurdle is that they refuse to report the crimes.

The bottom line is we can only go so far in prevention without community members’ assistance – in letting us know what happened, where and when it happened, providing us with descriptions of assailants; to not travel alone, to not carry large sums of money. It’s very difficult to have as big an impact on protecting  what is, quite simply, the most vulnerable segment of the society that we have. It’s really, really difficult to get through to them.

MBM: Are there other behaviors you’d like them to change?

DP: The big gorilla in the room is extreme intoxication, particularly on the nights of pay day. Unfortunately it’s a reality.

These folks work really hard. They don’t have a lot at their disposal to enjoy life. They get paid, and they drink – and they drink too much. And then they’re wandering around late at night, with wads of cash in their pockets, and they’re pretty much defenseless at that point, so they’re easy victims.

MBM: Sometimes these people are unconscious, not because of alcohol, but because of the attack. So what percentage of these crimes involve people who are intoxicated?

DP: I have no idea what the percentage is off the top of my head. The injection of alcohol into the circumstance makes it easier for them to be victims. But the fact of the matter is, it’s the other factors – the large sums of money, being alone, and their unwillingness to report the crimes – that make them so vulnerable. The single greatest reason that the Mayan community is victimized is because the world at large knows they’re not going to call me. It’s widely recognized that, because of their fear of government, maybe their immigration status, their cultural fears, they don’t contact the police. That is the single biggest hurdle to protecting them.

MBM: I am hearing that people do report the crimes, and that it still isn’t working.

DP: I don’t agree with that statement, and I’ll tell you why. Nobody’s waiting for something to happen before we do anything. We have officers out there specifically targeting these areas, doing high-energy patrols, stopping and questioning anybody who’s in that area who doesn’t look to have a purpose, and they’re doing that every day. So I don’t agree at all that we’re waiting for reports to come in. Ninety percent of our work is preventative in nature – we’re trying to get out ahead of it. Our job is to prevent crime, so I don’t agree at all that we’re somehow sitting back, waiting for a 911 call before we do anything.

I cannot put a police officer on every porch from Cove Street to Nash Road, along North Front, to prevent every single assault in that neighborhood from happening. I can’t have a line of cops on bicycles from Price Rite back to the North End, I can’t have somebody at Market Basket every ten feet to provide safe passage from your door to the store and back. That’s just not realistic in any society.

MBM: What about the resources? I saw back in 2007 there were 6 new Spanish-speaking officers, who then needed to be laid off.

DP: In the first decade of the 2000s we were up towards 300 officers [in a city of 96,000 residents]. Then in 2009 we were down to 250, and we’re back up to 275 now. Am I where I want to be? No. I would prefer to be at 310, then I could do all the things I’d like to do.

MBM: Victims think that the people doing the attacks are mostly African-American kids and, they think, Puerto Rican kids. Is that true? How big is this group? Where do they come from?

DP: First of all, it’s not a group and it’s not a gang. It’s just individuals with one shared value, and that shared value is: I’m gonna get mine, and if it means taking it from you, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s a culture that doesn’t have conscience or a moral sense of right and wrong. Now there’s a bunch of reasons for the development of that culture that goes way beyond anything you or I are going to do to fix it. Let’s just say this community are the antelope, the wildebeest, maybe some elephants, and there’s a big watering hole that’s called New Bedford. The jackals, the hyenas, and the lions know that all those other animals have got to go to the watering hole to drink. So they wait on the paths that the antelope and the wildebeest will use, and then they eat them. They are predators, and they feast on the weak and the vulnerable. And they select their victims the same way that the lion and the hyenas select theirs: they separate one from the herd – the smallest, the weakest, the injured – and they attack that one.

MBM: How many people – predators – are we talking about?

DP: I would say that it’s less than 1,000. Probably more than 500 who are actively engaged across the city in violent crime. But that’s purely an anecdotal estimate. There’s an argument that poverty, lack of education, the lack of jobs and the inability to get one – once you have a record, you’re not getting a job – all play a part.

MBM: Why aren’t they getting jobs at the fish processing plants, where many of the Mayans are working?

DP: They don’t want to work that hard. And they don’t want to work for minimum wage. I am far from the most progressive guy in the world, but I recognize the way out is for them to get jobs, to make them employable. I think they understand that there’s good money to be made dealing [drugs], there’s easy money to be made robbing. But the risk-return isn’t that good. And quite frankly we’ve gotten a whole lot better at putting people in jail than we were ten years ago. But you’ve got to give them 18 months to two years of transitional employment where they can learn the skill sets that are necessary to keep their jobs. So that when you get ‘em into a real job in a real company, they’re not going to get fired in the first week because they don’t know the basics of showing up on time and not getting high at lunch.

MBM: The robbery victims are suffering severe wounds – multiple stab wounds, baseball bats to the head, lost eyes. So if the robberies are just about the money, why are they so violent?

DP: I don’t have the answer to that one. I think that it has to do with the offender profile. And you know, one of the things I’ve seen over the years is that the weaker and more submissive the victim, oftentimes the more vicious the attack.

I’m not discounting that there may be some level of bias. But without any overt element to support the hate basis for the crime, the only alternative is to blanketly charge, and that waters down the effectiveness of the charge. I’m not trying to diminish the problem or deny its existence. I’m trying to find a practical answer in the real world for the violence we’re trying to deal with. 

MBM: One question that hasn’t come up as we’ve talked about crimes of opportunity is whether these are also hate crimes – whether some of these attacks are taking place because the victims are Guatemalan.

DP: That’s always a question and a dilemma we face, and it’s not easy to answer. Should we say that any time we have this type of attack on an individual from this group, that we automatically charge a hate crime, even though all the elements aren’t present, and take our chances that the DA will substantiate their charge and allow the complaints to follow? It’s a very delicate balance and a difficult call for the line officers to make. Because oftentimes they’re seeing things only from the worm’s-eye view and they don’t get to see the larger picture or trend.

MBM: If the biggest unresolved issue toward protecting these people is that they don’t come forward and cooperate with you, and we know that, culturally, that’s not going to happen any time soon, what happens next?

DP: Since we talked I have thought about this quite a bit. I haven’t got a solid complete answer to what the next step might be, but I think it leans toward a more aggressive stance in charging hate crimes whenever there’s an opportunity, when it comes to this population or group. I think that offers us a better level of success because I think that’s the barometer that they use, in terms of assessing their victimization. They see them, all of these attacks, as based against them as a culture, not just as victims of opportunity. And so I think if we alter our mindset and how we approach it, that may turn the tide. 

We in the police department have talked about looking for overt measures and elements of bias, and maybe we need to lower that bar, set the bar at: if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we’re going to call it a duck. And bring those charges [of bias] even though we may not feel it’s the strongest case, if we can make the argument that one exists, levy the charge.

Santo – New Bedford

Santo – New Bedford

At this moment, Santos’s head is filled with images. In the telling of his story, he has broken down, covered his face with his hands, been silent for a while. Now he is ready to start talking again. Gracias a Dios que nos ha salvado – “Thank God he saved us,” he says, referring to his father, who carried him and his little brother into the highlands of Guatemala, one night in the early 1980s. His father had been playing soccer that day, his favorite pastime, while his mother sold tamales on the sidelines. It was a Sunday afternoon, and people were playing, eating, having fun. Inside his father’s athletic bag, someone had placed a note: if he didn’t cooperate with the military, he and his family would be killed that night. Santos was 5 years old; his little brother was a baby.

This was during la violencia – the Civil War –in Guatemala, during which the government-run military led a campaign of extermination of the Mayan people. Santos’s father was a governor of their town, and had refused to cooperate either with the military or with the guerrillas. So, the family was forced to leave. Santos remembers seeing horrible things during that time, remembering them through the eyes of a 5-year-old: “The images come,” he says – of a bus set on fire, the people screaming inside, the children crying because of the heat.

Years later, in 2000, he came to New Bedford because an uncle had moved here, had promised he would be able to find work, and safety. Yet Santos says there are only three places in this city where he feels safe: at home, at work, and at church. When he is shopping, or riding his bicycle, or walking in his neighborhood, no matter what time of day, he feels vulnerable.

On the day he was hit he had just cashed his paycheck. In his pocket were $400, plus another $200 that he had withdrawn from the bank, to pay his bills. He had been to a money-transfer service to send $100 to his father, still in Guatemala, and bought some snacks for the house – churros y golosinas. He had about $600 left, when a baseball bat hit the back of his head, and his forehead, above his eye. Through the blood streaming into his eyes, he could then see that there was a gun pressed to his forehead. He tried to swat the gun away, but then he lost consciousness. He woke up afraid, and felt someone touching his face. He recoiled with fear, but realized it was someone there to help him, the police, and a medic with an ambulance. This happened on a Saturday. On Sunday he was released from the hospital. On Monday, he went back to work.

Santos lives in a third-floor apartment with his wife, Rosa, who is from El Salvador, and their seven-year-old son, Michael. The last time he had had trouble like this was in 2007, when Rosa was just three weeks away from giving birth to Michael. They were both working at the Bianco leather factory, in New Bedford, when federal immigration agents swept through the place, arresting mostly Guatemalan immigrants. Rosa was held and Santos was sent, for 25 days, to a detention center in Texas. They are not sure why they were finally allowed to stay – maybe because of Rosa’s condition, expecting the baby. But they are here now.

They spend this Sunday morning resting, at home. Rosa prepares a big pot of soup, chopping vegetables, making tortillas. They walk to church, hear the sermon, and walk back home. At 3:00, Rosa will have to go to work, but for now they’re together. In the next room, Michael plays with a puzzle, while Santos dozes in a chair.  Around their home, Rosa has placed las imágenes – images of the saints, to whom she prays, with gratitude, every morning. “They have blessed us because we have our health to work, and dinero para el pan de cada dia – money for our daily bread,“ she says. “We are blessed.”

Robberies – New Bedford, MA

Robberies – New Bedford, MA

The church service is underway in the basement sanctuary. Women wearing traditional huipiles embroidered with sequins pray together with men in collared shirts, while girls with long ponytails run around the tables. The room is festooned with white lace and crepe paper, and crosses in blue and white. In the back stairwell, a man wants to tell his story but prefers to remain anonymous. He knows too many people who’ve gotten in trouble this way: Por reclamar los derechos estan deportados. “For claiming their rights they were deported,” he says. No valemos nada ante la ley, “We are worth nothing before the law.”

The man has been robbed three times while walking home from work, on the long, dark road to the fish factories: “Indian Alley,” it’s been called. The amount of fish caught determined his hours, when he worked cleaning machinery at a fish processing company. Sometimes he would start at 5 pm, sometimes finishing at 10:00 pm, sometimes staying until 3:00 in the morning if there had been a lot of fish.

The worst attack took place at about 10:45 at night. He was walking home when a black car headed toward him. The car passed him, turned around, pulled alongside him. He was nervous, then. There were three people in the car. “I didn’t look at them – I kept walking. Two guys got out and said “give me your wallet, your wallet, your wallet!” I didn’t say anything; I kept walking, even faster. The driver stayed in the car, and two men chased me. When I looked back at them one hit me on the side of the head with a bat. Then he hit me again. I fell on the ground. The two of them fell on top of me – one had a knife – and took everything from me – my wallet, my money, my ID, everything. Then they took off in their car. My head was bleeding. I wiped my eyes – the blood was getting in them, I couldn’t see. I went to the police station on foot, and made a report. The police said I needed to be checked by a doctor, so they took me to the hospital in the police car.”

“These robberies happen all the time, to so many people. When someone comes to work with a black eye I don’t have to ask them what happened; I know what happened.”