Sleuthing

Because of the length of my book, “Oh Oaxaca, Living,Laughing and Learning in Oaxaca, Mexico” I had to cut 100 pages. This is one story that was omitted. I offer it here now because on an Internet talk forum lately extranjeros have been discussing clever robberies.

One day, after I had lived in Oaxaca for a few years, I decided to act as if I were a mix of Miss Marple (Agatha Christie's super sleuth), and Margaret Mead, famed cultural anthropologist. Both were heroines of mine—one a real life investigator of societal influences on human behavior and the other a clever fictional crime-solving character.

In my self-imposed role, I stationed myself near the entrance to El Mercado de Benito Juárez, a few blocks south of the zócalo, Oaxaca's central park. My purpose was to observe the actions of people on the street in this area.

Dressed in plain blue slacks and a simple beige blouse, I stood to the side so as not to interrupt the flow of people scurrying along; some entering the market, others merely passing by.

A pretty adolescent girl with mascara-defined eyes and brightly painted lips tended a hair décor stand at the market's entrance. A bunch of teenage boys huddled around her, flirting. On her small table were rows of colorful ribbons, jeweled clips and several sizes of headbands. Folks had to squeeze by these kids to enter the market.

Making the area even more crowded were three sidewalk vendors selling roasted, chili-flavored chapulines (grasshoppers) from huge round clay ollas (bowls). They were chunky, grandmotherly-types, wearing patterned aprons over cotton dresses, typical for indigenous street vendors. They scooped the grasshoppers, a favorite snack of Oaxacans, into plastic bags for their customers. Once in a while they waved their hands in friendly fashion.

A traffic cop also waved as if directing traffic, except his position in the middle of the street puzzled me since he wasn't at an intersection, and this one-way street wasn't congested with vehicles needing guidance.

The vendors near the market entrance were busy attending to their businesses and paid no attention to me. They didn't seem to notice that I was standing more or less in one place, not passing through.

Noting details of these goings-on stirred memories of the 1970s and 80s when I taught sociology in a Florida college. Back then I would assign students to choose a public place where they could carefully watch actions and interactions for an hour or so, then record their observations. Intense focusing usually revealed behaviors that otherwise went unnoticed.

At my post, I noticed that periodically the teenage boys would disperse into the market for a few minutes, then they would regroup around the hair ornament stand and continue their horsing around. Also, I didn't observe anyone purchasing any of the decorative items. Actually, there wasn't room enough to do so, even if someone wanted to. The boys blocked access to the hair selections and the sales girl.

I had chosen this spot for my Miss Marple/Margaret Meade “experiment” because I had been robbed the day before as I entered the market. Since what had happened really perplexed me, I wanted to figure it out. For two days, a few hours each day, I stood and watched intensely. Here is what I surmised had probably happened to me.

I had withdrawn 3,000 pesos (equivalent of $300 U.S. dollars at that time) from an ATM machine and walked a few blocks to the market. I knew it wasn't wise to take a lot of cash when shopping in Oaxaca's crowded markets, and usually I didn't. That day had been an exception. I needed a few household items, and in this huge market, that filled several city blocks, I could find almost everything––from apples to zippers. Narrow aisles were stuffed with clothes, toys, pottery, baskets, fresh vegetables and slabs of meat hanging on hooks from iron rods. On market day, I was carrying a backpack, even though I knew backpacks indicate: there are probably some goodies inside.

My backpack had a zippered side pocket that I could reach, and a few times along the way I patted it to make sure my pesos were there. In hindsight, I think that action screamed: Hey, I'm in here.

A couple of blocks from the market I realized the cash pocket had come unzipped. Odd, I thought. I must not have zipped it all the way. At that point, I should have suspected something was awry.

backpack with open pocket

After walking a few more yards, I noticed it was unzipped again. Probably, a faulty zipper, I reasoned. By this time, instead of blaming the zipper and my own negligence, I should have realized something was a bit screwy.

As I neared the Benito Juárez market, I noticed a chunky aproned woman walking close behind me and I stepped aside to let her pass. She shook her head and remained behind. In hindsight, I suspect she was a scout and had determined exactly where my money was, even though I hadn't felt her unzip the peso pocket.

When one of the chapulín vendors waved as I approached, I felt pleased that they were so friendly and had waved to me.

Inside the market, before I knew what was happening, a group of adolescent boys pushed and shoved as if they needed to get by. I stepped aside to let them pass. Within seconds I realized my pesos were gone and the juveniles were out of sight. I had heard that thieves often work in groups and had been told to be wary when there was undue pushing. Even in crowded areas, Oaxacans generally don't push. They seem to maneuver skillfully in tight quarters without pushing and shoving. For several minutes I stood motionless, frozen and utterly helpless.

During my sleuthing hours, I couldn't see what was happening within the market because it was too crowded for me to stand inside. However, I believe when a target and location of the money had been relayed to the group of young men, via hand signals from the traffic cop and the chapulín vendors, the teenagers would then surround the unsuspecting person, grab the pesos, and probably toss them from one to another within the crowded market. I had heard this was a common practice, and that is what I guessed had happened in my case. The scout may even have followed me from the ATM.

I wasn't able to warn any victims on my watch because the area was so congested and because it all happened so quickly. Also, I didn't know to whom I should report my suspicions, since I believed the policeman was part of the operation. Or was he? He could have been a conspirator in a cop's uniform. After two days of observation, I lost interest.

In the following weeks, there were conversations among my English-speaking friends about the frequency of robberies occurring in that market. A couple of weeks later, I noticed the hair décor stand had disappeared along with the teenage boys and the traffic cop. Maybe business had dried up, and they had voluntarily, or perhaps involuntarily, moved on? I will never know for certain.