“I had never come here before. There’s nothing here,” twenty-six-year-old Jonathan Flores seems almost taken aback on reaching the top of Casuarinas. His parents came to live in the neighbourhood 13 years ago. It is a gated community, set on a hillside in the heart of Lima, in the Santiago de Surco district. At the top of Casuarinas lies a huge wall, thirteen kilometres long and three metres high. Its purpose? To keep out the shanty dwellers living on the other side.
Twenty years after the fall of the emblematic Berlin Wall, many such walls still exist around the world. Some mark the border between two countries, others the separation between communities. Be they temporary or permanent, they often reflect the desire of those building the wall to protect themselves against what they perceive as a ‘threat’, as seen with the walls recently raised in Europe to block the passage of refugees.
The wall in Lima is unique in that its purpose is to separate the inhabitants of one and the same country, based on criteria that are primarily economic.
“People pay for their security”
Casuarinas is one of the most chic and most sought-after neighbourhoods of Lima. It is home to a former president of the country, directors of big supermarket chains, the head of the national lottery…
“The people here pay, above all, for their security. They are afraid of being robbed, taken hostage… That’s why there are checks on who comes in and why they agreed to have the wall built. They don’t want their land to be invaded either,” explains Jonathan, at the wheel of his SUV.
When the inhabitants of Casuarinas speak of fear, they are referring, above all, to Pamplona Alta, the neighbourhood on the other side of the wall, part of the San Juan de Miraflores district.
Several shanties, which sprung up with the flow of internal migrations in the Andean country, share the space there. People settle there, build a home for themselves and try to live the “Liman dream”. The lucky ones go to work on the other side of the wall, as domestic workers, home helps or gardeners.
In the alleyways of this “pueblo joven” (“young district”, the politically correct term used to refer to shantytowns in Peru), children run and play in the shadow of the wall, which looms over the small houses.
Forty-five-year-old Maria tells Equal Times: “I saw the wall grow, expand. Now, it is part of everyday life. I don’t find it normal, but there’s nothing we can do about it, just put up with it. There’s insecurity here too,” she says in response to the security argument. “People come from other neighbourhoods to rob us.”
Although the situation may seem surprising from the outside, in most districts of Lima, there is an element of déjà-vu about it. Aside from the other gated communities in the city, the Peruvian capital is dissected by gates, barriers and fences.
Jörg Plöger, a geographer from the London School of Economics and Political Science, studied the phenomenon in 2005. For him, Lima is the “City of Cages”.
In an interview with Equal Times, he explains: “At the time, there were already more than 3000 barriers of various kinds breaking up the public space. The inhabitants of a district privatise the space, to take ownership of it. It is a phenomenon that can be found in most parts of Lima, regardless of social class. There is always somebody poorer than you that you want to keep out. The only difference is the height of the barrier and the presence or not of private security.”
Since then, nothing has changed in the Peruvian capital. It is, if anything, tending to worsen.
According to a study carried out in 2010 by the Peruvian consumer association, ASPEC, 95 per cent of these barriers are illegal.
But the municipalities take no action, out of powerlessness or fear of going against the voters’ wishes. As a result, it is left up to inconvenienced neighbours to take legal action to protect their right to freedom of movement or their access to public parks and playgrounds.
But between 2012 and 2014 alone, the Constitutional Court dismissed their suits in 40 per cent of cases, in the name of security.
The contrast with São Paulo
There is some truth behind the fears. Peru has the highest crime rate in Latin America. But this argument alone is not sufficient to explain such determination to live in confinement.
By comparison, Brazil is the country with the highest homicide rate in the world and the state of São Paulo is the worst affected in the country. But there is a public will to foster inclusion through local initiatives.
Anna Cláudia Rossbach, a member of Cities Alliance and a former member of Brazil’s Ministry of Cities explains: “There is real segregation in São Paulo between the rich and the poor. During the big migrations of the seventies and eighties, the locals used the security argument to take refuge in gated communities. Our political will (editor’s note: under the government of Dilma Rousseff) was to break with this situation, to promote more integrated cities and to put an end to the favelas.”
One of Lima’s problems lies in the lack of public policy, but there is also a lack of awareness among the population about the concept of public space.
That is, in any case, the opinion of Pablo Vega Centeno, an urban sociologist at the Catholic University of Peru. “There are no public policies on urban and regional planning or the public space in Peru. Lima cannot be regarded as a metropolis. It is a mosaic of small residential developments sharing very little.”
“There are more public spaces in the shopping centres than in the street. People have not learned to live as a community, outside their homes or their neighbourhood.”