Callao, Peru – Known to many residents of Peru’s capital, Lima, as an adjacent bedrock of organised crime and violence, Callao, the country’s main maritime port, has long been neglected.
In some of its barrios (districts), residents live in homes made from recycled transportation pallets on unpaved streets that seem a world away from the upper-class neighbourhoods just a few kilometres away in Lima.
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“During the day it’s calm. But at night it’s really ugly,” explains Jose, a local cab driver, as we drive into La Perla Baja, one of Callao’s most infamous barrios. “The delinquents, the gangs, the thieves, the piranitas who steal cell phones, they all come out.”
Aaron Lopez, a native Chaleco, as residents here are called, considers himself lucky.
“Many of my friends and acquaintances from my generation are either in prison or dead,” he says.
“Thank God my father forced me to be educated.”
The 37-year-old artist says he wants to expose those forgotten by society, through his art.
For hundreds of years, he says, artists have been commissioned to paint “good” people in powerful positions.
“What I am doing is flipping the triangle upside down, and bringing those from the bottom to the top. These are pictures of very marginal people often on the fringes of the law.”
His work includes images of sicario (hired hitmen) and drug traffickers, whom he seeks out in the barrios with the help of contacts, before photographing them for the portraits he then paints.
It is a process has its risks.
“These people hate photography because they are being pursued by the law,” Lopez says.
‘They have huge egos’
But when he explains his project to his subjects, showing them pictures of some of his paintings on his mobile phone, many agree to be photographed.
“They have huge egos, ” Lopez says. “All they want is that I paint their image for posterity.”
And, he adds, “Art is different, because its filter legitimises them.”
Lopez is speaking from his studio and gallery in a renovated building that is part of a new art centre – called Callao Monumental – in an historic area of Callao. The complex is just a stone’s throw from the harbour, a major point of departure for Peruvian cocaine exports. In 2015, Peru superseded Colombia as the world’s biggest cocaine producer.
In addition to the post-expressionist portraits of local gangsters, Lopez’s work includes figurative paintings of items used by them – guns, ammunition cartridges, wads of cash, evidence retrieved from crime scenes or found in the street, such as discarded cigarette butts used to smoke cocaine paste.
“I try to see the positive side of the negative, seeing the good in the bad,” he says. “I want to create a consciousness about this because most times people judge and say that these people are bad.”
Snapshots of life behind bars
Other local artists at the new art centre find inspiration in Callao’s streets and its violent past.
Luis Cueva Manchego, who is also known as Lucuma, spent 30 years of his life in prisons around Peru, and uses his experiences in his vivid illustrations.
These include images of the infamous El Fronton prison, located on an island opposite Callao, where members of the armed Maoist group Shining Path were interned during the 1980s and 1990s.
His paintings, in a style that resembles popular Peruvian street advertisements, present social and political snapshots of life behind bars.
In his outdoor studio, Lucuma, hunches over his canvasses, unwilling to answer questions.
Callao Monumental is centred around a former shipping company building that was constructed in 1900, Casa Ronald, and is attracting attention to an area that was slowly crumbling.
The main building – constructed in a style similar to Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele – was once used by drug addicts.
Many of the area’s old balconied houses have now been restored, and decorated by Peru’s leading graffiti artists, while new work opportunities are now available to residents.
Tourists trickle in to visit the art district, but many Limenos (residents of Lima) are still reluctant to come, fearing Callao’s violent reputation. Although security is visible around the centre, cab drivers often refuse to drive to the area.
Last year, Callao registered over 17 percent of its population as unemployed while a state of emergency remained in force until October in an effort to contain violence there.
But a local project called Fugaz has been using art to combat the violence.
Cristina Flores, a local guide, says Fugaz has offered the neighbourhood a better future. Aside from the restoration work offered to locals, the centre also provides free extracurricular activities, including street art classes, dance and sports, to children in the neighbourhood.
“The project has been a light for us. The young people now have things to do instead of hanging out on the street, allowing them to distract their minds,” she says.
Fugaz’s administrators were recently consulted by the government over a national inner city programme, known as “barrio seguro” or safe neighbourhood, that seeks to improve security in areas with high levels of delinquency while encouraging students to stay in school.
But beyond the perimeter of the art district, organised crime groups continue to fight deadly battles for control of the harbour and the associated drug trafficking and contraband, as well as extortion operations.
Violence has risen in Callao since last year, after Gerson Galvez Calle, the “Snail”, Peru’s most wanted drug trafficker, was captured and others now vie for control of his turf.
Galvez – called the new “El Chapo” by the domestic media – was head of the Barrio King criminal organisation, which was allegedly responsible for 140 deaths in Callao in 2015.
Even cultural events in the port town are not immune from the violence. In May, a salsa street festival – which often attracts top Latin performers as Callao has a reputation as the cradle of Peruvian salsa – ended in a gun battle.
A different kind of threat
However, the future of Chaleco artists, such as those working and living at Callao Monumental, may be under threat from a different type of crime.
In April, the Israeli entrepreneur behind the project, Gil Shavit, was detained by Peruvian investigators in connection to corruption and money laundering charges.
The state prosecutor has accused Shavit of receiving 40 percent of a $4m bribe allegedly requested by Callao’s former governor, Felix Moreno, from the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht for the building of a highway linking the area to Lima.
Shavit told prosecutors that he negotiated payments from Odebrecht into offshore accounts on behalf of Moreno. The former governor meanwhile, who has been sentenced to a suspended term of imprisonment on related corruption charges, said he never received bribes from the Brazilian firm.
Odebrecht is at the centre of a scandal involving bribes to secure around 100 projects in 12 countries, generating illegally obtained gains worth $3.3bn.
“I have lived here for 12 years. This country has treated me well, with lots of endearment. I would also like to do something that could give back to this wonderful country and its people,” Shavit said in a promotional film for the art district.
Angie Pelosi, a spokesperson for Fugaz, defended Shavit’s intentions.
“This is a typical case of a people who want to leave behind something to the country and their children, in gratitude for the wonderful moments lived in our country.”
She says Shavit fell in love with the culturally diverse area.
“Never had anyone done anything for us in the barrio before,” says Flores, the guide. “Not a single president paid attention to us. The entrepreneur has provided so much opportunity for our young people.”
Sonia Cunliffe, Fugaz’s director, says Shavit is no longer involved in the administration of the project, which she says continues to operate, encouraging and supporting artists, entrepreneurs and other locals to transform their lives through art.
“All new projects imply a certain degree of uncertainty,” Lopez reflects. “But there is a lot of will to continue energising this project.”
For the social artist – who will be exhibiting at the ARCO art fair next year in Madrid – and others, the centre has been a game changer.
Referring to the characters in his paintings, he says: “What people don’t know is that if these people had the opportunity like myself, they could have gotten out.”