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[Phil Didion FOR THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER]

Aftermath

Aftermath, Episode 4: ‘I don’t think violence will ever be away from my life’

Javier Arango remembers seeing his first dead body at the age of 4. Born in conflict-ravaged Colombia, he moved to Oakland for refuge — only to be paralyzed by a bullet.

Aftermath is a collaboration between The Trace and the Cincinnati Enquirer.

From inside Javier Arango’s ground-level apartment in North Oakland, California, the muffled roar of traffic from the nearby freeway is constant. The Holy Family stands watch over him, his stepmother, and his stepsister from a carving on the wall. Two matching floral couches add a homey touch.

But for Javier, home is a bunker.

“Every car that passes in front of my house, I have to look at it and see who is driving and who is the passenger and make sure they’re not looking at me,” he says. 

Wariness came early to Javier, when he was a child growing up in Nutibara, Colombia, a tiny mountain town a few hours from Medellín. He has a memory of being about 4 years old, selling homemade coconut sweets on the street to support his family, and watching as dead farmers were unloaded from a truck. He learned from his mother they’d been shot by guerrillas, leftist rebels who’d been trying to overthrow the Colombian government since the 1960s. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, abducted, or displaced during the decades-long armed conflict.

To evade the bloodshed, Javier’s dad traveled to the United States and found a job cleaning boats in California’s Bay Area. A few years later he brought Javier over, too. 

But instead of escaping violence, Javier found himself surrounded by it. He’d unknowingly traded guerrillas for gangs. As he adjusted to Oakland’s colder weather and different food, he also learned which colors not to wear and which of his middle school classmates were gangbanging. 

When he was 17, four years after coming to America, he was hanging out with his friends in a parked truck when two vehicles sidled up and the passengers opened fire, their bullets shattering the car windows. 

Javier felt a white-hot pain slicing through his body. He felt like he’d been cut in half. He had a fleeting thought of his father. I’m gonna die, he thought. My dad is going to be really upset. He warned me so much about this shit. 

Javier tried to grab his legs, but found he couldn’t balance. There was no chance to figure out why — he was choking on his own blood, and a bright light was beckoning. He wanted only to sleep. Then the first responders arrived.

The bullet had punctured Javier’s lung and hit his spine, paralyzing him. At the rehabilitation center, he learned he wouldn’t walk again. 

“I don’t want to live like this,” he recalls thinking. “I want to throw myself down and end it.” 

He remembers taking the elevator to the hospital’s fifth floor and trying to reach the balcony to do just that, but the door was locked.

Altogether, there are likely more than one million Americans living with gunshot injuries today, but it’s unclear how many survivors have spinal cord injuries. Estimates from the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center indicate there are roughly 39,700 people living in the United States today with spinal cord injuries from acts of violence. 

Spinal cord injuries, which often result in some level of paralysis and can cause complications like chronic pain, pressure sores, infections, and depression, are among the most devastating outcomes of nonfatal gunshot wounds. 

This kind of interpersonal violence concentrates in low-income urban pockets, and many gunshot victims survive their wounds only to return to the same neighborhoods where they were shot. 

After months at the rehab center — where, like a child, he relearned how to dress, go to the bathroom, keep a good diet, even how to breathe with a damaged lung — Javier returned to East Oakland. His stepmother supported him, but he also found a new family in the Border Brothers, a gang that offered him protection and the promise of revenge for his shooting. 

For the next several years Javier kept a pistol in the back of his wheelchair. He obtained a bulletproof vest, dropped out of high school, and sold drugs and guns. He says he was shot at multiple times, grazed once. And as a gang leader, he returned fire. While he is not specific about whether he hurt or killed anyone, he says he fired shots and heard people scream.

Several of his close friends were killed. Javier came away from each death, he says, with another layer of trauma and another memorial T-shirt to add to his closet. 

At one of those funerals, Javier watched his friend’s mother try to throw herself into the grave with the casket. “I realized in that moment that I had to quit gangbanging,” he says. “I don’t never want to see my mother crying on top of my grave. So I’m going to quit this shit right here, right now.”

Javier says he handed his gun to a local pastor and started to look for help. Eventually he met Ricardo Peña, a clinical case manager who saw Javier’s trauma as an open wound, but also saw his gift of magnetism. 

“He had to take his capacity to lead guys into the battlefield,” says Peña, “and learn to lead them out of the battlefield.”

Peña helped him get a job supporting young people affected by violence at Catholic Charities of the East Bay, a social services nonprofit. Javier now spends weekdays in local schools, helping kids work through arguments and process their stressful experiences. 

Javier says he has no interest in returning to his gang, but he still needs to be on guard. He speaks of death as though it stalks him. He half-expects to be shot at by old enemies. 

With the recent spate of school shootings, his work with students feels less safe. “I don’t think violence will ever be away from my life,” he says. When he visits his mom in Colombia, he tells her, “Look, if something happens to me, don’t cry too much.”

He thinks it’s a miracle he made it to 29. Raised Roman Catholic, his faith has grown stronger since getting shot. “I don’t rock with a gun anymore,” he says. “What I do now is I pray when I leave the house, and I give thanks when I come back in.” 

And once he comes in, he keeps an eye on the street.