Do you really know who your neighbors are?
Every one of us has faced this question, out of curiosity, an indiscreet glance, or an unfounded fear.
Last weekend’s rampage in a Hialeah apartment complex, perpetrated by a lonely, unstable, silent tenant, underscores the worst of those fears: Your neighbor might unsheathe a weapon and randomly attack you and your neighbors.
Unlike the good-neighbor tradition in some parts of Latin America — and in many of our own South Florida neighborhoods — we often times don’t know who lives in the house next door, upstairs or on the other side of the wall, which is generally extremely thin. We see them and greet them everyday, though at times the relationship is so formal that we can’t even hear the common courtesy of a “good morning.”
There are neighbors who give the impression of being particularly weird, either because of their bizarre personalities or the graceless appearance of their guests. Others are too cheeky and never stop asking for favors. And there are the insensitive ones or jerks who don’t lower the volume of the music, contaminate common areas with their cigarette smoke, whose dogs never stop barking, who fight among themselves constantly or share their intimate moments boisterously regardless of the hour.
Nonetheless, as has been the case in recent shootings across America, the murderer ends up being a quiet, isolated, affable person who would not arouse suspicions.
The personality of Pedro Vargas, the man behind the Hialeah shooting that killed six neighbors, was shrouded in a halo of mystery. Even his relatives perceived him as a ghost of sorts, hard to read or understand. In the photo released by the Hialeah Police Department his gaze seems lost and intense.
My newsroom colleagues have been piecing together the zigzag puzzle of the tragedy that shocked the community in this era of school shootings and marathon bombings, while stoking a river of compassion toward the innocent victims and their afflicted families.
After talking to residents and police sources and obtaining court records, they have compiled the complex character of a man without a criminal record, obsessed by his body image and passionate about the freedom of Cuba.
Reserved, introverted, antisocial, Vargas was uncommunicative.
The 42-year-old gunman was the kind of neighbor who didn’t show the courtesy of saying “good morning” when entering the elevator, according to a resident of the complex at 1485 W. 46th St.
An El Nuevo Herald reporter who was able to enter the one-room bedroom apartment where the man lived with his elderly mother, saw a machete, dozens of bootlegged DVDs and pirated copies of popular television shows like Dexter — a thriller about a serial killer in Miami! — as well as plenty of weightlifting equipment. But none of these add up to a portrait of a killer.
Though he kept things to himself, a man who worked out at his gym said Vargas had confided to him his frustrations in relationships with women. He was also disgruntled with his baldness caused by the steroids he used to artificially enhance his muscles. He had anger problems and his vehicle of escape was exercising. These are all signs of low self-esteem. He was forced to resign from a job at Miami Dade College for logging on to inappropriate websites offering advice on how to make bombs and pick up women.
Undoubtedly, Vargas was the neighbor who makes everyone tremble.
The fear of the neighbors lies dormant, particularly because people living in a residential complex or neighborhood do not know who might be a psychopath. Were we not in a state of ignorance, we would focus our attention and take protective measures against that person. However, people who suffer from personality disorders generally exhibit a serene behavior, which makes them difficult to identify.
Thus, relatives, friends and neighbors of these murderers with no history of violence frequently react to the events with incredulity. Later they say, “He was very friendly,” or “he was very quiet.”
How sad that in parts of South Florida we have to live like this, feeling vulnerable knowing that our lives are in danger due to the proliferation of weapons in the hands of lunatics who perhaps live down the hall from you.
That is why it is worthwhile to be a good neighbor, smile in the elevator and offer a helping hand. Only the tenet of loving your neighbor as yourself can serve as our shield — and, unfortunately, sometimes not even that.