ONCE dubbed the Paris of South America, the capital of Venezuela has been given the unenviable title of the world’s most dangerous city with over 3,000 murders last year alone.
Life in Caracas is now so violent that, in order to survive, residents have created an “architecture of fear”, building walls and barbed wire fences higher and higher around their properties.
Other ways they try to maintain a normal life amid the carjackings, robberies, kidnappings and brutal murders is by using social media to form running groups so they can go jogging in a crowd or by going to the theatre and galleries during the day to see exhibitions and plays.
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For the 450th anniversary of the city in July, it is hoped that marathons, flash mobs and major art exhibitions can be organised so that all citizens, from the very poor to the mega rich, can enjoy the usual pleasures of a city without worrying that they or their loved ones will be the victims of the latest crime.
For the sceptics this is just wallpapering over a crisis exacerbated by food shortages and horrendous inflation which have led aid groups to warn of an imminent humanitarian emergency.
IS THERE NO SECURITY?
MEANWHILE members of the Operation Liberation and Protection group set up by the government to crack down on gang crime are themselves accused of human right abuses while the courts and police are overwhelmed by hundreds of new cases every month.
As a result, thugs often walk free and the military and police are said to be involved in extortion, robbery and even kidnapping.
Caracas used to have a thriving nightlife but few people other than the malandros (thugs) are brave enough to venture out at night onto the streets. Public lighting has greatly deteriorated over the years so night time provides perfect cover for those with criminal intent.
“The light situation has been dramatic for all of Caracas,” said architect Maria Isabel Espinosa Marturet. “Both in the richer areas and in the slums, people use the lights in their homes to illuminate the street.”
Even if they make it home unscathed before nightfall, the poor have to risk leaving early next day to get to work and many of the assaults and robberies take place at dawn.
WHY IS IT SO BAD?
DEATH and guns are always guaranteed on the streets of Caracas although people struggle to find basic supplies. Food and medical shortages have led to an extortionate black market and extreme poverty has tempted many into a life of crime.
A city that was once buoyed by a strong oil sector and foreign investment has suffered greatly from the collapse in oil prices although, as usual, the poor are hit the hardest.
The shortage of food supplies means that coffee, milk and sugar are so expensive that families of murder victims can no longer even afford the most basic of wakes after a funeral.
Many use up their life savings just to pay for the burial which costs £200 at a public cemetery. Set against the monthly minimum wage of £12, the £175 average cost of a wake as well as a burial is out of the question.
Burials at the cheapest cemeteries are often delayed because of demand, adding to the expense. Others at private cemeteries can be delayed because the funeral companies struggle to find enough staff. Many people have opted to work in the informal economy rather than for a fixed wage which is quickly outstripped by inflation.
HOW DO THEY MANAGE?
LIFE, of sorts, does go on as people do their utmost to survive.
In poor areas, attempts are made to turn homes into fortresses with multiple locks on doors and shards of glass embedded in concrete. Fences topped by ugly barbed wire surround the buildings, making the city look like a prison. Balconies and windows of even the top flats of high rise buildings are festooned with metal bars.
Many keep dogs and buy guns for protection while the rich live in gated communities, some with computer controlled entrances that can read visitors’ ID numbers. Others invest in private security and have two way radios so they can call the police for help. When the wealthy leave their barricaded homes they drive around in tank-type SUVs. Even they rarely go out at night to clubs or bars preferring instead to gather in friends’ houses where they sleep over rather than brave the unlit streets.
“Crime has had a major impact in terms of people’s willingness to go out, see friends – ordinary social interactions which would take place outside,” said Phil Gunson of the International Crisis Group. “Nightlife is taking place in people’s homes, because that’s the only way people feel safe.”
If they do drive at night, it is in convoys that do not stop at red lights where carjackings are common.
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
VENEZUELA is crippled by debt payments so it is hard to see what can be done to solve the problem. With no change imminent robbing, kidnapping, and extortion still seem the best career options for many in a city starting to lose hope. The latest reports show that the country’s central bank is down to its last £8.5 billion in foreign reserves. At the same time, Venezuela needs to fund £5.8 billion in debt payments this year – a sum it can only meet if oil prices rise far higher than the boosts caused by OPEC’s output reduction agreement.
Current reserves are 66 per cent lower than levels in 2011, when the government held £24 billion in foreign currencies. At the same time, inflation is expected to rise 1,660 per cent this year and 2,880 per cent in 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The oil price now stands at half of what it was in 2014 a huge problem for a country with more oil reserves than any other nation on the planet.