VENEZUELA

How people survive in the most dangerous city in the world

Venezuelans live in a permanent state of alert in a country where the epidemic of urban violence is out of control

There are everyday scenes in Caracas that never fail to surprise. You are at the wheel, stuck in midday traffic, and suddenly you hear a pounding on the window. A motorcycle rider shatters the glass with the butt of a pistol while demanding: “The phone or I will shoot.” A similar threat is repeated as the aggressor holds a knife to someone’s chest in the middle of the commotion as people exit the metro.

Picture taken in 2014 at the morgue in Caracas, a city with one of the highest crime rates in the world.
Picture taken in 2014 at the morgue in Caracas, a city with one of the highest crime rates in the world.C. G. Rawlins

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You go out for a hamburger on a quiet holiday. You are two blocks away from the nearest police station in a good area. A car with tinted windows passes you and stops at a red light. Another vehicle blocks you from behind. Two armed men get out and point guns at you. In seconds, you are the victim of an express kidnapping, one of the most common and traumatic crimes in the large repertoire of delinquency in Venezuela.

You go to visit a friend. The street where he lives is blocked by a barricade. A camera films your license plate. Another is taping your face while you show your ID. For a moment, you are a suspected criminal. The private guard calls for authorization and then lets you pass. This experience is infuriating the first time. Then you try to understand: “How many things must have happened on this street?”

In seconds you become the victim of an express kidnapping, one of the most common crimes in Venezuela

Few countries can make you feel like an animal as often as this one. Few can make you feel so primitive, defenseless and threatened. Fear is indispensable in Venezuela. You cannot let down your guard for one second. We move around in this jungle like deer hunted by tireless predators. Animal Planet could document the choreography of fear here.

When a Venezuelan leaves his refuge, he automatically enters a state of alert. His body language reflects a nervousness typically seen in the most vulnerable people who know they run the risk of becoming the next victim.

You do not need to know that we are competing with Honduras for the highest rate of murder per capita in the world to feel deep anxiety. It does not matter how much the military congratulates itself for its security operations while wearing bulletproof vests at their press conferences or how much the state-operated media outlets paint this country as peaceful as Finland.

We can follow the bloodstains, draw the footprints of thousands of victims on the asphalt and erect crosses over several kilometers that tell – block by block – the crimes committed in our neighborhoods. The violence is an indelible tattoo.

Experts in the many modus operandi of the criminal underworld, we have the most unwanted and useless experience

This merciless hunt – more than 250,000 violent deaths in the first 15 years of this century according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV) – has turned us into amateur criminologists. Experts in the many modus operandi of the criminal underworld, we have the most unwanted and useless experience.

Venezuelans regard their fellow men with mistrust. We avoid using cellphones on the street and we do not usually stop to give directions to supposedly lost drivers. Constant apprehension is like an amulet. Paranoia is part of our identity. “How can you not be afraid in a country where criminals have attacked police stations with grenades and killed police and soldiers in order to steal their weapons?

We know that a life is worth more than a phone, watch, motorcycle, wallet, car or pair of tennis shoes. Or the money that relatives and friends collect in a few frenzied hours to pay a ransom. And that we must overcome the instinct to resist to avoid ending up in a morgue packed with cadavers.

The violence is so commonplace that if we come out of a robbery or kidnapping unscathed they tell us to thank God that nothing happened. Nothing. We were lucky.

We survive in constant flight in one of the wildest habitats in the world. Venezuela is a minefield, a well of impunity where for every 100 murders, the police only make arrests in eight cases. Security companies offer unusual services: security guards hired by the hour, armor-plated taxis, courses in “self-defense and urban survival.”

The violence is so commonplace that if we come out of a robbery or kidnapping unscathed they tell us to thank God that nothing happened

The risk is so real that middle-class parents make whatever sacrifice they can to get their children out of the country and keep them safe. The epidemic of fear has displaced hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans.

To live in such a violent environment is to become familiar with insomnia and sleeping pills, to wake up in a panic, to dream that you are being chased, to know how to distinguish the sharp blast of gunfire from fireworks. It is the watchfulness of parents when kids go to a party or sleepover organized for safety reasons more than for fun. It is to resign oneself to stop doing things you used to do: going out at night or watching the sunset on a beach that might be as beautiful as it is dangerous. Quick goodbyes, leaving a get-together as a group, praying to whatever God that no robbers come on board the bus you are traveling on, driving as if you were a fugitive, letting out a deep sigh when you enter your home. Venezuela is constant unease and collective grief.

Cristina Marcano is a Venezuelan journalist and co-author of Hugo Chávez sin uniforme: una historia personal.

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