What’s more, they note with frustration, they’re getting more discriminating about when to use their guns because they can’t afford to run out and restock $1 bullets like they once did.
“If you empty your clip, you’re shooting off $15,” said El Negrito, a notorious street gangster who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition he be identified only by his street name and photographed wearing a hoodie and face mask to avoid attracting unwelcome attention. “You lose your pistol or the police take it and you’re throwing away $800.”
In something of an unexpected silver lining to the country’s all-consuming economic crunch, experts say armed assaults and killings are plummeting in one of the world’s most violent nations. At the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a Caracas-based nonprofit group, researchers estimate homicides have plunged up to 20% over the last three years based on tallies from media clippings and sources at local morgues.
A masked gangster who goes by the nickname "El Negrito" poses for a portrait with his gun inside his gang’s safe-house in the Petare slum of Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, May 13, 2019. The 24-year-old, who says he’s lost track of his murder count, is quick to gripe about how Venezuela’s failing economy is cutting into his profits and has considered leaving the trade in Venezuela and emigrating. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Officials of President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist administration have drawn criticism for not releasing robust crime statistics, but the government on Tuesday gave the AP figures showing a 39 percent drop in homicides over the same three-year period, with 10,598 killings in 2018. Officials also reported a fall in kidnappings.
The decline has a direct link to the economic tailspin that has helped spark a political battle for control of the once-wealthy oil nation.
Soaring inflation topped 1 million percent last year, making the local bolivar nearly useless even though ATM machines have been unable to dispense more than a dollar’s worth anyway. The severe scarcity of food and medicine has driven some 3.7 million to seek better prospects in places like Colombia, Panama and Peru — the majority of them young males from whom gangs recruit. And workdays are frequently curtailed due to nationwide strikes.
In this May 8, 2019 photo, a woman counts 5,000 Bolivars, almost one dollar, to buy a bag of bananas in the Petare area of Caracas, Venezuela. After 16 years of currency controls, the government is allowing its Bolivar to be exchanged on the floating market starting Monday, May 13, starting at 5,200 Bolivars per U.S. dollar. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
The average Venezuelan earns just $6.50 a month – a sea change from when the country had one of Latin America’s strongest economies, and Venezuelans took frequent trips to the U.S. each year, spending lavishly.
The Council on Foreign Relations reports that Venezuela has missed billions of dollars in payments since defaulting in late 2017. Food, medical supplies and other basic products are scarce. In 2017, CFR noted, Venezuelans dropped about 24 lbs. on average.
But as the country descends into a state of lawlessness, many Venezuelans who turn to crime find themselves subject to the same chaos that has led to a broader political and social meltdown.
Critics blame 20 years of the socialist revolution launched by the late President Hugo Chávez, who expropriated once-thriving businesses that today produce a fraction of their potential under government management.
Earlier this year, opposition leader Juan Guaidó launched a bold campaign with the support of the U.S. and more than 50 nations to oust Maduro, who succeeded Chávez. However, Guaidó has yet to make good on his promises to restore democracy, spark a robust economy and make the streets safer.
As a result of the chaos, crime has not so much disappeared as simply morphed in form. While assaults are down, reports of theft and pilfering of everything from copper telephone wires to livestock are surging. Meanwhile, drug trafficking and illegal gold mining have become default activities for organized crime.
When night falls, streets in Caracas clear as most residents abide by an undeclared curfew out of fear for their safety. Despite the significant drop in killings, Venezuelans tend not to gaze at their cellphones in the streets. Many leave gold and silver wedding rings in secure places at home, while others have grown accustomed to checking whether they are being followed.
“Venezuela remains one of the most violent countries in the world,” said Dorothy Kronick, who teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania and has carried out extensive research in Caracas’ slums. “It has wartime levels of violence — but no war.”
El Negrito leads for-hire hoodlums called the Crazy Boys, a band that forms part of an intricate criminal network in Petare, one of Latin America’s largest and most feared slums. The gangster, who agreed to an interview with two associates at their hillside hideout in Caracas, said his group now carries out roughly five kidnappings a year, down considerably from years past.
Such express abductions are big business. Typically, a victim is nabbed and held hostage for up to 48 hours while loved ones scramble to gather as much cash as they can find, with kidnappers focused on speed and a quick return rather than on the size of the payout.
El Negrito said the ransom they set depends on what a victim’s car costs, and a deal can turn deadly if demands aren’t met.
But like many of his associates, he has considered leaving the trade in Venezuela and emigrating. Neighbors say the life expectancy for Petare’s street thugs is about 25 years.
He said some people have quit the world of crime and sought more honest work abroad, fearing stiff penalties in other countries where laws are more enforced.
One associate of the Crazy Boys, who gave only his nickname, Dog, said he has no trouble finding ammunition for his guns on the black market. He said the challenge is paying for it in a country where the average person earns $6.50 a month.
“A pistol used to cost one of these bills,” he said, crumbling up a 10 bolivar bill that can no longer be used to buy a single cigarette. “Now, this is nothing.”
Robert Briceño, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, said the decline in homicides is a matter of basic economics: As cash becomes scarce in Venezuela, there is less to steal.
“These days, nobody is doing well — not honest citizens who produce wealth or the criminals who prey on them,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.