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In Venezuela, criminals feel the pinch of an economic crisis

Published:Sunday | June 9, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Masked criminals who go by the name "El Negrito," right, and "Dog," and are members of the Crazy Boys gang, hold their guns at their safe-house in the Petare slum of Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, May 13, 2019. Dog said he has no trouble finding ammunition for his guns on the black market, but that the challenge is paying for them 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."

The feared street gangster El Negrito sleeps with a pistol under his pillow and says he’s lost track of his murder count. But despite his hardened demeanour, he’s quick to gripe about how Venezuela’s failing economy is cutting into his profits.

Firing a gun has become a luxury. Bullets are expensive at US$1 each. And with less cash circulating on the street, he says robberies just don’t pay like they used to.

For the 24-year-old, that has all given way to a simple fact: Even for Venezuelan criminals, it’s become harder to get by.

“If you empty your clip, you’re shooting off US$15,” said El Negrito, who spoke to The Associated Press (AP) on condition he be identified only by his street name and photographed wearing a hoodie and face mask to avoid attracting unwelcomed attention. “You lose your pistol or the police take it, and you’re throwing away US$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 per cent over the last three years based on tallies from media clippings and sources at local morgues.

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 per cent drop in homicides over the same three-year period, with 10,598 killings in 2018. Officials also report 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 one million per cent last year, making the local bolivar nearly useless even though ATM machines have been unable to dispense more than a dollar’s worth of scrip 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.

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.

– AP