Caracas, Venezuela: Andrea Pereira just shakes her head at how carefree she used to be, when she’d strap on her running shoes and jog alone at night in the streets of this gritty capital.
Then came the “express kidnapping” plague — ordinary people snatched off the street, sometimes in broad daylight. Homicides skyrocketed, with Caracas recording nearly 4,000 killings last year, more than any other city in the world. Stories of robberies — and worse, robberies gone horribly, fatally wrong — became standard workplace chatter.
Pereira still jogs at night. But she goes with friends, plenty of friends — as many as 300 of them, a huffing, heaving mass of people who chug in unison along darkened streets three nights a week.
Their club, Runners Venezuela, underscores a central reality here: Despite the mayhem, the people of this city are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to have as normal a life as possible.
“My family, they were really worried because I was, you know, going alone running in the street,” said Pereira, 23. “So I said, ‘Mom, I am going with a big group.’ She said, ‘A big group running at night, here in Caracas? You have to be kidding me’.”
There are many other violent metropolises in Latin America: Rio de Janeiro, with its heavily armed drug gangs ensconced in hillside slums, and Cali in Colombia, where the heirs to the old cocaine cartels battle it out.
But Caracas is far worse, with homicides rising nearly threefold from 1998 to 3,973 homicides last year for a murder rate of 122 per 100,000, said Active Peace, a group that studies crime trends here. That is 32 times the homicide rate in New York, a far larger city.
The problem partly explains why late President Hugo Chavez’s handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, almost lost an April presidential vote that he had been polled to easily win, analysts say. Facing an outcry over crime, among many other deep-seated problems, Maduro has responded by sending troops into the street to bring order to a city populated with heavily armed pro-government militias, drug gangs, common thugs and a corrupt police.
Crime experts say the tactics will have little lasting impact. And nationwide, most Venezuelans fear for their lives.
A Gallup poll released in May showed that residents here are the least likely to feel safe among the inhabitants of 134 nations. Forty per cent said there was drug trafficking in their neighbourhoods, and 10 per cent told Gallup that a relative or close friend had been slain in the previous 12 months.
Jorge Urbina, who runs a small store, and his wife, Eslovania Ramos, a lawyer, compared going out into the streets to playing “Russian roulette”.
“We limit ourselves a lot because we want to keep on living,” Urbina said.
Gilberto Aldana, crime victim and president of the Venezuelan Society of Psychological Health, said his countrymen may be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“People have trouble sleeping, people have difficulty concentrating — all of this a product of anxiety,” said Aldana, who treats people affected by the rampant crime. “The anxiety generates psychophysiological changes, stress, hormonal swings, neurological shifts, even changes to our immunological system.”
Aldana, who has been robbed four times on the street, said it’s enough to make Venezuelans want to shut themselves indoors.
Still, people here face the dangers and adapt.
“We Venezuelans have always been very creative,” said Claudia Sucre, who was once kidnapped but managed to fool her abductors into thinking she wasn’t affluent. “We’ve reinvented things so we can live our lives feeling like we’re in a safe place, so as to not lose our enthusiasm.”
So, young people invited to parties take their pajamas, staying over to sleep once festivities end and avoid the lonely drive home at night, when they could be kidnapped.
Maria Blasini, 47, spoke of how when she leaves the bank, she waves around her deposit slip to ensure that lurking robbers see that her money is in the vault. Many take to the streets with a decoy phones — say, the cheap state-made Vergatarios — to avoid losing a $400 smartphone.
Some drive low-key cars because they fear kidnappers target those in fancier vehicles. Soccer moms now install bulletproof plating in their SUVs.
Lately, those who want to attend a wedding or to enjoy a leisurely dinner hire bodyguards — for just a few hours.
“Yeah, they contract for a night, even for a trip from one place to another,” said Chamel Akl, who runs Akl Elite Corp, which offers the service. “They know that after 10pm, they have to go home. They call us, they want an armoured car or a close-protection vehicle outside or a bodyguard that goes with them, from the restaurant to the house.”
Akl noted that such services aren’t just for the rich — in fact, those who hire for a night tend to be middle class, people who will readily pay $25 an hour for a bodyguard to have peace of mind.
Arturo Hidalgo, 41, an avid runner who lived for years in the United States, knew he had to take precautions when he went running.
So he and a small group of friends began to run together, as darkness fell and a cool breeze blew off the Caribbean. Soon, more joined in. And then the organisers began using Twitter and other social media to advertise their group.
On a recent night, 270 showed up, gathering in a public square in the affluent eastern end of the city, where they got into long lines.
“Those running seven kilometers, come here!” an organiser shouted. “Five kilometers, over there!”
And then they were off, heading straight up a steep incline toward the towering Avila mountain, before turning west past a big hospital, on toward the San Ignacio shopping mall, and then looping back to the square where they began.
“We take care of each other,” Hidalgo said. “We go back and forth. We look for the last one. We don’t leave until the last one is accounted for.”