El Negrito is a feared street criminal who sleeps with a gun under his head.
He says he cannot remember how many people he has killed. He also is quick to complain about how Venezuela’s failing economy is hurting his profits.
El Negrito, who is 24, recently spoke with reporters from the Associated Press. He did so on the condition that he would be identified only by his street name.
Even for Venezuelan criminals, he says it has become harder to earn a living. Firing a gun has become more costly. Bullets now cost $1 each. And with less money on the street, he says, robberies just do not pay like they used to.
“If you empty your clip, you’re shooting off $15,” he said.
Drop in killings, kidnapping
This week, President Nicolás Maduro’s administration reported a 39-percent drop in homicides over the last three years and a fall in kidnappings. Researchers at the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence also said murders dropped by 20 percent over the same period.
The reduction in crime has a direct link to Venezuela’s failing economy.
Inflation topped 1 million percent last year, making Venezuelan money, the bolivar, nearly useless. The severe lack of food and medicine has driven over 3.5 million people seeking better jobs to places like Colombia, Peru and Panama.
Although the country is fallen into a state of lawlessness, many Venezuelans who turn to crime find themselves in the same disorder that has led to a larger political and social meltdown.
Earlier this year, opposition leader Juan Guaidó launched a campaign to oust Maduro. The United States and more than 50 other nations have backed him. However, Maduro is still in power with military support.
Fewer attacks, more thefts
Crime in Venezuela has not exactly disappeared. It has simply changed form. Although physical attacks are down, reports of theft are rising. And, drug trafficking and illegal gold mining have become default activities for organized crime.
Venezuelans avoid looking at their cellphones while walking. Many leave gold and silver wedding rings in safe places at home. Others have grown used to checking to see whether they are being followed. When night falls, streets in the capital city of Caracas empty, as most residents follow an unofficial curfew out of fear for their safety.
“Venezuela remains one of the most violent countries in the world,” said Dorothy Kronick, who teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania. She has carried out research in Caracas’ poorest neighborhoods. “It has wartime levels of violence — but no war.”
El Negrito leads a group of for-hire criminals called the Crazy Boys. The group is part of a complex criminal network in Petare, one of Latin America’s largest and most feared slums.
Fast kidnappings are big business. Usually, a victim is taken and held hostage for up to 48 hours while loved ones work to gather as much cash as they can find. Kidnappers focus 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. A deal can turn deadly if demands are not met.
El Negrito passes a silver gun between his hands as he explains how he has struggles to support his wife and young daughter. A Christian holy book is open in the room; a light wind turns its pages.
He says his group now carries out about five kidnappings a year. That is much lower than in years past. He has considered quitting and leaving the country.
'Nobody is doing well'
Robert Briceño is director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence. He said the decrease in homicides is a matter of basic economics: As cash becomes severely limited 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.
One member of the Crazy Boys, who gave only his nickname, Dog, said he has no trouble finding bullets for his guns on the black market. He said the issue 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, holding a 10 bolivar bill that can no longer be used to buy a single cigarette. “Now, this is nothing.”
I’m John Russell.
And I'm Ashley Thompson.
Words in This Story
complain - v. to say something that expresses objection or unhappiness
clip - n. a container that is filled with bullets and that is placed inside a gun so that the bullets can be fired
homicide - n. the act of killing another person
meltdown - n. a very fast collapse or failure
theft - n. the act or crime of stealing
default - n. used to describe something that happens or is done when nothing else has been done or can be done
wedding - n. a marriage ceremony
resident - n. someone who lives in a particular place
for hire - phrasal v. to take a job: to work for wages or a salary
network - n. a group of people or organizations that are closely connected and that work with each other
slum - n. an area of a city where poor people live and the buildings are in bad condition
focus - v. to direct your attention or effort at something specific
rather than - .adv. in place of (something or someone) : instead of (something or someone)
payout - n. a usually large amount of money that is given to someone
ransom - n. money that is paid in order to free someone who has been captured or kidnapped
prey - v. to hurt, cheat, or steal from (someone)
nickname - n. a name (such as “Moose” or “Lady Bird”) that is different from your real name but is what your family, friends, etc., call you when they are talking to you or about you
black market - n. a system through which things are bought and sold illegally
pistol - n. small gun made to be aimed and fired with one hand