Is Venezuela Dangerous?
Even amongst experienced travellers of South America, who have toured the favela’s of Rio, trekked the guerrilla heartlands of Colombia and tangoed amidst the pick pocket playground of Buenos Aires, Venezuela still carries a reputation as an especially lawless & dangerous place. Whenever I voiced my intentions to visit, the reaction of my fellow travellers was always the same, a deep, disapproving sucking in off air through teeth, “ooohhh, I’ve heard its dicey/ropey/sketchy”. Seriously, from the reaction you would think I had just announced my plans to travel to Syria.
So why is this? Well for one the capital city Caracas in particular does have some unsettling homicide statistics and many of these cases remain unsolved (so if you’ve ever wanted to murder somebody and get away with it then maybe your next holiday should be to Caracas; brings a whole new meaning to the concept of extreme holidaying doesn’t it?) Further, recent years have seen intermittent demonstrations & rioting (both pro and anti-government) which have sometimes turned violent and ended in a number of deaths.
So how bad was it?
Well one of the first things I noticed upon arrival (other than the queues, the clapped out American cars and the bounty of stunning women) was the absence of any police presence in the cities. In Merida for example I lived opposite an army barracks situated right in the city centre and every intercity bus I took was boarded by the National Guard checking identity papers. Yet there were no actual police officers on the beat anywhere, it seemed that the state was more concerned with managing civil uprisings than it was with protecting its citizens from crime. When I did see the police they were usually kitted for parts in the Robocop reboot either cruising on patrol bikes brandishing big f***ing shotgun’s (talk about riding shotgun!!!) and in Caracas I saw a real life Police tank advancing up the street towards the Barrio. This is in sharp contrast to neighbouring Colombia (once also considered lawless, dangerous and unvisitable) where Police patrol every other corner (this is not always a good thing considering their sometime tendency to arbitrarily levy “Gringo tax’s”…). In an effort to reduce street robberies, a spate of which have been committed by thieves on motorbikes, some cities have banned the use of motorcycles after dark yet the ban is openly flaunted because there are just no Police on the ground actually enforcing it.
In Merida (a student city of only modest size and largely considered “safe”) I encountered 2 people who had been shot in the head at close range and survived to tell the tale. Perhaps this was because a Caraqueno surgeon I met was absolutely right, Venezuelan trauma surgeons are now the most experienced and therefore best in the world and stitching up multiple stab and gunshot wounds is all in a nights work for them. Most people I spoke to, natives and travellers alike, recounted experiences of being robbed, mugged or of seeing the aftermath of a fatal shooting at 3pm outside a Caracas metro station. One Meridian acquaintance proudly gloated over a Polar Ice beer that he had never being robbed, a week after our discussion his bus was boarded by a crook with a handgun who took his and every other passengers mobile phones. Another week later he passed his assailant in the street who acknowledged him with a casual nod of the head!
Caracas by day remains amongst my favourite cities with its perfect climate, juxtaposition of architecture and educated population. Yet after dark it is a ghost town, people are afraid to walk the streets, taxi’s seldom stop for hailers and revellers are encouraged not to stray outside of the bar/club grounds. It was in Caracas that over cocktails at the 360 lounge (a swanky open air restaurant towering 20 storeys over the city, the kind of place which I would be refused admittance to here) that I discussed this with Pedro, an actor and resident of Caracas for 20 years. “This is one moment, a temporary, collective madness that has consumed the people but which shall nonetheless pass” (or words to that effect, I have had to paraphrase liberally as we were actually communicating in a turgid, bastard, Spanglish hybrid). Time and again I heard the theory that ordinary “decent” people were tempted by the casual bit of crime out of sheer frustration with the economic situation, the shortages and of course the fact that hardened, “real” criminals were seemingly going unpunished.
Traditionally in Venezuela, firearms were readily available as the natural, DIY antidote to crime problems and despite reforms to gun laws, some citizens have been reluctant to surrender their weapons so a lot of guns are still in circulation. The majority of shops and bars and other (to me) innocuous public places sport “No Firearms!” signs casually hung up next to the “No Smoking” ones suggesting that this is still a very real everyday issue. “All the rich people carry guns. They have to, to protect themselves” one friend told me in San Cristobal.
So what about me? Well I did leave Venezuela without my Samsung Galaxy after a 2am knifepoint hold-up (after the initial shock had subsided we chased the bandits into the Barrio and our daring/foolish enterprise was rewarded by having my wallet thrown back 500 Bolivars lighter but thankfully with my cards, ID and emergency Viagra still intact). Another time a fellow traveller was mugged by pure opportunists in front of me, I tried to intervene but we were just outnumbered by a group who had until that point seemed to be unarmed, unhoodied, ordinary, revellers on a night on the tiles.
Freeborn’s Final Thought
I am not a criminologist and I am not going to compare Latin American crime stats, I will only speak from my own experience. The only guns I saw were in the hands of the Police (or the army) and the demonstrations I saw were small and peaceful. Whilst I did find Venezuela somehow more edgy than Colombia I also had several close calls there too. Furthermore in Colombia the line between Police and Thieves was often blurred by the latter wearing the uniform of the former. The fact is that petty crime is a reality of travel in Latin America and despite the risks, despite the “collective madness”, I would return to Venezuela tomorrow because for every barrio bandit wanting to steal my wallet I found countless decent Venezuelans out only to steal my heart with their warmth, hospitality & readiness to rumba.
(Originally published on WWW.Thebrokebackper.com)