As we sat down for dinner, the news played loudly on the radio in the next room. Only half listening as I poured a glass of water, my wife asked in a somewhat shocked-yet-numbed tone, “Did you hear that?!”
“No, what was it?” I replied.
She then went on to recap what had happened. “They killed somebody else for a BlackBerry.”
“Who did?” I asked.
“Thugs. Malandros,” she said plainly, although sounding somewhat disgusted.
“Oh. Where?” I inquired a bit further.
“I don’t know. In Caracas,” she clarified.
That was the end of the conversation. We went on to discuss what movie we wanted to see or how my new video project was going or something else of little consequence.
After all, why should we be so shocked or surprised? Things like this happen all the time here. In fact, we had heard of another “BlackBerry murder” less than a month ago at a party, when a friend showed a video of the horrendous act.
WARNING! DISTURBING VIDEO (VIOLENCE)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ev4TJGFVqlM (1min) Uploaded November 22, 2010. 7,832 views as of January 19, 2011.
This video depicts the theft of a BlackBerry in a popular shopping mall, Centro Lido, in the heart of the Caracas business district. There is a hotel by the same name adjacent to and above the mall. I have both shopped in the mall and slept in the hotel.
Conversations and party video-sharing such as these take place on a daily basis in Caracas and throughout Venezuela. Families and friends gather, and inevitably, someone tells a story of a brother, or cousin, or friend-of-a-friend who was robbed or shot and often killed. It is not an exaggeration to say that everybody knows somebody who has been a victim.
The violence is now commonplace. The value of a life has been denigrated to such a degree that murder is often the the quickest and easiest means to a successful robbery. Why bother with victims that might actually try to defend themselves? Better to just kill them right away.
I recently learned, for example, that a “hired hit,” or murder, in Acarigua, Venezuela (population 200,000) costs a mere 400 BsF (approximately 50 USD in black market dollars).
As a foreigner, I often struggle to understand this reality. I regularly wonder what the long-term impact is (mentally and emotionally for individuals; sociologically for all Venezuelans) of living under such threat of violence. There will certainly be ample work for future Venezuelan psychologists and sociologists.
Many speculate on the causes of violence in Venezuela. On the political side, many credit the crude, violent and disrespectful rhetoric of President Hugo Chavez with much of the deterioration of respect and value for the lives of others. While this seems extreme, it appears likely that the tone and content of Chavez’ speech (10-15 hours on national TV and radio each week, for 11 years) has something to do with it.
Others cite the immense build-up of arms in Venezuela. Chavez has purchased, again and again, millions of dollars of weapons (primarily from Russia) throughout his tenure. As there is no credible threat of military attack from another country, many wonder what these weapons are for. It is known that large amounts of these arms have been funneled to militia groups, instilled with the mission of “protecting the revolution” if and when that becomes necessary. These extra-military groups are largely made up of poor Venezuelans and located in the poorest barrios of Caracas and other cities.
It begs the question: What do these militia members do with the weapons while they wait for the revolution to need them? Are guns sitting idle in their closets collecting dust, waiting for the president’s call? Or are they on the street doing other “jobs” in the meantime? Or being sold for this week’s grocery money? These questions are nearly impossible to answer with certainty. However, it seems logical that government-purchased arms are at least a part of the violence problem in Venezuela.
While I may not be able to decipher or predict the long-term societal impact of the violence, I do know what the immediate personal impact is for me. It means that if we leave the movie theatre after 9pm, a mere three blocks from our home, we have to take a taxi. My wife is traumatized, as are most Venezuelans. Although it is likely that nothing would happen in that short walk home, the randomness of the violence–the constant possibility of “the worst” happening–forces you to take utmost precaution regardless of the perceived safety of any given situation.
Regardless, on a recent night out at the movies, I convinced my wife to brave the walk home with me. We exited the movie theatre and began walking down the side of the building toward the street. Quickly. Speed-walking (this is normal as my wife also walks at an incredible pace if she perceives any potential danger).
Continuing down the street away from the theatre, we see one man leaning against a wall at the upcoming street corner. It is a large intersection, but it is late and dark and mostly deserted. No police or bright street lights. We make it half-way to the corner and my wife stops, turns around, shakes her head and says with shaky lips, “I’m sorry. I can’t. I’m sorry.”
We walk the half-block back to the theatre where we can hail a taxi. 25 BsF (3 USD) for three blocks. The lowest fare I have ever paid for a taxi in Caracas. The driver opens the door and we get in. We begin our short journey home, saying a little prayer that the taxi driver is not going to kidnap us.
The fear is constant. Irrational at times? Yes, probably. But real? Definitely.
According to both official and unofficial statistics, some 20,000 people were murdered in Venezuela in each of the last two years. While a simple Google search for “murders in Venezuela” will turn up numerous results, here are two fairly recent suggested articles on the subject:
Venezuela with one of the world’s highest murder rates, according to official data
Another Venezuela robbery and shooting found on YouTube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CvEOAElF9E – Uploaded April 3, 2007. 571,025 views as of January 19, 2011.
This post in no way intends to point to BlackBerry devices as being inherently more susceptible to violent theft. It is a simple fact that BlackBerry dominates the Venezuelan market, is by far the most desirable product and is therefore the primary target. The iPhone, for example, is relatively uncommon in Venezuela.