'We want food!' Looting and riots rock Venezuela daily
In May 2016, the numbers on my Venezuela Econ website showed the currency now weakened past 1,100 per dollar on the black market—and the streets were getting more and more hairy. Every few hours, we’d hear reports, from stringers, on social media, of crowds gathering and rioting, sometimes ransacking a market.
Jackson, as well as Rafael and Jhon, and I would speed around the city on motorbikes, looking for a riot or looting, but always arrived a little too late. The four of us wanted to watch a food riot actually take place rather than just see its aftermath, to properly understand the dynamics and reasons for it. Protests also began to kick off again, taking over the same areas around Los Palos Grandes. In between work on the Special Report, I covered them most days with Jackson and his team, and we grew close in doing so. With dramatic scenes in the background, Jhon recorded me speaking to the camera, making Havovi, the Reuters TV producer in New York very happy. I had realized, though, that there was more to understanding Venezuela and its conflict than inhaling tear gas and dodging bullets. Venezuela Econ alone in many ways told a far bigger story than any reporting with protesters could, and hopefully this Special Report would too.
Anger was building up and people began taking the law into their own hands. Stories of lynchings of thieves and other forms of mob justice were everywhere. I received videos every day of gruesome mob killings, often from Jackson, thanks to his police and underground contacts. In one, two men—ladrónes, “thieves,” shout the crowd gathered around them—are kicked in their legs, their ribs, and their heads. The crowd slightly disperse and a man comes in and stamps on their heads with great force, as blood pools on the floor around them. They writhe in agony, barely able to move. Another man then comes in with a pistol and shoots one in the head. Then he places the pistol on the chest of the other, continuing to squirm on the floor, and pulls the trigger. Both lie dead on the ground and the crowd moves on. Videos and stories like these, or others more torturous, sometimes involving gasoline and lighters, would come in every few days. We in the office would even hear, from friends or social media, of revenge attacks in the streets of Los Palos Grandes. I realized then the effect of an economic crisis in such a lawless, weapon-ravaged country. We’d need to take real care.
I started stuffing my pockets with a tourniquet, hemostat, and chest seals every time I left the hotel. It seemed excessive in the tropics of Caracas, but I’d heard too many stories and seen too many videos to pretend deadly crime wasn’t a problem. I allowed Alexandra to always track me on Google Maps, and suggested she do likewise; kidnapping was the biggest risk. I even started taking daily private classes in Krav Maga, an Israeli military-conceived martial art. My hypervigilance would stay with me for many years. Nowhere in this country was genuinely safe, not even the beautiful resorts of Sietemares or Sierra Verde ultimately.
On June 11, 2016, Jackson, Jhon, Rafael, and I were driving around Caracas looking for food riots and looting, and came across a supermarket in the rundown, garbage-strewn Caracas district of El Valle. Here, a few dozen people were pushing up against the doors of the small supermarket which had just received a pasta delivery.
“We're not eating. People are desperate for a looting," fifty-five-year-old mother-of-three Miza Colmenares told me as we jostled to remain standing as the crowd grew and became more agitated. She had spent the night outside the store and had not eaten since the previous morning, when she’d had eggs for breakfast.
The crowd grew and began to chant. “We want food!” they screamed in unison. A handful who had pushed themselves to the front were allowed two bags of pasta each. But they were the lucky ones. One young woman fainted in the heat. Police carried her into the back of their car and I chased them and shot a photo through its windows. The police here were suffering as much as the people waiting for pasta; they weren’t hostile to journalists like those in Ernesto Guevara had been. When I returned to the melee, I saw an elderly lady crying uncontrollably on the sidewalk; I didn’t interrupt to speak with her, though I should have, if only to offer temporary comfort. I spoke to an elderly man who began to tell me that this was all the fault of the opposition and the United States, the line oft-repeated by Maduro, but he was chased away before we could finish speaking. “Behind all this is the president, the rat in his palace, eating riches while we fight to buy pasta,” thirty-one-year-old homemaker Maria Pérez, once a Chavez supporter, told me as the man fled.
I got a sense of just how angry and desperate people had become. The queues outside supermarkets had become part of the backdrop, but in them was surging real anger. People used to simply moan about shortages, now they were fighting. Pérez, Colmenares, and the others with whom I’d spoken weren’t rabble-rousers; they weren’t politically active; they weren’t even bachaqueros. They were just hungry.