There were maybe a hundred of us: med students wearing our white lab coats, carrying signs demanding democracy and freedom, intermittently blocking traffic in front of our Universidad de los Andes med school. Within ten minutes, the motorcycles turned up, a whole bunch of them. These were not the usual police bikes that dissolved university riots when they got ugly.

This all happened a couple of years ago — on February 11th, 2014, to be exact — but I remember it like it was ten minutes ago.

Tupamaros, ¡corran!- someone yelled as the pro-government armed colectivos stormed into the school waving red flags, shooting in the air in defense of the revolution. We all knew Tupas  meant bad news. They are the closest thing to a Boves’ Lancero you will ever see, just on Beras instead of horses.

Mayhem ensued. Some people hid in the classrooms, others like me and a freshman from San Cristobal ran to the parking lot and stayed behind a patch of tall grass while we saw how four of these thugs left their chinese bikes to beat a running student to the ground.

When they got distracted, we ran off through a hole in a fence. As we ran, a random samaritan offered to let us hide in his house. He prepared a guayoyito and my phone started ringing. Most part of my classmates were still trapped, Tupamaros were shooting at the doors, Viva Chávez!- They screamed, while threatening to kill everyone.

This all happened a couple of years ago — on February 11th, 2014, to be exact — but I remember it like it was ten minutes ago. ULA had just lifted a six month-long strike to demand higher salaries for its workers when sudden reports of small riots all over the country swept through whatsapp chats and twitter feeds.

It’s not that we hadn’t known chavismo was trouble: we had. It’s that none of us was expecting something quite so inescapable.

Until that day, I’d always dismissed talk of armed chavista gangs as so much conspiranoiac hot air: the plot to some Whatsapp cadena your aunt from El Cafetal lifted straight out of a Reinaldo Profeta post. But that day, I saw it happen. And I won’t lie, it was surprising.

It’s not that we hadn’t known chavismo was trouble: we had. It’s that none of us was expecting something quite so inescapable. Some of us even  thought (naïvely) that we could surf it out, somehow sidestepping the major cogeculo. We were like that lawyer from Jurassic Park, hiding in a wooden outhouse as a freakin’ T-Rex destroyed the whole place.

But the revolution has made a real effort to bring those skeptical about its reach into its grip. No matter how many bullets, beaten students, burnt buildings or even destroyed bathrooms it takes, you won’t be left alone.

We merideños were particularly automojoneados: a good university, parks, clean streets, stunning nature, european tourists and a fairly lower crime index than the rest of the country had earned us a good reputation. Especially in our own heads.

Man, you could even buy a Happy Meal in McDonald’s  and get a decent toy back then.

The Revolution had touched Mérida of course, but lightly. Buying food hadn’t been the same in years: the city’s iconic CADA supermarkets were replaced by government-owned Bicentenarios in 2010, towers of cookies and sodas piled on every hallway trying to hide the absence of more basic products such as whole milk, cooking oil or Harina PAN. Walking at night downtown was dangerous, but if were you brave enough, you could have arepas at midnight in the Plaza Bolivar; or, as a med school freshman, hang around nightclubs on Friday nights after taking an especially hard anatomy test. From time to time, a friend would tell you how some malandrito stole his phone while riding a bus home, but it was still surprising. Man, you could even buy a Happy Meal in McDonald’s  and get a decent toy back then.

Socialism was there, and you could feel it, but it wasn’t the monster that now constantly stalks everyone. The government even did a couple good things around here: a brand new Metropolitan Stadium, a not-so-useful Trolebus or the long postponed, recently re-inaugurated Mukumbarí cablecar at least beat the endless lists of unfulfilled promises most of the rest of the country got.

Mérida is the best place to live in Venezuela, because it’s not like Venezuela at all, I used to say back when I thought the Sierra Nevada could somehow keep the chaos at bay.

Even the Universidad de los Andes (ULA) seemed to be pulling through relatively well: professors were not rich, or even well-paid; but they could afford a range of basic needs, from food to a yearly vacation. I could buy the books I needed to study, when my schedule was tighter than usual I had lunch at any restaurant near our med school and if budget was running low the university’s free dining halls were always there to feed you.

This apparent “normality” created in some of us a hard-to-get-rid-of mojón mental in which all the homicides, kidnappings and Dakazos seemed distant. Mérida is the best place to live in Venezuela, because it’s not like Venezuela at all, I used to say back when I thought the Sierra Nevada could somehow keep the chaos at bay.

Mariano Picón Salas once said that Mérida is a university with a city inside, and unlike me, he couldn’t be more right. Mérida and ULA are tightly wound up with one another, the problems of one invariably affecting the other. So when ULA went to hell that February morning, reality hit me in the face: Shit had just gotten real. My mojón had just been crushed by el legado.

The tupas eventually left, and so did the guarimbas that flourished all over the city like grass in the weeks that followed. But Mérida changed in 2014. That year the revolution sent a clear message that although weaker, still hovers around today: ask for a change in the streets if you want, but remember who’s got the guns.

As oil prices hit the ground, reality punched us even harder: inflation finally showed the teeth that government subsidies had tried to hide for years, shortages now didn’t just hit a few items but pretty much everything, and supermarkets started looking like dancefloors as empty shelves were put away.  Shocking lines  grew outside every grocery store, random  bachaqueros suddenly knocked at my door offering me some ridiculously overpriced shampoo, my mom got mugged two times in front of our house in the middle of the day; and even having a meal in a restaurant suddenly was a sifrino privilege.

Apparently Ché was right when he said that revolution turns the extraordinary into everyday stuff.

Today the decay is pervasive, penetrating: the once shocking lines have blended with the mountains as part of the landscape and bachaqueros became the only way to get actual food if you can’t afford wasting your day loafing outside a supermarket. Inflation swallowed the university’s budget and, along with it, the free dining halls on which up to a third of ULA’s students depend. They no longer demand democracy or freedom, just food.  Apparently Ché was right when he said that revolution turns the extraordinary into everyday stuff.

Mérida’s Venezuelization is in starkest display at the Hospital Universitario de los Andes (HULA): patients with perfectly curable conditions get complications while waiting months for treatment in overcrowded rooms. Leaving the hospital means missing their chance to get a surgery since only half of the hospital’s fourteen Operating Rooms are, well, operating. Collapsing roofs, underfed kids, armed robberies in the hallways, the f*ing itinerant Mercal now running inside the place…you get the picture. I mean, what could be wrong with selling poorly-refrigerated chicken in a hospital, right?

Shortages have also hit hard. From asthma medication to gloves, think about anything you might need if you get sick, you won’t find it at any public health center. Even the oncology service or the Intensive Care Unit, once considered the shiny tacitas de plata of HULA are now facing extreme difficulties to stay in operation.  You start to suspect things are pretty bad when a group of physicians go on a hunger strike asking for basic supplies to work with. When a bachaquero becomes the only way you have to resupply an emergency room with syringes or sutures, you start to grasp the depth of the shit we’re in.

Venezuela has gone on a full socialist holiday and Mérida has an all-inclusive.

Colectivos have become the lawless enforcers of the Revolución Bonita and they want everyone to know it, especially us students.

As the crisis radicalizes so does the government’s reaction: Colectivos came back to our med school this year, but this time I was lucky enough to leave the place a few hours before the riots started. The voice notes and images from my friends made it look like 2014 all over again: A protest in the street followed by the arrival of the chavista lancers. But this time while everyone hid, Tupas also siphoned fuel off a car’s gas tank, sprayed it over another nearby car, the 50 year-old auditorio 108 and then burned it all to the ground.

We tried to patch up the damage — some potazos and cleaning sessions were held — but a few weeks later Tupas struck again, this time mugging, beating and stripping naked a group of seminarians who dared to walk past by them during one of their so called “peaceful demonstrations”. The image of these guys running naked through the streets perfectly captures this regime’s true face.

Colectivos have become the lawless enforcers of the Revolución Bonita and they want everyone to know it, especially us students.

We merideños are still reeling from quite a coñazo. Or maybe it was a wakeup call to those who, like me, felt safe inside our wooden outhouses. Whether you are in Caracas or in Chururú, there’s no safe place in this tropical dystopia.

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  1. Back in 2002 many of us were already commenting on the Cuban presence in Venezuela, both G2 and military. I remember being dismissed for years when I’d mention the Cuban tactics of Chavismo. Was I able to see it coming because I live outside Venezuela? I don’t know. But it worries me that it took so many Venezuelans such a long time to realize that in fact, yes, Venezuela is Cuba.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree, a controlled record of gun owners is much better than full ban on guns, especially on such a crime ridden country, while also giving the people that are buying said guns propper training and discipline. By having a full ban and making the millitary the de-facto owner of all guns, while also being corrupt and an enabler of thugs, you’re just making the olyl way to defend yourself and your family an illegal one. The only other way is to either just hand everything and hope the burglars/rapists/murderers don’t hurt you too much or sit tight and hope that the cops decide, by some twist of fate, to work. Never have i made a call where i live or anywhere else did they even show up, not 10, 15 or even 30 mins, and i don’t even live in a priviliged zone or a barrio, mainly middle class homes near a huge zone of state given houses.

    I know all the problems of writing legislature on the matter and then giving what’s essentially a broken society the right to bear arms or even just a hold your ground kind of law could give all sort of problems given our nature. But it would be controlled, it would have a registry, you would know who’s gun shot who, and it may sound like i’m drowning in cinnycism but the reality is that if you want someone killed it’s extremely easy to do so, to justify anyone buying a gun and being registered as a gun owner whose liable for any shots fired from said gun. I’m not even in any shaddy bussines or know anyone of the sorts but maybe 4-5 calls and i’d have a guy, someone who’s in the “business” and know all the in’s and out’s. Someone far away from any of the things that refrain normal folk from using violence in such a way. And by having an all ban on guns the only people with guns are those thugs and the joke that is our army and police

    • Zzzzzzzz…

      This debate already made half the gringo political web unspeakably dull/borderline unreadable. Do you really need to impose it on a radically heterogenous setting as well?

      ESTA mierda sí es imperialismo…

      • I’ts a completely different problem than the one in the us, and a completely different discussion that i’ve never seen anyone on any political spectrum talk about, guess having the monopoly on violence is a concern all parties have, saying something shouldn’t be discussed in a blog about Venezuela by mostly Venezuelans abroad or people affected by the country because of the political context of Usa seems baffling to me.

        La heterogeneidad de una poblacion no deberia disminuir su capacidad de hablar de problemas complicados simplemente porque les parezcan dificiles de digerir. In a more normal society i’d probably be far away from the Pro-Gun crowd. I’t shouldn’t happen overnight, because of all the social tensions and the backlash that freeing guns into the market might cause.

        And the comment was on response to another comment saying something about making it legal so it was on context before it got deleted. I don’t just go around making Pro-Gun statements on the internet.

        • Los portes de armas para los civiles están vetados y suspendidos por completos en Venezuela desde 2002 cuando el vacío de poder de abril de ese año, así que técnicamente todo civil armado ya está fuera de la ley en Venezuela.

  3. It may not bring either, but at least it will make these thugs think twice about pulling this stuff. They are used to violence, are well armed and pretty organized, and probably have less to lose. Their self worth is tied up in their macho-ness and the power they feel when they terrorize others and ‘rule’ neighborhoods. The first time one of them is shot they will retaliate ruthlessly, so if or when that shot is fired the people better be ready.

  4. Thanks everyone for the comments. The point of the article is not to discuss whether guns could solve or not the problem. It’s to show how deep and unbearable this thing has gotten. Personally I don’t think that’s the answer, not even close. Think about the Jurassic Park reference again; They also thought they could control the uncontrollable.

  5. I live in Merida as well, i currently study there, and am originally from Barinas, Merida does feel as an outside thing, somehow unternished by it. I never said that the problem would be solved, nor am i saying violence is the answer, but sometimes it’s your last option.

    What made Merida the jewel it was wasn’t legislature about gun ownership, or wheter the ban worked or not, it was it¡s people, the locals and the fact that the people that went there from other states fell in love with it, as have i and many more to come, that sense of ownership and love to a place will make it cared for, and you can almos feel it, maybe i romanticize it too much but that’s that what living there feels like.

    I just commented the gun thing because i get mad whenever this sort of stuff happens. People gave thugs arms for political reasons to keep them in arms, and nobody has any way to defend themselves on the bases of some greater good of a country without violence. Another utopia just beyond the horizon.

      • Maybe i’m just somewhat bitter about what it’s slowly turning into, it’s hard to see it vandalized like that. I tought the whole seminarist thing was a joke, some troll image, when i first saw it, they were trying to loot a supermarket and the whole downtown was basically closed of from either way by either colectivos, the pnb or people running to/from pnb/colectivos. I spend the afternoon in a friends apartment because i coulnd’t get to my residence, the whole downtown was covered in fog, weird, just that day.

  6. Greetings! Great job! but i dont like the way you (writers) mixed Venezuela Spanish words in the article, I feel like I’m reading something Pitbull wrote. however it doesnt mean that the articles are poorly written at all. But i cant take it seriously :’) sorry for my English.

  7. I loved your article man, is really tough for me when the protest happened that eleven of february. Funny stuff it was just outside of my old house… Man in two years they really got the whole stuff, and with all the rioting they just washed their hands. I want to believe that someday we will improve as a society and get things to change. But the reality is that it might not happen for a long time. Sadly either you gotta go abroad or resign to survive merely

  8. As a “gringo” contributor, I feel compelled to point out that the experience you have is not unique. What we have seen “up north” during restless times is (albeit far less dangerous) similar in many ways.

    When the “free stuff” is gone and students with limited funds are forced to make do with less, it has an impact. Its tough to study when you have an empty stomach. Tuition only goes up and when worth wile jobs are scarce, studies can get “postponed”. When professors and instructors can no longer make enough money at universities to pay for the gas/parking on campus, they look else where for employment. (if their skills can provide employment)

    But the raw violence and oppression is certainly unique to Venezuela, and I don’t have an answer for you. You have to watch out for yourself, your loved ones, and your friends. Tough decisions lie ahead.

  9. My argument against total bans is that they never work as intended… Oh, that is not to say they don’t have an impact, but, the end result is not a “less violent” or more “social” state. Crimes don’t go down when you ban guns. Criminals just find other sources (such as murdering/robbing/bribing the military and law enforcement). And it is still a human right to self defense, regardless of what written law says. (“Carried by 6 vs judged by 12” is still what people rely on)

    The only way for a “safer” society to emerge is to have a more responsible (less corrupt) government that does not eliminate freedoms in the process.

    Deterrence through a justice system that functions is the best method.

    Mexico is another country that has HUGE numbers of illegal/unregistered firearms. The lack of arms control both feeds and is a result of the criminal element. The cartels have just as many weapons as the goverment, and more firearms have flowed through the government (through various methods) into the hands of the crooks than acquired through theft of personal/civilian ownership.

    Contrast this with Switzerland or even Canada, where gun ownership is VERY high (maybe not as high as the USA) and we see that a well armed society is irrelevant to the civility.

    Bad governments do bad things and innocent people suffer. Regardless of geography and skin color.

  10. “Heck, why does Venezuela even need a military? Are Nicaragua, the USA or Bolivia going to invade us anytime soon? ”

    Uh, there is the farc, the eln, the fbl, the tupamaros, garimpeiros and I guess that there are even freakin’ pirates in the waters between Venezuela and the Caribbean islands.

  11. It’s quite interesting how despite Merida being somewhat “untouched” by the Chavista regime back then, it was still one of the first states to react. Some of the states that have it worse actually never protest the regime (maybe a few brave souls in some middle class neighbourhood but that’s it). I didn’t know Merida was that bad right now, but at the same time I should’ve figured it out already since all of Venezuela has gone to hell and it will stay like maybe forever because Venezuelans don’t want to do anything about it (especially our so-called-leaders). I admire how gochos kinda seem like a very tight group of people that won’t let anyone screw them up that easily. I’d say the biggest sob story would be Margarita, one of the most beautiful places in Venezuela once upon a time, that I got to visit recently and it was absolutely depressing to see how hard they’ve fallen. Good article btw.

  12. I was born and raised in Mérida and I hate to see what the chavismo has turned it into and how far they can go to fuck over everyone who isn’t with them. Just to name one of their crimes in Mérida, when Lester Rodriguez was Merida’s mayor (granted that he was a terrible mayor) chavismo would “import” trash from other cities to overload the already crumbling trash collection system making the city an unlivable dump. They added a gigantic health hazzard everywhere just to make the current oposition mayor look bad.

    If you are about to call this a conspiracy Merida’s governor at that time (Marcos Díaz) asked people to place trash bags ON THE MIDDLE OF AVENUES just to make the problem most aparent and obviously make trash collection even harder. I personally saw how some random people came with a truck full of trash bags and left them at a random location next to one of Merida’s major avenues.


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