Everyone already knows how dangerous Caracas is — most murderous capital in the world, and all that. But here’s a dirty little secret maybe you don’t know: young people in Caracas go out. We really do. Like, at night and everything.
It’s not that we’re not aware of the terrifying odds we take just to go out to a party. We’re hyper-aware of the risks. It’s just that we aren’t all ready to be hermits. So how do you square that circle? How do you keep some sort of social life going amid the carnage?
By lying to yourself.
Talking to my friends, it’s a theme that comes up again and again: the conversation that won’t go away. What I notice, though, is all the little mental tricks we play to convince ourselves that somehow, if we do this one thing or take that one precaution, it won’t happen to us.
“The chances of a quieto —the heart-stopping opening salvo of a secuestro express— are out there,” my colleague tells me one night at one of los chinos in Bello Monte. “That’s a fact, there is no way around it. So you learn, as you grow up, to ‘play’ with it.”
“There’s no denying how unsafe it is, but you have to keep living, so you play with the probabilities. For example, what are the chances some malandros get in here? That’s why I like to come on weekdays. Think about it, if you are a malandro you are not going to put that much effort just to rob the six, ten, people tops that come here on weekdays?” she tells me, seemingly confident in every word she was saying while we were eating in a small place in Bello Monte, no cops in sight.
Of course, it’s not true. Obviously. A couple of malandros could very easily be in and out of this place 10 minutes, grabbing everyone’s stuff, and then hop on a motorcycle and ride off onto the Francisco Fajardo highway in a blink.
What malandro is going to put in the effort just to rob the ten people that come here on weekdays?
“I don’t go out before holidays,” another friend told me, “that’s when the choros come out to hunt in numbers, cause they need some money for their vacations. I don’t go out before Christmas or New Year or Carnaval. It’s too dangerous.”
“Malandros are just like us, they also have to deal with the prices at the supermarket, I guess they now have to work a lot harder (…) if they use to hold up someone once a day to get a pair a shoes, now they have to do it twice”, a neighbor told me.
She, as a mom and housewife, thinks the way to stay ahead of the game is to get “in the skin” of el choro.
I was impressed with my friend’s approach: doing a kind of choro anthropology in her head to minimize the risk of a quieto. She’s a kind of defensive method actor, trying to imagine the world from her predator’s point of view.
“For example, I don’t go out every weekend, that’s too risky. I don’t take my friends to their houses like I used to when I was in college, also too risky. Maybe if it’s nearby…maybe. I don’t take caminos verdes, no shortcuts and definitely no stopping at red lights at night. I go for the fastest route and I don’t stop for anything in the world. When I’m outside my garage I’m alert if there is any car behind or a motorcycle…see? lower the percentages, take precautions…that’s the only way,” she explains.
She’s a kind of defensive method actor, trying to imagine the world from her predator’s point of view.
“When I go out at night I only go to malls. I figure it must be harder for a thief to get out of there, right?,” another friend told me. “Usually there are plenty of people around, and sometimes important people, with bodyguards, so maybe they think twice before trying to hold someone up at a mall,” a friend from work tells me.
Another friend refuses to set a foot outside his house on a payday: “When it’s la quincena you know there is more money out there, so it’s better to stay safe.”
Other people I know roll their eyes at the hopeless mitigation strategies. “I know that Caracas its a dangerous place. I figure if they’re going to steal from me they’re going to do it anyway, so I do walk at night and use my phone on the street, there is nothing you can do,” a ‘daredevil’ friend told me after I questioned her about walking at night in El Centro, downtown Caracas.
The old trick of walking around with two cellphones also seems popular: “you’re exposing yourself when you go out, so I usually have one cellphone to use in the Metro and another one that I only use when I feel safe”, a coworker told me.
Another one is even more extreme: “My real cell phone never leaves the house, I only use my phone in my apartment”.
The old trick of walking around with two cellphones also seems popular.
But thinking like a malandro is not the only element in this equation, you also have to think about the police.
“A coworker always goes home after work in public transport, a camionetica, and nothing happens to her. One day she left the office at 1 p.m. and she got mugged (…) It’s lunchtime for the police, so we’re more vulnerable”, a friend of a friend explains to me.
“And on holidays there are fewer cops on the streets, and the bad guys know that. You have to be extra careful at those times,” she continued.
I save my nice clothes for the weekends, when I go out with my family or friends.
Another friend thinks exactly the opposite: “For example, during Carnival you have this special holiday police operation, there are more cops on the street and malandros like to take a break just like anyone else, going to the beach with the girlfriend and taking some days off. They can’t be the hardest working people in the country, you know? So I feel safer during the holidays”.
“If I’m at a friend’s house after 11 pm I prefer to stay there and go out in the morning and I hate it when people linger in the car to talk after we stop to drop them off. We have to get out of the car fast,” a friend that lives in El Hatillo told me.
“I used to get out of the office late at night and sometimes I would stop for a hot dog in Las Mercedes. I don’t do that anymore and I don’t use my watch”, he recalls, thinking about his own strategy.
Another coworker has to cross the city on public transport every day to get to the office. His big thing is to always ride the buses wearing tattered old clothes. “I don’t use my ‘pretty clothes’ on weekdays. The choros can’t see that my purse looks new. I save my nice clothes for the weekends, when I go out with my family or friends.”
There’s more than a smidgeon of superstition in all this. Deep down, we know we can only nudge the odds ever so slightly. The danger is there, and it won’t go away.
Plenty of people obsess over cracking the “choro system” thinking you have to understand it in order to break it. But even among them, there are flashes of insight.
“I know this probably this doesn’t mean anything. We’re still pretty vulnerable when we go out, doesn’t matter how you dress, what route you take or what strategy you use. ‘Cuando te toca te toca’, it’s all one big game of chances. You can’t be safe, but you desperately need to feel safe. So you make yourself mind-safe to muster up the courage. You have to trick your mind into thinking that you have a regular life in a normal country, otherwise, you’re gonna lose it.”