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.”

10 COMMENTS

  1. Well… I do think you can improve your odds greatly if you do a number of things, not just slightly.

    1) Always leave enough room for a getaway if you’re in traffic, even if there´s no getaway (space between your car and the one in front). A motochoro will always go for the easy one, not someone that can run him over after he takes off.
    2) Always try to run red lights, if possible (unless there’s just a lot of traffic), SPECIALLY at night. NEVER stop
    3) Drive fast, on routes you know well. At night I drive very quickly (alert at other cars that I might hit, of course). If someone targets you, make it really fucking hard for them to catch up to you, or stop you. Chinese motorcycles (most common with motochoros, are very slow). Now, if you are targeted for a kidnap and big motorcycles and cars chase you, you’re fucked. sooo…
    4) Don’t make yourself a target. Don’t wear flashy stuff unless you’re in a safe place, be aware of who’s there and if someone’s watching
    5) ALWAYS look behind you while driving, if a car lingers behind you for too long. Do a full circle around a block and BOLT.
    6) Always have someone on speed dial in case you suspect a robbery (car following), or a matraca (every time you get pulled over in a dark alley by police and let them know that you have someone on the line, describe the situation, the people, the place.
    7) If it’s late, or if you suspect someone is following you, don’t dare go to your house, specially if you have a gate. That’s an easy place to get fucked.
    8) Avoid narrow streets and alleys where blocking your car is easy. Take wide streets, don’t give the thieves opportunities.
    9) Go from A to B and back. NEVER linger in the streets, forget perros and areperas.
    10) When you pick up/drop off someone. Have them wait on their door before you arrive, and have them jump out of the car when you drop them off. If you can go inside their residence/building/community quickly. Do it, drop them off inside a closed off location.
    11) Don’t flash your money, always hide it when you’re counting it to pay.
    12) When you’re in the car, in traffic or a light (favorite place for motochoros), make yourself look big, alert of your surroundings, don’t have a sheep face and a distracted look. Make it evident to the motochoro (even if there isn’t any) that you’re aware of him.
    13) When you get on your car, make it a game to turn it on and lock the doors as quickly as possible. Same thing when you get home. Race yourself to get inside as fast as possible.
    14) Don’t drive a flashy/expensive car, specially at night. The crappier (physically) the better.
    15) If you have to enter a gate from the street, to get to your home, building, community. DO NOT turn into the gate until it’s fully open! face the car towards an escape route.
    16) If you’re in traffic on a highway, stay on the left lane, and don’t leave room to your left for ANYTHING to get through!. Motorcycles tend to split the lane between the fastest and the one to the right. So if you block your left side, and the right side is being used by motorcycles going fast, no one can knock on your window.

    I follow all these myself, and some that I don’t remember right now (I’ll update if I do), and so far, I’ve been lucky. I do go out a lot, during the week and weekend. I do believe that doing all of those, and others, have decreased my chances of getting hit. I know people that have been mugged 5 times or more in different manners that could have been avoided rather easily, for example waiting for a gate when you see a car behind you.

    And before someone says that I’m just lucky. I HAVE been followed before, and I almost shat my pants. The guy was following me in Caracas for 5 minutes or more, making every single turn. Even when I went full circle around the block. And when that happened, I floored the shit out of the car, I drove through routes that I know like the back of my hands (potholes and such) and were wide enough. I only went home after I made sure he wasn’t behind.

    • I’m sure that for someone who’s not used to living in Venezuela your list scares the hell out of them, but for me it makes total sense and I’m so used to doing all these things, it’s become my first nature.

    • Engoa, excellent suggestions, but, Caracas, especially at night, is Russian roulette. For every 1 murder, there are several injured, many badly, not to mention the personal psychological damage to the survivors/their families. Many twenty-somethings just party in a friend’s house, and wait til dawn to leave. Further suggestions: avoid going out on Fridays, which are paydays for weekly workers; if possible, go out when it’s raining/stormy; never wear jewelry, even imitations; vary your daily routine, departure/arrivals/etc.; if you’re car crashed from behind, run, don’t stop; if someone (feigning) injury is lying in the street, drive around him; always carry a half-decent cell phone-people are being killed for not having one; and, finally, as a book-writing Navy Seal recently wrote–when being mugged, run if you can safely, then hide if you can, fight if you’re trained/possible, but, most likely, submit politely and take your chances, with your wits about you….

  2. In war, soldiers lie to themselves the same way: “I am faster than that guy that just bought the farm.”… “I have better reflexes…” … “It won’t happen to me. I am too smart for that.”

    Without those rationalizations (lies) a soldier could not get through the day without being paralyzed with fear. And, it is not just young people. Perhaps young people do take more risks. That is the nature of young adults. But, we all take chances and then justify them or rationalize them to ourselves to keep on keeping on. As bad as things get, life goes on…

    • In WW2, towards the end of the war there was only a 10% chance that a departing german submarine would ever return to base. I saw an interview with a crewman of one of these submarines, who said they all knew the odds but each one firmly believed that he would be on the “one in ten” that would survive.

  3. This is the main reason most people who can leave the country. Too damn dangerous. You live in constant fear and paranoia. You risk having a family member mugged, kidnapped or killed for a freaking phone.

    Usually, those who leave are the better educated, the best professionals. Most readers of this blog, for instance, left long ago. This massive brain-drain really hurts the country. There’s a vicious circle cycle between crime and the economy: a bad economy produces more crime, and high crime hurts the economy.

  4. I remember following all those rules already in the 1990s. But back then you could still stop and eat an arepa late at night. Most of the traffic lights in Baruta would blink at night, so people wouldn’t have to stop.

  5. Safe, thriving, diverse cities are a major achievement of modern life. Nighttime is when they are in their glory. Families can go out to the public square and public parks at night. Children can play outdoors. Elderly people or people with restricted ability to get around can escape some of the isolation and monotony of daytime hours and visit or just sit with friends and family in a doorway and watch the world go by. And yes, kids can party, but not just that, they can start to connect with people outside their immediate worlds, they can start to connect with the broader cultural life of the city, they can start to be independent, experiment, find their way.

    If that is taken away, the city becomes a dehumanizing and isolating force. All of the negative aspects of modern life come to the fore: the stress, the isolation, the lack of connection and purpose outside of being a cog in a giant machine that works, earns money and sleeps. Cultural life dies, or becomes some sort of rare, guerilla movement.

    I’m glad to hear people still get out. I know the feeling of going a bit crazy when I can’t get out at night, and just move freely. Fortunately, when I lived in Caracas, I was with people who could do things like comfortably navigate the city at night at high speed and without stopping. I always carried something to pay a little insta-ransom if necessary. I always did the little mental balancing exercises like: I can be safer, look like I just returned from a wilderness camping trip but pay the price of being the proverbial “invisible person waiting to be seated” (because night life in Caracas can be that way), or dress a little bit up and be the nice juicy target. They have that expression in Venezuela, “in order to be beautiful, you have to see stars”, but in Caracas, I think it can really have some literal truth in recent years: in order to be beautiful, you are adding some risk to your life….

    I feel bad for the kids who can’t just hang with their friends out on the street, the families who live in a glorious beautiful place and can’t stroll in a park with their kids at night, the elderly people whose independence and enjoyment of life is so much more restricted because they are not up to deploying green-beret style survival tactics to just do normal things.

    I understand people take these risks, and I understand that it is necessary to do so if for no other reason, to retain some measure of sanity. No kidding.

    Can you imagine Caracas, if it were simply reasonably safe outdoors at night? It would be one of the greatest cities in the world.

    • I can imagine it as you say …. It was one of the greatest cities in the world when I lived their in the early 1980’s. We could go almost anywhere in the city night and day without worry or concern about being mugged or shot. The only real places of concern at that time were Patare and 23 of January.

      It was one of the truly greatest cities in the world. Just being in the city you could feel the life and energy flowing. It was a joy to live there.

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