Photo: I. Urrutia / Reuters retrieved

In the first hours of looting that, according to Fedecámaras (the main business organization in the country,) caused losses for $50 million, Zulia governor Omar Prieto shared a video together with all the brass in the entity, praying God “to continue being loyal to Commander Chávez.”

Those who don’t know Prieto could hallucinate trying to understand how his first media appearance in such a moment wasn’t to report the situation, but to those familiar with him, this is completely in character.

Prieto is an archetypical chavista politician who says and does whatever he wants because he feels untouchable, just like Hugo Chávez himself. And he is, at least for now.

His political career has been marked by a discourse of violence against fundamental rights: for instance, since he took office in 2017, after opposition leader Juan Pablo Guanipa refused to be sworn in before the chavista constituent assembly, he’s been publicly saying that his administration won’t respect the human rights of criminals.

Now the governor says that Zulia was in peace and the images of looting that spread like wildfire on social networks were meant to “manipulate,” because 99% of Zulians were quiet. He blamed the looting on the businesses’ private security guards who allowed them, and rewarded military officers “who protected our people in these days of attacks.” Prieto even criticized shop owners instead of looters: “Those with tons of milk, pasta and rice, why didn’t they stand on the people’s side? I don’t know who’s more vandalic: people with warehouses full to the ceiling with products, or people who went there to get some food for their children.”

Prieto says that Zulia was in peace and the images of looting that spread like wildfire on social networks were meant to “manipulate,” because 99% of Zulians were quiet.

There have also been rumors that members of the Colombian guerrilla group ELN were involved in the looting, although there isn’t concrete evidence of that. Citizens also said that police officers not only didn’t prevent the plundering, but actually joined the looters. “In the Paga Poco mall in Cumbres, the National Guard arrived to take a few products,“ says Daniela Montero, a neighbor of the area. “Then they opened the gates and invited the people outside to start looting.”

Something similar happened in the Nasa supermarket in the Circunvalacion 1 avenue. On Monday, at least three National Police trucks were in the parking lot during the sacking and officers did nothing to prevent the chaos. Meanwhile, in the headquarters of Pepsi in Machiques de Perijá, bordering with Colombia, people reported a truck of the Zulia Police leaving the area with several packs of soda.

Neighbors from various hoods of the city described how groups of people were going from looting to looting on trucks. “They looked like organized criminals,” denounced a shop owner at the La Curva de Molina popular market.

The looting spree happened in so many places that it’s hard to know whether security bodies had any capacity to stop them. It’s clear that looters only tried at specific stores, as if they had some preference. A confusing incident took place on Monday, March 11th, when Zulia state secretary Lisandro Cabello landed the Governor’s Office’s helicopter in the parking lot of the already sacked Hielos El Toro. He refused to talk to the press because, according to him, he wasn’t authorized.

In other stores, the officers never arrived, although police helicopters patrolled all over the city.

What now?

According to Maracaibo’s Butchers Association, the meat won’t reach the city in the coming days. Arelis Alvarado, head of the organization, told Radio Fe y Alegría that butchers have no guarantees that, if they move their refrigerated trucks, they won’t be looted. She also said that some deli stores may simply have to shut down after this, because people took the meat and chicken, but also equipment too expensive to replace.

looters attacked drug stores, bakeries, food warehouses, hotels, liquor stores, hardware stores and even clinical laboratories.

This is only one type of business affected; looters attacked drug stores, bakeries, food warehouses, hotels, liquor stores, hardware stores and even clinical laboratories. No one was safe. Historian Ángel Lombardi labeled the incidents as the Maracaibazo, referring to the Caracazo sacking of Caracas, in 1989.

This week started slow: few stores are open with very little on their shelves, and finding protein is hard. Nobody knows how long it’ll last.

The future looks bleak in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second most important city, capital of the country’s oil heartland. Prieto says he’ll provide financial help to those affected, but store owners from Fedecámaras say they’re yet to get the call. Last Monday, March 18th, Lisandro Cabello told them, “Since you’re always saying there’s nothing to sell, they’re bankrupt and there are shortages in the country, we’re not calling them.”

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