Venezuela

Amid hungry, violent looting, Venezuelan shopkeepers fortify their businesses

AP

The thick steel door with welded reinforced plates being installed at Yadira Castro’s small shop seems like it might be more appropriate for a prison or a bank.

But after looters recently rampaged through her neighborhood, pried her door open and emptied her store of snacks, bread and cigarettes, what might be seen as overkill anywhere else is the reality of being a Caracas merchant.

“What I built over two decades, an entire life, was destroyed in a day,” she said.

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Venezuela is in the grips of a monthlong anti-government protests that have left more than two dozen dead, hundreds injured and more than 1,500 people detained. But the demonstrations are also leaving a trail of property destruction in a country that’s already staggering amid a deep economic crisis.

In the chaos of the demonstrations, dozens of stores, mom-and-pop shops and cargo trucks have been looted by crowds, sometimes driven by hunger. Of the 28 deaths being attributed to the protests, almost a dozen seem to be directly related to the brazen thefts.

Video captures the moment a woman refused to move out of the way of a police tank during a violent protest in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on April 19, 2017.

The government and the opposition are accusing each other of promoting, or even ordering, the lootings as they wage a PR battle alongside the street confrontations. But the vandalism seems to cut across party lines.

The morning after a wave of robberies hit his neighborhood in El Valle last week, Javier Guevera, 35, found the metal shutters of his butcher shop battered but still holding against burglary attempts. He knows he was one of the lucky ones.

“I’m trying to support my colleagues who were victims,” he said. “It’s not right that you wake up early in the morning to go to work and realize that you’ve been left with nothing.”

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He blamed the lawlessness on a mix of hunger and rampant criminality.

“This was done by violent people who didn’t have any food — accompanied by armed groups,” he said. “These were not honest people.”

In one of the most high-profile cases earlier this month, authorities said as many as 11 people died in a single night of looting in Caracas. While the numbers vary, it appears at least seven were electrocuted while trying to rob a bakery called La Mayer del Pan.

A group of protesters attacked a police armored personal carrier forcing them to retreat in Venezuela.

At the time, there was speculation that the store had been booby-trapped with an electric fence or that a power-line had fallen. But the truth is more mundane, said Jose de Freitas, the store’s 34-year-old manager.

He said the night of April 20, armed gangs descended from the surrounding barrios to start sacking stores. They forced the bakery’s doors open with crowbars and emptied the shelves and the warehouse. He said the bakery had not been rigged to purposefully harm anyone.

“The people died because they tried to steal a coffee maker that was full of water,” he explained. “When the plug was pulled it made contact with the water, and because we have stainless steel furniture, it made a big circuit and, well, they were electrocuted.”

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De Freitas said the bakery might have to remain closed for months. In the meantime, 32 employees are out of work.

The new waves of looting have been a blow to a business community that’s already struggling to survive amid triple-digit inflation and a shortage of just about everything.

Once one of the region’s wealthiest countries, Venezuela is now suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

Damiano Del Vescovo, the head of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce in Carabobo state, told local radio that 13 stores in his city were looted in a single night this week. And he pleaded with demonstrators to understand who was paying the price for their actions.

“Vandalism is not a form of protest,” he said. “The merchants are not responsible for the economic crisis we’re living.”

While security forces have been engaged in fierce street battles to keep protesters at bay, they’ve been accused by the opposition of ignoring the looting — and sometimes even joining in.

The problem isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

The opposition says it will stay on the streets until the government gives in to key demands, including holding general elections, allowing humanitarian aid into the country, releasing political prisoners and firing Supreme Court judges they accuse of trying to dissolve congress.

Venezuelans defy government roadblocks surrounding the capital city of Caracas on April 19, 2017.

They’re calling for another nationwide protest on Monday that’s likely to draw massive crowds.

President Nicolás Maduro isn’t showing signs of backing down. He’s accusing the protesters of being “terrorists” intent on toppling his socialist administration. Indeed, government security forces and ruling-party sympathizers have been among those killed during this wave of demonstrations.

Maduro’s also promising money to store owners hit by looting. But similar offers have gone unfulfilled in the past.

As she watched workers install her new fortified door, Castro said she has no choice but to reopen the store that’s been her lifeblood for two decades.

“We’re scared by what happened,” she said. “And getting back up is hard, but little by little, we will recover.”

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