Venezuelan gangs are no longer recruiting youths in some poor areas by offering them easy money to buy clothes or the latest cell phones. Instead, they are offering food baskets.
And on the streets, walking around with a bag of groceries can attract more thieves than a full wallet.
The critical food shortages pummeling Venezuela have started to change the nature of crime in the country, at times increasing what some experts have started to call “hunger crimes” and at other times turning food into a valuable item to be taken by force.
“This is a new phenomenon because it’s something that we never had in this country, crimes committed because of hunger,” said Roberto Briceño León, director of the Caracas-based Venezuelan Observatory for Violence (VOV).
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“This type of crime has been increasing, and now we see how criminal groups are starting to steal food, how individuals who before did not steal have now started to steal food,” Briceño added in a telephone interview.
Criminal gangs are also using food to recruit children and teenagers in Venezuela, a country with one of the world’s highest crime rates.
In its latest annual report, the VOV reported that gangs are taking advantage of the widespread hardships that many families are facing in order to recruit new members.
“The recruitment techniques, the bait that in the past used to be fashion or luxury goods, have been replaced by the offer of basic food items,” said the report, published this week.
That’s how “crime gangs are gaining ground in conquering thousands of youths who are joining in the violence and whose destiny is death, prison and the frustration of so many dreams and hopes forged by their families and communities,” the report added.
VOV data show that 75 percent of people who die as a result of the criminal violence are less than 30 years old, and that the same percentage of the killers are 29 years or younger.
Even though it has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela is suffering one of the most severe economic crises of its modern history as a result of the policies imposed by the socialist regimes of Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
The crisis has forced millions of Venezuelans to eat just once a day, and thousands of others to regularly search garbage cans in hopes of finding something to eat, according to recent surveys.
But the hunger is not only the result of food shortages that have left many supermarket shelves totally empty.
It’s also the result of a hyper-inflationary spiral that has made paper currency worthless and hit hardest at the poorest sectors of the population — those who do not use banks, said Javier Ignacio Mayorca, a Venezuelan journalist who specializes in crime reporting.
“If you want to buy a can of tomatoes, you have to carry six bundles of 100-bolivar bills,” said Mayorca.
The current exchange rate is 120,000 bolivars to the U.S. dollar.
And that makes the contents of a grocery bag far more valuable than the contents of a wallet.
Mayorca said that in recent months there have been cases of gangs that specialize in grabbing grocery bags from people as they leave supermarkets, as well as cases of “aggressive begging” by youths who stand outside bakeries and cafeterias.
Another form of crime on the rise is a kind of “organized looting” of stores, he said, by criminal gangs that try to make it seem as though the thefts are the work of simple citizens angered by the shortages.
But one of the developments most alarming to the VOV is that the economic crisis is pushing into crime many people who would otherwise never even consider breaking the law.
“The price increases that have put food and medicines out of the reach of a majority of the population have led people who had no history of crime to steal items from store shelves, to steal items from their work places and even to snatch the lunch buckets of small children,” the VOV report noted.
“The risk of theft is growing everywhere, which increases mutual mistrust,” it added. “Everyone is suspect and no public space is safe, so every person must be not only on the alert but on the defensive, guarding their belongings.”
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM