As Liliana picks lice from the tangled, thick hair of her boyfriend, Patricio, while they sit together on the sidewalk of a Caracas street, she’s also multi-tasking, keeping a watchful eye on her “family.” When a 10-year-old girl named Danianyeliz kneels down to drink water from a puddle, Liliana reproaches her, urging her to have a sip from a juice bottle they’ve just found in a garbage bag.
At 16, Liliana has become the mother figure for a gang of Venezuelan children and young adults called the Chacao, named after the neighborhood they’ve claimed as their territory. The 15 members, ranging in age from 10 to 23, work together to survive vicious fights for “quality” garbage in crumbling, shortage-plagued Venezuela. Their weapons are knives and sticks and machetes. The prize? Garbage that contains food good enough to eat.
Liliana has a quick, wide smile and goes by the nickname Caramelo. She takes charge of each day for the group, deciding how much food her “family” will consume and how much they will stash away for another day. She settles conflicts that flare up and gives a hug, a kiss or a pat on the back as needed.
“Caramelo is my mummy and Paola is my aunt,” declared Danianyeliz, a newcomer who joined the gang about a month ago. She left home, she said, because there was not enough food to go around. The “aunt” she referred to, Paola, is just 14 and another member of the gang.
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Caramelo — who asked that the full names of the group’s members be withheld for fear that they will be targeted by police — has created a hierarchy within the Chacao gang. There’s an inner circle she calls the “small combo.” It includes her, Paola and seven other members who roam the city together to “recycle” black trash bags, meaning they search the bags for food and drink.
Whatever they find, they share. The rest of the gang is left outside of the leadership circle for various reasons — violent behavior, keeping food to themselves or sometimes a personal dislike.
But when it comes to defending their territory, all differences and antipathy are forgotten. Caramelo convenes all 15 members into the “big combo” to present a united front to gangs from different neighborhoods.
That’s how Caramelo’s gang took control of Chacao even though many members don’t come from the neighborhood — including Caramelo, who was born and raised in Junquito, a Caracas neighborhood in the mountains about 10 miles away.
A year ago, the gang was “stationed” around a supermarket at a mall called Centro Comercial Ciudad Tamanaco that generates tons of garbage. But a feared rival gang from the neighborhood Las Mercedes also wanted the garbage.
Caramelo’s gang was attacked and chased out of the zone. So they took their weapons — knives, slingshots, broken glass and machetes — and seized the nearby neighborhood, Chacao.
“At this point, we had enough members and we were organized. We pushed the other group out of here,” said gang member Patricio, 23, who added that the clashes with Las Mercedes group “toughened” them up.
The reason for the violent takeover, which in gang slang is called a “change of government,” was simple and sad — Chacao’s many restaurants offer a better chance to find food in the garbage.
There are at least 10 gangs in the capital, social workers and police estimate. “There were always children on the street in Venezuela, but now we are seeing a new phenomenon — kids who get more food on the street than at their homes,” says Beatriz Tirado, who leads “Angeles de Calle,” or Street Angels, a non-governmental charity.
Tirado claims that all of the Chacao gang members have homes where at least one parent lives.
“Our kids are finding ways to survive because neither in their homes nor in their communities is there enough food,” explains social worker Roberto Patino, who has established 29 public diners all over the country to feed hungry children.
From Monday to Friday, the diners provide food for 1,000 kids every week. Patino said even so, he believes he isn’t coming close to feeding all the children who need the help, given the overwhelming number he sees on the streets. Experts estimate that in Caracas alone, there are in hundreds, if not thousands of street children and young adults.
Patino bemoans that there are not enough resources to help these kids get their lives back on track let alone feed them properly. For now, many have turned to trash bags as a source of nutrition.
And it’s not hunger alone sending children onto the streets. Domestic violence is also often cited. “I left because I got beaten badly,” Caramelo says about her mother, a drug addict.
Caramelo has two aspirations now — she wants to become a criminal justice advocate or to open a candy shop she would name Caramelo’s.
A year ago, she had a miscarriage. Patricio was the father. The baby died, she said, as a consequence of a clash with a rival gang. “A girl from another gang punched me hard in my belly. The next thing I remember was waking up in a hospital,” Caramelo recalled.
Despite that, she returned to the gang, she said, to take care of her “street kids.”
The gang must protect its “zone” from rival gangs searching for food — but that works both ways. Sometimes the Chacao gang ventures into the more affluent neighborhoods of Caracas to look through what they call “quality” garbage bags.
One of those territories is Las Mercedes with high-end restaurants that attract rich Venezuelans. Because garbage bags there often contain leftovers and even untouched food, they are sought after by a number of the gangs.
A gang from the working-class neighborhood of Petare fights for the bags with a gang based in Las Mercedes. “We do fight them because we are hungry just like them. Why should they own the garbage?” asked 22-year-old Andy, who comes from Petare.
On a recent afternoon, as he checked the trash bags on a sidewalk, he found a jar of corn flour mixed with mayonnaise and ate it all.
“Venezuela got mean. Nobody is generous anymore. That means I have to get nasty and fight to survive,” he said, admitting he owns a machete to “look scary.”
Tirado, the social worker from Angeles de Calle, said she sees the results of the gang clashes: “Every week we have first aid ready to treat cuts and bruises they might have suffered over the week in their fights.”
Charities like Angeles de Calle bring food, medicine and clothing to the needy children. Caramelo’s “family” gets help from the group every Sunday, right on the street.
The gangs claim that in addition to skirmishes with other gangs, they are constantly harassed by police, often at the request of business owners. “My clients are afraid of these gangs and don’t come when they see them hanging around,” said the owner of a pizza restaurant on Francisco Miranda street in Chacao.
The man, who refused to give his name for fear of reprisal, believes the children manipulate people by trying to “pull on their heart strings.”
“They [the children] smudge some dirt over their faces and put on tattered cloth to look miserable,” the owner said.
He said he calls the local police patrol to chase the gang away from his business, a measure that only works for the short term.
Patricio, the oldest member of Caramelo’s gang, claims the police sometimes abuse them. “They burn our shoes and sometimes break our fingers with a baton,” he said.
One high-ranking police officer, who works in the Baruta district that includes affluent neighborhoods like Las Mercedes, didn’t want to be named but said most officers just feel bad for the hungry children they see on the streets. “There are some bad cops, but many others are just stunned by the tragedy of these children,” he said.
However, he added, some children are criminals who steal, assault people and use drugs like crack, sometimes smoked in makeshift pipes made from the parts of discarded plastic dolls.
“When you smoke you don’t feel hungry,” explains Patricio.
Will the members of the gang ever try to leave the street life behind? “I will get out of the street only after my children have an opportunity for a better and happy life,” Caramelo said.