With little public transportation, Venezuelans resort to dangerous, illegal ‘kennels’ to get around

On a main street in Maracaibo, Venezuela, residents crowd onto illegal and dangerous vehicles nicknamed "kennels" for their unsafe conditions.
On a main street in Maracaibo, Venezuela, residents crowd onto illegal and dangerous vehicles nicknamed "kennels" for their unsafe conditions. For the Miami Herald

To get to work every day, Carmen Hernández, a 37-year-old housemaid in Venezuela's second largest city, squeezes into a crowded and ramshackle truck, standing up and hanging on to a metal bar with one hand while her foot dangles out the side during a hair-raising, illegal ride that can last up to 45 minutes.

She's suffered ankle and wrist injuries when the driver turns or speeds up, sending the passengers banging dangerously into each other in the trucks that feel so much like metal animal cages that Venezuelans call them "kennels."

But it's still better than waiting for public transportation in Maracaibo that may never come.

"I can’t afford to lose my job. I’ll end up walking for dozens of blocks or under heavy rain if I don’t get on one of those trucks when I leave my home or when I’m coming back from work. It has happened before," said Hernández, part of the indigenous Wayuu tribe.

The mother of three said she knows the rides are risky but feels she has no choice. With public transportation barely functioning, taking an illegal delivery truck to get to work seems like the best option, even when she ends up hanging off the side.

"You have to run fast and push around people to get on one of these trucks," she said. "When we succeed, we ride along like human flags."

Across Venezuela, where an economic crisis is causing widespread hunger and shortages of critical medicine, people have begun using alternative forms of transportation — mostly delivery trucks — nicknamed "kennels" for the cramped and unsafe conditions.

Repairing buses and other public transportation has become increasingly difficult with little maintenance and a chronic shortage of spare parts, so residents have started climbing aboard almost anything that runs. They travel the city streets standing in a truck bed with a half dozen others, tucked into the side of a livestock truck, crammed in the back of a cargo van.

In Maracaibo, passengers even ride around in a brightly colored tiny train designed and decorated for children.

In Maracaibo, Venezuela, workers are resorting to all sorts of illegal transportation, including a train meant for children, to get around. The private vehicles are nicknamed "kennels" for their unsafe conditions. Humberto Matheus For the Miami Herald

Mileidy Oviedo, a private college maintenance worker in her 30s, is afraid to board the "kennels." But the mother of two children does it anyway.

"I think about my kids all the time when I’m on one of those trucks. It is unpleasant," she said, minutes after she crawled out of one pickup truck "kennel" in front of her job on El Milagro Avenue.

Transport 'from the underworld'

Venezuela's public transportation has become so scarce that 95 percent of cars, buses and even taxicabs are no longer on the streets, while the number of "kennels" — operated by anyone with the means to run a vehicle — has increase­d by 25 percent, according to the Committee of Public Transport Customers in Caracas.

Luis Alberto Salazar, the committee president and main spokesman, said there are at least 150,000 "kennels" in Venezuela. The vehicles, he explained, originally got their nicknames decades ago in rural and indigenous areas where people boarded them to move around the nation with sacks of plantains.

"It was the common transport in the country, but now people have imported them into the cities," he says.

Salazar says he thinks that Venezuela’s new means of transportation is one of the worst in the world: "It’s a transport from the underworld."

The vehicles are privately owned and usually used to move heavy items — industrial parts, food or even garbage. Their drivers like the easy money they can earn from needy passengers, illegally offering rides in their free hours, without basic insurance or training, mostly at dawn or late in the afternoon.

"I’ve seen elderly fall down from those trucks on a daily basis. Some choose to get up and climb up again," said José Burgos, a 20-year-old intern in a local customs office, as he waited for a "kennel" in Maracaibo’s downtown around midday recently.

He said he can take the risk of traveling on the unlawful trucks: "I’m young and I can still hold onto something."

Dangerous and deadly

Javier Sánchez, now a retired journalist, said he barely maintained his balance when he jumped into a "kennel" last May to get to his old job. Someone tried to grab his wallet from a back pocket, and his immediate reaction was to reach for the thief. He ended up falling onto the pavement.

Passengers helped him to get up. He had blood on both arms. "Thank God the truck was almost at a stop. I had bruises all over my knees and elbows."

But the vehicles aren't just illegal. They can be deadly, too.

At least 32 passengers have died and 100 more have been severely injured this year in Venezuela when the "kennel" they were riding in overturned or they fell out of one, according to the transport committee.

Rubén Chacín and Anderson Tamoy, two young students from the National Experimental University of the Armed Forces, a public military university, died June 27 when the large National Guard truck they rode in overturned in Anzoátegui, an eastern state rich in oil. It was later determined that the truck had been missing two of its rear tires.

Fernando Moreno, a 54-year-old Venezuelan, died on June 14 after he slipped while climbing into a pickup truck that was operating as a "pirate" public transport unit in La Yaguara, Caracas.

Government response to the near-paralysis of transportation has been slow and hasn't helped. Military officers decided a few months ago to place trucks from the armed forces along main routes to help passengers move around for free. That didn't last long in Maracaibo, following a torrent of complaints about the trucks being too high for passengers to climb into.

President Nicolás Maduro tried to fix the problem three years ago, buying 15,000 huge red buses built in China. Most of those, though, ended up broken down in official garages because spare parts weren't available in Venezuela.

Maduro recently announced a special commission, led by Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, to improve public services — as he has promised many times before. He's also been seen on TV furiously scolding his ministers for the absence of decent public transportation.

But he blamed some of the problems on an alleged plot by transportation unions to "deactivate" their vehicles and cause a "major problem" for Venezuelans.

The chaos and desperation for safe and reliable transportation options have triggered local action in some cities. In Maracaibo, the government announced last May that it would begin issuing permits for "kennels" that fulfilled certain basic safety requirements — such as allowing all passengers to sit down inside the vehicle.

Transportation crisis

Venezuela has never before in modern times experienced such a public transportation crisis, said sociologist Gustavo Chourio, an architecture professor and urbanism expert at the University of Zulia in Maracaibo.

"Around 30 percent of Venezuelans had their own vehicles, the highest average in Latin America. That proportion has dramatically decreased nowadays because only a few have enough resources to buy a new tire or car battery," he said.

He said those who drive the "kennels" are "playing at being transporters," and called the mode of transportation "marginal and primitive" amid the continuing crisis in Venezuela.

He emphasized how the lack of public transportation has changed people’s lives. "Venezuelans are starting to look for jobs next to their homes now. They have to walk a lot more than what they were used to. These informal routes won’t get people exactly where they want to go. They would have to walk for miles and miles every day," Chourio said.

The crisis has also given birth to a new kind of entrepreneur: the impulse "uber" driver. Regular people have started spontaneously using their own cars to offer rides to passengers during rush hour in exchange for cash.

One of them stopped in front of Frank Jiménez, 41, a merchant waiting for a ride at a Maracaibo downtown bus stop. "I’m going to Lago Mall [about five miles away]. Who’s coming?" the driver shouted from behind the steering wheel of his almost new black car.

Jiménez ignored the offer. He preferred to wait for a "kennel."

"I would get up into whatever kind of truck, bus or van that comes around. ... This new mean of transport is saving us as passengers," he said.

He acknowledged that he was taking a chance. "They’re transporting us like goats," he said, and then climbed up into a crowded truck to head home for lunch.