How bad is Venezuela's economy? Even the criminals are struggling to get by

People pass by a shopping mall during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 8, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

CARACAS (WASHINGTON POST) - In one of the strangest consequences of this oil-rich country's collapse, cash has virtually disappeared.

With soaring hyperinflation, the government cannot print money fast enough to keep up, so many Venezuelans have switched to debit cards - not that they have enough money on them.

Suddenly, there is a whole class of people whose pockets are no longer worth picking.

"If they steal your wallet, there's nothing in it," said shoemaker Yordin Ruiz, 58.

As opposition leader Juan Guaidó struggles to wrench control of this South American country from President Nicolás Maduro, a bigger drama is playing out in the background.

The economy is in free fall. Opportunities are disappearing - even for thieves in one of the world's most crime-ridden countries.

Robbers who used to zip around Caracas on motorcycles, shoving pistols into car windows and demanding wallets, are now reduced to walking. There simply are no spare parts for their bikes.

In the past, thieves often snatched cellphones from passengers on the little buses that clogged Caracas highways. But public transportation barely functions anymore.

Many Venezuelans do not report robberies, and there are no reliable government statistics on many types of crime. But the Venezuela Violence Observatory, a respected non-profit group, estimates that murders dropped from 89 per 100,000 people in 2017 to 81.4 last year.

Its 2018 report, based on input from investigators at eight universities around the country, found signs that several other kinds of crime are also declining.

Fewer bank robberies are occurring because there is not much cash in banks. Who can afford to save?

There are fewer cars on the road to steal. With the price of imported parts soaring, many vehicles just sit in garages.

And even the criminals are migrating, the report said, joining a mass exodus of over three million people seeking better opportunities abroad.

"In Venezuela, it's just not profitable to be a thief anymore," said sociologist Roberto Briceño-Leon, who coordinates the observatory.

The decline in robberies reflects a peculiar phenomenon. A visitor returning to Caracas after years away might expect to find a city falling down. The economy, after all, shrunk by around half in the past five years. But the city is not collapsing. It is disappearing.

The streets are lined with shops, but many have iron grates pulled over them at all hours; they can no longer make a profit. There are few cars on the streets, few people out at night, few items on store shelves.

Madam Felicita Blanco, 70, is a veteran reporter, a short, greying grandma with a half-chewed pen and notebook. She has spent nearly four decades covering crime in Caracas, mostly for the daily El Carabobeño. Covering robberies of armoured cars and banks were once a staple of her job.

Today, not so much.

"Since the currency is worth nothing, it makes no sense to rob banks," she said.

Mr Mario Roja, 59, has driven a cab in Caracas for 30 years. He displays his baby with pride - a '72 Dodge coupe, a rust bucket of green and blue metal parked in a working-class neighbourhood carved into the Caracas hills. He used to get robbed every few months.

"It's been a year or two since I was held up," he said. "In the past year, I've earned zero money. Very little."

Clients have become scarce, he said, especially in the evenings. Who can go out to dinner? Many residents cannot even afford three meals a day.

Of course, this is not to say Venezuela is safe.

The murder rate is still among the highest in the world. In the United States, the homicide rate is about five per 100,000 - compared to the estimated 81.4 per 100,000 in Venezuela.

But after years in which Caracas was a dystopian, "Mad Max" world of robberies, kidnappings and carjackings, even the criminals are struggling.

Mr Yender Batista, 27, a window-washer whose forearms are inked with tattoos, served over a year in jail on a robbery conviction. He said he no longer steals.

He is not alone; far fewer thieves operate in his lower-class neighbourhood, El Valle, he said. Some have migrated; others have been killed by police. Many, he said, can no longer afford a weapon.

Like other imports, guns are increasingly expensive - around US$1,200 (S$1,630) each, he said. That is the equivalent of 20 years of work at the minimum wage.

"Now criminals have to kill a cop to get a gun," he said.

Under socialist president Hugo Chávez, who launched Venezuela's "Bolivarian revolution", the poverty rate fell by nearly half between 2002 and 2008. And yet, Venezuela became one of the most dangerous countries on the planet.

Theories vary as to why. But what was clear is that police were increasingly unable to solve crimes. Lawbreakers felt emboldened. In 2009, a government study found that two-thirds of kidnapping victims in the country were from the middle or lower-middle classes.

These days, factory workers or teachers can no longer afford ransoms.

And with hyperinflation, it is too messy to handle payment in bolívares anyway. A ransom of US$5,000 could translate into around 90kg of Venezuelan bank notes. Even the bad guys have trouble schlepping that around.

There is another reason heists have become more difficult: Venezuelans have become far more cautious. Few wear jewellery on the streets. Social life in Caracas, a tropical city that once had a lively nightlife, has changed drastically.

Mr Amram Nahon, 84, a member of Caracas' small Jewish community, used to meet his extended family on Fridays for Shabbat dinner, often staying out until midnight. But then it became too dangerous to go out after dark. "We get together on Saturdays now (for lunch)," he said.

If many kinds of crime and violence have declined, though, others are rising.

For example, there is a growing number of killings of poor young men by police, cases in which the dead are often listed as "resisting the authorities". Such shootings often involve a feared elite special police force known by its Spanish-language initials, FAES.

The government says the force is targeting criminals. Human-rights groups say it is being used as a death squad, killing not only suspected crooks but also anti-government protesters.

The Information Ministry did not respond to several requests for comment. But FAES, on its Instagram account, said in January that allegations of abuse were "fake news" circulated by right-wing critics.

Perhaps the most shocking kind of rising crime involves people who are hungry. Some break into homes and steal what is in the refrigerator. Others hold up shoppers to grab their groceries.

Mr Maduro has denied the country has food shortages.

But at a privately run supermarket in an upscale neighbourhood in Caracas, people have started to come in, rip open packages of cookies or candy and devour them, said an employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his boss forbade contact with the media.

"It's just people who are hungry," he said. "They're not really thieves."

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