The gangs of Caracas thrive in Venezuela's socialist poverty

The click-clack of guns being cocked echoes in the cement safe house where seven kidnappers keep watch over a western Caracas slum, their 33-year-old gang leader boasting of grenade attacks on police and growing wealth and power.

Venezuela's socialist economy is suffering triple-digit inflation, severe shortages and a third year of recession, but gangs like this have found strength and profit in the chaos.

They are teaming up with former rivals and buying heavier weapons to control ever-larger territory in the capital and beyond, the criminals, the government and criminologists say.

"The majority of the other slums are our friends. It's not only us anymore, now we do business with each other," said the leader, sat at a desk with his face hidden by a black ski mask. He would only give his name as Anderson.

He said rampant inflation is forcing the gang to be even more active as it seeks to cover sky-rocketing costs for weapons, drugs and even food.

"We used to do one job a month. Right now we are doing them every week," Anderson said, before a phone pinged with news of a drugs delivery. Venezuela's economy suffered 181 percent inflation and shrank nearly 6 percent last year, and is expected to perform worse in 2016. Basic products are scarce and food riots regular.

Yet gangs like this are thriving.

Unlike a growing array of other armed groups in Venezuela - which include pro-government gangs and some small rural guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary forces - the street gangs are largely apolitical.

But as their reach grows, they are another destabilizing factor for President Nicolas Maduro, who is already struggling to govern a nation that is running short of food and medicines despite vast oil reserves and has one of the world's highest murder rates.

He has responded with aggressive raids by soldiers and police, a policy supported by many people sick of criminals but which rights groups say leads to executions and arbitrary arrests. Some criminologists warn the raids encourage gangs to seek out ever heavier weaponry in defense.

While some gangs are teaming up, there are still turf battles and internal disputes, and Venezuela is seeing more of the spectacular violence associated with Mexico's more powerful drug cartels. Police showed Reuters images of bodies left mutilated, hanging from bridges, or beheaded.
There is more.

The gangs specialize also in kidnappings and they kill the victims if a ransom is not paid immediately.   The breakdown of law and order has followed the imposition of socialist policies that have created mass poverty and shortages.  Throwing off the shackles of socialism will be just the beginning of a recovery for the people.


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