CARACAS, Venezuela – Waiting to check in for my flight at Caracas airport on Wednesday, security services stopped me, demanding a full search of my belongings.
Scowling, underweight policemen speaking barely intelligible Spanish took me into a private room at the back of the airport. “¿Q’Hace Acá?” they asked, slurring together the words for “What are you doing here?”
They rummaged through my luggage as I claimed to be a curious Spanish student interested in the country’s situation.
“¿Q’sesto?” – “What is that?” they asked, pulling out my camera.
They demanded to see my photos. Many were images highlighting the extreme poverty across Caracas – piles of garbage lining the city, graffiti exclaiming “I’m hungry,” defaced images of dictator Nicolás Maduro.
The officials confiscated my camera, claiming they needed to examine it and the process could take up to two hours, despite my flight leaving within an hour. I would never see the camera again.
Initially, it was easy to dismiss the confiscation as a precaution against rogue journalists exposing the true devastation socialism has wrought in Venezuela. But look at recent reports in Venezuela suggests these “confiscations” – outright thefts of valuables by officers of the law – are not uncommon. And while I can afford another camera, the Venezuelan civilians most often experiencing this crime are struggling to survive amidst the country’s political and economic crisis.
The truth is that the soldiers are struggling to survive, too, resorting to stealing from anyone they apprehend who happens to carry a valuable. Lower-ranking soldiers, Venezuelans told me, earn the minimum wage, $43 a month, while forced to use their authority to silence political dissidents. Thefts have become so common that, this week, the country’s defense minister Vladimir Padrino López warned armed forces against excessive force, saying he did not want to see “one more national guardsman committing an atrocity on the street.”
He had not issued such a warning after months of brutal violence documented by his soldiers against the protesters. What it did follow was a broad accusation by opposition leaders that security forces stole possessions from protesters and journalists, such as motorcycles, cameras, and even shoes, during a demonstration that took place last week.
Opposition Assembly Member José Manuel Olivares accused the police and the national guard of stealing at least ten items, including from a young boy selling bottles of waters on the street, while another man contended police hit him and took off his shoes.
“Soldiers stealing and assaulting civilians that they should be protecting,” Olivares tweeted on Monday. “Don’t be the shame of the armed forces by following orders from superiors!”
“You can’t even describe what is happening outside La Carlota. There are reports of the military stealing motorcycles, cameras, mobile phones and even shoes,” tweeted journalist Daniel Blanco.
“The national guard does not just repress, it now steals. These people aren’t officials, they are criminals. Phase 3 of the ‘Zamora Plan’?”, a reference to Hugo Chávez’s land redistribution reforms where landowners had their property seized by the government.
While the brazenness of these recent thefts is new, soldiers have been exploiting their power to make ends meet for months. A report from the Associated Press in January found that the Venezuelan military had seized full control of all food coming in and out of the country, and are reselling stolen products at astronomical markups.
The report also found authorities regularly demanded bribes from food importers and truck drivers, thus hiking the prices of food products for ordinary Venezuelans. According to recent statistics, a majority of Venezuelans now go to bed hungry while 15 percent of people eat garbage just to survive.
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