By: Michel SpekkersPhotos: Joris van Gennip

Our fixer Cheo is running back and forth to the gate of the prison while Joris and I are a little further on the street waiting in suspense on the hood of our car. In the street outside the prison, a daily market is arising, it is a coming and going of visitors and vendors at the gate of the most notorious prison in Venezuela.

Yesterday, when we visited the prison, not everything went as planned. It was not the first time we were visiting the Tocoron prison. While we were convinced everyone was properly bribed before entering the prison, all our equipment got confiscated by the National Guards who are guarding the outside of the prison. When we left the prison we did not get back our equipment. Later that evening, after some calls between our fixer and a number of prisoners, we were told that the boss of the prisoners had taken our stuff from the Guardia National and that we could get it back at the gate of the prison.

Tocoron, a prison for 750 inmates was built in 1982. Nowadays it holds 7500 inmates. Guards and government employees are not welcome in this prison run by inmates. The boss of it all is prisoner Hector Guerrero Flores aka Niño Guerrero (The Warrior Child). The ruthless leader has two faces. While he runs his prison and his criminal empire with an ironclad fist, he is otherwise known as a benefactor. He gets families out of poverty and gives wheelchairs and medicines to those who need it. Niño Guerrero not only runs Tocoron prison, his former home neighborhood with 28,000 inhabitants is completely under the control of Niño and his men as well. Many others tell us his powers even go way further into Venezuela.

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In recent years, Niño has converted his prison into a small town where nothing is missing. When we walked through the prison we saw a swimming pool, a zoo, and a disco. In the main street, you can find restaurants, shops, and facilities including a bank, a television provider and gambling houses. Niño and his armed friends are driving around undisturbed on motorbikes through the overcrowded prison.

After waiting for one and a half hour in front of the prison, there is salvation. One of the accomplices of Niño is walking out of the front gate of the prison with our shoulder bag. If we open it, we see that all our equipment is still there and wonder how much this joke has cost us.,? Nothing, with greetings from Niño .

Relieved, we continue our journey to the capital city of Venezuela, Caracas . Today a mass demonstration is planned there. For years, there has been unrest in the corrupt and by an economic crisis-ridden country. In previous demonstrations we visited the last weeks, there were clashes between protesters and authorities. So far, 43 protesters got killed in these fights.

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When we arrived in Caracas, we change our car into motorbikes. Because of the protests, there was almost no other way to get through the slipped streets of the capital. Once we arrive at one of the highways serving as the route of today’s demonstration, we see that the first demonstrators are already preparing for what is to come. Tree trunks are towed on the road, fences and everything else they can find are used for the first barricades. In the distance, we can see the first smoke clouds of tear gas coming our way. In the following hours, a battle between the authorities and the demonstrators kicks off and the demonstrators gradually get forced to move towards the center of the city.

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While there is no money to import food into Venezuela, there is no shortage of tear gas canisters, which are sometimes shot at protesters, dozens simultaneously. As night begins to fall, the mood starts to grimmer. While Joris and I go towards our car, we are witnessing the first car fires, shops and offices are getting looted. With the protesters continuing their fight, a new demonstration is announced on social media for the next day. Joris and I continue towards our next stop, the city Maracay.

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Axel (23) keeps a refrigerator open to show the content. He lives with his brother Billy (27) and mother Glenda (55) and father Rosvelt (60) in a middle-class neighborhood of Maracay. At the kitchen table, the family tells us about the consequences of the crisis.

Glenda worked as a Bioanalyst in the hospital for twenty years. Since yesterday, her minimum wage more than doubled to 105,000 bolivares. That is equal to $ 18. Until yesterday, she didn’t even earn 9 dollars a month with her full-time job. The father of the family has been a merchant his whole life, a job that today, with the complete downfall of imports is almost impossible, “Nowadays, the only merchant business in the country is with the government, but I trade in clothes. There is no business for me right now.”

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For 22 years, the family has lived together in a secure middle-class neighborhood in Maracay. The father explains to us that the neighborhood has changed in recent years. “In the past, people with money lived here. When the crisis got worse many of our neighbors left. The government expropriated many of the houses in this neighborhood and gave them to “government related people”, people with almost no income, sometimes no work, no education. They don’t maintain their stuff, do not care about the neighborhood and have no respect.” “Before, we could talk with our friends and family about politics in Venezuela, that subject is too sensitive now.”

“We have no money left for the car or the house. All the money we have, we spend on food and medicine, it is too expensive.” From his closet, Rosvelt takes a strip of medication. “Take this for example. This strip of 14 pills, which is enough for one week, costs 25,000 bolivares in Venezuela.” He has a box in his other hand. “This box, with 300 of the same pills, and enough for five months, will cost me 55,000 bolivar in Colombia.”

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“I suffer daily when I’m working in the hospital. It’s terrible not to be able to give people the help they need because of the shortages in medicine and medical equipment. The government watches but doesn’t do anything to change the situation,” an emotional Glenda continues. “Every day, people are unnecessarily dying, people remain unnecessarily ill. The government is more concerned about their image. All hospital employees are obliged to participate in pro-government demonstrations and the government is spending a lot of money in propaganda material.

“Because of a shortage of food and soaring inflation, people are forced to spend hours in line in front of the supermarket hoping to get commodities such as bread, rice, and milk, every day again. Food prices are rising daily and for a simple lunch on the side of the road, you easily pay 7000 bolivares. With some luck, you can find a pack of pasta for 4500 bolivares, which is more than a daily wage.

Before yesterday’s pay rise of 60%, Glenda, the only breadwinner of the house earned 48,000 Bolivar a month. How can you live with that? “Little by little, every money that comes in goes to either food or medicine.” Does yesterday’s pay rise help the family? “No, in fact, it makes the situation even more difficult. Every time the wages go up, prices go up twice as hard”, Rosvelt responds.

“Almost all teachers have left my university, I think 80% is gone,” Axel tells us. “The oldest students have taken it upon themselves and are now teaching.” Axel worries. “You can study, but for whom will I be working in Venezuela? There is no one to give me a job. If you’re realistic, then I must say that it is unrealistic to think that a study here in Venezuela is worth something”

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“Many young Venezuelans have left the country. “My family has also offered me to go and leave Venezuela, but I wanted to finish my studies, I would like to call myself a professional. However, I have ambitions as well. My dream would be to move to Canada, but that is not realistic, I would go everywhere possible at the moment”.

“Yes, by leaving Venezuela, the country is left without professionals but we have to think about ourselves, our family. The government gives us no choice but to leave. Personally, I do not protest, several students have already died in demonstrations and death is not one of my future plans”

Later in the evening, while enjoying a beer of the cost of almost a daily salary, Joris and I talk about the day. It remains incomprehensible what happened with one of the most oil-rich countries of the world. We wonder what tomorrow will bring, as every day in Venezuela appears to consist of unthinkable and unpredictable developments.

[This article was previously published at VICE.com under the title: Así se ve la Venezuela que no aguanta más la crisis]
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About the author

Michel Spekkers

Michel Spekkers is een freelance onderzoeksjournalist, die het onrecht de grens over achtervolgt. Gaat een stapje verder en schuwt het extreme niet in zijn onderzoek naar corruptie, misdaad en geweld. Afgelopen jaren werkzaam geweest in onder andere Venezuela, Colombia, Curaçao, Turkije/Syrië, Oost Oekraïne en Europa.