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Latin America

The endless cycle of violence in Venezuela

This series of photographs by Venezuelan journalist Alejandro Cegarra depicts both the victims and victimizers of an undeclared war being waged in a country suffering through a profound economic and political crisis. The photos are part of a project financed by the Magnum Foundation through an Emergency Fund grant to support the work of photographers committed to documenting social issues.
15 Feb 2017 – 11:20 AM EST

These stories, linked by tragedy and indifference, took place in the poor hillside neighborhoods of southwestern Caracas, between Carapito and Antímano. These neighborhoods appear to be linked, but they have borders only known by locals.

I made three visits to the neighborhoods. A friend who lives there helped me find these cases, which would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Cantalicia Ramos

On the first trip we went to Antímano, high on the hillside. We went by car. The advantage of driving a beat-up Renault Twingo is that no one wants to steal it. When we got there, a smiling Cantalicia was waiting for me. For two hours we listened to her story of how her son Kevin was murdered a few feet from their home. Her story broke my soul.

Kevin wanted to study but couldn't afford it. Without a job or education, he decided to make a name for himself on the streets.

Kevin had refused to allow fellow criminals to rob and steal in the neighborhood. Codes of conduct are obeyed by some criminals, but not by others.

Someone in the neighborhood leaked word of his whereabouts. He died Jan. 29 2016, as he returned home from a movie matinee, murdered by a man known as “Chuky.” His dinner was on the table.

He left a daughter, orphaned by bad decisions.

During our visit, Cantalicia stopped crying just long enough to bring out a baby, Kevin's daughter. She's the only thing left of him, aside from some clothes.

Yanet Flores

Yanet Flores looked at a photo of her daughter, uttered “I miss you” and sat down to talk. Carolina was murdered not because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because she was with the wrong person.

Carolina was killed just above El Paraiso, a neighborhood once home to some of the most elegant houses in Caracas, where a gigantic poor neighborhood sits between Carapita and Antímano.

She was riding a motorcycle with someone who had “pending issues” in the neighborhood. The hail of bullets hit the good and the bad. Caroline died in front of her house without knowing why. She had three brothers.

My friend, who took me to these places that the police try to avoid, warned me that we should get in and out as quickly as possible. I am afraid to walk around my dark house at night, so you can imagine what I felt watching the sun set over a poor neighborhood west of Caracas.

Flores was short, and her hair was gray. Between tears and with newspaper clippings, she told me the story of how her daughter died by pure chance, just a few feet from her home. In police jargon, she was killed in a “crossfire.” Flores said she still could not forgive herself for staying in the home when she heard the gunshots. She thought it was just another shootout.

El Jhonny

This Caracas criminal lives near both Yanet Flores and Cantalicia Ramos. I met him on my third visit. I didn't drive that time. Instead, I called a trusted motorcycle taxi. Around 5 p.m., we arrived at the lower end of the neighborhood and waited for permission to enter.

An hour later, at 6 pm., we received the green light. We passed a police outpost, went up an extremely steep incline, walked past two street corners and spotted a young man watching us.

Yender, my contact, warned me that he was “one of them.” The man asked me what I wanted. I explained. He checked my pockets and backpack, and ordered me to pull up my shirt and give him the code to my cell phone. He read all my messages and looked at my most recent calls. I was already dead from fear. Then he led me into a house, its windows covered with wood, its lights out. I could not see a thing. Someone spoke to me. I could hear him racking a round into a shotgun. He intimidated me, threatened me, showed me that he was in charge.

He was wearing a bulletproof vest. His face was covered and he carried a shotgun. The very image of death greeted me and asked me to call him El Jhonny. In an odd outburst of honesty, he said that the lack of support from his parents had led him into a life of crime, and that he didn't know how to do anything else.

I was surprised by how easy it was for him to admit that.

He laughed as he recalled how they killed someone after making him dance by firing at his feet, like in the movies. He stopped laughing when he noticed I was not laughing. At least not for real.

He wrapped a shirt around his face and turned on the light. The shotgun seemed bigger than him. I took out the two bottles of cheap rum that I had been advised to bring. With a loud “Ah! That's the way!” he took off the shirt, opened the rum and drank.

We talked for about 15 minutes. I was really nervous, especially because our safe exit depended on whether the thug guarding the door had become suspicious over any of my cell phone messages.

El Jhonny didn't use the typical jargon of a Caracas criminal, but his vocabulary was limited. He was 25 years old. Men like him don't usually reach 40. He reminded me of myself a little bit, perhaps because of his age.

The difference was that he shoots to kill people and I shoot to record images.

In a sign of some sanity, he said that he would hate to see his son follow in his footsteps. But he added that if he's murdered, his son will grow up like him, without the support of his father and with the bitterness of death.

“Aren't you going to take photos? You're very curious.” That was my signal. I was so afraid that it took me time to get ready. El Jhonny first didn't want photos of himself, only of his friends/bodyguards.

But then he warmed up to the photos and wanted to display his power. That's when the alpha macho pointed his shotgun at me.

At the end, I left as quickly as possible. I was still shaking. Many things could have gone wrong when I walked into the wolf's lair. El Jhonny was afraid of dying, and that's why he wore a bulletproof vest and had two bodyguards at all times.

He has a family, a wife and a son. When he kills, he leaves behind widows and orphans.


The scars on Saúl's face betray his violent past

He sings every Wednesday and Sunday at a church for ex-convicts who want to change their lives.

Saúl sings in search of redemption. He spent 25 years in prison for a murder, and said that he regrets it each and every day since he found God.

Kevin's daughter

She is Ramos' granddaughter. She plays with a photo of her father, who was murdered recently – just another statistic of violence in Venezuela. She will grow up without her father. And she will have few opportunities to leave the neighborhood where he died.

These types of stories are repeated time and time again in every poor neighborhood of Caracas. If there are seven circles of hell, I am sure that Caracas is in one of them. It is an endless cycle.

NOTE: The Venezuelan Observatory for Violence registered 252,073 violent deaths from 1999 to May of 2015. During 2015 alone it recorded 27,875, or 90 per 100,000 people – the second highest homicide rate in the Americas after El Salvador. Only two out of every 10 crimes are brought to trial, and only one ends in a conviction.