Camping with Killers

The jungle hills outside of Caracas,  Venezuela are home to a savage bio diversity including wild parrots, howling monkeys and stealthy jaguars. Jonathan Franklin went to investigate the most dangerous species of all – the teenage  hitman.

Photographs by Morten Andersen

For one mad weekend, Franklin went camping with a group of six teenage hitmen armed only with his video camera.  The killers left their guns behind and brought a wealth of stories. At night they sang rap songs and cried about their crimes. By day they plotted new savage attacks and fought, as one killer tried to chop off his mate’s head with a machete.

I am camping with killers. We are high in the Venezuelan hills, amidst a thick green jungle, three tents packed with some of South America’s most vicious criminals. They kill for a motorcycle, kill for a pair of sneakers, kill for fun. Now they are on the run from the police, from rival gang, trying to escape their bloody destiny.

In total they are six teenagers, young thugs, lost souls. Between them they have murdered approximately 50 people, but no one here bothered to keep track.

We arrive by night, a jeep brings us here– bouncing wildly – up a steep, red dirt track. We cross a rum plantation and drive straight across the sugar cane fields and then up, round and round the mountain until the lights of the town and highway traffic fade into thebackground. Up here the loudest noise is the parrots yakking or the gangsters clanging machetes as they joust and duel at this remote jungle campsite.

No one can sleep. So, the gang lights up a bonfire. Rival gangs prowl the lower edges of this mountain. The police search with dogs and jeeps, not to arrest the gang but to execute them – Venezuelan police tend to leave more work for the coroner than the judge. Recent shootouts have left dead on both sides. A rival gang has a price on their heads – 5,000 bolivars each (NZ$1,720). The police hand out pistols to the gang’s enemies with simple instructions: Take this gun. Kill one and keep the gun – as payment. Even their own neighbors have hired sicarios  (trained assassins) to eliminate the plague from the ‘hood.

“There used to be 40 of us (in the gang) but now there are only 16,” explains Javier Ochoa, 20, a big smile accompanying a calm. “The rest are dead.” On average these teenagers have killed 3 to 5 people – each. Dozens more have been wounded. These young men have organized dozens of robberies and carjacking. They are also delivery boys, delivering “mensajes” (messages), which is a delicate way to describe having your buddies hold a guy’s hand down, so you can shoot 2 or 3 “messages” out the other side. Killing is what they do when they don’t have time to torture.

As we eat breakfast, each gang member confesses his crimes, murder by murder, robbery by robbery – each has his specialty. Lllanero, for example, is the shock troop. Skinny like a war refuge, long gangly arms, he has no problem pulling the trigger on a witness to the crime. During a robbery siege, Lllanero stands off center stage – ready to shoot at the first problem. Despite his colleagues mockery, Llanero insists he has killed no one – “I just shoot them in the arms or make their legs explode,” he says of robbery victims or rival gang bangers. Llanero describes firing 9mm rounds into the thigh of an enemy as if he were collecting points on a video game. “I am a knife man-” he holds out his palms, to show off bumpy white battle scars.

These young gangsters described treating bullet like personnel from an urban hospital’s emergency room– they spent entire conversations describing a step by step home remedy for bullet wounds: clean it with warm water, get the “bad blood” out, don’t let it scab over. “If the bad blood gets clots, you get gangrene and goodbye leg,” said Llanero casually as if he were describing a scraped knee after a bike accident.

These gangsters are also specialists in provoking infections. “Before we go out to fight, I piss on the bullets,” says Ochoa. “That way when they go in, they leave a better infection.”

I was invited to join the hitmen in order to investigate a unique rehabilitation program being tested here in Venezuela. Known as “Project Alcatraz”, the NGO is run by Alberto Vollmer, owner of one of Venezuela’s most famous rum brands – Santa Teresa. Vollmer, a gregarious, rugby-loving philanthropist, has spent the past 7 years fighting crime by offering the hitmen and their rivals a chance to come off the streets and make peace. “There are between 100,000-500,000 delinquents on the street and the police are corrupt. Police look for bandits and kill them. That is why Project Alcatraz exists. We recruit the gang leaders and try to make them community leaders.”
At first glance Vollmer’s project sounds like Mission Impossible – turn hitmen into community leaders? Even Presidente Hugo Chavez’s romantic notions of socialist utopia have rarely stretched so far. But Vollmer’s dream is rooted in a set of basic principles that are displayed every day on the sprawling rum plantation where Alcatraz is headquartered. Here in the palm-studded fields, just a short drive from the picture perfect Caribbean coastline, Vollmer and his staff have created a refuge for these young adolescent killers.

“We send the kids to the kills for a week, they are alone. We have a counselor who goes up and down but they are alone. They have to organize their own society, like the Lord of the Flies as the street leaders are overtaken by new leaders who can best figure out the new system.

In Spanish, Alcatraz is sometimes used to mean pelican and it is the young pelican’s difficulty in learning to fly which gave name to the project, said Karla Farfan, the Alcatraz administrator. “If you watch the pelican teach its young to fly, they flop down and crash,” said Farfan. “We were at the beach with some of the young recruits and the birds kept crashing to the ground, ‘That is us,’ said one of the gang members. ‘Two steps backward one step forward.’”

Vollmer, the rum baron also alluded to the infamous island in San Francisco Bay, “The worst prison,” he said, “is your own mind.”

Project Alcatraz also had a few early crash landings. Initially the project was misunderstood by police and politicians. In 2004, the Venezuelan Minister of Defense invaded Alcatraz, as he thought that Vollmer was training an army of guerrillas to attack the Chavez government. “He left here crying, he was so moved by the program,” says Vollmer. ThenPresident Chavez praised the program on national television. “After Chavez spoke about the program, our problems [with local authorities] disappeared,” said Vollmer

“Many of them are able to change,” says Nohemi Tejada, the Alcatraz psychologist. “We speak to them in a common language, so they can understand us, that way we gain respect. Once you have the respect, you can have change.….I think that of every 10, three or four can be saved.”

Alternative crime fighting measures like Project Alcatraz have gained popularity as the murder rate rise sharply in Venezuela and public institutions like courts and prisons are swamped.

Crime rates are soaring in Venezuela with an estimated 15,000-18,000 murders last year. Foreign Policy magazine dubbed Caracas “Murder Capital of the World” in Given the recent surge in crime the Chavez government has made it difficult for reporters to access true crime and violent death figures. While reporting this story, this reporter was repeatedly banned from interviewing doctors, cemetery officials and police. On two occasions police detained me for the offense of asking about crime figures. “We are not allowed to let you in,” said security guards at a public hospital in Caracas.

According to the non profit Venezuelan Prison Observer, Venezuela has a capacity of 12,500 inmates but recent statistics show that 32,000 prisoners are being held.  Human Rights Watch has regularly condemned the Venezuelan prison system as one of the most violent in Latin America, the massive overcrowding leads to more violence, with an estimated 1,300 prisoners killed during the past three years.

Living with a half dozen hitmen for the weekend is something you do not easily forget. Surprises abounded, like the fact that the killers were excellent cooks and my morning memories are the “whap, whap, whap” of fresh dough being molded into breakfast arepas. Or the fact that the killers had no problem standing in front of my video camera and confessing for hour after hour to their crime sprees – ranging from a taxi driver they murdered (“We didn’t have the money to pay him”) to professional hits paid up front with getaway driver arranged.

For the young killers, the gang is a substitute family. If one member  needs new sneakers other gangsters would find a target on the street and rob the shoes. If a gang member needed medicine, they would rob a pharmacy. “If I buy a pistol and I lend it to the group and he ditches it. I don’t charge him,” says Javier Ochoa, 20, who boasts four murders. “If he lends me a pistol and I dump it, same deal, no charge. We understand each other and share…If I have money and the other guy doesn’t I have to give it to him. We are fifteen guys. If two go out to rob, has to be shared for all fifteen, so all can eat and have fun.”

They also confessed to their tactics, like hiding in the cemetery crypts. “When we were chased by the police, we would go into the cemetery, pry off a tomb cover and hide inside. It is deep, you can get three or four guys in there,” said Ramon, one of the gangsters. Ramon learned to shoot when he was 7 years old. By 9 he was a pistolero. “Here your role model is the sicario (hit man) he kills lots of people, gets lot of women. That’s what you want to be.”

Ramon rattles off the names of his dead friends like he was drawing up the list for his birthday party party – friends and family, except that he will never see any of them ever again. Death in this corner of Venezuela comes with the ease and frequency of birth.

“I don’t wish this life onanyone,” said Ochoa. “No one can survive this kind of life. Its tough. I would rather work. People reject you. And in my case, I don’t want that. You walk around and people say he’s a bad dude. They call us assassins. That makes you feel bad to win that tag. I don’t like that. I want to get out of this life, I want a new life.”

Several of the young Alcatraz participants said they had wanted to join the program earlier but could not believe the program was legitimate. “I thought it was a trap to hand us over to the government or kill us,” said Llanero. It was so sudden that Mr. Vollmer did this….there was a lot of doubts. A guy with so much money? Helping the delinquents? Then we saw it was true.” ♦

 

 

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