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Caracas, venezuela - A Prison Story
March 29 2010

Traveling abroad can be a an exciting and fun experience. But it can also be a shocking wake up call to how others live in different countries and the complete lack of respect for human life they have. Places where it is really easy to die. Caracas, Venezuela is hailed as the 'Murder Capital of the World', boasting the highest per capita murder rate of any city in the world, even rivaling the death tolls of Iraq and Afganistan during war time! It is nothing for the Friday evening news to announce 14+ murders before the weekend has even really kicked into gear.

In this world of violence the biggest perpetrators are the Caracas police force, who are nothing more than roving gangsters with uniforms. This is a city where you would never dare to call 911 in fear the cops would rob you for whatever you had left. A place where the cops kill in cold blood without fear of rebuke and even urinate on the bodies of their victims for all to see. For them it is all about extortion.

There are not many tourists to Caracas, and I now know why. One of my first nights in the city walking home from the movie theatre (one block away in a lighted mall) with my girlfriend who was Venezuelan, a car screams to a halt behind us and two men in uniform jump out, looking like police officers. She tells me to run. I am confused - why would I run from the cops? Wouldnt that make them want to shoot me, and after all I had done nothing wrong. I backed away with my hands in the open till we could get around a corner. This should have been a clear warning not to be walking around this city.

Still I ignored the warning signs and should have left, but still I was an expert in several martial arts and weighed in at a well worked out 265lbs, and had grown up in some of what I considered pretty rough neighborhoods. The first day I had met a kid about 15 only to find out a week later that the cops had grabbed him, taken him to jail and called his parents to say if they did not receive $2,000 he would be killed in jail. They couldn't pay - a week later he was dead. In three other occasions I was stopped by these bandits in uniform, had guns waived in my face as was robbed for whatever I had in my pockets. Once because I wasn't carrying my ID and once without any explanation by 5 cops with guns on me. Still I thought this would be the extent of the damage...

A few days later I was going to visit a new friend I had met there are two guys with me in the elevator and get out on the same floor but I think nothing of it. As my friend opens his apartment door they pull out handguns and push us inside. Followed by 4 more from who knows where! His wife panics and it is all we can do to try and stop them from beating us all down at gun point. They ransack the apartment, but unfortunately in their lust for more money and drugs sometimes having nothing of value to take makes them even more upset for wasting their time. My Spanish was less than basic at best, and trying to communicate with angry guys with guns just wasn't my forte in another language. What was the problem or charge we wanted to know. One pulls out of his pocket a plastic baggy with what ends up being a huge rock of crack cocaine about half the size of a fist and which must have been worth several hundred dollars. It seems that my friend had a few enemies and made a perfect target for cops looking for money. I guess their idea was to hold us hostage in the hopes someone would give them some bail money.

We are thrown in a 'mobile detention center', which is basically a plain white uhaul truck with bars on the windows. This was to be the beginning of 3 months of insanity that left me with grey hairs way before my time. This is no jail like in the US or Europe, it makes American prison reality shows look more like an episode of MTV Cribs! Check-in here involves a beat down to the back with batons. Here you can show no pain or fear. If you look weak and cry out you just get more. And you are along side you future cells mates and any sign of weakness could mean months or years of being a target.

Inside this is a hell hole and nothing less. No pretty bright orange jump suits here. And clothes are a highly desired commodity. One prisoner 'the machete' is told he is not permitted to wear clothes for 3 months. Of course I stand out like a sore thumb as a gringo, which is reason enough to be killed for fun. Luckily once inside we are shouted at 'tu saves La Lucha?', 'thank fuck' is all I am thinking as this is one of Caracas' most hardcore ghettos but only a few blocks from where I was staying, and my friend had plenty of connections there. He tells them that I am his 'blood', 'his brother' and they aren't supposed to touch me, which is probably the only reason I am alive to tell this tale today.

Still, surviving here is a battle and fearing that I would be lost in the system and forgotten about. The only thing respected here is violence. And to gain respect I will admit I had to deliver a few beatings with metal bars which won me the nick names 'quick' and 'the blanco negro' (white on the outside but black on the inside). Selling cigarettes and robbing other inmates is the only way to make money and have access to what you need.

Incredibly different to any other civilised jail, here the prisoners are left to roam free at night. Which as you can imagine is utter chaos. Guards would only come on the cell block 20 plus deep. Tables are set up in the different wings as stores selling any type of drug you can imagine from heroin to crack cocaine. Prisoners like my cell mate are mostly armed. He sits all day smoking crack with his .45 in hand looking like he is going out of his mind with paranoia. Obviously it isn't fear of the guards, after all he couldn't be put in any worse of a place than this. Nights are filled with automatic gun fire and not being killed be accident from a stray bullet is a pure miracle. Shanks? Don't make me laugh, these prisoners are armed with AK47s and even freaking grenades!

Getting out alive and anytime soon didn't seem like it was going to happen. Some how through my friends contacts he was able to get messages outside to his wife. And one day it was over! Just like that. The tradition is on leaving to be given a 'new' set of clothes and the most prized - new sneakers. OK they were far from new and a souvenir wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but the thought was great. We are basically thrown out of the jail with the threat of being shot if we didn't get the hell out of there fast. No need to tell me twice that was for sure!

So I am out. Now with grey hairs that I hadn't expected for another 10 or 20 years and 100lbs lighter. From 265lbs down to 165lbs. Needless to say I called family and managed to borrow the money to get the heck out of Venezuela on the next possible plane. Finding my feet back on US soil it was incredibly hard not to be looking over my shoulder, expecting violence at every moment. In fact trying to sleep without the sound of gun shots was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. My first stop from the airport was at the pawn shop to get a gun which I slept with in my hand for at least 6 months. However, insane as it is I have actually found myself back in Venezuela 3 times since then (although limited for only a few days at a time) and have found many of the people to be like family, whom I certainly won my respect with. But be warned - visiting here is not for the faint hearted, even those with some fighting skills and street smarts aren't above getting dead really easy. This is a place where a convicted murderer with 14 bodies to his name that they could prove was shot in the back of the head by a 10 year old a week after he got out of jail! Happy Traveling...
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