That office tower, which until the beginning of this week was filled with more than 2,500 squatters, dominates the city’s skyline and overlooks its slums. Unlike Nicholas Brody’s experience, it is a place in which people sought refuge from the daily violence of Caracas. It’s called the Tower of David — “Torre de David” – after the financier who built it, David Brillembourg.
This refuge — known as the world’s tallest “slum” — will soon be empty. The Venezuelan government started the “peaceful” evacuation of the thousands of squatters this week.
“This is not an eviction,” Ernesto Villegas, the minister for revolutionary transformation, told reporters. “It’s a coordinated operation, in harmony with the community in the tower. Today we have begun with floors seven, nine and twenty-eight,” he said, adding those leaving were being voluntarily resettled in government housing in Ciudad Zamora, outside Caracas.
“As we all know, this is a structure that does not have the minimum conditions for a life that is safe and lived with dignity,” said Villegas.
People are being moved to new homes in the town of Cua, south of Caracas, under the state’s Great Housing Mission project, Reuters reported.
To access the building, residents enter through the parking lot, which allows them to access the 10th floor. From there, they must walk up stairs to get to the 28 occupied floors. The elevators never functioned in the building.
When a man identified only as Hipolito moved into the tower, his apartment was just mounds of dirt, he said in a documentary about the tower. There weren’t even walls. But residents organized themselves, built their homes and accessed electricity, plumbing and water — none of which is provided by the government. A Vocativ documentary about the slum shows Hipolito sitting on a couch in front of a flat screen television surround by red-hued walls. A young girl washes dishes in the kitchen as he talks.
The tower, once described by a New York Times writer as “a parable of hope for some and of dread for others,” is a symbol of how prosperous Venezuela once was — and of its current state of inflation and poverty. Construction of the building was abandoned in 1993 when Brillembourg died. After the financial crisis hit Venezuela, it sat empty for 14 years until 2007, when Caracas experienced a housing crisis.
El Niño Daza, a bible-toting gangster, led hundreds of civilians into the empty building and took it over, creating his own fiefdom, according to a 2013 New Yorker story by Jon Lee Anderson.
The early days of the Tower of David were filled with gang violence. But violence reportedly only happened toward those who dared to challenge El Niño. Those people met their fate by being thrown off the tower, which has few walls and windows.
After Daza eliminated his competition, the Tower experienced very little of the violence that dominates Caracas today. Last year, 13,000 people were killed in city because of gang warfare, making it the most violent city in Latin America.
“They are always saying that this is a slum, that it is dangerous, that criminals live there … that people get raped and do drugs,” said Daisy Monslave in an interview with Vocativ. “When in reality, I lived here and nothing has ever happened to me.”
The tower resembled a commune, complete with shops and cafes. Some residents even had to serve a probationary period of living in a tent before they were allowed to take up an apartment in the building. Each floor has a coordinator who manages day to day problems, the Telegraph reported.
The biggest physical danger for residents was the building’s ledges. Isabel Morales recounted a story of a young girl falling 18 stories to her death.
“The neighbor who was looking after her only took her eyes off her for a minute. God only knows,” she told the BBC.
The building also became of symbol of former president Hugo Chavez’s failure to provide housing for the poor. But even as the squatters left the tower, they remained loyal to Chavez.