Pereira still jogs at night. But she goes with friends, plenty of friends — as many as 300 of them, a huffing, heaving mass of people who chug in unison along darkened streets three nights a week.
Their club, Runners Venezuela, underscores a central reality here: Despite the mayhem, the people of this city are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to have as normal a life as possible.
“My family, they were really worried because I was, you know, going alone running in the street,” said Pereira, 23. “So I said, ‘Mom, I am going with a big group.’ She said, ‘A big group running at night, here in Caracas? You have to be kidding me.’ ”
There are many other violent metropolises in Latin America: Rio de Janeiro, with its heavily armed drug gangs ensconced in hillside slums, and Cali in Colombia, where the heirs to the old cocaine cartels battle it out.
But Caracas is far worse, with homicides rising nearly threefold since 1998 to 3,973 last year, for a murder rate of 122 per 100,000 people, said Active Peace, a group that studies crime trends here. That is more than 30 times the homicide rate in New York, a far larger city.
The problem partly explains why the late President Hugo
Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, almost lost an April presidential vote that he had been polled to easily win, analysts say. Facing an outcry over crime, among many other deep-seated problems, Maduro has responded by sending troops into the street to bring order to a city populated with heavily armed pro-government militias, drug gangs, common thugs and corrupt police.
Crime experts say the tactics will have little lasting impact. And nationwide, most Venezuelans fear for their lives. A Gallup poll released in May showed that residents here are the least likely to feel safe among the inhabitants of 134 nations. Forty percent said there was drug trafficking in their neighborhoods, and 10 percent told Gallup that a relative or close friend had been slain in the previous 12 months.
Jorge Urbina, who runs a small store, and his wife, Eslovania Ramos, a lawyer, compared going out into the streets to playing “Russian roulette.”
“We limit ourselves a lot because we want to keep on living,” Urbina said.
Gilberto Aldana, crime victim and president of the Venezuelan Society of Psychological Health, said his countrymen may be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“People have trouble sleeping, people have difficulty concentrating — all of this a product of anxiety,” said Aldana, who treats people affected by the rampant crime. “The anxiety generates psychophysiological changes, stress, hormonal swings, neurological shifts, even changes to our immunological system.”