'I know it's not right, but I need to survive': Venezuela's black marketeers gouge residents on necessities

Venezuela's economic train wreck has opened the door to a new way of making money. Meet a former lawyer who has joined the black market.

Country's economic train wreck benefits opportunists who sell for up to 8 times what they pay

People queue to buy basic food and household items outside a supermarket in Caracas. The opposition called for a 12-hour work stoppage as it stepped up its campaign to force embattled socialist President Nicolas Maduro from office after electoral authorities cancelled a referendum seeking his removal. (AFP/Getty Images)

Marcos starts calling his suppliers early in the morning. He puts on a nice shirt and blue jeans he bought "in the old days" and starts working his iPhone.

"'What do you have there?' Is the first question I ask," says Marcos (a fictitious name).

The way he does business is a bit like drug deals — secrets, whispers and codes. But this Venezuelan lawyer is far from a pusher. Instead, he buys and sells food on the black market.

He studied law for five years, but says Venuezela's economic crisis pushed him to look in a different direction. Sometimes, working as a lawyer meant spending all day taking cabs to the courts. "It's just not worth it."

At 31, Marcos is running a business as a high-level bachaquero — a person who works like an ant — with wealthy clients who can still buy food that doesn't get to the supermarkets.

"I sometimes make five times more than what I make as a lawyer, selling food. I know it's not right, but I need to survive," he says. "We all need to eat and to make money, we can't live out of a regular wage."

He gets his product from the military that control distribution or from a truck driver who has access.
A resident of Caracas bought all these goods on the black market from a bachaquero. They cost so much that she stores them in a locked cupboard. (Ana Vanessa Herrero/CBC)

In a day, Marcos can sell three kilograms of rice and one bag of soap. He makes at least 50 per cent profit on everything he sells. On an average day, he can make $15 Cdn, more than half the monthly minimum wage.

As a lawyer, Marcos says, he could make about $100 Cdn a month "if I'm lucky. … That's not good if I want to do decent shopping at the supermarket."

Venezuela's economic train wreck has created a booming new way of making money. According to economist Angel Garcia Banchs, at least seven per cent of the population — or about two million people — make a living as bachaqueros, a mafia that buys essential products at regulated prices and resells them, sometimes for eight times as much.

Banchs said the economic policies of President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government have hampered the growth of the business sector, and corruption and a plunge in the price of oil have increased the burden on the country's economy.

"The bachaqueo is very similar to smuggling and overbilling, but on a smaller scale," García Banchs explained. "They are not the main problem, but the most visible part of the crisis."

Marcos is just one piece of a black-market network that has grown rapidly in a dying country. He has never stood in line — he buys large amounts directly from his sources.

Clara (a fictious name) lives at the other end of the economic spectrum. She wakes up at 3 a.m. to get ready to line up at a popular supermarket in El Hatillo, a wealthy area of Caracas. She lives 30 minutes away in a slum in the centre of the capital, where there is even less food. "If I don't do this, then I can't survive."
President Nicolas Maduro has led the oil-rich country into its worst economic crisis in decades. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Like Clara, hundreds of people wait in line until 8 a.m. to see what the stores have. They are not sure if the trucks that transport food have arrived. Too many times they have waited for at least eight hours to leave empty-handed. "But that's the job," Clara says.

Venezuela, once a model of how to maintain low inflation, is facing catastrophic inflation, activating the alarms of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF predicts 700 per cent annual inflation by the end of 2016 and 1,600 per cent by 2017.

Maduro increased the monthly minimum wage to $22 Cdn, according to a black market exchange rate — the one that controls the economy, Garcia Banchs confirms. But this government action, which the opposition sees as a desperate attempt to stay in power, can't provide food for a month.

Marcos's clients are cutting their budgets every day, and he is finding it more difficult to sell at the prices he usually does. On the supply side, inflation has made it impossible for the government to maintain fixed prices. The new ones, although high, are still lower than bachaqueros' prices.

This just doesn't work for most of a country that former president Hugo Chavez once boasted was a new model of socialism.

In the stores, prices can't be maintained for more than three days. "New prices are coming every week, and we can't help it," says a saleswoman at a store in Caracas. "Yesterday, two pillows cost 80,000 bolívares; today, it's 150,000."
Nayibis Perez adjusts a carpet in a home where she works as a housekeeper. She explains how Venezuela's black-market economy is harming her family: 'If the kids want rice, then I have to work for one entire day, and that is not going to feed them for a month.' (Ana Vanessa Herrero/CBC)

Eating an arepa, the traditional Venezuelan stuffed corn bread that disappeared from many tables at least a year ago, Nayibis Perez, a housekeeper, explains she can't buy from bachaqueros.

"We are not all that lucky. I don't make that much money. I have to spend 20,000 bolivares ($30 Cdn on the black market) every week in whatever food I can find to feed my children."

She eats slowly. Only when she is working at her employers' houses can she eat something that years ago she could get at any supermarket.

As she speaks, the owner of the house, who did not wish to be named, storms into the conversation. "If it's difficult for me, imagine for her."

Sometimes Perez needs to leave her children alone at home in a dangerous Caracas slum. "I have to leave them alone, or I can't work," she says. At ages six and nine, they are living through the crash of a once rich and powerful country.

'Not eating as we used to'

"We are not eating as we used to. For example, I have to explain to them that they can't eat what they want every day because things are too expensive, and they understand."

She points at a small portion of black beans called caraotas, very popular in the country. "To buy a kilo of black beans from a bachaquero I need to work for two days. If the kids want rice, then I have to work for one entire day, and that is not going to feed them for a month."

Life for Venezuelans is harder than ever, but everyone has stories that show other people have it worse. "My cousin can't give her five children any dinner," Perez says. "I try to help, but if I get some food, I have to first feed my own kids. It's a terrible situation."
Supporters of President Nicolas Maduro dance during a demonstration outside Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on Oct. 27. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

Tension is inevitable. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict reported that in the first six months of 2016, there were 954 protests over food shortages, an average of five a day, 90 per cent more than in 2015. At least 516 instances of looting or attempted looting occurred in the same period.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who travelled the country to promote a recall vote against Maduro, argued during a public appearance that a recall is the only way out of the crisis. "We have an emergency situation in Venezuela. The recall referendum is a right the people have and we are going to have it if we fight."

But on Oct. 20 the courts announced that the recall was postponed until further notice, claiming electoral fraud committed by members of the opposition.

Protest set for Nov. 3

On Oct. 26 the National Assembly started a political trial against Maduro, followed by an attempt at dialogue by the government that was rejected by major opposition leaders, who also called for hundreds of thousands to march the same day. The next big protest is scheduled for Nov. 3 to Miraflores, the presidential palace.

García Banchs has predicted conditions are ripe for a political change, "but I don't think it's going to be through a referendum." Instead, he thinks it's going to be a more violent explosion. "When a country has its population eating out of the garbage, then they are ready to hear other options."
Carolina Moreno poses in Caracas on Oct. 26, dressed as Lady Justice during a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

It is not unusual to see people going through the garbage near restaurants to find their meals. Jonathan Arraiz, 31, is one of them. He stands in front of restaurants to ask not for money but for food.

"I have lived in the streets for many years, and I have never seen this," he explains while people ignore his extended hand.

"I have seen people dressed well looking with me over the garbage. They come down from their buildings in the centre of Caracas; the crisis is worse than ever."

Looking at the tables and sighing, he says that out of 100 passersby, only three give him and his brother something to eat. "Food is too expensive. People can't find anything, so we eat even less."

Finally, someone gives him a cracker and a soda. "Look, this is Maduro's diet," he laughs.


Ana Vanessa Herrero is an award-winning photographer and freelance writer based in Caracas, Venezuela.