Meet the bachaqueros
Marta, a young mother of three, holds her left foot in her hand, a round dark scar marks the spot where the bullet shot by a member of the National Guard pierced her flesh, hospitalising her for eleven days.
“I was trying to protect my products,” she said, looking at the packs of sugar, flour and rice in front of her – precious commodities in today’s Venezuela.
Marta is one of a number of illegal vendors in the country’s thriving black market, an upshot of the government’s currency and price controls, at a time when a deep economic crisis has left many hungry.
President Nicolas Maduro blames the so-called 'bachaqueros' - a new class of black marketeers who resell goods at hugely inflated prices - for the country’s problems. His critics say they are in fact a product of his own government’s inept policies.
Price freezes and currency controls have given way to alarming shortages of basic goods, creating interminable supermarket lines of Venezuelans desperate to get their hands on products like flour or nappies. Many people the Telegraph spoke to said that, in such conditions, hunger and looting are not uncommon.
Bachaqueros can sell basic commodities like rice and sugar at $2 and $3 per kilogram respectively, a great expense for the average Venezuelan on minimum wage. A family of five can consume up to two kilos of rice per week, spending $16 a month if they buy it on the black market – almost half the average monthly salary.
In supermarkets the same products are sold under government fixed prices at 900 and 380 bolivares for rice and sugar respectively, less than one dollar. But endless queues and scarcity of products has forced many to search the black market.
Last year Mr Maduro declared an economic war on the black market, deploying both police officers and the national guard to arrest illegal vendors. Today bachaqueros know to run when they hear someone call out “agua” – water in Spanish - a warning word used to alert fellow bachaqueros of incoming policemen or National Guards. Both forces have been tasked with arresting the illegal traders, who in turn complain of their excessive use of violence – something which Marta has experienced first hand.
In Petare, a sprawling slum in east Caracas, the owners of market stalls laden with fruits and vegetables work side by side with the new breed of illegal merchants. Sitting on plastic stools, they operate quickly and efficiently amidst the impossibly chaotic streets, where the smell of spices and rotten fish fill the air and a towering statue of Jesus watches over a sea of people with outstretched arms.
Marta, who asked that her real name not be printed, worked in a fruit shop for six years but left when the economy hit rock bottom and selling fruit was no longer profitable. In her new role, Marta earns considerably more than the minimum wage of just $35 a month she earned selling fruit, giving her the chance to provide for her family.
Competition is fierce, with bachaqueros lining the pavements and selling identical products. But similar prices among sellers and designated selling spaces ensure a relatively functional operation.
“Bachaqueros don’t just charge any old price, there’s a market – it’s badly designed, but it’s a market,” explained financial analyst Henkel Garcia.
Pharmaceutical products can also be purchased illegally, though they are increasingly difficult to find. When they were readily available some antibiotics sold legally for 13 bolivares, or one cent of a dollar on the black market exchange rate, which is what most vendors use.
Today the shortage of this product – and all things medical – means antibiotics can be found on the black market at up to 7,000 bolivares, or $7 on the black market exchange rate. Contraceptive pills have also vanished from hospitals and pharmacies. Bachaqueros have taken full advantage of this, selling them at 7,000 bolivares versus the 300 bolivares they normally cost.
Some bachaqueros have even taken to selling fake contraceptive methods in a bid to make more money, says a doctor at a family planning clinic.
27-year-old Maritza, who also asked that her real name not be printed, was forced to quit her economics degree three years ago when her son was born. “I had to quit so I could earn more,” said the young mother, who is now also responsible for a nephew following the murder of her brother four months ago.
“We’re trying to survive, but you can’t live on minimum wage anymore – this way I can make 25,000 Bolivares a day if I wanted to,” said Maritza bagging a pack of rice for a client. She makes in a day what many in Venezuela make in three weeks.
For Venezuelans like Maritza “bachaqueo” is a form of survival in a country that is quickly imploding under the weight of governmental mismanagement, to others it’s a harmful activity that is sucking the country dry.
Petare’s bachaqueros buy their merchandise from local distributors who whizz through the hectic market on battered motorcycles looking for vendors to resell their products to.
More often than not these distributors rely on informants inside supermarkets to alert them when products are due to arrive, giving them a head start over countless other people who wake up at dawn to do their weekly shop.
The government’s ID system monitors purchases, allowing Venezuelan’s to shop for price-controlled goods just once a week. This hasn’t stopped some bachaqueros who invest in fake ID cards and stock up on a daily basis.
“When they’re standing in a group and dealing with cash [you know they’re bachaqueros],” said a young National Guard outside a supermarket in Caracas. “They’re the first to arrive, they disrupt public order to push into the queues,” he explained.
Yet some guards and policemen have been criticised for allegedly aiding bachaqueros in their quest for products. When asked whether he could point out the bachaqueros outside the supermarket a fresh-faced guard carrying an AK47 smiled timidly and said that he could not divulge that information.
“I see the same people go in more than once a week,” said the owner of a tiny kiosk in front of the supermarket entrance.
Outside the supermarket a ripple of heckles made its way through the angry crowd as flailing arms pointed towards one lone individual.
An elderly man in a blue tracksuit had tried to squeeze his way into the queue unnoticed and had been caught by the rest of the buyers. Unforgiving, the crowd asked the guards to escort him.
Most assumed he was one of the many bachaqueros, but to some he was just another tired Venezuelan forced to queue for hours to do his weekly shop.
“There’s no way out of this without a great economic reform,” said Mr Garcia. “But an economic reform cannot happen unless the political problems are resolved,” he added, alluding to Venezuela’s critical political situation.