Venezuela’s Oil Capital Was Ransacked When the Lights Went Out

The sack of Maracaibo was almost over Thursday after a frenzy of violence and looting that showed just how close Venezuela is to total chaos.

In the country’s sweltering oil capital, about 500 businesses — bakeries, tire shops, entire shopping malls — were pillaged during the nationwide power blackout that began March 7. Looting continued even after the lights flickered on as residents overwhelmed the security forces of the Nicolas Maduro regime. Storekeepers are just beginning to clean up as the desperate keep sifting through the rubble.

“If people made enough to make ends meet, we wouldn’t be trying to get by like this,’’ said Enrique Gonzalez, 18, a bus conductor whose driver was scavenging at a Pepsi warehouse. Thousands of bottles had been removed in mere hours, and people were now ripping out copper wire and scrap metal. The hulks of delivery trucks sat on pallets, tires long removed.

“This country has gone to hell.”

Lawless Land

Venezuela’s great blackout threw the crisis-ridden nation into fresh tumult. Maduro has presided over an epic descent, prompting the U.S. and scores of other nations to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the rightful head of state. Maduro has concentrated resources and troops in Caracas, the capital. The ravaging of Maracaibo, population 1.6 million, shows that anyone’s control over the vast nation is tenuous.

Maduro blamed the blackout on a U.S. cyber attack, without supplying proof. Experts blamed decaying infrastructure. In Maracaibo, many transformers and substations burst into flames after power was restored this week and large sections of the city remained in the dark. Long lines of people bearing jugs and barrels formed at leaky water trucks, streams and burst pipes.

On Guajira Avenue, the four-lane main drag where much of the mayhem occurred, there was little security. During a daylong tour of looted malls, warehouses and shopping centers, a single municipal squad car was seen. Officers inside warned profanely that no protection would be forthcoming.

Hot Ice

The unrest began in the Saturday-afternoon heat when an ice company began demanding payment in dollars. A desperate crowd tore through its factory, then emptied nearby pharmacies and shoe stores. By nightfall, the heart of Maracaibo was engulfed as people deprived of life’s necessities took whatever they could get.

Empresas Polar SA, a Venezuelan food giant, said that its Pepsi plant, brewery and pasta factory were almost destroyed; people carried off thousands of cases of beer and soda and 160 pallets of food. The company lost 22 trucks and five forklifts. Holes were punched through cinder-block walls around the soda warehouse.

On Monday, Ferre Mall, a home-improvement shopping center of more than 50 stores, was emptied by people who burst through its iron gates and glass doors. In darkness, they lit scraps for illumination. A paper-goods store caught fire and the blaze spread.

Travel agencies, cosmetic stands and snack shops were mere shells Thursday. The building reeked of smoke and melted asphalt from the roof had hardened on the floor. Workers carried debris over broken porcelain and glass.

No Resistance

“It’s hard to swallow,’’ said Bernardo Morillo, 60, who built and manages the mall. “The national guard stood by as this vandalism happened and the firefighters didn’t even show.’’

Throughout the city, security forces were useless as people took anything of value, including cash machines, door frames, ovens, computers and surveillance cameras, said Ricardo Costa, vice president of the Zulia state chapter of the Fedecamaras business group. The organization has been bitterly opposed to the Maduro regime, which Costa said reserves its strength to quash demonstrators.

“How is it possible that a thousand guardsmen are deployed to repel 50,000 protesters, but when a thousand looters come to a mall only 50 were sent?’’ he said.

“You could say this began because people are hungry, but the looters didn’t take just food — it morphed into aimless vandalism.’’

Fat City

At a Centro 99 supermarket, shelves were picked clean and the floor was carpeted with pieces of pasta, plastic spoons and dried tomato sauce. Manager Luis Parra said 10 of the chain’s 12 locations were looted.

“They even carried off the lard and flour to bake bread in their bare hands,’’ he said.

Maracaibo once was a city of excess. The preferred drink was whiskey and food was fried and plentiful. Sitting on a massive lake that bears its name, Maracaibo was home to big-talking oilmen and ranchers — Houston’s Venezuelan doppelganger.

The nation’s commercial oil production started in the region in the 1910s after locals noticed crude seeping out of the ground. For a century, deposits below Lake Maracaibo ensured that governments were flush.Chevron Corp.,Royal Dutch Shell Plc andExxon Mobil Corp. fueled a boom of shopping malls, warehouses and supermarkets in the former fishing village.

Dwindling Flow

After two decades of socialist rule, big oil has all but vanished. Zulia’s production has plunged to 325,000 barrels a day in 2018 from 624,000 in 2010, according to the state oil company. Production in Venezuela as a whole fell last year to a 69-year low, according to OPEC data compiled by Bloomberg.

Maracaibo’s new-money glitz now feels like a lifetime ago. Fedecamaras estimated that damage during the blackout could easily surpass $200 million.

Requests to interview Omar Prieto, Zulia’s governor and a member of the ruling socialist party, went unanswered. He told reporters Wednesday that 570 looters were arrested. He also implored businesses to reopen and said more than 200 officers were deployed. “It’s our turn to protect you,’’ he said.

But few police were to be seen Thursday as owners repaired security shutters and sealed entries with cinder blocks and cement.

Standing By

Ovidio Oscano stood in his watchman’s post at a Makro market, the Venezuelan equivalent of Costco, as dozens of people denuded the structure.

“They’ve been at it since Monday,’’ said Oscano, a rail-thin 59-year-old who shrugged rather than intervene. “They’re pulling wires, air conditioners, pipes — they’re literally running off with the roof.’’

When the looters realized they were being photographed, they charged and threw rocks.

“A business can be rebuilt,” said Costa of Fedecamaras. But “everyone knows that working here means working in anarchy, that anything can happen to you at any moment.’’

On Thursday, Yajira Bernier left home to search for provisions for the first time since the lights went out. Vendors at the Los Plataneros market demanded dollars or Colombian pesos, and the butcher shop had only two products: cheese and pig feet. Bernier chose the latter.

“We’re panic buying today,” she said. “We don’t know what will come tomorrow.”

— With assistance by Lucia Kassai, and Fabiola Zerpa

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