Venezuelans eke out living from scrap metal despite mafia stigma

By Genesis Carrero Soto and Hector Pereira

Zulia/Bolivar states, Venezuela, May 13 (EFE).- Genderson stands at the edge of a ravine in the northwestern Venezuelan city of Maracaibo while a machine removes the lion’s share of a mountain of foul-smelling garbage, waiting his turn to rummage among the leftover trash in search of precious “chatarra,” or scrap metal.

Dozens of other young men also conduct that same search every day in the capital of the once-wealthy western oil state of Zulia, looking for pieces of iron, steel or copper they can sell later at junkyards for a few dollars to feed their families.

Scrap metal is highly prized in cash-strapped Venezuela, an oil-rich nation that has been economically battered in part by sanctions that the then-president of the United States, Donald Trump, imposed in 2019 on its most lucrative export.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose government in 2018 effectively nationalized the scrap-exporting sector, last year designated all recyclable material in the country as “strategic,” a move that paved the way for it to be exported to generate badly needed hard currency.

It also has been cracking down on looters who have been destroying property to acquire scrap.

Meanwhile, Genderson, a 22-year-old who has known no other occupation for the past nine years, continues to carry out his daily rummaging in the waste dump without considering himself a criminal.

“You can help yourself out that way,” he said tersely.

Maracaibo Mayor Rafael Ramirez, for his part, drew a distinction between urban collectors of scrap metal like Genderson and those who target state-owned or private property to steal the material.

The spike in illegal scrap metal sales had become so evident in Venezuela that Maduro on April 23 pledged to combat the “mafias” devoted to this trade with an “iron fist.”

Asked about the government crackdown, Ramirez said his administration has not detected any mafia-like organization in that sector but that he understands a business exists “that doesn’t primarily benefit those (like Genderson) who deliver the product.”

In a poor community of the southeastern Venezuelan city of Ciudad Guayana, Bolivar state, Jose and two of his young children struggle for three hours to push a cart to the Cambalache waste dump, where they will search for scrap metal under a blazing sun.

Jose (a fictitious name) says that on his best days he can collect a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of material that he can sell for around 500 bolivars ($108.69) to feed his large family.

Those supplies need to last, however, because he says there are many other days that he comes home empty-handed.

“I have six kids, and that’s why I made the decision to do this, so I can half-survive,” said the man, who told Efe his only other earnings come from his intermittent work at a construction material factory and are both meager (around $30 a month) and irregular.

Many poor communities in Bolivar, Venezuela’s biggest mining state, live off of the scrap metal they steal from local aluminum or forestry companies. All of these people run the risk of being detained by Venezuelan authorities seeking to protect a coveted commodity.

A total of 213,547 kilos of scrap metal were seized by Venezuelan authorities in the first 70 days of this year, according to the Attorney General’s office, which has taken steps to clamp down on this type of theft at state institutions. EFE


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