By Frank Jack Daniel
CARACAS (Reuters) - The click-clack of guns being cocked echoes in the cement safe house where seven kidnappers keep watch over a western Caracas slum, their 33-year-old gang leader boasting of grenade attacks on police and growing wealth and power.
Venezuela's socialist economy is suffering triple-digit inflation, severe shortages and a third year of recession, but gangs like this have found strength and profit in the chaos.
They are teaming up with former rivals and buying heavier weapons to control ever-larger territory in the capital and beyond, the criminals, the government and criminologists say.
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"The majority of the other slums are our friends. It's not only us anymore, now we do business with each other," said the leader, sat at a desk with his face hidden by a black ski mask. He would only give his name as Anderson.
He said rampant inflation is forcing the gang to be even more active as it seeks to cover sky-rocketing costs for weapons, drugs and even food.
"We used to do one job a month. Right now we are doing them every week," Anderson said, before a phone pinged with news of a drugs delivery. Venezuela's economy suffered 181 percent inflation and shrank nearly 6 percent last year, and is expected to perform worse in 2016. Basic products are scarce and food riots regular.
Yet gangs like this are thriving.
Unlike a growing array of other armed groups in Venezuela - which include pro-government gangs and some small rural guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary forces - the street gangs are largely apolitical.
But as their reach grows, they are another destabilizing factor for President Nicolas Maduro, who is already struggling to govern a nation that is running short of food and medicines despite vast oil reserves and has one of the world's highest murder rates.
He has responded with aggressive raids by soldiers and police, a policy supported by many people sick of criminals but which rights groups say leads to executions and arbitrary arrests. Some criminologists warn the raids encourage gangs to seek out ever heavier weaponry in defense.
While some gangs are teaming up, there are still turf battles and internal disputes, and Venezuela is seeing more of the spectacular violence associated with Mexico's more powerful drug cartels. Police showed Reuters images of bodies left mutilated, hanging from bridges, or beheaded.
As he spoke, Anderson's henchman prowled around him, waving sniper rifles and pistols, changing ammunition clips and peering through a narrow window onto the rooftops and steep alleyways below, as reggae music drifted up.
They have good reason to be on guard.
Two weeks ago, in the nearby El Valle neighborhood, two factions of one gang fought for hours, leaving six leaders dead. The victorious faction released a cell-phone video showing a man pumping dozens of bullets into a victim's head.
Anderson's gang stalks victims for days before snatching them, and tries to get $5,000-$10,000 ransom paid in euros or dollars within 24 hours. He said his gang killed about 10 of its several dozen kidnapping victims last year, usually because families did not pay on time.
In the first six months of 2016, the number of kidnappings reported to just one of several national security forces soared by 170 percent to 326 compared to the same period last year.
The total number of kidnappings is believed to be many times higher than that, since most victims never go to the police.
In this highly polarized country, one of the few things both the government and its opponents agree on is that organized crime is a serious and growing problem.
Even from prison, gang leaders are able to coordinate nationally with street thugs like Anderson, who started his life of crime at 13 and spent 10 years locked up for murder.
Maduro says crime is part of a conspiracy by the opposition and the United States. His opponents blame his policies and armed pro-government "collectives," which have multiplied in the past 5 years.
In the opposition-ruled state of Miranda, among Venezuela's most violent, state security chief Elisio Guzman traces the gangs' strength to a 2013 attempt by junior minister Jose Vicente Rangel Avalos to negotiate, promising gang members "territories of peace" where they would give up crime in return for jobs as laborers and support raising chickens.
"They used the money to buy new weapons and vehicles," said the crew-cut policeman, whose officers carry 9 mm pistols and feel out-gunned by gangs who buy heavier weapons on the black market, a trade the government accepts is fueled by corruption in the army.
"They have almost become a guerrilla force, guerrillas in crime," Guzman said.
In a 2015 interview with local media, Rangel Avalos denied giving up territory to the gangs as a policy.
What is not in doubt is that gangs like Anderson's often call the shots in Venezuela's slums, not police. He says the National Guard, a unit of the army used for internal security, also works with them.
"They are in business with us. We buy automatic weapons from them, tactical vests, whatever we need. And they warn us when they are going to send some cops."
The government did not respond to Reuters' requests for interviews for this story.
MADURO FIGHTS BACK
Speaking at the headquarters of Venezuela's equivalent of the FBI last week, Maduro blamed U.S. popular culture for the rise of drug and gun crime in Venezuela since the 1990s and said gangs have become more paramilitary in nature since 2014.
As well as offering some gang members a way out, Maduro has responded with tough raids that send soldiers into poor neighborhoods in so-called People's Liberation Operations, or OLPs, emulating the iron-fisted strategy used to fight gangs in Central America and Brazil.
"It is our turn for combat," Maduro said at the event, where he gave some police a 50 percent wage hike in a bid to counter the dwindling value of their salaries.
The OLPs, which send police and soldiers sweeping through streets and grabbing suspected criminals from their homes, are popular with the public – a relief for Maduro whose overall support is barely 25 percent, according to a recent poll.
But they have also left a trail of extrajudicial killings in poor neighborhoods and their success in lowering crime is questionable.
Venezuela’s murder rate last year was 58 per 100,000 habitants, official numbers show, second only to Honduras globally.
A recent private calculation, by Dorothy Kronick, the assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, put that number even higher, at 68 per 100,000.
Even Maduro's attorney general, Luisa Ortega, warned in July the OLPs create more violence, and complained of multiple reports of abuses.
Venezuela's leading human rights group Provea said OLPs contributed to 270 extrajudicial killings at the hands of security forces in 2015, the highest number since 1992.
The operations also encourage gang leaders to unite and seek more powerful weapons, said Keymer Avila, part of a group of Venezuelan and foreign academics researching crime in the country.
At his safe house, Anderson confirmed that.
"It's better to work together than be enemies. It's better to make war with the police than with each other."
(Editing by Girish Gupta and Kieran Murray)