CARACAS, Venezuela — The feared street gangster El Negrito sleeps with a pistol under his pillow and says he's lost track of his murder count. But despite his hardened demeanor, he's quick to gripe about how Venezuela's failing economy is cutting into his profits.
Firing a gun has become a luxury. Bullets are expensive at $1 each. And with less cash circulating on the street, he says robberies just don't pay like they used to.
For the 24-year-old, that has all given way to a simple fact: Even for Venezuelan criminals it's become harder to get by.
"If you empty your clip, you're shooting off $15," said El Negrito, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition he be identified only by his street name and photographed wearing a hoodie and face mask to avoid attracting unwelcomed attention. "You lose your pistol or the police take it and you're throwing away $800."
Officials of President Nicolás Maduro's socialist administration stopped publishing statistics charting crime trends long ago.
But in something of an unexpected silver lining to the country's all-consuming economic crunch, experts say armed assaults and killings are plummeting in one of the world's most violent nations. At the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a Caracas-based nonprofit group, researchers estimate homicides have plunged up to 20% over the last three years based on tallies from media clippings and sources at local morgues.
The decline has a direct link to the economic tailspin that has helped spark a political battle for control of the once-wealthy oil nation.
Soaring inflation topped 1 million percent last year, making the local bolivar nearly useless even though ATM machines have been unable to dispense more than a dollar's worth of scrip anyway. The severe scarcity of food and medicine has driven some 3.7 million to seek better prospects in places like Colombia, Panama and Peru — the majority of them young males from whom gangs recruit. And workdays are frequently curtailed due to nationwide strikes.
But as the country descends into a state of lawlessness, many Venezuelans who turn to crime find themselves subject to the same chaos that has led to a broader political and social meltdown.
Critics blame 20 years of the socialist revolution launched by the late President Hugo Chávez, who expropriated once-thriving businesses that today produce a fraction of their potential under government management.
Earlier this year, opposition leader Juan Guaidó launched a bold campaign with the support of the U.S. and more than 50 nations to oust Maduro, who succeeded Chávez. However, Guaidó has yet to make good on his promises to restore democracy, spark a robust economy and make the streets safer.
As a result of the chaos, crime has not so much disappeared as simply morphed in form. While assaults are down, reports of theft and pilfering of everything from copper telephone wires to livestock are surging. Meanwhile, drug trafficking and illegal gold mining have become default activities for organized crime.
When night falls, streets in Caracas clear as most residents abide by an undeclared curfew out of fear for their safety. Despite the significant drop in killings, Venezuelans tend not to gaze at their cellphones in the streets. Many leave gold and silver wedding rings in secure places at home, while others have grown accustomed to checking whether they are being followed.
"Venezuela remains one of the most violent countries in the world," said Dorothy Kronick, who teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania and has carried out extensive research in Caracas' slums. "It has wartime levels of violence — but no war."
El Negrito leads for-hire hoodlums called the Crazy Boys, a band that forms part of an intricate criminal network in Petare, one of Latin America's largest and most feared slums. The gangster, who agreed to an interview with two associates at their hillside hideout in Caracas, said his group now carries out roughly five kidnappings a year, down considerably from years past.
Such express abductions are big business. Typically, a victim is nabbed and held hostage for up to 48 hours while loved ones scramble to gather as much cash as they can find, with kidnappers focused on speed and a quick return rather than on the size of the payout.
El Negrito said the ransom they set depends on what a victim's car costs, and a deal can turn deadly if demands aren't met.
But like many of his associates, he has considered leaving the trade in Venezuela and emigrating.
He said some people have quit the world of crime and sought more honest work abroad, fearing stiff penalties in other countries where laws are more enforced.
While explaining that he struggles to support his wife and young daughter, El Negrito passed a silver pistol between his hands. A Bible lay open to Proverbs on a dresser as a breeze turned the pages.
Robert Briceño, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, said the decline in homicides is a matter of basic economics: As cash becomes scarce in Venezuela, there is less to steal.
"These days, nobody is doing well — not honest citizens who produce wealth or the criminals who prey on them," he said.
One associate of the Crazy Boys, who gave only his nickname, Dog, said he has no trouble finding ammunition for his guns on the black market. He said the challenge is paying for them in a country where the average person earns $6.50 a month.
"A pistol used to cost one of these bills," he said, crumbling up a 10 bolivar bill that can no longer be used to buy a single cigarette. "Now, this is nothing."