News / Americas

Venezuela Seeks to Tame 'Wild West' Motorcycle Chaos

People ride on a motorcycle as they leave after rehabilitation therapy in a public hospital in Caracas, Oct. 28, 2013.
People ride on a motorcycle as they leave after rehabilitation therapy in a public hospital in Caracas, Oct. 28, 2013.
Reuters
Choking traffic, causing pileups and even ambushing drivers, Venezuela's hordes of motorcyclists are an increasingly high-profile problem for the new government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Denounced in the media as a "plague,'' they provide essential, cheap transport but are often held responsible for anarchy on the roads and the terrifying number of homicides, kidnappings and armed robberies that beset the South American country.

Some also see them as shock troops of the late Hugo Chavez, who pushed through radical socialist policies during his 14 years in power before dying from cancer in March.

For many opposition-leaning voters, especially in wealthier areas, the bikers are the public face of the underworld.

Most of these "motorizados'' - a term that can be applied to almost anyone who works on a bike - in Caracas say they are just trying to scrape a living as taxis and couriers in a congested city that desperately needs them, and are being blamed unfairly for the crimes of a few rogues.

Maduro was handpicked by Chavez, but he only narrowly won the election to succeed him. He faces a huge test to crack down on the lawlessness often associated with the motorizados while still retaining their many working-class votes.

"They're a problem,'' Interior Minister Miguel Torres said, launching a strategy last month to control Venezuela's hundreds of thousands of bikers. "Not all of them, but there are lots who think they're in the old Wild West.''

Many behave atrociously, he said, riding on sidewalks, knocking off mirrors as they weave in and out of traffic, and hurling abuse whenever challenged. Some are involved in much more serious offenses, including abductions and drive-by shootings.

In recent months, funeral corteges of dozens of motorcycles have become regular flashpoints, with bikers creating gridlock in order to smash windows and rob drivers at gunpoint.

Venezuela suffers one of the world's highest murder rates, and violent crime is the No. 1 issue ahead of Dec. 8 municipal elections that are the first major ballot test for Maduro.

The government's new plan includes high-level meetings with motorizado groups to improve relations with the security forces and get them to agree to some basic rules of the road.

Officials are also trying to win over the bikers by building shelters so they don't need to huddle under overpasses when it rains - often strangling traffic to a single lane by doing so.

"Amigo motorizado...'' begins a list of rules at one of the shelters, beneath an overpass near downtown Caracas called La Arana, or The Spider. Using drugs or alcohol there is prohibited, the sign reads, as is the "continuation of strife or disputes.''

Most motorizados belong to motorcycle taxi cooperatives, which carry their fares as passengers, or to the army of messengers who work for businesses, government departments and individuals. The name is also used for the bikers in socialist red T-shirts who whipped up support at Chavez rallies.

Despite the motorizados' bad public image, the opposition knows it can't ignore them either - especially since they're often the only option to beat the traffic gridlock.

Politicians on both sides say the street-level intelligence provided by biker groups could help tackle insecurity.

"We don't want the neighbors to see them as a threat, more as people who help them solve problems,'' says one opposition leader, Ramon Muchacho.

His well-off, opposition-run district in the east of the capital, Chacao, has registered about 50 bike cooperatives, he says, and is adding more at a rate of around 10 every six months.

Chavez legacy

A stuttering government effort to register motorcycles has recorded about 300,000 so far. Local business groups estimate there are about a million.

The explosion in the number over the last decade is due to Chavez-era deals with China that flooded the country with bikes going for a few hundred dollars, and social programs that meant more poor people could contemplate buying their own transport.

For many of the motorizados, Chavez himself took on an almost God-like status. One embodiment of the motorizado culture during Chavez's rule was Franco Arquimedes, a popular Caracas motorizado leader whose followers helped ferry survivors to safety after devastating mudslides in 1999.

In 2002, they rushed to Chavez's defense when he was briefly toppled in a coup: their role in his homecoming went on to assume near-mythical proportions for many loyal "Chavistas.''

But in the years that followed, motorizado gangs also becamenotorious for attacks on  an opposition TV station, and on opposition activists protesting at a square in Chacao.

In 2007, Arquimedes was killed by gunmen as he shopped at a butcher's in the capital's Cementerio district.

"They assassinated a true revolutionary,'' Chavez said.

Arquimedes lies in a modest grave known as the Tomb of the Motorizado at the El Junquito cemetery, where terraced plots cling to a steep hillside with grand views down the valley toward the gray-white towers of Caracas.

At a graveside nearby, a young motorizado and his girlfriend drink beer from a can in a brown paper bag, both wearing the ubiquitous cheap black plastic helmets that in many countries would barely pass as cycling gear. They've come to pay their respects to a friend killed in a crash.

Motorcycle accidents are so common they're often referred to in the press as a public health problem, and it is estimated that each hospital in Caracas admits at least 100 injured motorcyclists every week.

A large trauma ward at one is nicknamed by motorizados the "Bera Room,'' after a Chinese bike manufacturer. On the weekends, the number of admissions routinely doubles.

Prey for gangsters

Gas prices may be the lowest in the world, but Venezuela's annual inflation rate hit almost 50 percent in September, piling the pressure on Maduro to show economic improvements.

There's a wait-list of about a month for the small-engined, most popular bikes, which have almost doubled in price in about two years. Prices for parts have shot up too.

"Tires that were 500 bolivars a year ago cost 1,500 bolivars now,'' says Luis Amundaray, a 22-year-old motorizado at his home high on a hill in the capital's giant Petare slum. "It's difficult.''

Luis' father, Jose, 52, says the young mototaxi drivers are easy targets for gangsters.

"They kill them all the time to steal their bikes,'' he says, taking a seat in the living room beneath an iconic news photo of Chavez, drenched by the rain at his last election campaign rally.

According to Venezuela's national investigative police, the CICPC, about twice as many motorcycles as cars are reported stolen in Caracas. Many are taken violently.

Amundaray had his bike stolen one morning about six months ago, while he was in a Caracas office delivering a letter.

"I came out and it was gone ... I was lucky, I guess,'' he says with a shrug.

Rallies and resources

As the government seeks to engage the bikers, some of the more organized mototaxi groups are among those calling the loudest for clear laws. They argue that lives - and livelihoods - are at risk if an agreement can't be reached.

Big differences on key proposals remain. They include banning motorcyclists from freeways, a prohibition against late-night riding, and parking restrictions to stop bikers blocking the entrances to subway stations, hospitals and other buildings.

Officials also want to stop the common practice of motorizados' speaking on cellphones stuck into the side of their helmets while threading through traffic jams.

Moves to bar giving rides to children are particularly fraught: for every horrific tale of a crash, another barrio resident says there's no other option if they are going to beat the city's gridlock and get kids to school or daycare on time.

One proposal to stop drive-by shootings would ban passengers riding with motorizados, which would destroy the mototaxi business.

According to one study, as many as nine out of ten violent crimes in Caracas involve motorcycles. Last week saw just the latest ugly incident involving a funeral procession: a collision near the La Arana overpass led to a fight between a biker and a car driver, onlookers said. Both men had guns, and both died in the shootout.

In September, the headquarters of the national intelligence agency, Sebin, hosted the first of a series of meetings and workshops to discuss the way forward with motorizados. It also supports rallies like the one held this month in the plaza named after Franco Arquimedes in the tough San Agustin barrio.

Officials provided legal advice and bike registration services out of trailers set up near a graffitied basketball court, as a band played salsa and an MC threw high-visibility safety vests from the stage. The barrio's cable car, which Chavez opened in 2010, whirred quietly overhead.

"We'll approve whatever resources are needed, but you've got to help us by sticking to the rules,'' Torres, the interior minister, told motorizados last month. "Chavez taught us that the law is the same for everyone.''

You May Like

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

US Asks Venezuela to Scrap Ban on Opposition Candidates

State Department criticism comes as US, Venezuela have opened cautious rapprochement in past few months to try to improve relations after more than a decade of acrimony
More

Helicopter Crash Kills 16 Police Officers in Colombia

US-made UH-60 Black Hawk crashes while taking part in counternarcotics operation in department of Antioquia
More

Venezuela Ruling Party Games Twitter for Political Gain

President Nicolas Maduro's approval ratings may be languishing below 30 percent, but on Twitter he's as popular as Pope Francis - or so it would seem
More

Venezuela Prevents Opposition Leader From Running

Election officials reject Maria Corina Machado's attempt to register as a candidate Monday for upcoming congressional elections
More

Mexico City Mayor Vows Full Probe of Journalist Slaying

Journalist groups had expressed fears authorities would not consider Ruben Espinosa's murder as being related to his work, even though colleagues say he fled state he covered fearing for his safety
More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession
More