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

UN Ambassador Power Highlights Plight of Women Prisoners

She launches the 'Free the 20' campaign, aimed at profiling women being deprived of their freedom around the world More

Satellite Launch Sparks Spectacular Light Show

A slight delay in a satellite launch lit up the Florida sky early this morning More

Fleeing IS Killings in Syria, Family Reaches Bavaria

Exhausted, scared and under-nourished, Khalil and Maha's tale mirrors those of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries who have left their homes in the hopes of finding a better life More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

Video Scientists Predict Wet Winter in Drought-stricken US West

Strong El Nino could bring relief to dry areas, but punishing droughts to other regions around the globe
More

Guatemala Congress Opens Door for Prosecution of President

With 132 of 158 lawmakers approving a measure to strip immunity, prosecutors now can file criminal charges against Perez Molina just like any other citizen
More

Rio Olympics Official: Water Will Be Clean for Games

Recent report says waters so contaminated with bacteria and viruses from human sewage that athletes could become ill
More

UN: El Nino Could Be Among Strongest on Record

Meteorologists say climate models suggest water temperatures in the tropical Pacific are likely to exceed 2 degrees Celsius above average
More

Awaiting American Avalanche, Cubans Rush to the Beach

Locals flood resorts ahead of possible end to the US travel ban that would open the gates to American tourists and bump up prices
More

At Halfway Mark, Mexican President's Approval at New Low

Enrique Pena Nieto faces struggling economy, litany of security and conflict of interest scandals that have undercut his support
More