Francisco Davila, a 27-year-old self-admitted drug addict, was beaten up recently by residents of a middle-class Caracas neighborhood. His crime? Scattering garbage as he rummaged through bags for anything of value.
Undeterred, he was back at it just two days later, searching sacks in front of the apartment buildings lining a Caracas street. He shows off a child's water pistol and a broken cellphone, plus stacks of office paper and cardboard that he sells to recyclers.
Welcome to the front lines of Venezuela's new class war. For the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, record oil prices have fed a major surge in consumer spending - and with it, mounds of trash. The trash, in turn, attracts scavengers, some of the estimated 60 percent of Venezuelans mired in poverty. With Caracas's notoriously irregular sanitation services, the capital's littered streets have become a battleground where moneyed and impoverished Venezuelans clash, and rats and cockroaches have become commonplace.
"[Neighbors] want to resolve the problem with drastic measures," says Rodolfo Martinez, director of the Luis Ordaz Center, where 80 homeless people live and undergo rehabilitation. "They want to take the law into their own hands."
Trash troubles have even entered Venezuela's polarized politics. Venezuelans are increasingly asking why their oil-rich government, which is spending hundreds of millions of dollars buying weapons abroad, can't manage to collect the garbage regularly.
"[The government] says it doesn't have the resources," says Dinora Fajardo, who sells telecommunications equipment. "So how is it that they are investing in arms?"
Caracas's maze of refuse and rats isn't the only problem. When scavengers find - or steal - electric cable, they burn off the rubber to expose the valuable copper wiring inside. This further pollutes the city air, which is already gray from the emissions from cars and the use of cheap, heavily subsidized gasoline. Trash fires, which can smolder for hours, are also common in central Caracas.
The city is trying to respond. The mayor has promised to spend another $25 million on personnel and equipment to solve the trash problem by the end of October. And recently, under a tent along a downtown retail avenue, officials announced an initiative in which stores are to separate their trash so that the homeless will no longer be tempted to break open bags and spill their contents.
Potentially, 30 percent of the city's trash could be recycled, but changing attitudes will be difficult, says Luis Vilchez, Caracas's secretary for social development. "We are great generators of garbage. The Venezuelan culture isn't environmentalist and [is] much less into recycling."
Nelson Loyo, manager of a variety store, reacted dubiously after receiving several free plastic bags from the city. He says he'd tried many times to persuade scavengers not to touch his store's garbage.
"I tell them, 'That bag's full of rotten food,' " he says. "But they say, 'Maybe there's an aluminum can inside,' and they dump it out."
For his part, Freddy Bernal, mayor of Caracas's largest borough, recently designated neighborhood "social control units" to monitor trash collection. He also said that a proposed municipal ordinance would hit businesses that dispose of trash improperly with fines of up to about $400.
But none of this is likely to discourage scavengers like "Petare," a young man who goes by the name of a poor Caracas neighborhood. He boasts earning about $40 weekly by finding and selling aluminum cans. "They say that in some Asian countries people live on $1 a day," he says. "But here you can find $10 a day right on the street."
Meanwhile, some residents have taken to solving the trash problem themselves. One afternoon, several homeless people were industriously sweeping clean the often-strewn passage where many of them sleep. A neighbor says she paid them "a little spare change."
"Now, at least you can breathe here," she explains.