MARACAIBO, Venezuela — Poly wanders through Maracaibo, an industrial city in northwest Venezuela. She is on the hunt for some crack or some bazuco, a type of smokable coca paste used by the poorest in the country.
At 10 hits to the dollar, it’s the cheapest of drugs in a country suffering from runaway hyperinflation, where many families struggle to afford basic food and the brand new one million bolívar bill is worth $0.50.
Yet even the street drug trade, usually a business that thrives despite economic hardship, is feeling the pain from the country’s desperate financial crisis. Due to spiralling poverty in Venezuela, those with addictions are struggling more than ever to come up with the money to buy drugs.
I’ve known Poly, a 32-year-old mother of three children who no longer live with her for almost 15 years. She gets paid 10 million bolívares [$5] for working a day in a restaurant. You need around two million bolívares, which in reality is a huge wad of around 50 paper bills, for a dose of crack. Most crack and heroin dealers have stopped taking bolívares simply because bolivar bills are undesirable, scarce, bulky and almost worthless.
But the bazuco dealers are different. They will take any payment. As well as bolivar notes, they also take food products in exchange for drugs, like corn flour or rice. They also accept “fancy” soap such as Dove. This of course is an incentive for users to shoplift, but also makes a nice profit for dealers, who’ll take four bags of flour for the cost of one.
It is bizarre that in a country next door to Colombia, the biggest cocaine producer in the world, most people in Venezuela struggle to afford even low grade cocaine products such as bazuco.
One way drug users have found, amid the chaos of hyperinflation, to gather the money needed to keep the drug market afloat is at the huge, snaking queues of cars and trucks outside gas stations.
Venezuela suffers, among many other things, from a severe shortage of fuel. Gas stations get fuel maybe once a week, making queues that can last days and can be several kilometers long. People fight for spots and have to sleep in their cars. But this situation has created a new way of scraping together cash for people in need of drugs.
David is a 35-year-old unemployed handy man. He smokes crack and bazuco, and these days he's getting most of his income saving places in the line for car owners who lack the stamina to endure the waiting game. He can make a nice profit, averaging $10 a night, a couple of times a week—an obscene amount of money in Venezuela these days, as the minimum wage is around $0.60 a month.
In Maracaibo, the market for heroin has almost completely collapsed due to the economic and migratory meltdown. We could only find one place selling it. One bag, enough to fight withdrawal but barely to get high if you’re an every day user, costs 2.5 million bolívares, a little over a dollar. To give some perspective, the last time I bought a bag of heroin as a user, in the middle of 2016, it cost me the equivalent of 0,0035 bolívares in today’s money.
But bazuco is the bottom of the barrel, so it’s easier to find sellers and buyers. Bazuco tends to disappear for a couple of days at a time when the price of the dollar goes down. Since dealers see more bolívares, they don’t want to lose money, so they’ll hide the stuff while monitoring the fluctuations of the currencies as if they were traders on Wall Street.
Not everyone finds it hard to afford drugs. Despite the collapse of the economy, there is still a market for high quality cocaine among Venezuela’s upscale buyers. I spoke to one of several high-end dealers in the city who deliver to upper- and middle-class cocaine users and use the banking app Zelle. A little less than a gram of high quality coke can be bought for the equivalent of $10 in the city. He does not have huge numbers of customers, but they spend enough to sustain a niche market.
Yet there is one thing in common among five dealers I spoke to: No matter what they sell, none of them are doing better than five years ago. All of them miss their clients, many of whom, out of desperation, have migrated away from the crisis in this county to live abroad. They can even pinpoint where in the world their buyers have ended up, missing them as if they are family.
Caracas, the nation’s capital, seems less affected by the crisis. Andrés Antillano is a professor of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) working in the Institute of Penal Sciences. His research into drug markets in the city found that drug buying has stabilised slightly since dollarization came into place, but admits drug users have “less purchasing power”.
The sheer size of Caracas and the professionalization of its drug market has made it more resilient than regional markets, said Antillano. The market is mainly reliant on weed sales, with cocaine uncommon and heroin even more so.
In cities such as Merida in the Andes, or Cumana in the east, things are more like Maracaibo, according to local drug treatment agencies. Narcotics Anonymous in Merida and the Espada de David Foundation in Cumana both told VICE World News that they’re dealing more with alcoholics, because rum is now the same price as fizzy water.
Back in Maracaibo, Poly finished her Tuesday empty handed, and desperately called her boss to change the payment to cash, which she managed. She got a $10 bill for two days work. So the next day we made the walk yet again. But her $10 bill presented another problem. No one had any change.
The old lady that finally did sell her crack said she only had $2 change, so Poly ended up buying $8 worth of crack instead of $6, enough to load a pipe 16 times. That change issue is the same many Venezuelans have when buying groceries, because they don’t have change, you end up forcibly purchasing more to even up the amount. It happens with food. It happens with crack.
But Poly was finally happy, taking some 24 hours and surely 10 kilometers of walking to score once. That’s where we parted ways.