Flood victims refuse to budge from slums for fear of looters and broken promises

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The Independent Online
RAFAEL CAMACHO, a labourer, is 48 years old and has lived almost his entire life in a narrow gorge beside the Anauco, a normally harmless stream that flows down from the steep slopes of the Cerro del Avila in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

The stream was long ago confined to a concrete tunnel, running beneath a twisting alley jokingly referred to as "the boulevard". No more than a few paces separate the two-storey and three-storey cement and breeze- block homes crammed together on each side.

The Quebrada Anauco neighbourhood is a deathtrap, built with the blessing of politicians who authorised its construction immediately after the overthrow of the Perez Jimenez dictatorship in 1958.

"Perez Jimenez had evicted everyone from here," recalled Mr Camacho, rubbing the three-day growth of white stubble on his chin. "He sent us all off to uncleared land in Petare" in the east of the city. No sooner had the general fled into exile than the community was rebuilt, under an emergency plan brought in by the founders of modern Venezuelan democracy. The dictator's slum clearance project was abandoned.

Today, Mr Camacho looks down, from where his top-floor window ought to be, on to a scene of utter devastation. When the Anauco, swollen to 20 feet above its normal level, swept down the hill a week ago, it took the upper levels of most houses with it, with many of their inhabitants.

Venezuelan authorities said yesterday that deaths from the flash floods and mudslides could reach 30,000, making it one of Latin America's worst natural disasters this century.

The lower floors are filled with greenish-brown liquid mud, and debris, ranging from tree branches to twisted car parts and household effects, is piled up along "the boulevard".

"My great friend, my best friend, Sandy, he lived over there," Mr Camacho said. "He died when a wall fell on him. He was a good man. If there's a heaven, he's up there."

It is claimed that as many as 400 people died along the length of this gully alone. "I personally know of more than 30," said Mr Camacho. But the people refuse to move, having no faith in politicians' promises. President Hugo Chavez's plan to send them to the interior meets with almost total rejection.

"What we want is to move back into our homes," said a bricklayer, Dionisio Martinez, 38. "We know they want to evict us from here, but they're not sending us off to some mountain where there are no jobs."

Mr Martinez disputes the riverbed is unsafe for housing. "This was a natural phenomenon - it's no one's fault."

Jesus Contreras, 29, is in his second year of an economics course. He nearly died trying to save his books and papers, with some pedigree dogs he was breeding. The dogs survived, but all his course work is under several feet of mud. "Chavez is mistaken," he argued. "He says there'll be work, but he's not thinking of these people's average educational level. Many can't read or write. How are they going to live?"

In theory, these poor neighbourhoods are fertile ground for Mr Chavez's "fifth-republic" rhetoric. The former paratroop colonel, and failed coup leader, has a strong following among the 80 per cent of Venezuelans who live in poverty. But distrust of politicians of all kinds is deeply ingrained here.

"Seven or eight years ago, there was a similar disaster in a neighbourhood not far away," Mr Contreras said. "They promised the survivors the sun and the moon - furnished houses, you name it. It never happened, and a couple of years later the people went back and built their ranchos (slum dwellings) again."

There is another reason why people will not move away: looters. The people still clinging to the wrecks of their houses cannot afford to lose the little they have left. They believe organised gangs, and not just individuals, are responsible.

"We're ready to turn ourselves into vigilantes, and we've been approaching contacts about getting some weapons - sticks, pistols, whatever," Mr Contreras said. The police can do little about it, he says. "The cops here are just kids, they're more scared than we are. What they should do is send in the army or the national guard."

The government faces growing calls to do more about the looters, especially down on the coast, in Vargas state, where crime levels are said to have risen alarmingly.

Paratroop battalions patrolled La Guaira yesterday, where desperate survivors ransacked the main cargo port on Monday. But although the President has not ruled out a curfew, he is reluctant to suspend civil rights.

The riots of January 1989, when the government of Carlos Andres Perez used the armed forces against looters and hundreds died, remain fresh in the popular imagination. Those events are generally regarded as having led directly to the widespread support given to the two coup attempts of 1992, and hence to Mr Chavez's landslide election victory last year.

"I don't vote anyway," said Mr Camacho. "My vote is abstention - to punish the politicians." If the government's promises prove as flimsy as those of its predecessors, that sentiment could take hold.

The Venezuelan embassy in London issued an appeal for international assistance, and invited donations to: Venezuela Relief Fund, Account No 75151012, Riggs Bank NA, West End Office, Sort Code 40 61 53, 60 St James's Street, London SW1A 1LE