PUERTO ORDAZ, Venezuela (Reuters) - At first sight, Yeyo looks inoffensive: a small, thin adolescent who still wears shorts and talks with a slight stutter.
Yet the 15-year-old from the Venezuelan mining city of Puerto Ordaz, on the banks of the Orinoco river, is already a hardened criminal.
He stole his first phone at 10, then quickly moved on to robbing homes, carjacking and assaulting customers at banks.
For the right money, he kills too.
“You just pull the trigger and that’s it,” the teenager says nonchalantly in the back of a car in the humble neighbourhood, or ‘barrio’, where he is part of a gang of about a dozen members.
“I like the bad life. The power and the money,” adds Yeyo, who takes instructions from older leaders aged between 25 and 30. He has left his family and lives alone though his criminal activities enable him to provide for relatives and sometimes throw lavish parties in the barrio.
Ever more youths like Yeyo are choosing the gang life in Venezuela where state rehabilitation programs are failing, impunity is widespread, and an economic crisis is weighing heavily on the population.
Crime is a top issue for voters ahead of this weekend’s election for a new National Assembly which the ruling Socialists could lose for the fist time in 16 years.
Children’s rights group Cecodap says the number of crimes committed by minors under the age of 18 rose about 70 percent in 2014 and that a child or adolescent was murdered every 10 hours on average, most of them shot dead.
U.N. children’s agency Unicef says Venezuela is the world’s third worst country for murders of young people, only surpassed by gang-plagued El Salvador and Guatemala.
Alejandro Moreno, a Roman Catholic priest whose years living in a poor Caracas neighbourhood have enabled him to study crime close up, needs no statistics. He has witnessed the age of victims and perpetrators dropping in the last two years.
“In the barrios, those with weapons and those behind crime are now kids aged 14, 15 and 16,” laments the white-bearded septuagenarian priest of the Salesian order in his office at a school for children of low-income families.
Violent crime has totally distorted Venezuelan society.
City streets are often deserted after dark. Barrio thugs are role models for many children. Reporters camp at morgues to report weekend death tolls. Even Venezuelans’ beloved beaches are no longer a haven, with gangs sometimes arriving on speedboats to hold people up and take their cash and phones.
Former President Hugo Chavez was a firm believer that attacking poverty, via a fairer distribution of the OPEC member’s oil wealth, would eliminate crime.
But when that did not materialize, his hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro, who won power in a 2013 election after Chavez’s death, took a more aggressive line on crime, sending security forces in to combat the gangs.
There are no government statistics yet for 2015, but last year the official murder rate rose to 69 per 100,000 inhabitants, from 39 in 2013.
That in itself is one of the world’s worst, but local monitoring groups say Venezuela’s real rate is twice as high and the government is hiding the scale of the crime crisis.
Teenagers have been prominently involved in some of the nation’s highest-profile crimes of recent times such as the 2014 murders of a former Miss Venezuela beauty queen and a local folk singer, plus a grenade attack on a police station this year.
In response, the government changed the law to double sentences for violent offenders over 14. But it also protected those under 14 from any legal action, even for serious crimes.
Children’s rights groups complain that is helping create the conditions for youngsters to take up a life of crime, while also reducing their chances of rehabilitation later on.
The law also provides for problem youngsters aged up to 13 to enter state programs for psychological and academic orientation, but those involved say the schemes are few and far between, and counsellors do not have the proper training.
“We have had to attend kids who have sexually abused other kids, kids who handle guns and are in crime gangs,” said Angegeymar Gil, a children’s welfare worker in Caracas’ Sucre district, which includes the vast and dangerous Petare slum.
“The kids are going to keep committing crimes, we know, because the state is not properly prepared to stop them.”
Many young delinquents end up in one of Venezuela’s 32 young offenders’ prisons. At one in a working-class part of the capital Caracas, youths with shaved heads, black boots and blue uniforms chant pro-government political slogans in unison.
“Chavez lives!” a guard shouts.
“The fight goes on!” they reply, repeating a popular government refrain before marching to their cells.
Critics say such a rigidly politicized prison regime amounts to brainwashing but government supporters defend it as much-needed discipline and order.
“It’s a 360 degree transformation of our adolescents,” Prisons Vice-Minister Ramon Garcia told Reuters during a rare media visit to the institution.
For many young criminals, prison is no deterrent, given that 90 percent of crimes go unpunished and it is easy to avoid justice.
Back in Puerto Ordaz, gang members recount how easy it is to pay off the police and prosecutors if necessary.
El Yei is a fellow gang member of Yeyo, older and taller at 17 but lower down the hierarchy because he only joined three years ago. He says he averages at least 150,000 bolivars per month (£15,791) - about 15 times the minimum monthly wage - though one job as a hitman can pay 200,000 bolivars.
“If things get complicated, money fixes everything and you negotiate your freedom,” he laughs, discussing a carjacking he has just carried out.
Though authorities are quick to solve the highest-profile crimes, such as the murder of beauty queen Monica Spear, Venezuelans complain the majority of crimes awaken little interest from police, especially in the poorest areas.
Not far from Yeyo and El Yei’s territory, in the neighbouring city of San Felix, the mud streets and tin-roofed homes of La Victoria suburb are typical of poor areas all over Venezuela where locals often complain of abandonment by security forces.
Del Valle Ruiz, whose nephew was murdered just before he was to graduate as a lawyer, runs a local group called Mothers Promoting Peace that seeks to organise activities for young people as an alternative to crime and violence in San Felix.
Groups like hers have proliferated around Venezuela, trying to combat crime using innovative methods like children’s yoga in a Caracas shanty-town or rugby matches between ex-cons at a ranch used for rum-making.
Ruiz estimates 30 percent of local youths are involved in crime, with children as young as eight and nine used as drug “mules” and shootouts common on street corners.
“That’s our reality. These are desperate days,” she says.
At a meeting in a church in La Victoria on a recent day, some 50 young people were asked who thought their life was at risk. Almost all responded “Yes”.
A few also admitted they were tempted to join local gangs.
“They killed my two brothers here in the barrio. I wanted revenge,” said Jesus, 16. “Then I thought ‘I’ve not met anyone who turns to crime and escapes death’. To die or to suffer, those are the options.”
Additional reporting by German Dam; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Kieran Murray