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News Story
Updated: 01/09/2018 01:19:01AM

Venezuelans scour polluted river for lost treasure, survival

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In this Nov. 30, 2017 photo, Douglas scoops up mud from the bottom of the polluted Guaire River, in search of gold and anything valuable he can sell, in Caracas, Venezuela. Some stretches of the river smell of sewer while others emit a toxic odor of fuel, a stench that stays in ones nose for hours after leaving the water. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Nov. 30, 2017 photo, a river scavenger shows a silver cross he found at the bottom of the polluted Guaire River, in Caracas, Venezuela. Scavengers rake their hands across the river bottom and let the gravel and rocks fall through their fingers, scanning for an earring backing, lost rings or any bits of precious metal to cash in for food. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Dec. 5, 2017 photo, Angel Villanueva, right, looks for pieces of gold and other valuables in the debris he scooped up from the bottom of the polluted Guaire River, alongside other scavengers, in Caracas, Venezuela. As the 25-year-old scavenges alongside his friends, he's mindful that flash flooding leaves just minutes to get out, or be washed away to his death. Villanueva said he buys food with the money he earns that comes from selling what he finds in the river. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Dec. 5, 2017 photo, David Garcia, 19, smokes a cigarette while taking a break during his first week searching the polluted Guaire River for gold and anything valuable he can sell, as he sits on the edge of a drainage pipe, in Caracas, Venezuela. The father of a 4-month-old baby, Garcia said when work dried up organizing block parties he started reselling food he bought after waiting hours in line at grocery stores, but eventually that didn't bring him enough income to feed his family either, so he turned to the river. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Dec. 5, 2017 photo, a medicine bottle hangs from a river scavenger's neck, where he keeps the small pieces of gold and other precious metals he finds on the bottom of the polluted Guaire River, in Caracas, Venezuela. A surge of young men and boys turn each day to the Guaire for survival in Venezuela's deepening crisis, scavenging from the river that runs the distance of Caracas. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Nov. 30, 2017 photo, men sort through the debris they pulled up from the bottom of the polluted Guaire River, in search of pieces of gold and anything of value to sell in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela sits atop the world's largest oil reserves, but the global drop in crude prices and plummeting production under nearly two decades of socialist rule has left many in the country of 30 million people struggling to survive. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

This combo of two photographs shows Angel Villanueva in his living room on Dec. 9 2017, top, and him standing in the Guaire River where he uses a metal bar to break up the bottom of the polluted waterway that runs through Caracas, Venezuela. The 25-year-old who lives with his father first turned to the river about six months ago when he lost his job at a home appliance store. When he took home finds worth $20 the first day, he was hooked, even though his family half-jokingly tell him he smells bad at the end of the day. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Dec. 5, 2017 photo, David Garcia keeps his head just barely above water as he scrapes the bottom of the polluted Guaire River in search of gold and anything of value to sell in Caracas, Venezuela. The 19-year-old father of a 4-month-old baby said it was his first week working in the toxic, sewage filled waters and that his family didn't know this was how he was trying to earn money to put food on the table. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Nov. 30, 2017 photo, Douglas, center, holds a sack in the polluted Guaire River as he and others pull mud up from the bed of the river in search of gold and other valuables to sell, in Caracas, Venezuela. The river and the scavengers in it go largely unseen by Caracas residents speeding overhead on the city's main highway, blocked from view by concrete barriers. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Dec. 7, 2017 photo, Felix Diaz smokes a cigarette next to Angel Villanueva eating a piece of bread as they take a break from scraping the bottom of the polluted Guaire River in search of gold and anything of value to sell, in Caracas, Venezuela. "Working in the Guaire isn't easy. It's hard," said 25-year-old Villanueva. "When it provides, it provides. When it takes, it takes your life," referring to flash flooding. Diaz, a former security guard who lives with his sister, said he started searching the river nine months ago. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Nov. 29, 2017 photo, a river scavenger shows his fingers wrapped with scotch tape, as he digs for gold and anything of valuable he can sell, at the bottom of the polluted Guaire River that runs through Caracas, Venezuela. Scavengers say they often cut their fingers on the river's jagged bottom and their fingers get infected. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Dec. 5, 2017 photo, Angel Villanueva, center, uses a metal bar to break up the mud at the bottom of the polluted Guaire River in Caracas, Venezuela. The 25-year old says people don't want to touch him, or come near because they fear they'll get an infection from him from being in the river, but that he doesn't know of anybody who has died from scavenging the water. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Nov. 30, 2017 photo, Douglas searches for gold and anything valuable he can sell, in the polluted Guaire River in Caracas, Venezuela. The river is a notorious outlet for rainwater from the streets, sewer and industrial waste. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In this Dec. 5, 2017 photo, a man holds on to a branch to lower himself down the concrete bank to the polluted Guaire River where he will search for anything valuable he can sell, in Caracas, Venezuela. Most of the scavengers stream down from hillside barrios, and from afar, they seem to play in the river, but in reality their desperation to earn a living is what pushes them to risk entering the toxic, sewage water. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

By SCOTT SMITH

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CARACAS, Venezuela — Angel Villanueva waded into the dirty brown water of the Guaire River, the putrid channel snaking through Venezuela’s capital, where he hoped to scavenge for a bit of treasure.

He raked his hands across the bottom of the shallow waterway, turning his face away from the foul smell. Then he stood up, letting gravel and rocks fall through his fingers, scanning for an earring backing, lost rings or any other bits of precious metal to cash in for food.

Scavenging alongside two others, Villanueva, 26, kept an eye on the dark clouds buffeting the mountains that surround Caracas. They could burst at any time, leaving him minutes to get out — or be washed away to his death.

“Working in the Guaire isn’t easy,” he said, talking over the roar of traffic on a nearby highway. “When it provides, it provides. When it takes, it takes your life.”

Images of poor Venezuelans eating from garbage piles in Caracas have come to symbolize the deepening economic crisis in what was once one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries. Less visible are the young men and boys who comb the Guaire’s dirty waters for any sliver of metal that might help feed their families.

They appear at times to be playing, shirtless and laughing in groups. The sun reflects off their rounded backs as they bend, scoop up rocks and toss them aside with a splash.

The water is notoriously filthy — a drain for rainwater from the streets and sewers, along with industrial waste and an occasional treasure.

“As long as I can remember, the Guaire was this open sewage,” said Alejandro Velasco, a native of Caracas and professor of Latin American history at New York University. “It certainly seems to reflect the depth and extent of the desperation that this particular crisis has spawned.”

Nearly two decades of socialist rule in which food and oil production have plummeted amid poor management of state resources and a drop in world crude prices have driven many Venezuelans into desperation.

Each morning, scavengers stream down to the Guaire from hillside barrios. Some wrap their fingertips in tape to protect from cuts and infections, ignoring any potential long-term health effects from standing in foul water for hours each day.

Calls to clean up the river and the millions already spent have had no result.

The late President Hugo Chavez acknowledged the river’s filthy state in 2005 and pledged a full cleanup. “I will invite you all to go for a swim in the Guaire — soon,” he vowed on television.

The Inter-American Development Bank in 2012 stepped up with a $300 million loan, launching an ambitious project to build wastewater plants and treat sewage that goes into the river.

Nearly six years later, the water remains filthy, the cleanup project achieving a fraction of its goal. Bank officials declined to comment on the project and Venezuelan government leaders have also been silent on when it might be cleaned.

Some stretches of the river smell of sewage while others emit a toxic odor reminiscent of fuel, a stench that stays in your nose for hours after leaving its banks.

The Guaire again drew attention in mid-2017 when residents protesting President Nicolas Maduro’s rule waded across the river to escape choking tear gas fired by riot officers.

Most days, the river scavengers go unnoticed by other Caracas residents as they speed overhead on an elevated highway, blocked from view by concrete barriers.

A woman pushing a baby stroller across an overpass on a rare vantage point looked down at dozens in the water.

“What a shame for our country,” she said.

Villanueva lives with his father, a retired military man, in one of the poorest and most dangerous barrios in Caracas. He still struggles with his mother’s death from a stroke. She had urged him to go to college.

Villanueva wanted to earn money, but he could only land a series of low-paying state jobs, such as sweeping the streets. The minimum wage for public employees in Venezuela is less than $7 a month at the black market exchange rate.

Food has become increasingly hard to find or afford. An estimated 75 percent of Venezuelans lost an average of 19 pounds last year, according to one recent survey.

Villanueva first waded into the river six months ago, invited by a friend. His first day’s work cashed in at $20, and he was hooked, despite jibes back in his neighborhood from those who tell him to stay away because he smells like the Guaire.

Another scavenger working with Villanueva wears a plastic pill bottle strung around his neck, holding his finds. He pours into his palm broken links of a keychain and an old coin, possibly worth something in Bolivar Plaza, where vendors offer cash for gold.

Villanueva doesn’t know anybody who has died from rising water, but stories abound of others washed away never to be found. Villanueva says gathering clouds and more trash than normal being washed from banks upriver tell him that the water is rising, and he has less than 15 minutes to get out.

He dreams of leaving Venezuela to find a better job. But for now he is taking his chances scavenging in the Guaire.




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