By Hannah Dreier
The first thing the muscled-up men did was take my cellphone. They had stopped me on the street as I left an interview in the hometown of the late President Hugo Chavez and wrangled me into a black SUV.
Heart pounding in the back seat with the men and two women, I watched the low cinderblock homes zoom by and tried to remember the anti-kidnapping class I'd taken in preparation for moving to Venezuela. The advice had been to try to humanise yourself. "What should we do with her?" the driver asked. The man next to me pulled his own head up by the hair and made a slitting gesture across his throat. What might a humanising reaction to that be?
I had thought that being a foreign reporter protected me from the growing chaos in Venezuela. But with the country unravelling so fast, I was about to learn there was no way to remain insulated.
I came to Caracas as a correspondent for AP in 2014, just in time to witness the country's accelerating descent into catastrophe.
Venezuela had been a rising nation, buoyed by the world's largest oil reserves, but even high global oil prices couldn't keep shortages and rapid inflation at bay.
Life in Caracas was still often marked by optimism and ambition. My friends were buying apartments and cars and making career plans. On weekends, we'd go to pristine beaches and drink imported whiskey at nightclubs that stayed open until dawn. There was still so much affordable food that one of my first stories was about a obesity epidemic.
Over the course of three years, I got used to carrying bricks of rapidly devaluing cash in tote bags to pay for meals. We still drove to the beach, but began hurrying back early to get off the highway before bandits came out. Stoplights became purely ornamental because of the risk of carjackings.
Ruinous mismanagement turned the collapse of prices for the country's oil in 2015 into a national catastrophe. As things got worse, the socialist Administration leaned on anti-imperialist rhetoric. The day I was put into the black SUV in Barinas coincided with a Government-stoked wave of anti-American sentiment. The Drug Enforcement Administration had just jailed the first lady's nephews in New York on drug trafficking charges, and graffiti saying "Gringo, go home" went up around the country overnight. An image of then-President Barack Obama with Mickey Mouse ears appeared on the AP office building.
I was trying to make small talk with the men who had grabbed me when we pulled past a high, barbed wire-topped wall, and I glimpsed the logo of the secret police. Flooded with relief, I realised I hadn't been kidnapped, just detained.
Inside, the men trained a camera on me for an interrogation. One said that I would end up like the American journalist who had recently been beheaded in Syria. Another said if I gave him a kiss I could go free. "How much does the US pay you to be their spy?" one asked.
The Government of President Nicolas Maduro blames the US and right-wing business interests for the economic collapse, but most economists say it actually stems from government-imposed price and currency distortions.
In the early days, the shortages seemed almost whimsical. My Venezuelan friends were used to going on Miami shopping sprees. When I made trips home, they asked me to bring back perfume, leather jackets, iPhones and condoms. I usually took two near-empty suitcases to carry back the requests, plus food and toiletries for myself. As the crisis deepened, the requests became harder to fill, and traced the outlines of darker personal dramas: Medication for heart failure. Pediatric epilepsy drugs. Pills to trigger an abortion. Gas masks.
Things were still somehow getting worse. The first time I saw people line up outside the bakery near my apartment, I stopped to take photos. How crazy: A literal bread line.
Then true hunger crept into where I lived. People started digging through the trash at all hours, pulling out vegetable peelings and soggy pizza crusts and eating them on the spot. That seemed like rock bottom. Until my local bakery started organising lines each morning, not to buy bread but to eat trash. People waited for their turn to hunt through black bags of bakery garbage. A young woman found a box of muffin crumbs. A teenage boy focused on finding juice containers and drinking whatever remained.
The collapse has been so quick that the trappings of flusher times have not yet disappeared. At the same time, crime has become so pervasive that it fades into the background of even the swankiest places. People rarely call for help, and with the murder rate surging to become the highest in the world, it's easy to understand why. Thugs killed a young doctor at the end of my block when he accidentally dropped his cellphone during a daylight robbery. Mindful of the doctor's fate, I handed over my whole purse when I was mugged a few months later.
In the end, the secret police cut me loose a few hours after they arrested me, with a warning not to return to Barinas. Finally, this summer, I decided to leave the country
I thought of Nubia Gomez, who does cleaning and maintenance in my apartment building and cried when I told her I was leaving. Sadness is just under the surface for so many here. Gomez's daughter has moved to Spain, and her friends and clients are also departing.
Trying to say something comforting, I suggested things might get back to normal before too long. "They won't," Gomez said as she wept. "Not for a long time."