Choking traffic, causing pileups and even ambushing drivers, Venezuela’s hordes of motorcyclists are an increasingly high-profile problem for the new government of President Nicolas Maduro.
Denounced in the media as a plague,’ they provide essential, cheap transport but are often held responsible for anarchy on the roads and the terrifying number of homicides, kidnappings and armed robberies that beset the South American country.
Some also see them as shock troops of the late Hugo Chávez, who pushed through radical socialist policies during his 14 years in power before dying from cancer in March.
For many opposition-leaning voters, especially in wealthier areas, the bikers are the public face of the underworld.
Most of these motorizados, a term that can be applied to almost anyone who works on a bike, in Caracas say they are just trying to scrape a living as taxis and couriers in a congested city that desperately needs them and are being blamed unfairly for the crimes of a few rogues.
Maduro was handpicked by Chávez, but he only narrowly won the election to succeed him. He faces a huge test to crack down on the lawlessness often associated with the motorizados while still retaining their many working-class votes.
“They’re a problem,” Interior Minister Miguel Torres said, launching a strategy last month to control Venezuela’s hundreds of thousands of bikers. “Not all of them, but there are lots who think they’re in the old Wild West.”
Many behave atrociously, he said, riding on sidewalks, knocking off mirrors as they weave in and out of traffic, and hurling abuse whenever challenged. Some are involved in much more serious offenses, including abductions and drive-by shootings.
In recent months, funeral corteges of dozens of motorcycles have become regular flashpoints, with bikers creating gridlock in order to smash windows and rob drivers at gunpoint.
Venezuela suffers one of the world’s highest murder rates, and violent crime is the No. 1 issue ahead of Dec. 8 municipal elections that are the first major ballot test for Maduro.
The government’s new plan includes high-level meetings with motorizado groups to improve relations with the security forces and get them to agree to some basic rules of the road.
Officials are also trying to win over the bikers by building shelters so they don’t need to huddle under overpasses when it rains – often strangling traffic to a single lane by doing so.
A stuttering government effort to register motorcycles has recorded about 300,000 so far. Local business groups estimate there are about a million.
The explosion in the number over the last decade is due to Chávez-era deals with China that flooded the country with bikes going for a few hundred dollars, and social programs that meant more poor people could contemplate buying their own transport.
For many of the motorizados, Chávez himself took on an almost God-like status.
Motorcycle accidents are so common they’re often referred to in the press as a public health problem, and it is estimated that each hospital in Caracas admits at least 100 injured motorcyclists every week.
Gas prices may be the lowest in the world, but Venezuela’s annual inflation rate hit almost 50 percent in September, piling the pressure on Maduro to show economic improvements.
According to Venezuela’s national investigative police, the CICPC, about twice as many motorcycles as cars are reported stolen in Caracas. Many are taken violently.
As the government seeks to engage the bikers, some of the more organized mototaxi groups are among those calling the loudest for clear laws. They argue that lives and livelihoods are at risk if an agreement can’t be reached.
One proposal to stop drive-by shootings would ban passengers riding with motorizados, which would destroy the mototaxi business.