Runners Venezuela

The popular jogging group Runners Venezuela wants to reclaim the streets after dark.

Nighttime curfews are the norm in Caracas, Venezuela's capital. Public parks close before sunset. Most universities have stopped offering evening courses. Open-air bars operate only inside malls, with heavily armed guards at the entrance. Armored cars can be hired for a night out. It is rare to spot anyone walking after 9 PM.

Caracas is the second most violent city in the world after San Pedro Sula in Honduras, according to a Mexican NGO, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice. In its most recent annual study, the Council found that Caracas has a murder rate of 134 per 100,000 citizens. By comparison, Detroit, with one of the highest rates of violent crime in the United States, has 47.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.

Venezuela is the only country in South America that has seen a consistent rise in its homicide rate since the 1990s, according to the United Nations. The reasons are varied but include the increased trafficking of cocaine from neighboring Colombia. Murders are not the only worry: Kidnappings and armed robberies are common, too.

A policeman patrols the district of Petare in Caracas. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

For a Caraqueño, these statistics translate into a long list of don'ts. For example, if you work late and want to exercise when the daytime Caribbean temperatures cool down, things get tricky.

Unless you like jogging and can keep up with a group.

Over the past four years, an organization called Runners Venezuela has been gathering big crowds for nighttime runs. The idea was born out of frustration. Thirty-year-old Sanmy Subero had started jogging to shed some extra pounds. But the streets were becoming dangerous, and a spate of kidnappings increased the risk.

He joined some friends to jog in the upper-class district of Chacao, which had a reputation as being safer. They later took to Twitter to publicize their runs.

Now Runners Venezuela is a club with more than 300 members who meet three nights a week. Participating has no cost, and members are divided up according to how many miles they want to run.

"It seems that we managed the impossible," says Subero. "We reclaimed the streets at night. People now can exercise later in the day."

The idea is simple: safety in numbers. And it's spreading around the city. Chacao's Plaza los Palos Grandes, where Runners Venezuela gathers, now hosts weekly yoga and pilates classes in the evenings. A cycling group has started meeting there, as well as people who rap and do hip-hop dancing. A nearby park hosts fitness classes until 7 PM. Other jogging groups are sprouting in different parts of the city.

Of course, its reach is limited. These activities take place in the early evening hours and haven't had any impact on the frightening murder statistics. A couple of joggers have been robbed since the group started. Organizers tell participants to stay together at all times and not to wear expensive clothes or carry gadgets that can attract attention.

But reclaiming the streets, even for a few hours at dark, can have a positive effect on how people perceive their city.

"When you have the opportunity to practice yoga, or jog or cycle, in a city like Caracas, your perception of the city changes," says Lucía Losada, a local psychologist. "You feel more comfortable, you feel safer, because sports help unplug from all the things that one usually perceives as risky or dangerous."

Runners Venezuela reveals an important characteristic of Caraqueños: their resilience.

People run away from tear gas during an anti-government protest in May. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Earlier this year, anti-government protests erupted in Caracas and throughout the country. The levels of violence, together with high inflation and shortages of basic goods, motivated the unrest, which left more than 40 dead among both government supporters and opponents. Between February and June, daily clashes took place only blocks from where the club gets together. The unspoken curfew started even earlier than usual.

"We stopped our activities, and it was difficult starting up again because people were afraid," Subero says. But the protests died down and the club now meets regularly again.

"This type of movement makes us aware that one should never give up. We Venezuelans can always overcome difficulties," Subero says. It may be just going for a run, but, he adds: "It is not only a drop in the ocean."

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