CARACAS (Reuters) - Two men on motor-bikes approached a broken-down vehicle in Caracas one day earlier this month in what could have been a nightmare scenario in one of the world’s most dangerous cities where roadside robberies and murders are an everyday occurrence.
The men took up positions either side of the green four-wheel-drive vehicle, with a 33-year-old female schoolteacher behind the wheel, and guarded it until a tow truck arrived two hours later to cart it off to a garage.
The two guards are employees of a new mobile application called “Pana” - “Buddy” in Venezuelan slang - which dispatches security crews to stranded drivers who request help.
It’s a reflection of how Venezuelans are turning to technology to overcome the dangers and nuisances of living in the crisis-hit country. Mobile payment apps, for example, attract customers who do not have enough paper money, which is in short supply due to hyperinflation.
Domingo Coronil who started Pana with his brother Juan Cristobal last September said they have carried out more than 5,000 successful driver rescues on the streets of the capital.
“People’s reactions have been amazing. Some start crying, while others take selfies,” the 46-year-old security consultant said in an interview.
Violence in Venezuela has shot up during the oil-wealthy country’s spiral into a five-year economic crisis and political meltdown. Many Caracas residents refuse to go out at night due to security fears, and wealthier Venezuelans often travel in bullet-proof cars with bodyguards.
There were almost 27,000 violent deaths in the country last year, with Venezuela having the second highest murder rate in the world after El Salvador, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a local crime monitoring group.
National homicide rates rose each year from 67 murders per 100,000 people in 2011 to 92 in 2016, before dipping to 89 last year, according to the group.
The homicide rate in Caracas alone was 104 per 100,000 people in 2017, the group said. New York, in contrast, had a homicide rate of 3 per 100,000 last year and most European cities had less than 1.
A recent Gallup study placed Venezuela at the bottom of its 2018 Law and Order index, with 42 percent of surveyed Venezuelans reporting they had been robbed the previous year and one-quarter saying they had been assaulted.
“The fear people have isn’t you’ll be robbed in your car, but that you’ll be killed or kidnapped,” said Roberto Briceno Leon, the observatory’s director.
Venezuelan authorities say nongovernmental groups inflate crime figures to create paranoia and tarnish President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government. But even the most recent official national murder rate - 58 per 100,000 inhabitants for 2015 - was still among the world’s highest.
About 700 people have joined Pana because of the high crime rate, Coronil said, each paying an annual fee of 4,800,000 bolivars, or about $2 to $4 on the black market, to request help as many times as they want at any hour day or night.
The company receives a customer’s geo-locations at its headquarters and dispatches two of its 28 security guards to the breakdown. Coronil hopes to expand coverage to roads outside Caracas and offer corporate plans.
Vanessa Mikuski, the schoolteacher in the van, tapped the button in Pana’s smartphone app when her car broke down without warning that June morning in the east of Caracas. A friend had recommended she download it last year.
The two Pana security guards, who were not armed and wear jackets with the app’s logo, kept pedestrians and drivers away while Mikuski waited and arranged for her children to be picked up from school.
“You feel much more secure ... And at that price, it’s great,” she said.
Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Jeffrey Benkoe