Caracas squatters in abandoned 'Tower of David'

Tony Gosling tony at
Mon Oct 28 14:40:53 GMT 2013

Caracas squatters in real 'Tower of David'
Now, they insist, it is different. Admittedly 
Alexander Daza, better known as El Niño (The 
Boy), the career malandro (gangster) who has 
stamped his authority on the community that lives 
there, may once have resorted to less than democratic methods.
But he is also a born-again Christian with a 
vision of a peacably functioning community. Among 
his first moves was to establish a church on one 
of the lower floors and these days – at least, 
according to Yusmery Vallecillo, who runs the 
tower's library – "El Niño thinks of his 
community like his flock". If someone causes 
problems, he added, instead of being called upon 
by Mr Daza, "it's always the pastor who will make a visit".
The largest of the 
capital's estimated 155 "invaded" buildings, the 
Tower of David was named after David 
Brillembourg, the banker who financed its 
development in Caracas's business district but 
died in 1993 before it was finished. Soon 
afterwards came a financial crisis that meant the building was abandoned.
It was taken over by squatters six years ago 
today and now 28 of its floors are inhabited. 
Incomplete walls have been bricked up, 
electricity has been connected and so, recently, has the internet.
Running water reaches only the fifth floor, 
forcing those above to carry water by hand, a 
communal task undertaken each Sunday by all males 
aged between 14 and 60. Lacking lifts, the 
stinking stairwells with graffiti marking the 
sites of past murders are the only means of ascending the structure.


Yet the tower's savage portrayal in Homeland - 
actually filmed in Puerto Rico - is not entirely 
justified. Rogelio Alvarez, a newspaper 
photographer who moved into the tower in 2009, 
described how such a squat can evolve.
"The first night is always the most chaotic: you 
arrive at night, it's all darkness and nobody 
knows who is next door. Eventually, people will 
begin to war over territory. They become violent 
and chaotic, but those individuals don't last 
long. After a year or so the community will 
establish itself. That's when the peaceful 
residents have a chance to organise themselves. 
Then they can choose who stays and decide who goes."
Now the building's inhabitants each pay £4 a 
month towards the tower's administration and are 
expected to help with work that needs doing. The 
penalty for shirkers is to have their electricity cut off for a week.
Each floor elects a "co-ordinator" to handle the 
day-to-day problems and sends a delegate to an 
overall board – of which El Niño is president – 
which decides bigger issues. Before you can live 
there, you must serve a three-month probationary 
period. "That's spent on the ground floor living 
in a tent," said Ronny Chapellín, a delegate. "If 
the applicant doesn't use drugs, isn't violent 
and the community accepts them, they'll be given 
a place within the tower. In this way we vet our community to keep it safe."
It is not all good, some admit. "It's democratic, 
but it's a nightmare," said Joan Torres, who has 
a flat on the 28th floor. "The stairs drive me 
crazy and I'm sick of scrubbing floors. My 
neighbour's kids take money off me to do my 
community chores, but if I don't attend the 
weekly floor meeting the co-ordinator cuts off my 
electricity for a week. I'm sick of it."
But for many the tower really does provide a 
refuge from the violence and chaos of Caracas 
outside – a city plagued by poverty and shortages 
that has suffered under the long socialist rule 
of the regime of Hugo Chavez and now his 
successor, Nicolas Maduro. Caracas has the 
world's third highest annual murder rate, with 
109 homicides per 100,000 individuals, and is 
home to vast, sprawling slums. Petare in the east 
of the city, where two million people live, is 
the largest slum in Latin America. "It's 
horrific," said Christian Rodriguez, an officer 
with Venezuelan national police's urban warfare 
division. "The thugs that control the area set 
curfews for the residents. If you are seen in the 
streets after dark it's assumed you're out to kill."


Compared with that, the Tower of David – which 
has been allowed by the government to manage its own affairs – seems a haven.
"The last time we saw the national police here 
was to deal with a domestic dispute," said Mr 
Chapellín. "And that was simply to eject the 
individual from our community. They met us at the gate."
Maria Benisario, who until two months ago was 
homeless on the streets of Petare, now monitors 
the tower's front gate while serving her 
three-month probationary period. "In Petare, a 
thug will shoot you for looking at him the wrong 
way," she said. "Here we live in peace."
Asked the reason for the community's apparent 
success, Mr Marchan replied: "We simply went back to the basics."
Carmen Ortiz, whose well-lit shop serves 
customers on the fifth floor, elaborated on what 
that meant: "If your local supermarket can't 
supply you with lavatory paper," she said, "come 
to the Tower of David – I've always got it in stock." 
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