When a friend texted me that coffee and toilet paper were on the shelves of an eastern Caracas supermarket, I raced to El Patio outlet hoping against hope that the increasingly scarce household items would still be available.
No such luck. When I arrived at 9 a.m., the line was the length of a football field and a dozen bachaqueros, dressed in athletic wear and bluejeans, were leaving the store. They lugged nylon bags packed with coffee, milk powder, cooking oil and sugar, all highly coveted items in today's Venezuela. Slinging the precious commodities over their shoulders, they sped away on motorbikes.
When armed soldiers finally allowed me inside, all that remained were a few bottles of dish soap and packages of corn flour. The bachaqueros, a term derived from the word bachaco, meaning a voracious ant-like insect, had snapped up what I needed most.
Bachaqueros are the new protagonists in Venezuelans' daily drama of buying food and medical essentials. They are the foot soldiers in a new and highly mobile black market relying on social media, strength in numbers, motorbikes and the convenience — at a price — of home delivery.
Often moving in motorized packs, bachaqueros specialize in ferreting out what items are available and where they can be found among the various government-sponsored food outlets and privately run stores. The bachaqueros depend on inside informants and satiated buyers who tip them off before word gets out to most people.
Purchasing the goods with cash, they resell them through informally arranged delivery networks set up through social media. They sell milk powder, chicken and disposable diapers at outrageous markups, counting on Venezuelans to pay premiums to avoid the hassles of la cola, which means standing in line but which has become a synonym for the act of shopping itself.
The new high-tech, high-speed hoarders have replaced many of the street vendors of black market goods shut out in a crackdown by President Nicolas Maduro's government. Maduro has declared "economic war" on black marketers — and also on some private retailers, including the Farmatodo pharmacy chain and Dia a Dia supermarkets, which he nationalized after accusing them of market manipulation.
Maduro has deployed the armed forces to stanch the flow of as much as 15% of heavily subsidized Venezuelan food and fuel products to black markets in Colombia, Brazil and Caribbean countries. But the enforcement actions have brought no visible relief.
The government has also begun requiring shoppers to register their national identity card numbers or fingerprints as a means of monitoring purchases, although the electronic infrastructure needed for such controls to work are not yet apparent, at least from my vantage point in line.
The government in mid-March set up a warehouse in the Yaguara barrio in east Caracas where goods confiscated from contraband vendors and offending retailers are resold at cut-rate prices. Ernesto Villegas, the Caracas regional government head, declared that the facility "will resolve the scarcity problem."
But Caracas residents are still lining up. Instead of going to the store once every seven to 10 days as I had up to a year ago, I now swing by three or four times a week, spending up to three hours on each trip, hoping to buy something, anything, that I need, but never knowing what will be available.
If anything, things seem to be getting worse. The government this month halved the weekly ration of three essential products: corn flour, to about 41/2 pounds per person; milk powder, to about 2 pounds; and toilet paper, to two rolls.
Multiply my experience by the millions of Venezuelans forced to endure this routine, and you have what can only be described as a monumental waste of time and productivity. It's also dangerous: Armed robberies are common as thieves target cellphones while shoppers are in line.
Residents of Caracas for the most part wait patiently, knowing that authorities will shut down the stores at the first sign of unrest, leaving them empty-handed. But social media recently reported looting in Cagua. In January, the national guard intervened at a store in Avila, on Caracas' northern edge, firing shots in the air after disturbances were reported.
How did it get this bad in a nation said to have the largest oil reserves in the world? That's what I and other sufferers ask ourselves. Six months ago, only cornmeal and cooking oil were rationed, at four packages and about 11/2 gallons per person, respectively.
President Maduro blames Washington and "imperialism." Recent polls indicate the vast majority of Venezuelans think Maduro is mismanaging the economy.
As is so often the case, we Venezuelans try to see the comical side of the situation. A few weeks ago, Henrique Capriles, the opposition governor of Miranda state, sent out a tweet upon Maduro's return from an international trip. It read:
"Maduro, did you bring milk?"