Shelter: World’s Tallest Slum

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Photo by Saúl Briceño.

The unfinished tower soars above Caracas’s financial district. Below its half-glassed windows the city spreads, magnificent. This view was meant for wealthy bankers, in offices with glossy tables and heavy paperweights whirring with the activity of a booming economy, but has instead become the privilege of schoolteachers, taxi drivers, auto mechanics and even policemen who are carving out a life on their own terms in the vacuum of a collapsed economy and a government that fails to meet their needs.

Abandoned in 1993 after the death of the developer and subsequent crash of the Venezuelan economy, the tower stood uncompleted and empty for more than a decade before the invasores started moving in. The tower is one of hundreds of buildings that have been “invaded” by squatters since 2003, including warehouses, shopping malls, apartment blocks and office towers. Home to more than 3,000 people, the conspicuous 45-story Torre David is known as the world’s tallest slum.

Outside the tower, people say it is rife with drugs and violence, run by malandros, or street thugs. Inside, families are grateful for the measure of security and permanence they’ve found between the concrete walls high above the city. They say it is safer than the slums they come from, and at least it keeps out the rain. On polished concrete floors, beside open stairways and down corridors that end in sheer drops, families have claimed their homes, erecting makeshift walls from plastic sheeting, bricks, and cinder blocks carried up more than twenty flights of stairs.


And though the tower’s legal status is precarious, life inside has taken on a measure of order perhaps more certain than life on the streets these days, where widespread corruption, unchecked inflation and food shortages have sparked months of protests and violent police crackdowns. Residents have installed plumbing and electricity and pay a monthly fee of about 150 bolivars, or $24, to cover maintenance and security. Stories on rule enforcement differ—according to Daza, the born-again ex-convict who leads the tower’s cooperative, each floor is represented by a delegate, and tower council meetings address problems that cannot be mediated on the floor level. He denies the rumors of brutal executions — bodies dismembered and thrown in pieces from the upper floors — of those who do not step in line with the malandros.

Despite the gruesome stories, people are clamoring to get in. Families pull personal connections or petition to the building’s admission committee for entrance . The open corridors are full of children playing, the buzzing of clippers from hair salons, the smell of freshly fried corn-flour empanadas.

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