| CARACAS, April 2
CARACAS, April 2 It boasts a helicopter landing
pad, glorious views of the Avila mountain range, and large
balconies for weekend barbecues.
Yet this 45-storey skyscraper in the center of Venezuela's
capital Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block:
it is a slum, probably the tallest in the world.
Dubbed the "Tower of David", it was intended to be a shining
new financial center but was abandoned around 1994 after the
death of its developer - financier and horse-breeder David
Brillembourg - and a massive run on Venezuela's banking sector.
Squatters seized the huge concrete skeleton in 2007,
then-President Hugo Chavez's socialist government turned a blind
eye, and now about 3,000 people call the tower their home.
Though many Caracas residents view it as a den of thieves
and a symbol of rampant disrespect for property, residents call
the "Tower of David" a safe haven that rescued them from the
capital's crime-ridden slums.
(Please see a photo essay at reut.rs/1s2KAZK)
It appears - at least for now - to have escaped the violence
and turf warfare that followed similar building takeovers in
Caracas over the last decade, often launched under the banner of
the late Chavez's self-styled revolution.
Communal corridors are freshly-polished, rules and rotas are
posted everywhere, and non-compliance is punished with extra
"social work" decided by a cooperative and floor delegates who
make up a mini-government.
"Without ethics or principles, all is irrational," reads one
typically didactic poster in a public area.
Work was sufficiently advanced by the time the tower was
abandoned for the first 28 floors to be habitable, though the
squatters have had to brick up dangerous open spaces, and put in
their own basic plumbing, electrical and water systems.
Families pay a 200 bolivar ($32) monthly "condominium" fee,
which helps fund 24-hour security patrols.
'SAFER INSIDE THAN OUT'
"There is far more order and far less crime in here than out
there," says 27th-floor resident Thais Ruiz, 36, exuding
contentment from an armchair as her kids play and her husband
fulfils the family's once-a-week corridor sweeping duty.
Like many inhabitants, Ruiz abandoned her shack in the
violent Petare slum of east Caracas in 2010 to build a spacious
four-bedroom apartment in the tower where she lives with her
husband and five children.
The family paid a small fee for a space that was supposed to
have been a fancy corner office with an amazing vista, and at
first lived in a tent. But over the years, given the absence of
elevators, they hauled bricks, furniture, water tanks - and even
barbecue equipment - up 27 flights of stairs to build a home.
"I never lived in an apartment before. We're so comfortable
now," she says. "We had to get out of Petare and the daily gang
shootouts. Once we found a dead body on our doorstep. Now look,
we can leave the door wide open."
Few deny the conditions can be precarious.
One young girl fell through a hole in the wall to her death
a few years back, and a drunk motorcyclist rode off an edge and
killed himself. Police have raided the building a couple of
times searching for kidnap victims, adding to its notoriety.
The building showed up as a Dantesque backdrop to an episode
of U.S. TV drama Homeland, with on-the-run terrorist-suspect
character Nicholas Brody held there. Though filmed mainly in
Puerto Rico, the 2013 episode includes shots of the real tower
and has a scene where a gang tosses a thief off the building.
But it's the unique quality of "Tower of David", whose
intended name was the "Confinanzas Financial Center" before the
group went under, that has won it attention beyond Venezuela.
Documentaries and analyses of it have showed up at trendy
art festivals around the world: one exhibition about the tower
won a prize at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.
The sometimes romantic view of the tower tends to overlook
criminal activity associated with "invasions," which were common
long before Chavez but proliferated early in his rule.
One woman dubbed "Commander Manuitt," a self-described
pro-Chavez activist, helped lead a wave of invasions in Caracas
in 2003. She was arrested in 2004 on charges of inciting
violence, resisting authority, and illegally carrying firearms.
That year, a rival "invasion" leader who frequently clashed
with Commander Manuitt was shot in a hit-man style murder.
Neighbors in the area surrounding the tower have complained
of frequent robberies, ATM hold-ups, and drug trafficking taking
place under the noses of authorities.
Residents acknowledge the tower had problems with crime but
insist miscreants have been kicked out over the last 18 months,
and that a new leadership is keeping the house in order.
"Everyone thinks we're a bunch of thieves and thugs in here.
We are not 'invaders', we're occupants of an empty space,"
argues another resident, Luis Raul Pinto, 63.
The former government employee drives a taxi by day before
clambering up to his roomy apartment every evening. When he
first arrived four years ago, he slept in a hammock.
"Sometimes, I'm driving customers and they look up at the
tower and tut 'Look at those criminals in there'. When I drop
them off, I tell them 'Hey, I live in the Tower of David, I'm
not a criminal, come and have a coffee with me some time.'"
Though the tower could be viewed as an indictment of his
housing policy, inhabitants appear fiercely "Chavista".
Posters of Chavez, under the phrase "Eternal Commander,"
adorn walls. Some have photos of him by their beds. The former
president, who died last year of cancer, spoke affectionately of
the tower's residents several times.
"Chavez's legacy is the values you see right here in this
tower," said Nicolas Alvarez, a 38-year-old filmmaker who first
entered the tower to give photography courses. He ended up
moving in after getting married and struggling to find a home.
"What Chavez did was to rescue the sense that we all have
the same right to live on this planet."
A hierarchy of sorts does exist, however.
Though requiring more leg-power to reach, the higher floors
are cooler and fresher, without the whiff of sewage at the
bottom. And only the top floors have large balconies where
neighbors sit around, listen to salsa music, or sizzle meat.
The tower also boasts shops, a dentist, and a beauty salon.
On a 27th-floor terrace bathed in the setting sun, a group of
men played dominoes on a recent evening.
"Who needs to go the Hilton?" quipped one.
(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel
Wallis and Kieran Murray)