Ready for anything: students at a martial arts class in Caracas
By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas
Ask most residents of Caracas what the city's biggest problem is, and the vast majority will say "crime".
Official figures show a huge increase in violent crime in the Venezuelan capital over the past decade, reaching a total of 130 murders per 100,000 population last year compared to 63 per 100,000 in 1998.
Caracas is now Latin America's most violent major city, having overtaken the likes of Medellin, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City in recent years.
Beyond the figures too, there are some horrendous anecdotes, which Caracenos trade like gossip: the man who handed over everything he had but was still shot at point blank range, the teenager who was shot dead in his wheelchair, the former boxer who was tortured and hanged by his attackers for his motorbike.
There can be no doubt that in the shanty towns of the capital life is not easy.
Little wonder then that demand for self-defence classes is at an all-time high. Some martial arts teachers report a five-fold increase in their attendance levels over the past few years.
"My classes have become noticeably larger in the past months," says Karin Yamur, who teaches taekwondo in different parts of the city.
"It's the same for other instructors I know too. Unfortunately, because the security in the city is so bad, people want to learn how to handle themselves a little better. They want to know how to react properly when something happens to them on the street."
Others too have seen a significant rise in the popularity of their sport.
"We had around 200 or 300 people at our first annual competition," says Enrique Aroca, the founder of Combat Karive, a martial arts school on the edge of a rough neighbourhood in the west of Caracas, "but at our last event, there were over 5,000."
The students at Combat Karive, however, do not study the Eastern martial arts of karate, taekwondo or judo.
Instead, Mr Aroca teaches his students ancient techniques in indigenous self-defence.
If an Indian warrior is attacked unawares, he will make one quick move, to the throat or the achilles tendon, which incapacitates the attacker long enough to get away
He came to Venezuela in the early 1960s from the Canary Islands and began to build up the trust of Indian leaders and shaman in parts of the Orinoco.
Mr Aroca teaches methods of fighting learned from tribes in the Amazon, the Andes and the Caribbean, and he says many of them are unchanged since the times of the conquistadors.
"Most people don't believe it, but if you go to the remote border regions, the Indians there live exactly as they have for 200, 300, even 500 years," he says.
Mr Aroca says his school is the best means to preserve such aspects of their culture.
"There's a whole body of work looking into indigenous culture. But what do the academics look at? They study how the Indians lived, how they married, what they ate... They don't study them as warriors."
For many of his students, it was the link with Venezuela's past that attracted them to Combat Karive over other self-defence classes.
To look at Yvonne Carrero, you would not be able to tell she was capable of inflicting some serious pain. A slight woman in her twenties, she is unassuming and quiet. But she is one of the school's best fighters, and of indigenous origin herself.
"It gives me a sense of identity," she says. "In order to know where I'm going, I've got to know where I came from. That's what I like most about this school. It's not simply about training you for competitions - it prepares you for life."
Self-defence Caracas style
As part of the disciplined regime at Karive, the pupils must stay in school, achieve good grades and keep away from alcohol and drugs.
As such, Mr Aroca says, many drop out early on. But those who stay the course say that the classes have provided them with the right approach, and physical condition, for the dangerous streets of Caracas.
"I live in a very violent world," says Toybel Ramos in a reference to Antimano, one of the most notorious neighbourhoods in the capital.
"Where I'm from there are a lot of people who want to attack you or take advantage of you. You need to be ready, both to defend yourself physically and to try to pull yourself out of the shanty town through your studies. Next year I'm hoping to begin university," he adds with a shy smile.
The students at the school learn a range of fighting techniques, including Indian wrestling holds and indigenous forms of kick-boxing.
They become competent with a series of Indian weapons from the double edged knife, known as a "waika", to Amazonian spears and, of course, a blow pipe.
While few attackers in Caracas would give their victims the chance to produce any weapon, let alone a blow pipe, Mr Aroca says the concepts his school teaches remain as useful on the streets of the capital as they do in the forests of the Amazon.
"If an Indian warrior is attacked unawares, he will make one quick move, to the throat or the achilles tendon, which incapacitates the attacker long enough to get away. In an urban environment, that's all we're trying to do too. To avoid conflict, get away quickly and stay alive."
President Hugo Chavez has said he will make the high crime rates in Venezuela his priority ahead of elections in 2012.
So far, however, there has been no tangible sign of the security situation improving any time soon.
Instead, Venezuelans will continue to go to self-defence classes in an effort to equip themselves better for the violence in the cities.
And perhaps some of the less well-known parts of the country's indigenous culture will be preserved along the way.
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