MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we're going to head to Latin America where hair has been very much on the minds of many people - particularly women in Venezuela. That country has one of the highest crime rates in the world but for the last month the big crime story hasn't been about people getting robbed of their phones or their cars but for their hair. About a month ago, local news outlets in the country's second-largest city, Maracaibo, reported that hair thieves, including a gang of women thieves known as The Piranhas, were targeting women with long hair. CNN had a report that featured these two women who spoke to Venezuela's Panorama newspaper.
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR #1: You have to see it to believe it. We're not going to be able to have long hair anymore. As a woman this is something traumatic.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR #2: It's happening downtown at the beach or the mall where you find a lot of young women. The thieves grab them by the hair, pull out some scissors and they cut it. They then sell it at beauty or hair salons.
MARTIN: Now it has to be said that some local and foreign reporters have been skeptical about how many times this has actually happened. But apparently the concern is such that Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro felt he had to speak about it at a public appearance last month. We wanted to talk more about this so we called freelance journalist Andrew Rosati in Caracas to tell us more. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
ANDREW ROSATI: Hi, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So what exactly has been reported in the local press about these hair crimes?
ROSATI: There was a few reports that came out of the western city of Maracaibo that a group or a gang of people were attacking young women and would approach them and one guy or another would take scissors and remove the hair. That being said, that kind of rippled throughout the country, a lot of he-said-she-said and everyone has been talking about it in salons, on the streets.
MARTIN: But we mentioned that there's been some skepticism about how widespread this has actually been. But you talked to a number of stylists and people who work in the beauty industry and apparently there really is very real fear about this.
ROSATI: Yeah, I talked to a stylist in the western state of Tachira, which is very close to Maracaibo, where this is happening, and she was telling me that her clients are talking about it. I talked to a woman in the central of Venezuela and she said she's afraid to go on the street with her hair out in anything other than a ponytail. And a friend of mine told me that she was scolded by some national guardsman for letting her hair out long.
MARTIN: Now why would this be - why is this plausible? Let me just put it this way - why is this plausible as a crime? Like, how much do these hair extensions cost?
ROSATI: Well, the reports I've been hearing is that they can be flipped either across the border in Columbia or locally for anywhere between the equivalent of $500 and $800. And that being said, there's a very intense beauty culture here. Women - very common to have plastic surgery and hair extensions are also very popular. So these things, in theory, could be flipped.
MARTIN: So we're having two different theories about this - one is that the crime rate is high anyway and so, you know, thieves are looking for anyway to make money. Other people are saying it is the beauty culture and I want to hear little bit more about what that means. In fact, we talked with entertainment journalist Sarah Kafrouni (ph) about this and this is what she said about it.
SARAH KAFRUONI: Beauty for me is everything. Here in Venezuela, we always have to be wonderful and have makeup all the time. And we wear makeup to go to the supermarket or walking on the street, everywhere we go - we wear makeup. To be beautiful is a symbol of femininity here in Venezuela. I don't know, it's like part of our culture. And also going to the gym. Women here like to exercise and keep in shape and we are afraid to be fat.
MARTIN: Is that your experience too, Andrew? Is that what you've found since you've been reporting on the country?
ROSATI: Yeah, I actually wrote an article recently for a cosmetics publication and I found that behind the economic giants Chile and Brazil in the region, Venezuelans spend more per capita on cosmetics than any other country in the region. Like I said, plastic surgery is very popular. Women for their quinceanera birthday parties - that's their 15th birthday parties - will ask their parents for breast implants. My colleague recently quipped to me that many of her - many women were wearing makeup even in the gym. So everywhere you go you'll see women looking good in heels. It's very, very uncommon to see a woman in sweatpants or just very casual clothes.
MARTIN: And I understand that Venezuela boasts more Miss Worlds and Miss Universes than any other country. And that you were telling us that the Miss Venezuela pageant is like the Super Bowl there.
ROSATI: Yeah it's definitely a spectacle. It's an event. Everyone - it doesn't matter if you're poor, if you're wealthy - everyone views it like - as Americans would view the Super Bowl. And it's so popular that this year they actually made a reality TV show in the elimination process approaching the pageant. So it's ingrained in the culture in every sense.
MARTIN: Presumably, by the beauty culture you mean one's particular standard of beauty. I mean, are we really mainly talking about a white European standard of beauty? Or is this across racial groups too? I mean, 'cause the obsession with like long hair is one particular aesthetic. I mean, so is that really what we're talking about here?
ROSATI: I mean, I think there is certain styles that are across the board here. One of this would be the long hair but certain things like lipstick, eyeliner, face whitening. Even - it may sound funny - but even many will even dye their hair blonde to even - to mimic European styles. That being said, Venezuelans are - many Venezuelans are darker skin tone so it's kind of - it leads one to turn their head.
MARTIN: I don't want to gloss past the whole question of kind of the overall crime rate here. And whether this is just kind of one piece of it. When we say that Venezuela has one of the highest crime rates in the world, what are we talking about here?
ROSATI: We're talking about over 20,000 homicides last year. It is the highest homicide rate in all of Latin America. And it's surpassing countries such as Colombia, where there's been an ongoing civil war for the past 50 years and Mexico where the drug war has been ravaging the country in the last decade.
MARTIN: So you're saying 20,000 homicides in a country of how many people?
ROSATI: About 29 million.
MARTIN: About 29 million, which is significantly smaller than Mexico.
ROSATI: Yeah, I believe the statistic is about 55 people per 100,000.
MARTIN: So what are people thinking here? Do they think that these hair thieves is just part of the - sort of the bigger picture or do you think it really is a thing?
ROSATI: Well, I think in one sense you have women being like oh, wow, this is another thing I have to worry about. Not only do I have to watch my pocketbook or I have to care for my cell phone or even my car - but now my hair. But at the other time, it's just - I think it really reflects what people care about here. And beauty is something very important to a lot of Venezuelans. And when this is happening whether it's true or not, it certainly has people talking all throughout the country.
MARTIN: You know, we mentioned earlier that Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro, at a public event last month, called on the police and legislators to act against these crimes against these hair - these hair thieves. Have they taken any specific steps to do that?
ROSATI: Well, as I mentioned earlier, in the city of Maracaibo, where the reports were initially coming from, people have been told to wear their hair up, salons have been advised not to buy secondhand hair - or, that is, people approaching them selling these locks of hair. And women are, well, looking over their shoulder making sure no one is approaching with scissors.
MARTIN: Andrew Rosati is a freelance journalist based in Venezuela. We reached him in Caracas. Andrew, thanks so much for speaking with us.
ROSATI: Thanks again.
MARTIN: How are you wearing your hair, by the way?
MARTIN: Baseball cap all the time?
ROSATI: No, no, no. It's below my ears, so I'm good.
MARTIN: OK, thank you.
ROSATI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.