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In violence-racked Venezuela, Pokemon Go as protest

Esteban Rojas
A man plays Pokemon Go game on his phone inside the Venezuelan National Assembly on July 28, 2016 in Caracas (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)

Caracas (AFP) - When Cristian Fragoza takes to the streets of Caracas hunting the virtual monsters of Pokemon Go, he knows the risks he's running are real -- his cell phone, and maybe even his life.

But the 18-year-old philosophy student says playing the augmented reality game is a form of protest against the violent crime that has made Venezuela one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

"We're the resistance against the criminals," said Fragoza, who's gotten hooked on the wildly popular game since it arrived in Venezuela on August 3.

He proudly shows off one of his favorite Pokemon catches: a Bulbasaur, a green reptilian creature, which he captured at the edge of a neighborhood called 23 de Enero, considered one of the most dangerous in the Venezuelan capital.

It takes guts to play the game in a country that registered 17,778 homicides last year.

With a homicide rate of 62 per 100,000 inhabitants, Venezuela is the third-most murderous country in the world, behind gang-plagued Honduras and El Salvador, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Fragoza said he hunts his Pokemon cautiously.

"I go two blocks away, in a neighborhood where they've known me since I was a kid, and then I come back," he said as he perched over his cell phone playing outside a Caracas shopping center with a group of friends he met online.

"Not everyone dares to take out their cell phone in public to play," said Alejandra Salazar, 22 -- who has to play on borrowed phones, since hers was recently stolen. She was not playing Pokemon Go at the time.

- Your Pokemon or your life -

Around 500 people in Venezuela were killed between October 2015 and March 2016 for refusing to hand over their cell phones during a robbery, according to watchdog group Alto al Crimen (Stop Crime).

The violence is being fueled by a brutal economic crisis that is causing severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.

Venezuela, the country with the world's largest oil reserves, is reeling from the collapse in crude prices over the past two years.

Amid the crisis, Pokemon Go online communities have emerged, urging players to "catch them safely."

"Your phone, and especially your life, are worth more than a Pokemon," says one message.

"Our primary mission was to launch a safety campaign," said Luis Vargas, a 30-year-old salesman and owner of the Twitter account @PokemonGo_Vzla.

To reduce the risk, players play in groups, in high-traffic areas or ones with a police presence, he told AFP.

Carlos Reina, 22, has launched a similar account, @PokemonGo_Ccs.

He agreed players need to be careful, but said they "manage to get by."

His mother even joins him on occasion.

"Sometimes she takes my phone and starts playing herself," he said with a laugh.

"This thing is pretty fun. It's healthy entertainment in a country like ours," said his mom, Leida Castillo.

- Pokemon politics -

But the Pokemon monsters are unwelcome guests as far as one important Venezuelan is concerned: embattled President Nicolas Maduro, who has blamed the game for causing a "culture of violence."

During a weekly TV address last month, the socialist leader called Pokemon Go an example of the problems with capitalism.

"It creates virtual realities, all related to arms, to violence, to death," he said.

The politics of Pokemon got even messier when a lawmaker from the opposition -- which controls congress and is trying to force Maduro from power -- posted a picture on Twitter of a Pokemon he captured in the legislature while waiting for a session to start.

"Some people are catching these creatures not just in the street but at their workplaces, and are shameless enough to say so," said Maduro's right-hand man, Diosdado Cabello.

"That's why they'll never return to power."

He and Maduro are likely not thrilled that the game has reached the final resting place of their late mentor, the leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez.

According to Fragoza, there are three PokeStops -- landmarks to get useful items in the game -- near the former president's tomb.