Living in Venezuela’s Half-Built Squatted Skyscraper

The magnificent view from the apartment made them grateful for their homes in the tower. Yet it wasn’t the majesty of the landscape beyond the building’s walls that inspired this gratitude; far more likely it was the dire conditions and deadly slums of Caracas beneath.

Furthermore, this feeling of safety belied the lack of protection afforded to the inhabitants here, for in many places where there should be windows are mere holes in the external walls. And where playing children ought to have been sheltered behind concrete and glass, instead they were exposed to the elements in a half-built hallway. In fact, at the end of this corridor is a sheer drop hundreds of feet down to the street below.

This is the Centro Financiero Confinanzas, better known as the “Tower of David” – an incomplete skyscraper in the downtown area of Venezuela’s capital city. The structure stands abandoned and looks almost post-apocalyptic when viewed from afar, but until recently it was teeming with life and industry, representing a makeshift community to the hundreds of families who had made the building their home.

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Construction on the building got underway in 1990, the aim being to produce a towering structure reflective of Caracas’ reputation around the time as a global financial hub. However, the edifice’s creator died in 1993, and the country was rocked by an overwhelming banking crisis the following year. Consequently, work on the tower ground to a halt with less than two thirds of it finished.

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More recently it has been estimated that almost three quarters of Caracas’ residents survive in slums, while the city’s yearly murder rate is among the highest on the planet. Given this, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that squatters moved into the building – nicknamed the Tower of David for its investor and developer David Brillembourg – 13 years after the construction workers downed their tools.

The initial trespassers pitched tents in the tower, forming a makeshift camp that remained in place for several months. But when the government didn’t move these people along, they eventually ended up occupying 28 of the building’s 45 stories. The skyscraper’s incomplete state, however, meant that its inhabitants gave new meaning to the phrase “living on the edge,” as many walls and windows are still missing throughout the structure.

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Still, the building’s inhabitants made their new dwelling more homely through the use of bricks and found materials. “I’ve been there since the beginning,” Miriam Figueroa told The Guardian in 2014. “I carried every single one of those cinder blocks on my back up all those flights of steps.”

Nevertheless, despite those inside having to resort to such rough-and-ready means, the tower was surprisingly well furnished in places. Indeed, kitchens, televisions, beds and bicycles all made the slow journey up through the stories, gradually aiding the skyscraper’s transition from urban graveyard to bustling community.

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The task of moving in home comforts was even more grueling owing to a lack of elevators within the tower. Residents could have made use of the building’s parking lot to drive a motorbike as high as the tenth level, and a seemingly endless flight of stairs after that would have greeted those living on the highest floors. However, it wasn’t all discomfort and hardship in what was dubbed the “world’s tallest squat.”

A rudimentary electric service, for instance, provided the community with temperamental lighting and power, while running water was available up to the fifth floor. What really made the tower exceptional, however, were the stores and other establishments that sprung up within its walls: everything from clothes retailers and beauty salons to daycare facilities and internet cafes.

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And in spite of the obvious hazards of living in an unfinished building, perhaps it was the existence of these amenities that made many residents and visitors feel that the tower was something of a haven from Caracas’ dangerous downtown.

“Thank God this building is safer than many others,” one resident told writer Justin McGuirk in 2012. Meanwhile, after a 2014 visit to the tower, photographer Jorge Silva observed that he felt “safer inside than out on the street.”

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This sense of community was likely influenced by the actions of Alexander Daza, or “El Niño,” a local gangster who styled himself as the leader of the tower’s inhabitants. Daza claimed to be a born-again Christian and even set up a church within the structure. “El Niño thinks of his community like his flock,” a Tower of David resident told The Telegraph in 2013.

Daza in addition supposedly implanted a democracy of sorts. The people who lived there paid rent, while each story also had a supervisor to solve resident issues. The building even had a twice-weekly council meeting. Plus, if occupants didn’t have the money to construct their own home, they were offered something akin to a welfare check.

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This system of order is, though, somewhat in contrast with the local and international portrayal of the Tower of David as a lawless den of depravity. And the violent image was not helped by the tower’s negative depiction in season three of Showtime’s hit TV series Homeland.

That said, one resident suggested to The Telegraph that Homeland’s portrayal of his larger dwelling was an accurate reflection of its past. He explained, “If someone caused problems, pushing them from a higher story or shooting them would have been the way of dealing with it.” And despite Daza’s religious beliefs, some visiting journalists found him to be at best an untrustworthy character.

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There were, of course, hard-working families hoping to make a better life for themselves in the skyscraper. Yet even notwithstanding an intimidating authority figure and the place’s public image as a hotbed of drug trafficking and prostitution, life in the Tower of David was always going to come with its own risks.

One vivid example of these hazards came in 2011 when a little girl tragically lost her life in a fall from one of the building’s upper levels. Some residents would hold such dangers at bay by keeping their children under close guard, while others used their cinder blocks to create solid external walls shielding them from the huge drop.

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However, the thriving community of the Tower of David is no more. In July 2014 a controlled evacuation of the building was begun. Reluctant to term it an eviction, government minister Ernesto Villegas instead called the process a “coordinated operation, in harmony with the community in the tower.”

The evacuation plan was to move inhabitants of the tower in stages to new housing outside of the city center. At least two inhabitants complained about the shift away from their self-built community to a new and unknown area; however, they had little choice in the matter. The operation took ten months, but the last residents of the tower were finally removed on May 27, 2015.

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When reporters explored the building following the eviction, they found that some residents had written thank-you notes on the walls of their dwellings. The Tower of David may mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but for those who lived there it was simply home.

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