In Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, the gang is targeting women whose flowing locks, once removed, can be made into natural hair extensions and sold to beauty salons.
The robbers operate by holding their victims at gunpoint and ordering them to tie their hair into a ponytail, before removing it with a razor blade.
Top quality stolen hair can fetch the equivalent of £200.
“The demand for hair extensions has risen by 30 per cent since the crimes started”, said Jhonatan Morales, a beauty salon owner who spoke to state television channel Globovision.
“The market is more competitive now. We judge the hair on its tone, condition and colour”, he said. “But my salon doesn’t buy from street vendors as we don’t know where the hair has come from”.
“When they came up to me I thought they were going to take my phone”, said Mariana Rodriguez, one of the gang’s numerous victims. “But before I had time to think they were gone and I had no hair”.
The city’s response to the rise in hair theft has been to position guards in the shopping centres where the crimes have been most prevalent.
“We are responding with force to these escalating crimes”, said Maracaibo’s mayor Aveling de Rosales in a statement last Monday. “However, we recommend that women avoid wearing their hair down in public places as it facilitates the theft”.
Maracaibo, a city of four million close to the Colombian border, is particularly prone to gang crime given the large amount of smuggling which occurs in the area.
Gang activity in the region is funded by the purchasing of basic goods such as lavatory paper and rice, the prices of which are heavily subsidized by Venezuela’s socialist government. The goods are then smuggled across the border into Colombia where they are sold for a profit at normal market rates.