It is home to more than 3,000 squatters, many of its 45 floors are open to the elements and it is ruled over by a former convict who once traded on his reputation as a violent criminal.
Now the half-finished Tower of David skyscraper in Caracas has acquired international fame, after being portrayed in the US television drama Homeland as both refuge and prison for Nicholas Brody, the fictional former US marine on the run as a wanted al-Qaeda terrorist.
Apparently trapped in a world of gun-wielding thugs and drug abuse, a shaven-headed Brody, played by the English actor Damian Lewis, watches in horror as the gang protecting him throw a thief from a floor halfway up the tower.
That episode struck a chilling chord with residents of the building that has become Venezuela’s real-life homeland for the homeless: it was, they say, just how things used to be. “If someone caused problems, pushing them off a higher storey or shooting them would have been the way of dealing with it,” said Elvin Marchan, the “general manager” of the world’s tallest slum.
Now, they insist, it is different. Admittedly Alexander Daza, better known as El Niño (The Boy), the career malandro (gangster) who has stamped his authority on the community that lives there, may once have resorted to less than democratic methods.
But he is also a born-again Christian with a vision of a peacably functioning community. Among his first moves was to establish a church on one of the lower floors and these days – at least, according to Yusmery Vallecillo, who runs the tower’s library – “El Niño thinks of his community like his flock”. If someone causes problems, he added, instead of being called upon by Mr Daza, “it’s always the pastor who will make a visit”.
The largest of the Venezuelan capital’s estimated 155 “invaded” buildings, the Tower of David was named after David Brillembourg, the banker who financed its development in Caracas’s business district but died in 1993 before it was finished. Soon afterwards came a financial crisis that meant the building was abandoned.
It was taken over by squatters six years ago today and now 28 of its floors are inhabited. Incomplete walls have been bricked up, electricity has been connected and so, recently, has the internet.
Running water reaches only the fifth floor, forcing those above to carry water by hand, a communal task undertaken each Sunday by all males aged between 14 and 60. Lacking lifts, the stinking stairwells with graffiti marking the sites of past murders are the only means of ascending the structure.
Yet the tower’s savage portrayal in Homeland – actually filmed in Puerto Rico – is not entirely justified. Rogelio Alvarez, a newspaper photographer who moved into the tower in 2009, described how such a squat can evolve.
“The first night is always the most chaotic: you arrive at night, it’s all darkness and nobody knows who is next door. Eventually, people will begin to war over territory. They become violent and chaotic, but those individuals don’t last long. After a year or so the community will establish itself. That’s when the peaceful residents have a chance to organise themselves. Then they can choose who stays and decide who goes.”
Now the building’s inhabitants each pay £4 a month towards the tower’s administration and are expected to help with work that needs doing. The penalty for shirkers is to have their electricity cut off for a week.
Each floor elects a “co-ordinator” to handle the day-to-day problems and sends a delegate to an overall board – of which El Niño is president – which decides bigger issues. Before you can live there, you must serve a three-month probationary period. “That’s spent on the ground floor living in a tent,” said Ronny Chapellín, a delegate. “If the applicant doesn’t use drugs, isn’t violent and the community accepts them, they’ll be given a place within the tower. In this way we vet our community to keep it safe.”
It is not all good, some admit. “It’s democratic, but it’s a nightmare,” said Joan Torres, who has a flat on the 28th floor. “The stairs drive me crazy and I’m sick of scrubbing floors. My neighbour’s kids take money off me to do my community chores, but if I don’t attend the weekly floor meeting the co-ordinator cuts off my electricity for a week. I’m sick of it.”
But for many the tower really does provide a refuge from the violence and chaos of Caracas outside – a city plagued by poverty and shortages that has suffered under the long socialist rule of the regime of Hugo Chavez and now his successor, Nicolas Maduro. Caracas has the world’s third highest annual murder rate, with 109 homicides per 100,000 individuals, and is home to vast, sprawling slums. Petare in the east of the city, where two million people live, is the largest slum in Latin America. “It’s horrific,” said Christian Rodriguez, an officer with Venezuelan national police’s urban warfare division. “The thugs that control the area set curfews for the residents. If you are seen in the streets after dark it’s assumed you’re out to kill.”
Compared with that, the Tower of David – which has been allowed by the government to manage its own affairs – seems a haven.
“The last time we saw the national police here was to deal with a domestic dispute,” said Mr Chapellín. “And that was simply to eject the individual from our community. They met us at the gate.”
Maria Benisario, who until two months ago was homeless on the streets of Petare, now monitors the tower’s front gate while serving her three-month probationary period. “In Petare, a thug will shoot you for looking at him the wrong way,” she said. “Here we live in peace.”
Asked the reason for the community’s apparent success, Mr Marchan replied: “We simply went back to the basics.”
Carmen Ortiz, whose well-lit shop serves customers on the fifth floor, elaborated on what that meant: “If your local supermarket can’t supply you with lavatory paper,” she said, “come to the Tower of David – I’ve always got it in stock.”