efe-epaMaracaibo, Venezuela

Igro Alvarez once was a mechanic on offshore oil rigs that produced vast riches.

Now, he digs with pick and shovel to help residents in a city reeling from blackouts and scarcity to access another vital underground resource: water, according to a Dow Jones Newswires report made available.

"We can't depend on the state anymore," the 47-year-old Alvarez, shirtless and barefoot, said as he took a break from using a pulley to haul buckets of dirt from a 60-foot well he was digging next to an apartment complex here. "Now everyone has to fend for themselves."

The sudden spike in demand for Alvarez's artisan wells underscores the desperation - and resourcefulness - of Maracaibo's 1.7 million people. More than any other Venezuelan city, Maracaibo has become the symbol of urban dystopia, complete with roaming bands of looters, blackouts that last days, paralyzed commercial districts, piles of trash and hospitals without water.

President Nicolás Maduro's government puts its dwindling resources into ensuring that the capital, Caracas, gets as much light and water as possible to keep its poor from revolting.

Maracaibo, a sweltering city near the border with Colombia, has, in contrast, become the face of the nation's meltdown.

There is power for only a few hours a day. Some days, it comes on unexpectedly in the middle of the night.

Those lucky enough to buy meat or poultry quickly cook it for fear of having it go bad when the power is out. At night, residents trying to find relief from the insufferable heat have taken to sleeping on their rooftops.

"I cry whenever the power comes back," said Catalina Quintero, 40, the mother of a baby girl. "I don't know if it's happiness or sadness, but I cry."

Lines of motorists snake for miles around gas stations in a city once considered Venezuela's version of Houston, an oil epicenter near where the country's first oil discoveries were made more than a century ago.

Businesses arm vigilante groups after police and National Guard troops failed to control widespread looting in March.

Instead, officers can be seen manning fuel pumps, charging drivers bribes of about $3 to fill up.

Margelis Romero, 42, administrator of the Brisas del Norte Hotel, stood by helplessly on a recent day as gangs stripped the five-story building of everything from bathroom sinks to copper wiring. They only left smudges of blood where they had injured themselves.

"This is the law of survival of the fittest," she said in a Dow Jones Newswires report made available to EFE.

Maracaibo was long known as a prosperous city of excesses: super-sized portions of fried foods and gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles powered by near-free fuel that originated from offshore oil facilities illuminating the adjacent lake.

International oilmen came for business conferences where whiskey, served by beauty queens, flowed freely.

Its residents' penchant for heavy air conditioning led many to joke that Maracaibo was Latin America's coldest city.

"If you had a meeting in Maracaibo, you had to bring a sweater," recalled Humberto Calderon, a former Venezuelan oil executive.

But those days are a distant memory.

With most of the city in the dark and taps dry, residents line the sides of roads with plastic drums and beg drivers of trucks that deliver water for a fee to spare some drops.

On a recent day, people hauled wheelbarrows with jugs to fill up at a hose connected to an underground tube running adjacent to a brook polluted with sewage. A local newspaper dubbed it "the stream of despair."

"It's outrageous," said Yetsabeth Yepes, 19. She said she and her 2-year-old son, Hébert, were left with fungal infections on their scalps from consuming and washing with the water. "The government says it's helping the poor, but they have us living like street dogs."

Omar Prieto, governor of this state, said in a recent address that delivery trucks and power generators owned by private businesses would be seized at his discretion for use at hospitals.

He didn't respond to an interview request. The Maduro administration says power and water rationing could continue for months or even a year.

Slum dwellers angry about living without water have taken to blocking streets in a desperate call for attention. That has in the past led armed, pro-government gangs called colectivos to beat protesters.

"They come with guns and threaten us if we protest. What can you do?" said Vanessa Gasca, a slum resident.

Some are turning to people like Alvarez, the former oil-rig mechanic turned well digger. It is dirty, backbreaking work for him and two partners, who squeeze into a narrow, ever-deeper abyss trying to strike an aquifer. His take: $20 a week.

One recent day, Carlos Vivas, who lives in an apartment building that had hired Alvarez, watched as the crew dug what he and neighbors hoped would soon be a well brimming with water.

"We're going back in time to live in the rural Venezuela of 40, 50 years ago," Vivas said. He then turned his attention to Alvarez. "Hey, did you hit the first drops of water yet?"

Food is also a daily concern, with scarcity in this part of Venezuela even worse than elsewhere because of smugglers who transport milk, cheese and meat into Colombia, where they can be paid in valuable foreign currencies.

The shortages have pushed residents like Hugo Portillo, a small-business owner, to commit what would have been unthinkable in the past: looting stores.

With power out for five consecutive days in March, the 38-year-old had to throw out all the meat, chicken and butter from his refrigerator, which had cost him a month's wages. He, too, then ran into a supermarket with a mob of looters.

"And this will keep happening," said Portillo, who has a 2-year-old daughter. "How can I let my baby feel hunger? It's a struggle to survive."

That fight to feed the hungry at whatever cost is prompting business owners to protect themselves however they can.

Nelitza Briñez, shift manager at a large department store, said the owners hired 30 gunmen for $100 per person per day to stand armed outside.

"Now, we're one of the few standing," she said.

Jose Morante, owner of an auto body shop, can't afford such costs. Instead, his mechanics wear holsters carrying handguns during the day. At night, he and his employees take to the roof with shotguns.

"I feel like we're at war against the Taliban here," he said.

By Kejal Vyas

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