They are known in Venezuela as “piranas” - thieves who cut off women’s hair, sometimes at gunpoint, in the street and in shopping centres to sell as wigs and hair extensions to beauty salons for up to $500 a go.
Local police in Venezuela’s second city of Maracaibo, where most of the alleged hair thefts have taken place, say they have not received any formal complaints from victims.
Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has put down such alleged cases of stolen locks as rumours fuelled by the opposition. In recent weeks, the left-wing candidate for mayor of Maracaibo, Miguel Angel Perez Pirela, said recent press reports about piranos is “fiction”.
But for a handful of women, who have spoken to the local media since June about being victims of hair theft, the matter is not fiction or rumour, but a real assault.
Take the case of 21-year-old Mariana Rodriguez, who spoke to Venezuela’s El Nacional newspaper. She says two women came up to her in a street in downtown Maracaibo last month and cut off her shoulder-length hair using gardening shears. She didn’t report the incident to the police.
“They stole from me. I went home crying. I had to go to a hairdresser so that they could give my hair, what was left of it, some kind of shape,” Rodriguez is quoted as saying in El Nacional.
There’s also Eliana Leal, 32, who says two men on a motorbike approached her and said they would kill her if she didn’t let them cut her long black hair in June, according to Venezuela’s La Verdad newspaper.
At first glance, this new crime trend can be simply seen as criminals cashing in on Venezuela’s lucrative beauty business, where hair extensions using real locks are always in demand.
And in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world and high levels of impunity for crimes, hair thieves, it seems, are so far getting away with such crimes with little fear of being prosecuted.
However, it’s not just a new crime amid high levels of violence but a symbol of violence against women and their bodies, according to a recent editorial on hair thieves in El Nacional.
“This type of attack, in addition to the humiliating procedure the victim experiences (the cutting of hair), it is an act that violates the integrity of the body, which has been spoiled,” El Nacional's editorial said.
The editorial also alludes to stealing hair as part of Venezuela’s damaging culture of beauty - a culture that fuels plastic surgery which is seen as commonplace, and the desire for women to look a certain way, with long, often straight, hair.
In Venezuela, as in most countries across Latin America, long hair is a symbol of femininity and forms part of a woman’s sexual identity. It’s something women often aspire to have. Across the region, most beauty queens, soap opera stars and celebrities boast long, manicured hair.
Venezuela has produced more Miss Universes and Miss Worlds than anywhere else in the world. It’s not uncommon for parents to pay for their daughters to have a nose job or breast implants as a present for their 15th birthday.
According to El Nacional, all this has led to ‘”violence” against the body, which helps to promote crimes like hair robbery.
“There is violence against a (women’s) own body, the desire to alter it, to impose on it, and to give it a distinct form than the original. The phenomenon of operating on a body to change its shape has become normal in Venezuela,” El Nacional’s editorial said.
While that’s the case, and women continue to desire long hair, it seems the country's hair robbers are not just fiction, as some local politicians would lead Venezuelans to believe.