CARACAS - They already endure staggering levels of street crime. Now, Venezuelans have something new to fear - muggers who chop off their hair.
Members of the scissor-wielding street gangs are called "piranas", after the flesh-eating fish.
The gangs sell the stolen hair to salons which fashion it into braids in this oil-rich and beauty-obsessed country.
Some disconsolate women have given up and had their long hair cut off preemptively to donate it to children who lose theirs to cancer.
Vanessa Castillo cried as her pretty, long jet-black hair was snipped for charity. "It is better to give it to kids with cancer than have the piranas steal it," she said, sniffling.
She spoke at a donate-your-hair-to-kds day at a beauty salon.
"Is this what we have come to? For there to be people who steal your hair is a form of chaos," said Castillo, a 26-year-old dental student.
The alarms went off last month in Maracaibo, Venezuela's second largest city, with the first complaints of hair-stealing groups made up of men and women.
Braids sold to salons for use as hair extensions can go for as much as $1,000 (S$1,300), depending on how long, thick and healthy the hair is.
"It is one thing to give it away because you want to and another that people beat you to take it away," said hairdresser Milagros Genao, as she cut off Castillo's locks.
Along with Castillo, hundreds of women and some men showed up for the charity event held at a Caracas hair salon. The cutters were led by Ivo Contreras, a famed stylist who has coiffed Miss Venezuela's hair and makes wigs for cancer-stricken children.