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.
'Young women are scared'
Venezuelans are so upset that the government has got involved, but only after media reports of harrowing stories of women in Maracaibo being beaten and robbed of their flowing manes.
President Nicolas Maduro declared war on the pirana gangs and ordered an investigation into "mafias that cut off young women's hair."
"What kind of way is that to mistreat young women? Young women are sacred," he said.
The conspiracy-minded leader blamed the hair thefts on a "psychological war in the whole country" orchestrated by Colombian and Venezuelan opposition figures based in Miami.
Oddly, no one has gone to the police yet to file a formal complaint. But police are on the lookout, watching plazas and streets in Maracaibo. Press reports say there have been hair theft cases in other cities like Caracas and Valencia.
"A lot of women have come to donate their hair out of fear of being roughed up in the street, as they are in danger. It is a new way of abusing women. We ask the authorities to punish this," said hairdresser Contreras.
He said recently a woman showed up at his salon with an injury on her back.
"They tried to cut it off, and she preferred to come and have it cut off herself," he said.
Some women in Maracaibo and Caracas are taking precautions. "I have tried to avoid putting myself in danger," said Ivon Galindo, a 27-year-old computer technician with long brown hair.
Women like her and Castillo - when she was still unshorn - wear their hair in a bun or covered under hats.
"Having your hair stolen is as if they were mutilating your body," said Galindo.
Nearby, Castillo stood up and looked at her new short hairdo in a mirror that the hairdresser handed to her.
"Something is missing, but in my heart I feel good. I feel pretty with my new look," she said.