A Colombian gang are stealing the hair of Venezuelan women to make money, according to Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro.
The gang, nicknamed “the piranhas” for the speed and violence of their attacks, are operating in Zulia, a state bordering Colombia.
“They are robbing the hair of our women…Why this aggression against women? Women are sacred. Those of you who are involved in this criminal gang should know that we are going to punish you hard,” Maduro said on Wednesday.
On the black market a kilo of hair could be sold for $360, according to local media. The hair is used for extensions and wigs.
A high-quality extension can cost upwards of $1300.
The alleged gang, made up of both men and women, typically force their victim to the ground and then cut off their long hair using scissors or a knife.
In the last few weeks, Zulia’s women have taken to tying their hair up and extra police have been deployed in the main parks and squares.
The crime of stealing hair peaked in the 1990’s when voluminous wigs and fake moustaches became fashionable.
Since then, the practice has affected much of Colombia. In 2011, “The Scissors” gang became a household name in Cali, and in 2012 there were reports of hair-stealing in Bogota, Medellin and Barranquilla.
Women do also sell their hair voluntarily. February is the most popular month, when the money received goes towards buying school equipment for the women’s children, said hair-dressers.
In Colombia, the most hair is collected in the department of Valle del Cauca, of which Cali is the capital, and in Choco on the Pacific coast. There the Citara Embera indigenous women reportedly cut off their hair, sell it, then hide away until it grows back.
The shame associated with losing hair could explain why none of the women in Zulia have gone to the authorities.
Indeed, the Venezuela president views the crime of hair-stealing as part of a “psychological war being waged throughout the country.”
Venezuela is the most violent country in South America. According to police figures, during the first four months of 2013 murders reached a record high of 58 per day.