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A street performer in Caracas, where the economic and political crisis has escalated over recent months, bringing the country to the brink of total collapse, June 2016. Over the 17 years that Venezuela has been ruled by the socialist alliance of the late President Hugo Chavez, the country has been plagued by hyperinflation, a health crisis due to lack of medicines and deteriorating conditions in hospitals, food shortages, lack of electricity, explosive violent crime, and the rise of both left wing guerrillas and right wing paramilitary groups.
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A street performer in Caracas, where the economic and political crisis has escalated over recent months, bringing the country to the brink of total collapse, June 2016. Over the 17 years that Venezuela has been ruled by the socialist alliance of the late President Hugo Chavez, the country has been plagued by hyperinflation, a health crisis due to lack of medicines and deteriorating conditions in hospitals, food shortages, lack of electricity, explosive violent crime, and the rise of both left wing guerrillas and right wing paramilitary groups.Alvaro Ybarra Zavala—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
A street performer in Caracas, where the economic and political crisis has escalated over recent months, bringing the country to the brink of total collapse, June 2016. Over the 17 years that Venezuela has been ruled by the socialist alliance of the late President Hugo Chavez, the country has been plagued by hyperinflation, a health crisis due to lack of medicines and deteriorating conditions in hospitals, food shortages, lack of electricity, explosive violent crime, and the rise of both left wing guerrillas and right wing paramilitary groups.
Protesters opposed to the revolutionary government of Nicolas Maduro, run from police during a march that became violent. Demonstrations by the Venezuelan opposition are constant throughout the country, June 2016.
Prisoners inside a crowded cell at the Chacao municipal police station in eastern Caracas. There is no room to sit and prisoners take turns resting on sheets tied to bars like hammocks. Jails in Venezuela are seriously overcrowded with shortages of food and medicine. Because of the economic and political crisis, the number of prisoners grows daily as more Venezuelans are arrested for crimes, including mugging, kidnapping and murder, June 2016.
A protestor sits in front of police during a demonstration in Caracas. The Venezuelan opposition is calling for a referendum to recall the current government of President Nicolás Maduro. Amid spiraling triple-digit inflation, recession and shortages, Venezuela is on the brink of political and economic collapse, June 2016.
A woman, upset about the fate of her incarcerated brother, cries at a police barricade. He was one of 600 people detained after riots at the National Police Station, June 2016.
The mother of Fredy Guerrero, who was killed after he was arrested by Venezuelan police, is consoled at his funeral. It took seven days before the 25-year old's tortured body was returned to his family, June, 2016.
The wife of 25-year old Fredy Guerrero, who was tortured and died while under police detention, cries at the grave of her husband, June 2016.
The young niece of 25 year-old Fredy Guerrero, who was killed after he was arrested by police, prepares to attend his funeral with other family members, June 2016.
Children play at an amusement park in Caracas, June 2016. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves on the planet, and once enjoyed the highest living standard in Latin America.
An alleged thief is arrested by police in Caracas, Venezuela. The economic and political crisis in Venezuela has led to increased crime and abuses by police, May 2016.
Police arrest an alleged prostitute on the street in Caracas, Venezuela, June, 2016.
Members of an elite anti-kidnapping unit of the police during an operation in Caracas, Venezuela. The economic crisis had led to a steep increase in crime, May 2016.
The crisis in Caracas, Venezuela has gotten even more severe since May, with increased shortages of medicine, food and electricity, June 2016.
A bricklayer and his son look for food in a garbage dumpster in Caracas to take home to their family. Because of the crisis in Venezuela, he has neither a job nor enough money to feed his family, June 2016.
Some rural communities of Venezuela, like Las Veras in Barquisimeto, have been hard hit by the economic crisis, with shortages even worse than in the capital. Families make do with one meal a day, June 2016.
People line up for gas, which is needed for cooking and hot water. Because of severe shortages in the country, tension and discontent among the civilian population has grown resulting in outbreaks of violence and looting throughout the country, Barquisimeto, Venezuela, June 2016. BARQUISIMETO, VENEZUELA - JUNE 2016: A group of civilians queuing to get gas. Shortages in Venezuela is total. The government controls access to commodities. The tension and discontent among the civilian population is increasing and outbreaks of violence and looting are repeated throughout the country. ( Photo by Alvaro Ybarra Zavala / Getty Images Reportage for Time.)
A main hallway in the Vargas Hospital in Caracas. Patients in Venezuela hospitals are needlessly dying because of major shortages of important medicines, June 2016.
Two patients in the Vargas Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela. Because of food and shortages of medical supplies, patients are not receiving necessary care, June 2016.
Bendiré looks out the window of her apartment in Caracas, which she shares with six other families. After five p.m., they do no go outside fearing crime in the neighborhood, June 2016.
Images of former President Hugo Chavez are still pervasive around Venezuela, along with anti-imperialist and revolutionary propaganda graffiti. For the Venezuelan government, the personality cult surrounding the Bolivarian leader, helps keep the spirit of the revolution alive, Caracas, Venezuela, July 2015.
Posters of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez hang on a wall in Caracas. The Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro has been widely condemned for its treatment of the political opposition, including most notably Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the opposition, who is serving a 14-year sentence, June, 2016.
Severe food shortages often result in bare refrigerators, like this one in the home of Don Jose Luis, Barquisimeto, Venezuela, June 2016.
A woman stands before empty shelves in one of the major supermarkets in Caracas, Venezuela. The severe political crisis has pushed the country a deep economic decline. Sept. 2015.
A picture of late President and leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, hangs on a wall inside a shopping complex in Caracas, Venezuela. Anti-imperialist and revolutionary propaganda is commonplace throughout the country, July 2015.
The Tower of David in Caracas was the worlds largest vertical slum, until its inhabitants were evicted. Insecurity and violence plagues the neighboring district around the tower, July 2015
Catia, is one of the many slums in Caracas, Venezuela and a traditional stronghold of criminal gangs, known as colectivos. Supported by the government of President Hugo Chavez, the colectivos became ideologically left wing groups that helped serve the Bolivarian revolution, 2009.
Members of a colectivos with their weapons stand in front of the Venezuelan flag. Colectivos are criminal gangs that were introduced to political ideology by the administration of President Hugo Chavez. They see themselves as the guardians of the Bolivarian revolution, and have been accused of carrying out politically motivated killings, Oct. 2009.
Police during an operation in the neighborhood of Petare, which is is one of the most troubled and violent areas of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, Venezuela, March 2013.
The body of a civilian killed by a colectivo, a paramilitary group supported by the government. According to the man's family, he was killed for being politically opposed to President Hugo Chavez. Colectivos control the neighborhoods in their territory, Caracas, Venezuela, 2009.
Members of a criminal gang lookout over their neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela. Their faces are covered to avoid being identified by police, Caracas, Venezuela, Sept. 2015
A stenciled picture showing the eyes of former President Hugo Chavez, leader of the Bolivarian revolution, is seen from the inside of a taxi, Caracas, Venezuela, June 2016
A street performer in Caracas, where the economic and political crisis has escalated over recent months, bringing the co
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Alvaro Ybarra Zavala—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
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Witnessing a 'Complete Collapse of Society' in Venezuela

Aug 09, 2016

Alvaro Ybarra Zavala puts it bluntly: “Venezuela has become hell."

The photographer had just returned from one of his latest trips to the South American nation when he talked to TIME, and he was visibly affected by the chaos he had witnessed there. “There’s a complete collapse of society," he said.

Once an example for the continent, Venezuela is now a country in freefall. “It’s hard to find food, there’s no medicine,” said Ybarra Zavala. “If you have to have surgery, you need to bring everything with you: the bandages, the gloves, everything. There are no anesthetics.”

Ybarra Zavala was on assignment for TIME last month, chronicling the country’s breakdown. His photographs show daily street protests that are often violently repressed, empty shelves in deserted grocery stores and people lining up, sometimes for entire days, for gas. “No one believes anymore in the army, in the police, in the system,” said Ybarra Zavala.

Security has also become an issue. “There’s now a very strong element of luck,” he said. “Access is a real nightmare. Not only do you need to be careful of the government, but also from the colectivos [militant groups] and the local militias. You’re limited on time, you’re limited in access. It’s a continuous fight.”

In fact, says the photographer—who’s worked in Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia—Venezuela is the “hardest place I’ve worked in,” he said.

The collapse, set in motion by Hugo Chavez’s 14-year reign, now seems irreversible, he adds: “For the last four years, Venezuela has been in constant crisis and it never blew up. But now, I’m very scared of how it will end. I think Venezuela crossed the line of no return. I’m worried what will happen next.”

But Ybarra Zavala is not giving up. While each trip is more dangerous than the previous one, the 36-year-old photographer is ready to go back. “Memories are very important,” he said. “I think the Bolivarian revolution is a lost opportunity for Latin America to change things that needed to be changed. It’s so sad to see how a true feeling of a society has failed so much. And it shows how dangerous populism can be.”

Alvaro Ybarra Zavala is a photographer based in Spain. He is represented by Getty Images Reportage.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME's International Photo Editor.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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