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.