CARACAS, Venezuela – The first of thousands of squatters who transformed a half-built skyscraper into a vertical slum were moved out by armed police and soldiers Tuesday, marking the beginning of the end for the Tower of David's haphazard community.
Police in riot gear and soldiers with Kalashnikov assault rifles stood on side streets as dozens of residents boarded buses for their new government-provided apartments in Cua, a town about 23 miles (37 kilometers) south of Caracas.
Ernesto Villegas, the government minister overseeing Caracas' redevelopment, told reporters that the eviction was necessary because the 45-story building in the heart of the capital is unsafe.
He said children have fallen to their deaths from the tower, which in some places is missing walls or windows. The damp, foul-smelling concrete lobby attested to the lack of working plumbing.
Villegas said the tower, initially a symbol of failed capitalism, had gone on to represent community. The squatters' invasion was part of a larger appropriation of vacant buildings encouraged by the late former President Hugo Chavez.
Meant to be the crown jewel of a glittering downtown, the building was abandoned amid a 1990s banking crisis. It later was nicknamed the Tower of David, after its financier David Brillembourg.
By 2007, squatters had claimed everything from the parking garages to the rooftop helipad. They rigged up electricity, opened up stores and barbershops, and created an internal management system.
On Tuesday, Maria Sevilla, manager of the 28th floor, looked wistfully at the sooty concrete skeleton, with its steep ledges and incomplete stories stippled with satellite dishes.
"What I'll miss the most is the community we built here," she said.
A former street vendor, Sevilla said the 50 neighbors on her floor had become like family to her and her teenage children.
For many, the tower was a symbol of anarchic dysfunction. It was depicted in the U.S. television show "Homeland" as a lawless place where thugs participate in international conspiracies and kill with impunity.
Neighbors who lived next to the building for years celebrated the evictions. Retiree Antonio Farias watched with satisfaction, saying the slum had brought the constant threat of kidnapping, rape and robbery.
"It was so beautiful at first," he said.
The mood during Tuesday's eviction was subdued, despite dozens of children running underfoot. Inside the complex, young men talked about families they'd heard were going to refuse to leave.
Residents complained that by moving out of the city's heart, they will lose their easy access to supermarkets, public transportation and, possibly, employment.
"I don't know how I'll be able to find a job out there," said Yaritza Casares, 28, leading her 4-year-old daughter through a soaring courtyard. "We were lucky to live here."
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