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Kevin Lara Lugo and his school uniform
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Kevin Lara Lugo (inset); and his school uniform laid out on his bed.

CREDIT: Meridith Kohut/The New York Times/Redux (clothes on bed); Facebook (Kevin Lugo)

One Family’s Tragic Tale

Their story became a symbol of Venezuela’s collapse

Related content: "Venezuela in Crisis"

Kevin Lara Lugo, the 16-year-old boy who died from eating foraged food to ward off starvation, lived in Maturín, a once-prosperous oil boomtown in northern Venezuela. 

His mother, Yamilet Lugo, worked at a cutlery factory until it shut down in May 2016, unable to get the raw materials to make plastic. It joined many factories across the country that have gone idle. 

Then came the next blow. José Rafael Castro, Yamilet Lugo’s boyfriend and the only other breadwinner in the household, came home with bad news: The construction supply factory where he worked making cinder blocks had let him go because the owners could no longer find cement.

That left the family unable to buy what little food was available. First, they ate mangoes. By summer, the family had turned to yuca, a common root vegetable, which grew in a plot owned by a relative a short bus ride away.

“This was our food morning, noon, and night,” Yamilet Lugo says. By July, there was no money even for the bus fare to the field, so they looked elsewhere. By July 25,  the day before Kevin’s birthday, the family hadn’t eaten in three days and everyone was growing weak.

Kevin Lara Lugo, 16, died from eating foraged food to avoid starvation. He lived in Maturín, a once-prosperous oil boomtown in northern Venezuela. 

His mother, Yamilet Lugo, worked at a cutlery factory until it shut down in May 2016. The factory was unable to get the raw materials to make plastic. It joined many factories across the country that have gone idle. 

Then came the next blow. José Rafael Castro, Yamilet Lugo’s boyfriend, was the only other breadwinner in the household. One day, he came home with bad news: The construction supply factory where he worked making cinder blocks had let him go. The owners could no longer find cement.

That left the family unable to buy what little food was available. First, they ate mangoes. By summer, the family had turned to yuca, a common root vegetable. The yuca grew in a plot owned by a relative a short bus ride away.

“This was our food morning, noon, and night,” Yamilet Lugo says. By July, there was no money even for the bus fare to the field. So they looked elsewhere. By July 25, the day before Kevin’s birthday, the family hadn’t eaten in three days. Everyone was growing weak.

After three days with no food, the family was growing weak.

Kevin and Castro heard about an abandoned field a 45-minute walk from their home where other neighbors had been foraging for bitter yuca. But bitter yuca is dangerous to eat because, unlike regular yuca, it contains toxins. The plant can be dried to extract the toxins, which they tried to do. 

“We had nothing else to eat,” Castro says.

The gamble didn’t pay off. By 11:30 p.m., the bitter yuca was making the family very sick. Kevin had collapsed. An hour passed before they found a neighbor’s car to take him to the hospital.

But the hospital could offer little help. Bitter yuca intoxication is treated primarily with stomach pumping and intravenous solutions. Like so many clinics throughout the country, the one in Maturín had run out of basic supplies, leaving the family to haggle with black-market sellers as Kevin’s condition worsened. Kevin’s family says he waited for hours in the crowded halls of the hospital before he was even examined.

Finally, another family with extra bottles of the intravenous solution gave two to Kevin, but it was too late. By 4:45 on the morning of his birthday, he was dead.

Staring at Kevin’s grave, with his name crudely etched in wet concrete by a friend’s fingertip, his aunt, Lilibeth Díaz, summed up the tragedy of her family and her nation. “This boy,” she said, “dies this way for no reason at all.”

Kevin and Castro heard about an abandoned field a 45-minute walk from their home. Neighbors had been foraging there for bitter yuca. But bitter yuca is dangerous to eat. Unlike regular yuca, it contains toxins. The plant can be dried to extract the toxins, which they tried to do. “We had nothing else to eat,” Castro says.

The gamble didn’t pay off. By 11:30 p.m., the bitter yuca was making the family very sick. Kevin had collapsed. An hour passed before they found a neighbor’s car to take him to the hospital.

But the hospital could offer little help. Bitter yuca intoxication is treated primarily with stomach pumping and intravenous solutions. Like so many clinics throughout the country, the one in Maturín had run out of basic supplies. The family had to bargain with black-market sellers. In the meantime, Kevin’s condition worsened. Kevin’s family says he waited for hours in the crowded halls of the hospital before he was even examined.

Finally, another family with extra bottles of the intravenous solution gave two to Kevin. But it was too late. By 4:45 on the morning of his birthday, he was dead.

Kevin’s grave has his name roughly drawn in the wet concrete by a friend’s fingertip. Staring at it, his aunt, Lilibeth Díaz, summed up the tragedy of her family and her nation. “This boy,” she said, “dies this way for no reason at all.”

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