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They already endure staggering levels of street crime. Now, Venezuelans have something new to fear -- muggers who chop off their hair.

Members of the scissor-wielding street gangs are called piranas, after the flesh-eating fish.

The gangs sell the stolen hair to salons which fashion it into braids in this oil-rich and beauty-obsessed country.

Some disconsolate women have given up and had their long hair cut off preemptively to donate it to children who lose theirs to cancer.

Vanessa Castillo cried as her pretty, long jet black hair was snipped for charity. "It is better to give it to kids with cancer than have the piranas steal it," she said, sniffling.

She spoke at a donate-your-hair-to-kids day at a beauty salon.

"Is this what we have come to? For there to be people who steal your hair is a form of chaos," said Castillo, a 26-year-old dental student.

The alarms went off last month in Maracaibo, Venezuela's second largest city, with the first complaints of hair-stealing commandos made up of men and women.