Journalist Matthew Fisher is currently filing reports for Canada’s The National Post from Caracas, Venezuela. In an ongoing series focused on the multitude of problems facing Venezuelans, the sub-head of his most recent column is: Life is cheap in Caracas, dubbed “the kidnap capital of the world”.
The concept of kidnapping for financial gain is certainly not new, but the practice of what locals call Express Kidnapping has been honed to a fine art in Caracas. Not that this heinous activity does not exist elsewhere – many Latin American countries battle this crime, or don’t battle it as the case may be – but Caracas leads the way when it comes to kidnappings.
According to Fisher’s article, “Jorge Gonzalez’s specialty is kidnapping. The gang he leads gives a victim’s family and friends only 72 hours to come up with the ransom. If they do not or cannot pay, the captive is murdered.”
The first time I heard of this was when my significantly better half, a proud Caraqueña born and raised, explained to me how she had been kidnapped from the front door of her building in Caracas. Just days before Christmas she had gone downstairs to see a friend who was going to drop off a CD. This friend had been followed by thugs who took advantage of the opportunity. Two got out of a car and forced them at gunpoint into her friend’s car and drove off, with an accomplice following in the other car.
They were taken to an out-of-the-way area. Was she going to be robbed, raped, killed? All of the above? They were held at gunpoint by the thug in the passenger seat, while in the back seat the hostages feared the worst. Her friend finally saw an opportunity and lunged at the gun. It went off injuring his hand, but more importantly scaring the kidnappers.
Fortunately, after an agonizing and traumatic hour or so, this incident ended well, but not before a scuffle with gunshots being fired, and the two captives abandoned while the disappointed and frightened kidnappers fled.
I asked her if she went to the police. She looked at me as if I had sprouted a second head. In Fisher’s column this is explained by Gonzalez: “We have lots of contact with the police,” he said. “They tip us off if anything is going wrong. We pay for that and give them a cut to stay quiet.”
So with no police to rely on for protection, is it any wonder the crime rate soars? There are some 50 carjackings in Caracas everyday – not all of Venezuela, that’s just Caracas.
This was the last straw for her; she decided it was sadly time to leave her home and family as next time things may not end so well. And she knew there would be a next time. Is her family wealthy? No. Politically influential? No. Just an average middle-class family. But as Fisher’s piece points out, life is cheap. If this one does not bring in some cash, the next one will.
Life in many Latin American countries requires some special precautions to be taken. For example one day we were waiting in line in my bank here in Montreal. My phone rang, I answered it, spoke and hung up. She looked at me agog. When I asked why she pointed out that cell phone use is banned in Venezuelan banks as it was used primarily for one crook to inform another outside the bank of any patrons leaving with large cash withdrawals; easy pickings.
I have lost count of how many times she has expressed relief to be able to wear simple jewelery outside in Canada – watches, earrings, bracelets – that would have to be left in a safe in Caracas lest they be snatched by passing thieves. Traffic in Caracas is horrendous, but many of those guys on motorcycles zipping along between rows of cars are doing more than just getting home quicker. Armed robbery of motorists is a very common occurrence.
The more journalists like Fisher bring to light the problems long suffered by Venezuelans, perhaps the sooner something can be done. But I fear a culture of corruption and collusion will not disappear overnight.