Venezuela's Plague of Kidnappings

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Thomas Coex / AFP / Getty

Instructors show pupils how to overpower criminals during a weekend course for private bodyguards in Caracas, Venezuela

December is usually a festive month in Caracas. But this year, beneath the Christmas tree at a private school in the affluent Caracas neighborhood of Los Palos Grandes, the topic among parents is dread. December is probably the worst month for kidnapping in Venezuela, and a 10-year-old Palos Grandes girl was recently snatched from her chauffeur-driven car and held for 10 hours until her family paid a ransom of more than $25 million. "Very few people I know have not been in a robbery or kidnap situation," says one Venezuelan businessman as he and the other parents greet two security experts the school has invited to counsel them. "Even my own mother was victim of a kidnapping."

As part of their presentation, David Rappe and Andy Chelini of the security firm Beyond Risk play excerpts from Secuestro Express (Kidnap Express), a 2005 film about a Caracas couple's abduction that has since become the highest grossing film in Venezuelan history. The movie is an effective teaching tool, the men say, because its story breaks a kidnapping down into its several stages. They also play a real recording of a frightening exchange between a kidnapper and a negotiator. "They are going to come at you with the threat of violence and death," Rappe warns his audience. But he points out that 98% of abductions result in a release, and most deaths usually result from pre-existing medical conditions.

Sessions like these are becoming increasingly common in Venezuela, which now has the western hemisphere's highest kidnapping rate to add to its exploding violent-crime epidemic. (Caracas suffers some 40 murders each weekend.) There are as many as five abductions each day in the capital alone — and an estimated 4 out of 10 kidnapping cases across the country are never reported because, as in so many other Latin American countries, locals fear their corrupt police forces themselves are often involved in the crimes. Sources inside Venezuela's federal crime-investigation agency, known as the CICPC, concede that police have been involved in kidnappings, adding that even two officers from the CICPC's anti-extortion and -kidnapping unit are under investigation.

A recent survey by the independent Venezuelan Observatory of Violence in Caracas estimates the country sees up to 9,000 kidnappings each year. Even some security experts have had enough: "I'm getting the hell out" of Venezuela, says Marshal Valentine, a Caracas security consultant whose girlfriend was kidnapped two years ago. "She took a [bullet] in the back, then this year they tried to grab her again." There were 518 officially reported kidnappings between September 2008 and September 2009 in Venezuela according to the local human-rights NGO Provea, a rise of 41% on the previous year. Analysts and law-enforcement officials believe these figures are far below the actual numbers.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has hurled strong criticism at Secuestro Express and what he calls its exaggerated portrayal of life's perils in Caracas. But even Chávez this year acknowledged Venezuela's security meltdown, one of his left-wing revolution's biggest failings despite its poverty-reduction successes. Insurance companies now guarantee ransoms of up to $10 million, and firms specializing in armor-plating cars are sprouting up around Caracas.

The Chavista-controlled National Assembly passed a law this year that forbids private ransom negotiation and requires families to report kidnappings so authorities can then freeze their assets and prevent ransom payment. A federal detective source in Venezuela says that while private negotiators may be good at reducing ransoms, the law's purpose is to deter abductions in the first place. "As long as kidnappers keep being paid," says the source, "they will keep kidnapping." But while the law may be based on sound crime-prevention theory, in practice it may well compel kidnap-victim families to be even more secretive because of their lack of trust in the Venezuelan judicial system. As a result, law-enforcement sources say privately that the new measure is being lightly enforced, if at all.

To experts like Rappe, a former U.S. Army commando from Oregon who settled in Venezuela in 1996, the best kidnapping deterrent is avoidance. That means breaking up daily routines, being vigilant, reducing visibility and monitoring those who work for you. (For example, police say the family chauffeur is under investigation for involvement in the 10-year-old girl's abduction.) Venezuela's kidnappers have gotten increasingly sophisticated about researching potential prey — studying Facebook accounts or even creating phony ones to learn more about intended victims' assets and habits. Rappe adds that "it's not being rich that makes us a target — it's the appearance of being rich." And there he's hit on a big problem in Venezuela — a country awash with oil money and ostentatious lifestyles, even among leftist Chavistas known as "Boli-bourgeoisie" (for Simón Bolívar, the namesake of Chávez's revolution).

Most Venezuelan kidnappings are, like the movie's title, express abductions because of their rapid nature. They usually last fewer than 48 hours, thus reducing the kidnappers' risk of being tracked down. And victims are hardly confined to the rich: residents of lower-income barrios, like those that ring the mountainsides around Caracas, are just as likely to be targeted, albeit for smaller ransoms.

Back at the Palos Grandes school, a woman confesses that she "did not know what to do" when her own 24-year-old daughter was abducted recently. (She decided not to tell the police and paid the ransom instead.) But Rappe says the good news is that kidnappings like hers, as well as that of the young girl, are still rare in Venezuela. Kidnappers there, he notes, mainly target males ages 20 to 40. "Fortunately," says Rappe, "in Venezuela we have nice malandros," or thugs. "Old men, women and children are still sacred here." The challenge for Chávez's government now is to make sure it at least stays that way.