A Major League problem – Venezuela’s ongoing battle with kidnapping (November 30th, 2011)

When discussing the dangers and challenges of contemporary South American societies many issues repeatedly get front-page coverage. Colombian rebel groups and Brazilian slums have become the face of crime and social policy issues within the developing countries of the South-western Hemisphere. Kidnapping and the social problems behind this crime are not generally mentioned when compared to the relatively glamorous lifestyles of drug barons and revolutionaries. However, Venezuela and, in particular, its capital city of Caracas are suffering from a crime wave that remains unheard of in even the most dangerous locales on the planet. It is not that kidnapping is a new crime or that the perpetrators are behaving in ways that are specifically more diabolical than other kidnappers from around the Globe, rather, it is the sheer numbers involved make this issue so extreme.

On November 15, 2011, two individuals armed with handguns accosted the Chilean consul in Caracas. Forcing him at gunpoint into a waiting car, the consul was threatened, beaten and shot in the leg before being dumped by his kidnappers right in the middle of a downtown street. A victim of what is known as an “express kidnapping” – a crime occurring with increasing regularity, with the victim being driven around by the kidnappers to various bank machines until their accounts are empty – the consul escaped with relatively few injuries considering that some victims of these crimes end up dead. For Venezuela this event had the makings of a public relations disaster; if foreign diplomats aren’t safe in the capital city than who is? However, kidnapping is nothing new in Venezuela, especially in the lawless streets of Caracas, and while the news had a certain effect on the international media, it did little to rattle the sensibilities of ordinary Venezuelans. This rattling of public perceptions had occurred just six days prior with the kidnapping of a prominent Major League Baseball player and Venezuelan citizen, Wilson Ramos, on November 9th. While talking on the street with his brother and father in front of the family home in the city of Valencia, which is located just 150km west of Caracas, Ramos was seized by four armed men and taken away in a black sports utility vehicle. In the baseball crazed nation the public outcry reached to the top levels of government. While the kidnapping and shooting of the Chilean consul had been dubbed business as usual, the Ramos kidnapping struck a chord with people across Venezuelan society.

Forty-eight hours after he was taken Ramos was rescued during what was described as a dramatic mission by Venezuelan national police and military personnel. The story seemed to touch the heart of every Venezuelan; newspapers plastered his mother’s face across front pages and whole stadiums of fans displayed their solidarity with the family by wearing t-shirts with Ramos’ own features on the front, some just wrote a dramatic “W” for Wilson on their own clothing. And, just as they rallied around the family in their time of need, the rescue appeared to bring a sense of collective relief to Venezuelan society, almost as if the peaceful end to the ordeal brought absolution to a country where the deteriorating security situation has been largely ignored by the media and government throughout the country. However, Major League Baseball players have been indirect targets of kidnapping for several years in Venezuela and, despite the ability of the Venezuelan security apparatus to bring this event to a successful end, it is unlikely to be the last.

There are several examples that provide perspective regarding the size and pervasiveness of the kidnapping problem in Venezuela. In 2009, for instance, the mother and cousin of former MLB pitcher Victor Zambrano were kidnapped in separate incidents; while his mother was rescued, his cousin was later found murdered, the body disposed of in an urban ditch. Besides the members of the Zambrano family, the 11 year-old son as well as the brother-in-law of Colorado Rockies’ catcher Yorvit Torrealba were also kidnapped in 2009, both being released unharmed after the payment of an undisclosed amount a day later. In 2008 a brother of Arizona Diamondbacks’ catcher Henry Blanco was kidnapped and murdered. And, in another case involving matriarchal assault, the mother of former all-star pitcher Ugueth Urbina was kidnapped in 2005 and held for five months before she was released. These multiple instances of kidnapping, assault and murder directly targeting MLB players who have returned home during the off-season reveals the capabilities and organizational capacity of the kidnappers that continue to plague Venezuela; however, it is not just professional athletes and diplomats that are being targeted but average Venezuelan citizens as well.

Venezuela’s National Statistics Institute estimates that, nationwide, at least 16,900 people were kidnapped between July 2008 to July 2009, yet this number is not considered to be even close to accurate. According to international observers and travel security companies, including IJet, at least 30 – 40 percent of kidnappings go unreported, making the actual annual number much closer to 40,000. Even if this number is an overestimation it is still staggering for a country where the majority of its population lives well below Western standards. With around 29 million people as of 2010, Venezuela has enjoyed considerable economic advancement over the past two decades. Wealth generated from the production, refinement and sale of oil has created a certain degree of prosperity and a small middle class in major urban centres, such as Caracas, Valencia and Maracaibo. However, the city of Caracas currently has a population of over 3 million people and a greater metropolitan area with well over 5 million. Of these 5 million inhabitants as many as 2 million people live in extreme poverty, with the vast majority living in conditions well below Western standards. These demographic realities mean that while Venezuela’s political and economic elites continue to be the most desirable targets for Venezuela’s kidnappers, the greater majority of the population remains incredibly vulnerable to any form of criminality, thereby creating conditions where no strata of Venezuelan society is exempt from this crime wave.

Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s in the underdeveloped rural regions of the country, the Venezuelan kidnapping industry began as a way for bandits and marauding criminals to secure payments from farmers. Kidnapping gangs would seize relatives or the farmers themselves, forcing the victims in many cases to sell their farms to secure their release. The process proved lucrative in the corrupt landscape of Venezuela’s impoverished countryside and the practice soon spread to the cities. Kidnappers now target anyone who they believe will pay them for their release, no matter how poor. Disturbing cases include snatching babies from poor mothers in the slums of the cities and forcing the families to mortgage and sell everything they own in order to pay the kidnappers for the release of their children. In one tragic case a family traded their only electrical appliance, the family fridge, to save a kidnapped child.

The Venezuelan government does not view this issue to be a domestic problem. According to the national government, Colombian gangs comprised of former and active paramilitaries have infiltrated the country and brought the destructive elements of Colombia’s violent civil conflicts with them. This scenario is plausible and has become a trope repeated throughout the Venezuelan media’s reporting on the issue. However, to exclusively blame Colombian gangsters ignores both the history of Venezuela’s rural kidnapping industry as well as the reason why many victims and their families never report their kidnappings to the police. The exclusive reason for underreporting is the high levels of corruption and collusion between Venezuelan kidnapping rings and Venezuela’s police services. This corruption is so widespread that local politicians have also been accused of orchestrating deals and arrangements throughout the Venezuelan underworld. In reality, many of the kidnapping rings are Venezuelan rather than Colombian in origin and, in fact, employ former and active members of Venezuelan municipal police services. Kidnapping gangs comprising primarily of Venezuelan police members have also been reported, although such claims are steadfastly denied by both the local and national governments throughout the country. Despite these claims of innocence, PanAmerican Crime can confirm that elements of the grossly underpaid municipal police forces of Venezuelan cities have begun using the new method of express kidnapping to augment their salaries, adopting criminal pseudonyms and carving out territories for their illegal enterprises. Gangs, such as “Los Invisibles” and “Los Rapiditos,” are well known for their brutality, effectiveness and for the protection that the police provide for them.

As a consequence of the immense cooperation and literal overlap between certain police elements and organized kidnapping rings it is not surprising that many kidnapping incidents go unreported. The average Venezuelan citizen simply has no legal recourse when the people who kidnapped them could well be part of the police force they should be reporting the incident to; and, since the vast majority of kidnappings are now “express kidnappings” the victims’ families do not need the police to ensure their loved one’s release, since the victim or their body are released soon after they are abducted. Due to these disturbing trends Caracas has fast become one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. Corruption and mismanagement plague the security and political establishment hindering genuine efforts at reform. As reported in many travel brochures, it is no longer considered safe to travel from Caracas’ main airport, Simon Bolivar International Airport, which is located northwest of the city, to the downtown area of Caracas after dark. Kidnapping rings also utilize unlicensed taxis to lure travellers into cars and then take them to isolated places. The only direct connecting highway, Autopista Caracas – La Guaira, transects El Avila National Park and has become a region known for kidnappings, carjacking and all forms of theft. Extreme incidents of lawlessness include the blockade of the highway by armed gangs, who then rob the travellers who are forced to halt their cars. Other routes into the city, including the scenic Carretera Vieja Caracas – La Guaira, offer even less security.

While it appears that no one is safe from the ongoing threat of kidnapping in Venezuela and its capital city, improvements are being made. In 2008 the Caracas Municipal Police service was placed under the authority of the Venezuelan Ministry of Justice and the Interior in an effort to increase its budget and root out the endemic corruption throughout the ranks. This type of police reform was also enacted throughout the country and was coupled with the formation of the National Bolivarian Police service in 2008. This new force has apparently achieved significant results after its deployment to Caracas and the rest of the country in 2009. The Venezuelan government claims that kidnappings have been reduced by 70 percent and other violent crimes by as much as 50 percent. However, no observers believe these numbers are remotely close to accurate and it is disturbing to see such claims being made considering that it is well known that the government never possessed a realistic perspective regarding the scale of the issue to begin with. While some positive changes may have been made since 2009, the abductions of those associated with professional baseball, as well as thousands of other victims, have occurred since the apparent improvements took effect. Kidnappings involving average Venezuelans as well as public figures such as Wilson Ramos and the Chilean consul still occur daily in all parts of the country and, primarily, in Caracas. Claims by the government that Venezuela’s cities have no major crime problem only prove that the local governments in these municipalities are still connected in some way with the criminals that they claim do not exist. It is important to understand that, while homicides and other violent crimes may have decreased in Caracas over the past 18 months, the corruption which created the conditions for the violence and kidnappings has not been dealt with.

Venezuela’s battle with kidnapping begins with a thorough examination of its own governments, federal and local. The dangerous conditions that have become commonplace in the country did not always exist and such realities do not need to continue. Only with renewed public faith in government institutions will true reform be possible. If this is not achieved then Venezuelan baseball fans may soon have to forego the pleasure of watching their home grown MLB stars play in their own country during the MLB off-season.

                        – Scott Paulseth, Editor, PanAmerican Crime

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