Fear and loathing on the Caracas kidnap express

CARACAS // Fear is relative in Caracas, the capital of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

I felt exceptionally safe there. But then as a member of an offi­cial foreign delegation under government auspices, I was afforded all the protection the state could muster.

Foreign ministry officials met us at the airport and hurried us through the entry process, before squat men with bulges in their jackets led us briskly, with one eye on the terminal crowds, to a waiting bus with drawn blinds and a police escort for the 45-minute journey into town.

Once behind the tight secur­ity of a five-star hotel, our party only emerged to be driven in a blacked-out bulletproof SUV, with two armed outriders ahead of us clearing the way to equally secure government buildings.

The squat men travelled behind in another car. I asked the leader of the security detail, Jose, if he was carrying a gun and he pulled his jacket back far enough to show me the handle of a pistol, and he gave a little grin that said “of course, this is Caracas”.

The only time I left the hotel to go anywhere other than a government event was a trip to the mall, all of 50 metres away, accompanied by Jose and his two comrades. I felt as safe as could be, if a little spooked by the ­attention.

But driving around the city you could see why Caracenos going about their everyday life, and (strictly not advised) lone backpackers, might be terrified out of their wits.

The shantytowns sprawling along a pleasant green valley look lawless and sinister; virtually all buildings, office or residential, were surrounded by strong steel fencing topped with razor wire; there were signs on restaurants and bars declaring the establishment to be a “gun-free zone” below a picture of a crossed-out handgun. Our minders told us why.

Muggings, assaults, kidnappings and murders had for long been rife throughout the city, but it was getting worse the further the oil price fell. Affluent-looking foreigners were especially vulnerable, they said.

Over drinks with a couple of Lebanese businessmen, I heard the alarming detail. Even though we were in the lobby of a secure and well-protected hotel, they – let’s call them Hussein and Abdullah – only felt comfortable with two armed guards on the next table, reinforced by three more outside in parked cars.

Both had been in Venezuela for more than a decade. Business had been good at first and they had built up a nice retail operation in malls and the airport. But for the past three years it had been deteriorating rapidly, and with it the security situation.

Hussein had spent six months as a prisoner of one of the crime gangs, picked up in the street and occasionally brutalised until a deal was stuck: his release was eventually secured with the payment of a US$400,000 ransom, talked down from the initial $2 milllion demand. Abdullah told me of the latest trend: “express kidnapping”. A businessman knows that his turn will inevit­ably come up to be snatched, so he arranges for a trusted friend to always have sufficient cash – about $40,000 was the going rate – to secure his release within hours, at most a day. Much better than a long period of incarceration that might, at the very least, damage his business.

Amazingly, both men said they would stick it out in the hope of an economic recovery. They felt that prospects for Venezuela were better than in the Middle East at the moment. I suppose it’s all relative in the end.


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