Even Grandmothers get kidnapped in Venezuela

Mrs. Carmen Polanco de Áñez, 62-year-old housewife and grandmother from La Concepcion, yesterday became the 35th person abducted in the state of Zulia since January 1, 2008. At least 120 abductions have been reported in the first 115 days of 2008, ending at midnight April 24.

Venezuela today has the fastest-growing kidnap industry in Latin America.

While other countries like Colombia, Brazil and Mexico still report larger totals in terms of the numbers of people kidnapped, reported kidnappings in Venezuela are growing more rapidly than any country in the Western Hemisphere.

Disip commander Henry Rangel Silva, who is also president of the National Anti-Kidnapping Commission, said at the start of this year that 382 people were kidnapped in Venezuela during 2007, up 48.6% from 257 officially reported kidnappings in 2006.

A few days later the National Cattleranchers’ Federation (Fedenaga) issued a study that reported nearly 100 fewer kidnappings than Rangel Silva had officially admitted, and the government immediately took Fedenaga’s lower data as the new “official” total for last year.

When Rangel Silva disclosed the first “official” (and likely most accurate) figure on total kidnappings in 2007, he also said ransom payments last year totaled only Bs. 4.6 billion ($213.5 million at the official BsF 2.15 exchange rate or $133.7 million at the black market exchange rate of BsF3.44 per US dollar as of April 18, 2008). In 2006 total reported ransom payments were Bs.9.57 billion compared with Bs.6.5 billion in 2005.

Rangel Silva says the lower ransom payments reported in 2007 were a direct result of increased police pressures which disrupted over 84% of reported kidnappings last year. But police officials who specialize in locating and freeing kidnap victims in Venezuela say officially reported ransom payments dropped significantly in 2007 compared with 2006 because most families now conceal their ransom payments. Why the secrecy? President Hugo Chavez has ordered the criminal prosecution of anyone who pays ransoms to kidnappers.

During the first six weeks of 2008 a total of 55 new kidnappings were reported, the Interior and Justice Ministry confirms. On an annualized basis this works out to 450 likely kidnappings for all of this year, up a very conservative 17.8% compared with 2007. However, if total kidnappings rise by over 48% in 2008, as they did in 2007 when compared with 2006, it could be inferred that as many as 565 persons may be kidnapped during 2008.

The majority of abductions in Venezuela are of the variety known as Express Kidnappings, in which victims are held captive for periods ranging from a few hours to a few days, during which the kidnappers pressure the families of their victims for fast ransom payments which can range from a few thousand dollars up to $100,000, depending on the economic status of the victims.

Victims of Express Kidnappings usually are chosen at random by ordinary criminals seeking a fast ransom payment in exchange for the release of their captives. Express Kidnappings related to armed carjackings are common, because the abductors snatch a victim and also gain a getaway car – which attracts less attention than cases in which victims are snatched off the streets at gunpoint and bundled into a vehicle driven by the kidnappers.

Virtual Kidnappings are a second variety of abduction gaining in popularity, particularly in Caracas and other cities. In a virtual kidnapping no one is abducted physically, but the family of the “victim” is pressured into believing a physical abduction actually has occurred. This variety of kidnapping also involves relatively small ransom payments obtained within a few hours, since the kidnappers cannot control when the alleged victim will return home. Express and virtual abductions are crimes essentially imported from Colombia, Mexico and Brazil.

Express and virtual kidnappings tend to be carried out by one to three, and sometimes four, low-level criminals. These criminals do not have the personnel, organization and logistics required to hold kidnap victims for extended periods of time. They rely on surprise, force and a fast getaway to flee with their captives, and they contact families almost immediately to demand ransom payments. Express and virtual kidnappings are more prevalent in heavily populated urban areas than in rural parts of the country.

However, dozens of Venezuelans and foreign nationals who live in Venezuela are kidnapped every year by criminal organizations who maintain them captive for months, often under horrific conditions in which they are tortured regularly, and who demand large ransom payments totaling millions of dollars from the families of their victims. This type of abduction is very common in 22 states, although as recently as a decade ago it was mainly confined to states like Zulia, Tachira, Trujillo, Merida, Apure and Barinas.

The government of President Hugo Chavez routinely denies claims that Colombian Marxist rebels from the FARC and ELN are responsible for the surge in abductions Venezuela has suffered since 1999. The Chavez government usually blames kidnappings on Colombian paramilitaries or drug traffickers, or else on ordinary crime. However, police sources active in anti-kidnapping operations say a majority of the kidnappings they are assigned to investigate usually involve Colombian “elements” with long-term histories of criminal association with the FARC and ELN.

Some of these former guerrillas are dissidents who left the FARC and ELN, migrating to Venezuela (and Ecuador and Brazil) where they form associations with local criminals and continue their kidnapping activities. But some also remain involved with the FARC and ELN, which together now have at least a dozen permanent bases spread across Venezuelan territory. These groups initially operated in Venezuela’s border states, but in recent years they have expanded their activities to Carabobo, Anzoategui, Aragua, Miranda and even Caracas.

The Bolivarian Liberation Front (FBL), which roams from Apure to Zulia and Carabobo, also engages in criminal activities including drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping. The FBL is a Venezuelan militant group of the same radical Marxist ideological currents as the FARC and ELN, with reported political and financial links to Patria Para Todos (PPT) and the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV).

The number of reported kidnappings started to accelerate during the second presidency of Rafael Caldera (1994-1998), a period in which 190 kidnappings were reported to the authorities. The total reported during Caldera’s second government more than doubled the 74 abductions reported from 1989-1993. This compares with only 32 kidnappings reported from 1979-1988, and 10 reported abductions from 1959-1978.

Between 1999 and mid-2005 a total of 1,545 kidnappings were reported. Since mid-2005 through the end of March 2008 a further 780 kidnappings have been reported. Fedenaga says that as recently as 1995 over 76% of reported kidnappings happened in just three states – Trujillo (40%) Zulia (18%) and Apure (18%) – and kidnappers were active in only nine states, all of which shared borders with Colombia.

However, at the end of 2007 kidnappers were active in 22 Venezuelan states and the Federal District of Caracas. Trujillo (29.9%), Apure (16.8%) and Zulia (14%) still accounted for the majority (60.7%) of reported kidnappings last year, but Barinas represented 6.7% of total abductions in that period, followed by Caracas (5%).

Several points can be made from these numbers.

First, during the Chavez presidency at least 2,325 persons have been kidnapped in slightly more than nine years (1999-2007) compared with a total of 306 kidnappings in the preceding 40 years between 1959 and 1998.

Second, the kidnapping industry has diversified from Venezuelan states sharing borders with Colombia to the industrial central and eastern states, and into Caracas.

Third, Venezuelan police investigators have implicated Colombian nationals associated with the FARC and ELN with most of the reported kidnappings during the Chavez presidency involving extended periods of captivity and large ransom payments totaling the millions of dollars. Venezuelan police and military personnel also have been implicated in many of these abductions.

There are many reasons for the rapid growth of the kidnapping industry during the more than eight years Chavez has been president of Venezuela. In no particular order of priority:

· Venezuelans are easy prey for professional and ordinary criminals because traditionally kidnapping was not something that happened frequently in Venezuela. Unlike Colombians, Brazilians and Mexicans who have lived in fear of abduction every day of their lives since the 1970s, the average Venezuelan had reason to be worried about armed robbers and car thieves, but the threat of kidnapping was not a major concern. This has changed greatly in the past decade, but today the average Venezuelan still remains very naïve about kidnapping. It can’t happen to me, many Venezuelans think.

· Eight years of violent discourse and actions by the Chavez regime have legitimized
criminal violence while simultaneously dismantling respect for the rule of law, police and judicial institutions. Kidnapping is one of the most violent crimes in a criminal’s menu of possible “business” options. Abductions involve brutality, abuse, torture, rape (when victims are female), prolonged malnourishment, permanent intimidation and constant terror for the unfortunate victims of kidnappers. At least 10% of kidnap victims are murdered in Venezuela.

· The economy has grown explosively in recent years thanks to constantly growing public spending, and there is a great deal of cash in the streets thanks to the president’s generous missions. But sociologists and other experts who work with poor Venezuelans and spend many of their working hours in the barrios report that in all respects – personal safety, education, health care, job stability, etc. – most poor Venezuelans are in worse condition today than a decade ago.

· President Chavez has a tacit strategic and political alliance with the FARC and ELN. Both groups have up to a dozen permanent base camps in Venezuelan territory. Some police and military sources estimate over 1,000 FARC and ELN fighters are currently operating inside Venezuelan territory. Many top FARC leaders are believed to be hiding in Venezuela, and it’s a matter of public record that some FARC chieftains like Rodrigo Granda, among others, have legal Venezuelan citizenship and identity documents issued to them under false identities. In March 2008 Colombia’s government also released dozens of documents extracted from the captured laptop of dead FARC chieftain Raul Reyes, which confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that the Chavez government is cooperating actively and enthusiastically with the FARC in an effort to legitimize the narco-terrorist group internationally and destabilize the democratic government of President Alvaro Uribe Velez.

· Since 1999, the Chavez government has made sure Venezuela’s armed forces and National Guard do not interdict and engage FARC and ELN forces in battle. “Leave them alone,” is the standing order with respect to encounters with FARC and ELN forces. In effect, the FARC and ELN have carte blanche to operate in Venezuela as long as they do not challenge the government or any of its Bolivarian supporters.

· Engaging in organized criminal activities is not a criminal offense in Venezuela despite the enactment in 2005 of the Law against Organized Crime. No one of any substance has been investigated, charged and prosecuted of any crimes under this law.

· Many kidnappings involving extended periods in captivity are carried out by groups in which police, military or National Guard personnel are active participants. The collapse of the country’s civilian law enforcement entities during the Chavez presidency is a matter of public record. The politicization of the country’s police forces, and the recruitment of known criminals into some police agencies, understandably has also spurred some of the growth in kidnappings.

· The Chavez government is routinely hostile to the plight of the hundreds of people kidnapped in recent years. Senior Chavez government ministers like Elias Jaua have attacked the victims of kidnappers as members of the “squalid elites” who deserve what they get because for generations they enriched themselves by abusing and stealing from the poor. Cattle ranchers seeking to arm themselves for self-protection have been intimidated and threatened with arrest and imprisonment. Many kidnappers captured by the authorities have been set free when their Bolivarian political bona fides are confirmed. In effect, the Chavez government has promoted a climate of impunity which encourages more kidnappings.

Welcome to Bolivarian Venezuela 2008

Welcome to the Bolivarian Venezuela of 2008, a 21st century socialist state where someone is kidnapped every 24 hours, someone is murdered every 60 minutes, and armed robbery or carjacking happens every 10 minutes, according to official Interior and Justice Ministry statistics.

No one is immune, but poor Venezuelans suffer the worst abuses at the hands of violent criminals. Among the various hats I wear professionally, I supervise a team of 25 security officials at a branch of major food wholesaler/retailer in Caracas. All of the team’s officials live in the poor barrios of Petare and western Caracas. In the past five days, from April 21-25, two members of this team were victimized by violent criminals. A male official was assaulted and beaten badly by several young men who stole his shoes and cell phone while he was commuting to work. And a female security official suffered the horror of seeing her mother shot in the head and killed during an armed robbery. Both crimes were witnessed by over 100 witnesses, but the police say they have no investigative leads and do not know the identities of the criminals.

In 1998, before Chavez was elected president of Venezuela for the first time, a total of 4,550 people were murdered nationally, but in 2007 a total of 12,257 people were murdered, according to official government data. However, the official data is deliberately incomplete. The Interior and Justice Ministry does not include data for violent deaths of known criminals by other criminals who “settle accounts,” suspected criminals killed while “resisting” police, violent deaths still “under investigation,” and prison inmates killed by other inmates in the country’s jails.

Including these statistics in the official homicide data for 2007 and 1998 shows that
17,614 persons were shot, stabbed, strangled, and bludgeoned to death last compared with 8,620 persons killed in crime-related violence during 1998. Crime and insecurity have been the top concern of Venezuelan voters since the 1980s, according to every issues opinion survey done over the past 25 years. However, during the nearly ten years Chavez has been in power, officially reported crime-related deaths have increased 104.3%.

The government’s published figures on violent deaths also omit another very important official fact. For every murder that occurs in Venezuela, up to 40 persons are shot, stabbed or beaten in crimes. Firearms are the leading cause of violent death, responsible for 84% of murders in poor Caracas municipal districts like Sucre and Libertador, which have chavista mayors and municipal governments. This implies that up to 704,560 inhabitants – 80.43 persons every hour – were shot, stabbed, beaten, etc. in 2007 as a result of criminal violence. In other words, approximately 80.43 people per hour were injured by violent criminals during 2007.

Less than a decade ago, Colombia, Brazil and El Salvador were significantly more violent countries than Venezuela. But today Venezuela is the most violent country in Latin America, and its capital city Caracas is the most violent city in the Western Hemisphere. Last year the national homicide rate was 65 per 100,000 inhabitants in Venezuela, while the homicide rate in Caracas was 95 per 100,000 inhabitants. And this is not a recent development. Venezuela’s national homicide rate in 2005 was 58 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 38 murders per 100,000 inhabitants for Colombia and 22 murders per 100,000 inhabitants for Brazil, according to UNESCO.

The explosion in violent crime Venezuela has experienced during the years Chavez has been in power was under way during the 1990s, long before he has elected president. But violent crime has reached pandemic levels during the Chavez regime, a period in which Venezuela has earned over $400 billion in oil export revenues by some estimates, thanks mainly to rising oil prices which reached nearly $120 a barrel in the past week.

Local security experts have many theories and explanations about why Venezuela is so violent today. For example:

· The violent public discourse employed daily by President Chavez has encouraged a state policy of criminal violence against ordinary citizens. Chavez always threatens violence against his local and international enemies. He revels in launching public personal insults laced with vulgarities. He encourages the hungry and homeless to steal food and invade privately-owned properties.

· The Bolivarian government’s state policy of criminal violence against the Venezuelan people is practiced daily by practically all national, regional and local law enforcement and judicial institutions. Throughout Venezuela, local police forces tend to be politicized, corrupt, and infiltrated by criminals. Police officials and occasionally military and National Guard personnel are frequently implicated in kidnappings, according to officials with specialized anti-kidnapping groups created by the government.

· The worst law enforcement abuses against law-abiding (and generally poor) citizens in Caracas are committed by PoliCaracas (Libertador Municipality) and the Metropolitan Police (now controlled directly by the Interior and Justice Ministry, but before that by Greater Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto), followed by Polisucre (Petare) and Polibaruta. PoliChacao is the only respected civilian law enforcement agency in Caracas.

· The Chavez government has systematically criminalized all legitimate private business and individual endeavors since 1999. Currently there are 85 laws which explicitly establish over 1,200 criminal offenses, many relating to business practices which the government has enacted laws against. At the same time, institutions like the Supreme Court and National Assembly have decriminalized many criminal activities including money laundering, organized crime and even homicide.

· All State entities have been sanitized legally for criminals by the National Assembly, because many of the legal “reforms” to the penal code enacted by the Chavez government explicitly exempt State entities, and hence State employees, from criminal investigations, indictments and prosecutions for alleged crimes, including corruption.

· Pandemic criminal violence in Venezuela is linked directly to chronic socio-economic underdevelopment.

· State institutions directly responsible for maintaining public order, combating crime, enforcing the law, and dispensing justice transparently and impartially are dysfunctional, corrupt, politicized, and incapable of carrying out their constitutional and legal obligations.

· Crime victims have no rights in Venezuela, although the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 and its predecessor, the Constitution of 1961, explicitly guarantee and protect the rights of all Venezuelans including victims of crimes. Most Venezuelans are unaware that legal “reforms” enacted by the Chavez government since 2005 have eliminated many procedural rights that were meant to protect citizens

· Legal “reforms” enacted in the past three years have created a network of inquisitorial procedures and norms which allow the State to conduct secret criminal investigations of anyone deemed to be a person of interest by the state. Anyone can now be investigated and charged with criminal offenses secretly, and then arrested and jailed before they are notified officially that they are suspected criminals under Bolivarian law.

Companies in today’s Bolivarian Venezuela have a powerful economic incentive to move their operations out of the country. The systematic criminalization of private business threatens the freedom and assets of investors, managers and even workers at companies targeted for penal action by the State. Moreover, the malignant proliferation of laws designed deliberately to criminalize and hinder most normal business practices makes it very cost-effective to relocate to investor-friendly countries whose laws and governments respect private enterprise and private property.

But if your business is violent crime, especially homicide, Venezuela is definitely the place to operate nowadays. An astounding 97% of all homicides reported in Venezuela are never prosecuted. In other words, anyone who wantonly and deliberately murders someone in Venezuela has a 97% probability of going free. Only 13% of reported murders result in arrests, and only 3% of individuals charged with homicide are convicted and imprisoned.