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.