Category Archives: Crime in Venezuela

Fear and Paranoia in Caracas

caitlin from the letters to gringolandia blogI thought this was a very thoughtful post about how our fear and paranoia can close us off to meeting new people and getting the most out of our travels. It comes from Jake and Caitlin’s Letters to Gringolandia blog.

Caitlin wrote this post when she had only been in Venezuela for a few weeks. I wonder if her interactions with Venezuelans changed with time, and if she answered her own question: “How do we move on and build a life here in Caracas after feeling so on edge and distrusting of everyone?”

Here’s her post:

***

The most telling experience just happened. Jake and I went to a performance tonight, a bizarre story told through acrobatic movements called ”Sueños de Golpe.” Although a little weird, it was nice to finally get out at night, especially to experience the arts in Caracas. After the performance we debated taking the metro or a taxi, since everyone has warned us not to walk on the streets after dark. But we decided it seemed safe enough to take the metro with the bunches of other people leaving the theater as well.

Everything seemed fine, the metro being very clean, fast, and efficient. As we were getting off the metro a young man in his twenties, wearing a navy blue turtleneck sweater that seemed to be out of an LL Bean catalogue, came up to us and asked something in Spanish while pointing to what seemed to be outside the metro. I couldn´t really understand him and I assumed he was asking for directions, as someone else had earlier that day. I don’t know if under other circumstances I would have understood his question, or whether his Caraqueño accent and fast speech made it impossible.

Either way, I was so caught off guard I just responded, ‘’No sé, no sé nada.’’ It was obviously a response to feeling endangered, which is how we’ve been made to feel here at all hours of the day, always skeptical of people who look at us or, god forbid, speak to us.

A Caracas metro station

A Caracas metro station

Constantly looking over my shoulder, I have yet to feel at ease in this city. The man at the metro asked if we spoke English or French. I said English reluctantly but reconfirmed my Spanish speaking skills by repeating, ”No sé” in response to his earlier question. My immediate reaction was to make sure he knew we spoke some Spanish and weren´t lost or unfamiliar with Caracas. I also wanted to get rid of him as fast as possible. (I have yet to let my guard down here.) Yet I couldn’t fool him with a response such as, I dont know anything.

He began to speak to us in near perfect English, explaining that he was also at the theater tonight, the same show as us, and wanted to know what we thought of the ending. A big sigh of relief. He was at the play and was just curious to hear our reactions to it.

We chatted for a second as we walked up the stairs to the street. This feeling of relief lasted no more than a minute though, because as we aproached the street we immediately reverted to action plan mode, needing to orient ourselves to know which direction to walk. So as we stopped to discuss this, he just kept walking. We didn’t even say goodbye.

The last thing he said was, ”The whole time during the performance I was waiting for a good ending, a way to finish, but the ending didn’t satisfy me.” It’s true. It was abrupt, as if ending in the middle of a conversation, just like we did as we walked opposite directions but never had the chance to say goodbye.

I still feel unsettled, and not from the performance, but from that one conversation we’ve had with a random Venezuelan. The one stranger who’s actually tried talking to us. He was not attempting to rob or cheat us, but just interested in hearing our opinions. I can’t help but wonder if he thought we were ”rude Americans,” as is a common perception of U.S. travelers. Or if it seemed like we didn’t want to talk with him. This is a perfect example of how this city feels so far – like we’re not allowed to trust anyone, even men in navy blue turtleneck sweaters, and especially anyone who has an interest in talking with us.

How does a city survive with its people constantly distrusting one another? Maybe it’s just a feeling tourists experience to such an extreme. It seems women often walk alone at night, or in suposedly dangerous areas, so maybe all the warnings are extra precautious for us as tourists. Do Caraqueños feel as much distrust in each other as we foreigners are made to feel in them? Caraqueños are the ones telling us to be careful, con much cuidado, not to walk certain ways, not to be in the streets at night, to hold on tight to our things. It’s wonderful to have so many great people looking out for us here, but it’s also a lot to worry about when trying to discover a new city.

So the question then for Jake and I becomes, where do we go from here? How do we move on and build a life here in Caracas after feeling so on edge and distrusting of everyone? That will be our biggest challenge.

-Caitlin

Life in Caracas: lavish malls and BMW dealerships, amid poverty and crime

Plaza Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela

Plaza Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela

I enjoy reading the San Francisco Chronicle, but I recently discovered an Alternative Daily called “BeyondChron” that bills itself as “The voice of the rest.”

Eli Rosenberg, a writer for BeyondChron, wrote a piece back in 2006 that described in precise terms the constant diverging realities of Caracas, Venezuela. He wrote about the haphazardly placed skyscrapers and glittering shopping malls, surrounded by the “ranchos” or ghettos in the hills.

I really enjoyed his piece, and I’m reprinting it here, along with some photos that I added:

Life in Caracas

by Eli Rosenberg

Caracas, while home to nearly a fifth of Venezuela’s 26 million inhabitants, is a city so poorly conceived in design that it appears to have sprung up from the ground, without warning, overnight. Nestled in a long and narrow valley, it is a tangled urban agglomeration of towering skyscrapers, cluttered streets, curving highways, world-famous shopping malls, and of course, ranchos that blanket the hills surrounding the city, covering every inch of exposed land as if they were fighting for daylight.

Stacked haphazardly on top of each other, the red cinder block and tin-roof dwellings of the ranchos can be seen from the valley floor, serving as a constant reminder of the harsh reality that many buying Versace or Polo in the air-conditioned cool of a mall try to forget, but are forced to acknowledge upon leaving; que peligroso (how dangerous) they’ll say, glancing fearfully at the hills, adding even que feo (how ugly). They’ll show you the golf course too, the golf course and country club in the middle of the city that Chávez is trying to take away. He would take away our golf course! They’ll say, with the indignation of a child who hears the word no for the first time.

The division between rich and poor is even more blatant in Caracas than in other parts of the country; consecutive city blocks often alternate between these two constituencies, and on many streets, bright and modern apartment buildings, circled by tall electric fences, stand in stark contrast to much smaller, crumbling brick buildings which surround them.

Yet in parts of Caracas, it is also deceptively easy to forget the fact that more than half of the people in Venezuela live in poverty, and that a quarter of the population lacks the means to eat adequately. In a shopping mall in Caracas, one could be in any wealthy region of the world; unabashedly extravagant, they are filled with the global chains of the world’s upper class- designer clothes, first-rate electronics, and endless shoe stores on par with any upscale mall in the United States. These malls are located in neighborhoods of BMW dealerships, “American” styled and themed bars, and areas where it is possible, even preferable, to pay for apartments in dollars. It is hard to believe that such contradictions could simultaneously exist in such close proximity, with such scarce middle ground.

Millenium Mall in Caracas, Venezuela

Millenium Mall in Caracas, Venezuela

Eating at one of the slick restaurants or glamorous bars of Las Mercedes, one could easily be in Los Angeles, and the similarities between the two cities are frightening; the blatant discrepancy between classes, the complete ill-conception and lack of planning, and the flaunting of wealth and almost psychotic emphasis on material goods and beauty. There were even mass riots of the poor in Caracas in 1989, called El Caracazo, which seemed to frighten the wealthy caraqueños perpetually, to a similar effect that the Rodney King riots had on the citizens of Los Angeles. And then there are the malls.

The wealthy in Caracas seem to embrace this retreat into irreality, flocking in hordes to lavish shopping malls, where some spend all day perusing the designer outlets, paying American prices to eat at American chains like TGIF and Cinnabon, listening to the American pop music that is piped into the cool air. These are the places they will recommend to you if you ask them where to visit in Caracas, these are what make Caracas the best city, they ‘ll say, if not in Venezuela, then the world.

Never mind the fact that you can get a good meal for a fraction of the price outside or that you could probably take a vacation here for the same amount of money spent in an afternoon at the mall. Maybe the outside world really does disappear the moment one enters a mall; how could poverty exist side by side with such profusion of wealth?

2. The other side of the coin

Boasting one of the highest murder rates on the continent, Caracas is an undeniably dangerous city. Upper-class neighborhoods surrounded by heavily-fortified walls and guard stations give some areas of Caracas the appearance of a war zone, and it is generally accepted that one does not walk around the city at night, with the exception of a few small areas in the wealthiest districts, conveniently surrounding the upper-echelon malls. Yet the ever-present paranoia of the upper-class in Caracas is almost more palpable than the danger here; I could not count the number of times that I was told to be careful in Caracas, and cautioned that Caracas is peligrosisimo (very dangerous), and sucio (dirty) too, deemed by many not even worth visiting because of this.

Caracas street vendor sells watches

A street vendor displays a stopwatch souvenir of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez weeks before plans to turn back the country's clocks by half an hour.

The small hotel I stayed at was located in an area called La Candelaria, a busy neighborhood near the central district of the city. Contrary to what I had been told, the area compromising the center and capital of the city was by far the most interesting part of the city. The streets surrounding Plaza Bolívar teemed with action during the day, alive with street vendors who covered the sidewalk for blocks on end, selling clothes, food, used books, household items, and pirated CDs to the masses of people who passed hurriedly by. This was dense urban living at its finest: the currents of people, the noise and smog, the movement on every street and corner, the hustle and struggle of everybody moving to the chaotic clockwork of modern city life.

In what appeared to be an impromptu speech, a man talked loudly about the virtues of the revolution into a microphone set up in Plaza Bolívar to the sparse crowd gathered there it seemed for other reasons, some restlessly tossing popcorn at pigeons, others nodding off on the benches around the huge statue of Simon Bolívar. A man gave me a “No a la Guerra!” sticker as I sat down. In Caracas political graffiti is everywhere, large government posters hang from office buildings showing giant profiles of Chávez, and a few beautiful murals cover the city’s walls.

A few blocks from the center, El Capitolio is the district where the National Assembly meets, where the building that houses the Supreme Court is under renovation, and where El Palacio Miraflores, the presidential palace is located. Palacio Miraflores, the site of the 2002 coup in which Chávez was removed from office for roughly 48 hours, sits on streets that are blockaded on all ends, streets that you are now forbidden from even walking down.

Caracas is a place that feels like it is at war with itself; fighting between two extremes, the city burns with conflict. Chávez clearly has his support in those who believe he can narrow the immense gap between those who reside in tall apartment buildings of Altamira and those who can only watch from their hillside shanties, but despite the programs, initiatives, the constant talk and emphasis, the task remains as necessary as the distance formidable.

Kidnapping in Venezuela is out of control

The film Secuestro Express was about a Venezuelan kidnapping gang

The film Secuestro Express was about a Venezuelan kidnapping gang

The guardian.co.uk published a recent article by Roy Carrol titled, “Fear grips Venezuela as even the poor are seized by kidnap gangs.” The article says that “pensioners, students and children are grabbed in streets and shopping malls.”

This kidnapping plague seems to be spreading all through Latin America. In Mexico of course it has been out of control for a long time. In Colombia it’s practically a way of life. In Panama, supposedly a stable and economically prosperous country by Central American standards, these sorts of kidnappings have just started to appear.

Often (though not always by any means) police are involved and are even running the show. This boggles my mind. The idea of dirty cops is not new to me and I know that a lot of cops all over the world are not averse to pocketing a little money, but running a kidnap gang? How does someone become so corrupt.

Anyway, I was dismayed to read that even poor people are being targeted by Venezuela’s kidnappers. The article says:

A wave of kidnappings across Venezuela is spreading fear and anger among communities who say that criminal gangs are out of control.

Hundreds of men, women and children have been swept off the streets in broad daylight and held for ransom, forcing their families to sell homes and other assets to buy their freedom.

The national assembly debated a bill last week that would make sentences of up to 30 years mandatory for kidnapping, as part of a long-promised government crackdown. Official figures released last week recorded 166 abductions so far this year, more than one a day. Most of the kidnappings go unreported and the real figure is estimated to be up to four times higher.

“It’s horrific. We have had four students abducted from the campus,” said Briceida Morales, a lecturer at Santa María University in Barinas, the worst hit state. “People are snatched from shopping malls. Women, children, pensioners, it doesn’t matter if you’re wealthy or not, they take anyone.”

In one incident, three men seized a three-year-old girl from her mother at a bus stop in a Barinas slum. The mother gave up the family’s most valuable possession, a fridge, to pay the ransom…

The virus infected neighbouring Venezuela about a decade ago when armed groups started seizing victims – especially farmers – in remote border areas.

“Even if they don’t kill you, you’ve got nothing left. Your home, your livelihood, everything you’ve built, gone,” said César García, 58, a rancher held for four months until his family paid a ransom.

The gangs realised that even poor families could drum up thousands of dollars by selling household possessions. “Insecurity has got worse and there is a sense of impunity,” said Jhonny Campos, a police commissioner in Caracas.

The topic inspired a former justice minister, Fermín Mármol León, to publish a thriller detailing four kidnappings. One family with showbusiness links ran a comedy night to raise a ransom. The relative was freed last month.

Some of the gangs use unlicensed taxi operators at the arrivals terminal of Caracas airport. European diplomats and American journalists have been among those who have had guns pulled on them.

So-called “express kidnappings” can end within days, or even hours, if the ransom can be drawn from cashpoints. A 2005 hit film, Secuestro Express, depicted a young couple’s terrifying night in a gang’s clutches in a seedy Caracas underworld. “Kidnappings are so common in Caracas I first thought they weren’t movie material,” said the writer and director, Jonathan Jakubowicz. “Every year Venezuela gets more violent. What has risen the most is kidnappings done by cops.”

Of 12 kidnap gangs identified by a special police unit, the CICPC, nine are linked to Colombian armed groups and three are home-grown, including one comprised of police officers. Local crime reporters say the proportion of home-grown groups is higher. They have nicknames such as “Los Invisibles” and “Los Rapiditos”.

The government hopes that freezing the assets of victims’ families, as well as tougher sentences, will curb the epidemic. Amid a rash of new abductions police celebrated one victory: two brothers, aged 14 and 16, were freed in Caracas after detectives intercepted a gang member collecting a bag he thought contained a £96,000 ransom. On his way there the kidnapper, Carlos Guerrero, texted his mother: “Mum I’m on my way to work, send me a blessing.”

Personally I feel that most criminal justice systems are seriously out of whack. Is it so insane to demand the death penalty for violent crimes like kidnapping, while advocating alternative sentencing and treatment for non-violent offenses like drug use or petty theft?

One of the basic jobs of any government is to ensure a certain minimum quality of life for its citizens, and that includes personal safety. The rise in violent crime, including kidnapping, has got to be stopped. I don’t know what that will take, but drastic situations call for drastic measures. Latin America as a whole needs to put a spotlight on this issue and come up with some serious solutions.