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.