Connect to share and comment

Venezuela's kidnapping express

The preferred method for Venezuelan kidnappers involves driving victims around while families get the ransom together.

A man is checked by a policeman patrolling the slum district of Petare in Caracas, Nov. 8, 2009. Rampant kidnappings, theft and violence make the capital and country one of the world's most dangerous. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Driving home one recent evening from a meeting in an affluent neighborhood of Caracas, a Venezuelan businessman was intercepted by two identically colored SUVs.

Eight men carrying guns emerged, ordered him out of his car and bundled him into one of the 4x4s.

The businessman, who requested anonymity for fear of being identified, would spend the next eight hours lying in the back of the car with a gun held to his head and his white shirt stained with blood from his broken nose. Meanwhile the men were negotiating a ransom with his family.

The businessman was victim of a "secuestro express" or express kidnapping, a growing phenomenon in this South American nation, which now records more kidnappings than Colombia or Mexico. Experts say these types of kidnappings are defined as operations that last  less than 48 hours and involve smaller ransoms than long-term kidnappings.

“The experience of being kidnapped and of having your freedom taken away while someone discusses how much your life is worth is very troubling,” the businessman said. “In an instant you are reduced to a piece of meat.”

The secuestro express originated in Mexico City where armed robbers would march victims to ATMs and force them to withdraw their savings. It has become the preferred method for criminals in Venezuela who now drive their victims around the city while the family scrambles to put the ransom money together.

Kidnappers typically settle for ransoms of about $25,000, a relatively small amount compared to long-term kidnappings, which can fetch ransoms of up to $2 million, said Roberto Briceno Leon, a sociologist and director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence. But Venezuelan kidnappers prefer the secuestro express because it implies less risk and less investment.

“[A long-term kidnapping] requires having a person hidden in a place, you need to have a budget for food, you need to have someone guarding them all the time and it gives the police time to react and find them too,” Briceno Leon said.

It’s easier and more profitable to charge a family less money, which can be raised overnight, he said. But that means that kidnappers are back out on the street stalking victims sooner and more often.

Organized gangs such as "The Invisibles" and "The Invincibles" are believed to steal cars to carry out express kidnappings. Many are divided into subsections that carry out different stages of the operation, from abducting the victim, to guarding him or negotiating the ransom.

The CICPC, Venezuela’s equivalent of the FBI, captured seven members of "The Invisibles" last August. Those arrested are believed to be responsible for at least 30 kidnappings in Caracas in the last two years.