Venezuela's kidnapping express

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.

The Interior Ministry recorded 537 kidnappings in Venezuela in 2008. By August this year's total had surpassed last year's. A survey by the Observatory of Violence says that the real number will likely be between 8,000 and 9,000 because most incidents go unreported. Andy Chelini, a security consultant specializing in kidnappings in Venezuela, estimates there are between three and five cases a day in Caracas alone.

Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami admitted recently that police are involved in as many as 20 percent of all crimes in Venezuela. Analysts think that number could be as high as 70 percent. Chelini said police involvement could involve anything from active participation to looking the other way.

The government has relaunched a stalled police reform program, including human rights training workshops for officers, but a solution appears distant with impunity in the courts continuing — just 4 percent of violent crimes are prosecuted, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry.

Transparency International classifies Venezuela as the second most corrupt country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti.

The businessman said his family never thought about calling the CICPC. “What you look for in a situation like this is to resolve it as quickly as possible and we all know the CICPC is absolutely unworkable,” he said.

Affluent families can afford insurance and preparation. Voiceprints of potential victims are stored on databases and "proof of life" questions established so that the negotiator can determine whether the victim is alive and healthy.

And even if families can raise the requested sum quickly they should still stall and bargain, said Chelini.

“If you make it look easy by paying up fast and exactly what they are asking for they''ll come for a second round,” he said. “It's called double dipping.”

So common have kidnappings become in Venezuela that it’s not just the rich who are now targeted.

The businessman, whose family negotiated his release, said it’s the middle class and poor who are suffering because they cannot afford the body guards, armored cars and insurance of the affluent.

“Evidently if this happened to me, someone who doesn’t have a fortune, who doesn’t have a motive for being the victim of a kidnapping, this obviously indicates that this is an activity that has multiplied and that which could happen to absolutely anyone,” he said.

He said he would be dedicating his life for the next few years to paying back the money his family and friends had lent him to pay for his ransom.

“Not only do I take more precautions but fear affects you too,” he said. “Fear affects your habits, your way of thinking. You need to change your work schemes and your life expectation.”