Express Kidnappings And Extreme Paranoia

The reality of living in Caracas, the world's third deadliest city...Artwork by Lisa Charlotte Rost


by Rebecca Holman |
Published on

You’ll have seen Venezuela in the news for all the wrong reasons recently – namely the murder of Briton Thomas Berry and his Venezuelan beauty queen wife on the Puerto-Cabello to Valencia highway earlier this month. But violence is an everyday occurrence for the residents of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, which frequently gets compared to Baghdad and Kabul in the danger stakes. Seriously, in 2009 Caracas had four times as many civilian deaths from violence than the Iraqi capital. It’s actually that dangerous.

But how do you meet guys, see your friends, or get to work when walking down the road brings the (very real) risk of kidnapping? For blogger and Caracas resident Amanda Quintero, 26, it’s a case of living with the constant paranoia. ‘Six of my friends have been kidnapped. You deal with it on a daily basis and, of course, it leaves you feeling constantly nervous and paranoid. But this is the place where I live, so I have no choice but to get used to it.’

Violent crime is big business – and Caracas’ young middle classes are the biggest targets. ‘It’s called “express kidnapping” because it’s usually over within six to eight hours,’ explains Amanda in a matter-of-fact way. ‘They tend to target people in their twenties who look like they’re part of a middle-class family. They’ll either take you around in your own car or their car and drive round the city, speaking to your parents on the phone, negotiating a ransom. Sometimes even couples are kidnapped – they’ll ring both sets of parents and ask for two separate ransoms. It’s such a business they’ll even offer you an exchange rate if you’d rather pay the ransom money in euros or dollars. Six of my friends have been kidnapped. You deal with it on a daily basis and, of course, it leaves you feeling constantly nervous and paranoid.'

As a result, Venezualan kids are taught at an early age how to behave if they’re kidnapped. ‘We talk about it a lot,’ says Amanda. My friends who have been kidnapped give me advice on what to do if it ever happens to be – how to react in different situations. They always tell me not to resist because kidnappers are always heavily armed and they will not hesitate in harming you. I also get told never to say yes to the first ransom they ask for, because they will always ask for more money.’

The constant risk of violent crime that Amanda’s generation faces may sound like the ultimate buzzkill, but that doesn’t stop Saturday night happening in Venezuela’s capital. ‘It’s very popular to go out dancing – we’re a dancing culture. You could never go bar hopping or have a one-night stand with a stranger, though. We tend to stick to the same places, and only hang out with people we know. You would absolutely never talk to a guy who you hadn’t already been introduced to by a mutual friend, and there’s no way a guy would approach you on your own in a bar – it would just be weird, and too dangerous. It does mean you always spend your time with a close circle of friends, which can get a bit Gossip Girl.’

Even if Amanda did pull on a night out, she and her brother still live at home with their parents – a common occurrence in Venezuela – so bringing someone home is doubly problematic. ‘It’s not unusual to stay at home until you’re 30, maybe older. We say it’s because we have such a family-oriented culture, but really it’s because we can’t afford to move out. On my wage [as well as writing her blog, Amanda works as a junior officer at a bank], I could afford to eat for about half the month before I run out of money. So we say it’s a cultural thing, but really it’s an economic problem.

'I always wear flats to walk home from work. Not that I would run if I was attacked, because they’re likely to have a gun.’ And getting to and from work itself presents another set of problems. Muggings are rife – Amanda herself has been held up twice at gunpoint – and the streets are viewed as a no-go zone after dark, which puts the morning commute in perspective. ‘No one would ever go out walking on the street at night, because something bad will almost certainly happen to you – if I go out with my friends, someone will drive. I do walk back from work, which is about 15 blocks and, to an extent, you have to be brave. But I always wear flats to walk home from work. Not that I would run if I was attacked, because they’re likely to have a gun.’

Given the violence, it’s hardly surprising that so many young Venezuelans are leaving the country. ‘A lot of my friends are leaving – my brother’s crazy about going. I would be, too, if I didn’t love my job so much. Last weekend, I went to my friend’s leaving party – he’s going to Canada – and my other friend drove us there. While we were inside someone smashed his car window and stole his iPad. There wasn’t much point in telling the police – they wouldn’t do anything.’

In fact, politically, violence is practically encouraged. ‘[Former Venezuelan president Hugo] Chavez came into power under a Marxist manifesto, and always encouraged a Robin Hood-style ethos – taking from the rich and giving to the poor. In this way, the violence was justified, and over the years it's become both progressively worse, and accepted,’ says Amanda. As a result, she and her friends have become highly politicised: ‘Everyone gets involved and everyone reads the news, and everyone is always after the politicians, because we’re always pissed at them.’

And the police – the very people who are meant to be protecting Amanda and her friends from crime? ‘We accept that the police won’t do anything, because they're so tied to the political institutions. No one trusts the police anymore, so no one reports crime. No one trusts the miliary, either. It’s like you can see these institutions crumbling in front of your eyes.’

Follow Rebecca on Twitter @Rebecca_hol

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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