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Kidnapping-for-ransom: Venezuela’s forgotten threat for the year ahead
Whether for its soaring homicide rate, empty supermarket shelves or protests demanding its president’s ouster, Venezuela continues to make headlines in the international press. However, with competition from presidential impeachments and peace processes in neighbouring countries, the interest of the international community stops there and Venezuela’s intensifying kidnapping problem barely causes a stir. Despite the announcement of a new National Anti-Kidnapping Plan in September, abduction rates continued to rise rapidly this year and are unlikely to fall in 2017. Instead, the government’s failure to address the key drivers of kidnapping – most notably the consolidation of criminal gangs and economic instability – means that levels of the crime are likely to rise even further.
These kidnapping drivers will also impact the way kidnappers operate in the coming year, defining the demographics they will target and the areas where they will look for them. Although any Venezuelan government would struggle to lift the country from its current mire, a drastic shift in policy that successfully targets the drivers of kidnapping is unlikely from the Chavista administration, which is set to remain in power until 2019.
Consolidation of criminal gangs
Sky-high levels of impunity have long underpinned crime rates in Venezuela. An opposition politician in February claimed that the rate of impunity in cases of kidnapping stood at 98.33%. The near total ability of kidnappers to evade justice has many causes. One of the most important in recent years was the virtual withdrawal of the security forces from certain neighbourhoods under the ‘peace zones’ initiative.
The government in September 2013 designated key areas with the highest crime rates in Miranda state as ‘peace zones’ in an attempt to pacify gangs and reintegrate their members into society. In exchange for the gangs’ commitment to disarm, the security forces were effectively prevented from entering these areas. The initiative was subsequently extended to parts of the Capital District, Zulia, Táchira, Aragua and Guárico states. Far from reducing crime, the initiative led to the consolidation of gangs, whose memberships rose from single to double, or even triple, digits. They are now responsible for some of the highest levels of kidnapping in the country.
Flagship security operations aimed at taking back control of these low-income areas have had limited success. The security situation has continued to deteriorate in 2016, despite the launch of Operation Liberation and Protection of the People (OLP) in 2015 – a nationwide operation aimed at regaining that control in poor areas. Moreover, kidnapping gangs still operate out of many of the areas that the OLP has targeted. These include, most notably, the Caracas neighbourhoods of Cota 905, El Cementerio, El Valle and La Vega. These areas serve as launch sites for a significant proportion of kidnapping operations that take place in the city and beyond.
The problem the government faces in cracking down on crime is partly ideological. This is because operations like the OLP disproportionately target low-income neighbourhoods, which have historically benefited from Chavismo and are therefore home to the government’s core voting base. A second problem for policing such areas is operational. The militarisation of security has filtered down to criminal gangs, which now commonly outgun the police.
Times are hard
The implosion of the Venezuelan economy is an even more dynamic and evolving driver for kidnapping in the year ahead. A rise in global oil prices would cushion Venezuela’s economic fall, but a Chavista government is likely to continue the same anti-business policies that led to the current crisis. According to forecasts by Control Risks’ partner, Oxford Economics, GDP will contract by 8.6% this year, while inflation could top 360%. This situation provides fertile soil for the growth of criminality in general, and directly impacts the ways in which extortive criminals operate in particular.
With the devaluation of the Venezuelan bolivar, foreign cash is king and kidnapping has become a favoured method of acquiring it. The practice of demanding ransoms in US dollars is neither new nor confined to Venezuela, but has become increasingly ubiquitous in the country. Under former president Hugo Chávez (2002-13), kidnapping gangs broadened their scope of potential victims to include those of more moderate wealth. Today, the growing reluctance of gangs to accept ransom payments in local currency has put high-net-worth individuals and anyone perceived to have access to foreign currency back in their crosshairs.
With the changing profile of victims, affluent Caracas neighbourhoods such as Las Mercedes, La Castellana and Country Club have become staging grounds for brazen abductions. Even those abiding by strict security protocols can fall victim to the crime. Armoured vehicles are little deterrence to highly armed gangsters who often brandish grenades to force their victims to unlock their doors. On 10 August, after being pulled out of his car in Las Mercedes, an American expatriate was killed when his captors mistakenly pulled the pin on a grenade in their getaway vehicle.
Although increasingly brazen, criminal methodology has not returned to previous levels of sophistication. If during the 2000s, some gangs were capable of holding high-net-worth victims for months to secure multi-million-dollar payments, the emphasis today is on making a quick buck. Urban criminals tend to be unwilling to hold their victims for extended periods, and are unlikely to do so as living conditions remain tough. Those kidnappers who are living hand to mouth in poor neighbourhoods will be wary of entering into protracted negotiations. During this time they may forgo other sources of income while they use up their own scant supplies, feeding and maintaining their victim.
Cash crunch consequences
The rise in kidnapping will not be uniform or nationwide, in spite of the aforementioned drivers. While fuelling one kind of kidnapping, the economic crisis has completely eroded the profitability of another kind known as express kidnapping. This involves the abduction of an individual whose bank cards are then used to make cash withdrawals. Although most kidnaps are ‘express’ in length, they are no longer so in methodology. Some security analysts and media sources continue to talk about ‘secuestros express’, but the crime in its traditional form no longer poses a significant threat and is highly unlikely to make a comeback in 2017. With low limits on cash machines, which spit out nothing but Venezuelan bolivars, the equivalent value of a single withdrawal could be as little as a couple of US dollars. The risks are not worth such limited rewards.
Despite eroding the profitability of this specific form of kidnapping, the economic crisis has offered kidnappers a range of other opportunities. Although kidnaps continue to occur in the western city of Maracaibo, for example, many now bear a greater resemblance to carjacking. Instead of simply stealing vehicles, many perpetrators also abduct their owners for short periods. After verifying that there is no GPS-tracking device in the car, they release the victim. With a shortage of new vehicles, kidnappers-cum-carjackers can earn a tidy sum by ransoming cars back to their owners, often after pilfering valuable parts.
Another reason for the expected uneven rise in kidnapping is that the economic situation is offering diversified gangs a range of other criminal opportunities. A sharp increase in looting and cargo theft in 2016 suggests that criminal gangs are profiting from severe shortages, moving further into bachaqueo – the resale of price-controlled goods on the black market – and transnational smuggling. In far-flung parts of the country, where shortages are most acute and where wealthy potential kidnap victims with access to US dollars are few, the black market is likely to be a more profitable alternative to kidnapping. As a result, although kidnapping rates are expected to continue to increase in the country’s populous north, the meteoric rise of the crime in Caracas is unlikely to be replicated nationwide.
A note of caution though: even in locations where few incidents are recorded, opportunistic gangs will see the potential for big cash windfalls when they stumble across high-net-worth victims during a simple break-in or carjacking. Venezuela already has one of the highest – if not the highest – per capita kidnapping rates in Latin America. As long as the country remains in the global spotlight for all the wrong reasons, the kidnapping crisis is unlikely to subside.
Control Risks’ Response division and its Special Risks Analysis (SRA) team are the leading source of kidnap-for-ransom and threat extortion research and analysis, and have unparalleled operational experience in the field over the course of four decades. During this time, Response has worked on over 3,000 incidents in 136 countries around the world, feeding further proprietary insights and context back into the SRA team to inform its analysis.