As abductions get faster, the poor are being targeted along with the rich
TWO cars pulled up as a university student and her boyfriend were leaving a party in Caracas last December. Four men wrestled the student into one, her boyfriend into the other. “They drove around the city and negotiated with us over the phone while my daughter sat in the back seat,” says the student’s mother, Martha González, a teacher. The car never left Caracas; the abduction lasted just two hours. A ransom was agreed; Mrs González’s daughter and her boyfriend were freed.
Classic kidnappings are elaborately planned, with rich victims and prolonged negotiations. If all goes well for the miscreants, large ransoms are paid at the end. In Latin America such set-piece kidnappings are increasingly outnumbered by swifter abductions with lower pay-offs. In Venezuela, where the number of abductions is rising, “express kidnappings” are the most common sort, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV), a think-tank based in Caracas.
Elsewhere, the total number of kidnappings appears to be dropping while the proportion of express abductions is probably rising. In Colombia the number of snatches dropped from 3,572 in 2000 to 277 last year, in part because the FARC, a leftist guerrilla group, has largely pulled out of the business. The value of ransoms has fallen in tandem, say police. In some Brazilian cities “lightning kidnappings”, in which victims are nabbed and then forced at gunpoint to withdraw cash from multiple ATMs, are the most frequent type. That is also a problem in Ecuador.
As abductions have become faster and cheaper, the targets have expanded to include poorer people. Using a survey conducted in 2010, the OVV estimates that nearly 17,000 kidnappings took place over the course of a year in Venezuela (many more than official statistics record). Half the victims were poor, 47% middle-class and less than 3% were rich. “Anyone is a potential target, including the very poor,” laments Andrés Schloeter, a councillor in the district of Sucre, one of the poorest in Caracas. Terra Firma, a security firm with a branch in the city, has noticed that kidnappings surge every two weeks, when most people get paid their wages, which suggests that the victims are working-class.
Quickie kidnappers are not master criminals. Unlike traditional kidnappings, with their drawn-out negotiations and dollar ransoms, a lightning abduction “does not require an extensive network”, notes Mr Schloeter, just “a single delinquent with a weapon”. Tougher law enforcement has weakened gangs in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, leading to a drop in big-ticket kidnappings, says the state’s department of public security. What is left is the quick-and-dirty kind.
Economic hardship is one reason for the persistence of low-rent kidnapping. In Venezuela, where the economy is in a slump and foreign currency is scarce, fewer hostages can pay big-dollar ransoms, says a negotiator from Terra Firma. Some criminals even accept names of people who are secuestrable(kidnappable) as partial payment from their victims.
A bigger factor may be impunity. Many kidnappings are never reported. Victims’ families often negotiate directly with the abductors, says Javier Gorriño, a Venezuelan criminologist and former policeman. That is partly because of well-founded fears that the police have connections to the perpetrators, or that the victims will be hurt if a rescue is attempted. With express kidnappings, the incentive to call in the police is even weaker. That keeps the snatchers in business. The rewards may be small, but so are the risks