For Venezuelans, Kidnappings Are Simply Business As Usual : Parallels Latin American cities rank as the most violent in the world. The region suffers from sky-high homicide rates, drug wars and gang violence. NPR is examining the region's turmoil in a series of reports, beginning with a look at the rampant kidnapping problem in Venezuela.

For Venezuelans, Kidnappings Are Simply Business As Usual

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Latin America has become the most violent region in the world. The capital of Venezuela, Caracas, had 3,800 killings last year, and now ranks as the planet's third most violent city. The only places ahead of it are also in Latin America, cities in Honduras and Mexico. In fact, when a Mexican think tank listed the world's 50 most violent cities, 41 were in this region.

MONTAGNE: MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep has a story now of a man who got in his car and left work one day. It took him 11 months to get home. The man is a banker in Caracas, where Steve recently met him.


The many varieties of Latin American crime include one type of crime the Venezuelan banker knows personally. German Garcia Velutini told us his story at an outdoor table at a hotel, with a view of a mountainside that climbs into the clouds.

GERMAN GARCIA VELUTINI: I was kidnapped in February 2009.

INSKEEP: Kidnapped, he says: a crime that's getting more common in Venezuela every year. Garcia Velutini's departure from work in 2009 took him, as usual, to a highway ramp, where he had to hit the brakes.

VELUTINI: It was like a stopover by what I thought were policemen, because of their jackets.

INSKEEP: It's like a checkpoint on the road. It looked like one.

VELUTINI: A checkpoint. And they had long guns.

INSKEEP: Like automatic rifles.

VELUTINI: Automatic rifles.

INSKEEP: Garcia Velutini is a trim man, with glasses and a mild expression, which matches his mild tone as he describes learning the men were not police.

VELUTINI: They took me out of the car and push me into another vehicle, and injected me. I passed away in seconds.

INSKEEP: You were given an injection. Where? In your...

VELUTINI: In the leg.

INSKEEP: In the thigh.

VELUTINI: Yes. When I woke up, I was being pushed in a small room. They took all my clothes.

INSKEEP: Leaving him only with a T-shirt and underwear. These professional kidnappers held Garcia Velutini for months as they demanded ransom from his family.

VELUTINI: They were very proud of what they were doing. They took pride in their profession.

INSKEEP: Which was plain from the kidnappers' elaborate techniques. They kept him in one windowless room. Music constantly played, so he would hear nothing from outside. Cameras followed his every move. He never saw his kidnappers, who pushed food through a sort of doggie door, and also pushed in notes for him to read.

VELUTINI: The original piece of paper was a set of instructions, which I was not to yell, and not to hit the doors. And a list of questions, like: How much are you worth? Which is a terrible question, because if you are kidnapped by political reasons, you have some principles that you can stand by. Money doesn't have principles. Money's just - you're merchandise. So it's...

INSKEEP: All you mean to them is an opportunity to get some gold, basically.

VELUTINI: To get some money. Yes.

INSKEEP: There's a lot of money to be had in Latin America. This is, in many ways, a golden time for the region. Brazil is a rising economic power. Mexico and Venezuela are enormous oil producers. Poverty is receding. Some people are actually migrating to Latin America from troubled economies in Europe. Yet the region's dramatic rise has come along with dramatic violence.

Studies argue that crime is so serious, it measurably restrains economic growth. Analysts say a variety of factors drive high crime rates, from income inequality to official corruption. The Venezuelan government itself once estimated that 20 percent of this country's crimes are committed by police.

We're on a mountainside on this evening, overlooking the lights of Caracas, a breathtaking view. We're standing at the entrance to a gated community. There's a security booth here and a sign saying security is the responsibility of all. Just a little reminder that some of the most beautiful spots in Latin America can also be among the most dangerous, which we learned when we heard a story of a woman inside this community who invited us into her kitchen to tell us. She asked us not to use her real name. Instead, we're calling her Chilena.


INSKEEP: We had a glass of wine at the stone countertop in her kitchen. That's where she likes to chat with friends, and where she told her story.

CHILENA: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: Four years ago, gunmen grabbed her adult daughter. Then they called Chilena's home, demanding money.

CHILENA: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: I thought that if I started crying, they could hurt my daughter, Chilena said. I had to be as tough as they were. Chilena refused to pay ransom, insisting she had no money. Fortunately, the kidnappers were in a rush, and freed the daughter in exchange for the car in which she'd been kidnapped.

During the hours of negotiating, Chilena overheard one striking thing. A kidnapper asked her to hold on, please, while he took a call on another phone from his own daughter.

CHILENA: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Papa is working, the kidnapper said, don't worry.

This was, for him, just business. Because of the tough negotiation, he had a somewhat disappointing work night.

But the kidnapping industry has innovators constantly trying new ways to keep the money flowing. We got a rundown of their innovations from Luis Cedeno, of a Caracas organization called Paz Activa.

LUIS CEDENO: Traditional kidnapping is when someone is taken, their family is called and they're asked for ransom.

INSKEEP: That's the kind we just heard about. A different style of kidnapping is believed to be an import from Mexico: express kidnapping.

CEDENO: They take you in your car and they go around to ATM's and extract money from your accounts. They go to stores. They buy expensive watches with your credit card. And then, you know, after maybe an eight-hour ordeal, they take your car but they leave you.

INSKEEP: So that's express kidnapping. The widespread fear of kidnapping has created a market for still more creative techniques.

CEDENO: One of them being the virtual kidnapping.

INSKEEP: What's a virtual kidnapping?

CEDENO: A virtual kidnapping is when you don't get kidnapped.


CEDENO: But your family thinks you're kidnapped.

INSKEEP: Your phone service is cut off. And during those anxious hours when nobody can reach you, the virtual kidnappers pretend they've snatched you and demand a ransom from your family.

Like many businesses, kidnapping also takes advantage of telemarketing.

CEDENO: It's done from prisons.

INSKEEP: Where inmates make calls to countless people on a list.

CEDENO: We know who you are. We're going to kidnap you. What do you mean? No, we know who you are. We know the name of your children.

INSKEEP: Some percentage of people will pay.

The most terrifying style of kidnapping remains what happened to German Garcia Velutini, the banker we met who spent months in that windowless room, struggling to keep his sanity, by keeping track of the passing days.

VELUTINI: I just cut my fingernails. I put it every day of the week, I put one - this represents one week and the other... And I kept track until...

INSKEEP: With little shavings of fingernails.


INSKEEP: Wow. He had nothing to read but a Bible. He became more deeply religious. Once his family finally negotiated his release, the banker wrote a short book called "Dios en mi Sucuestro," "God in My Kidnapping." His religion gives him comfort though not security.

How is your life different - your daily life different now than it was before you were kidnapped?

VELUTINI: Well, my daily life began about one week after kidnapping. One of the advisers told me, Well, German, from now on you're going to be kidnapped by bodyguards. So I now ride in an armored car with escorts. It's a sense that you are not free.

INSKEEP: He never loses that feeling until he leaves Venezuela.

VELUTINI: The most incredible is the day I go to the airport and pass through immigration. Then I'm free, completely free. And then if I visit any city, I just walk. I don't need to go to museums, shops, anything - I just walk in the city. It's a wonderful sense to be able to walk, free.

INSKEEP: At least until it's time to return to Caracas.

When we said goodbye in Caracas to German Garcia Velutini, he walked swiftly to his car. He climbed in the back seat. A driver and a burly bodyguard took up the seats in front.


MONTAGNE: We have just begun our exploration of crime in Latin America. This region is home to dozens of the most violent cities in the world. Tomorrow, we travel to Brazil where NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has a story of Rio de Janeiro's attempts to bring down the level of violence there, ahead of the World Cup and Olympics.


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