Venezuela: Police corruption blamed for kidnapping epidemic

Officially there were 895 kidnappings in Venezuela last year. However, a government survey, suppressed by president Hugo Chavez, suggests that the real figure may be closer to 17,000 - 48 abductions every day - with policemen among the principal kidnappers.

"I would say that in Caracas eight out of every ten kidnappings have some level of police involvement," said Joel Rengifo, a former head of the investigative police's anti-kidnapping division who now works as a private consultant.

Mr Rengifo has more work than he can handle, advising individuals and companies on how to minimise the risk of kidnapping.

"You can be sure that right now, a few blocks from here, kidnapping gangs are scoping out potential victims," said Mr Rengifo, pointing out of the window of the caf in Caracas' fashionable Las Mercedes district. "They will be looking at the cars people drive, the clothes they wear, the houses they live in."

Before Mr Chavez began his Bolivarian Revolution in 1998, there were few registered kidnappings in Venezuela and most of those were carried out in the border region with Colombia, snatched by Colombia's Marxist rebels, who had turned their nation into the world's kidnap capital. Now kidnappings have dropped away in Colombia, but are out of control in Venezuela.

A survey carried out by the National Institute of Statistics estimated that 16,917 kidnappings were carried out over a 12-month period between 2008 and 2009. The document, which The Scotsman has obtained a copy of, was never published after the government saw the level of crime and violence it revealed.

Crimes such as the robbery of banks, jewellery stores and armoured vans have all but disappeared as criminals realise that kidnapping is equally lucrative but easier and far less dangerous.

"Ideally, the kidnappers want to get a ransom within 48 hours, in what we call an 'express kidnapping'," said Comisario Sergio Gonzalez, who founded the anti-kidnapping division. "In such a short time frame it is hard for the police to track them and set up an operation to catch them."

Ransoms range from as little as the equivalent of 1,000 to 40,000 for an express kidnapping, while the longer kidnappings, usually of bankers or landowners, can be in the millions.

"The kidnapping gangs can sometimes get access to bank accounts and know how much a family can put together in a very short time," said Fermin Marmol, a lawyer who often acts as a negotiator for kidnap victims.

In 2008, the Chavez-controlled National Assembly passed the law against kidnapping and extortion. Among its clauses was that the payment of any ransom was a itself a crime.

Mr Marmol said: "Now even fewer people are prepared to report kidnappings … And that is before we even talk about the involvement of the police."

The Metropolitan Police force in Caracas is so notorious for corruption that it is being disbanded. When kidnappers call they often tell the families of the victims, "Don't bother calling the police, they work for us".There have been few arrests of policemen due to systematic corruption.

However, in March, one Caracas businessman, who had been kidnapped by police but not reported it, finally informed the National Guard after the policemen returned and said they expected regular payments from him to ensure they did not snatch him again.

The military challenged the three officers as they came to collect money from the businessmen. The police opened fire in a busy shopping mall in the city. Two people were wounded before the policemen surrendered. They were found to be carrying drugs and bank cards that did not belong to them.

Caracas is now ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and crime is now the number one concern for Venezuelans and the main issue in next year's presidential elections, where Mr Chavez is expecting to win another six years in power.