“Juan” has a wife, two kids, a cat and a dog named Muñeca. With short-cropped hair and an easy smile, he could be a waiter or a bank teller. But this 25-year-old is a kidnapper on the streets of Caracas — preying on shopkeepers, restaurant owners and anyone else who might be able to cough up at least 50,000 bolivares, roughly $8,000.
Juan agreed to talk to the Miami Herald as long as he wasn’t identified. Sitting in a cinder-block room without any windows, as members of his gang played cards outside, Juan said he had participated in five kidnappings — including one that went fatally wrong. But he said his gang, which has about 15 members, has kidnapped scores of people.
“First we pick the person, like the owner of a bakery or a business owner, and then we follow him for two to three weeks and see where he lives, where he goes shopping, who’s with him, those kind of things,” Juan said as he casually scratched the ears of his black mutt. “Then the day comes and you do what you have to do. You ask for ransom — but you try to get it in less than 24 hours.”
Caracas is a city that seethes with violence. It’s the most homicidal capital on the planet, according to the United Nations, and it’s a hotbed for other crimes including kidnapping.
Polls show lack of security is Venezuela’s top concern, and the current round of protests — sparked by an attempted rape in San Cristóbal, along the Colombian border — has rattled the nation for more than a month.
The government does not provide comprehensive crime statistics, but in 2012, a year after the government created the special Anti-Extortion and Kidnapping Group, Attorney General Luisa Ortega said the squad had rescued 49 kidnap victims and detained 241 perpetrators. The Institute for the Investigation of Citizen Security, which studies crime, recorded 685 kidnappings in 2012.
One of the factors driving the spree is impunity. Juan described the police as a business expense rather than a real threat. He said the CICPC, Venezuela’s criminal and forensic police, were the most problematic. If they caught him, he said, he might have to pay an $8,000 bribe to be released.
“But the regular police, they charge a lot less,” Juan said. “Really, you just give them whatever and they will let you go.”
President Nicolás Maduro has repeatedly said he will crack down on crime, and his administration has rolled out plans to restrict the flow of weapons. But Juan said the police are the gang’s best suppliers.
Weapons are “easy” to get, he said. “We have a contract with some police, and they bring us guns and we give them some bills. Any gun we want.”
The Miami Herald met Juan through a contact who grew up in the same neighborhood with him and vouched for his story. There was no reason to believe he was lying, but most of his claims were difficult, if not impossible, to prove. However, they are in line with what analysts and others say about Venezuela’s underworld.
Jose Luís Duran is a criminal lawyer whose 65-year-old uncle, Juan Cortés, was kidnapped on the streets of Caracas in January 2012. Duran said he spent 54 days negotiating with the kidnappers before they agreed to a ransom. The family paid, but Cortés was never released.
“We have no idea what happened to him, but logic tells us that he’s dead,” Duran said. No criminal gang would take on the expense of keeping a hostage alive for more than two years, he said. “But his body has never appeared, so we still have hope.”
Duran has studied his uncle’s case extensively and has concluded that the police were complicit in the crime. He said when ransom calls were traced, they came from hundreds of miles apart.
“You could just tell from their logistical operation and their tactics that this wasn’t a regular criminal gang,” he said.
The suspicions aren’t far-fetched. In January, authorities detained four members of the Anti-Extortion and Kidnapping Group and three policemen for their alleged ties to the kidnapping of a businessman in Barquisimeto.
But the gangs themselves are also sophisticated. Juan said his group will often move victims from house to house and have accomplices in other states make the ransom calls to keep authorities guessing.
While his gang is always looking for a quick turnaround with its victims, it doesn’t always happen. In one case, about a year ago, Juan said his group snatched the owner of an upscale restaurant in eastern Caracas.
Juan said the man and his family refused to pay and were abrasive and insulting.
“We kept hitting him and hitting him and he didn’t want [to pay] so we had to react, do you understand?” Juan said. “So I talked to my friend and I said ‘this crazy guy doesn’t want to give us anything.’ ”
Juan wouldn’t provide details but said his gang decided they had to “disappear the guy.”
Another victim who couldn’t produce the cash but was more “cooperative” was stripped naked and dumped unharmed outside of Caracas, Juan said.
Duran said that his years as a criminal lawyer didn’t prepare him for the pain of being a victim.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” he said. “It’s a nightmare for those who are kidnapped and their family.”
To complicate matters, he said, there are few support groups in Venezuela. After his uncle was snatched, Duran tried to contact other victims to compare notes — to see if he might find clues about his uncle’s fate.
“Kidnap victims and their families isolate themselves and don’t want to share; it’s a fatal error,” he said. “Many leave the country and you can’t get a hold of them. I couldn’t get anywhere… . There’s no way for kidnap victims to unite in this country.”
Juan has heard the president’s tough-on-crime speeches but says he’s not worried. He said that as long as people like him can bribe their way out of trouble, kidnapping will likely thrive in Venezuela.
When strangers ask him what he does, Juan says he’s a businessman or a motorcycle-taxi driver. And after more than a decade as a criminal, he says he really would like to go straight. But he’s afraid a rival gang or one of his victims might take revenge.
“There’s no way out,” he said. “I don’t like this world, but it’s the world that God put in my path.”