Ochoa’s abduction in 2010 became just one of hundreds reported each year in Venezuela and never resolved. The government has officially recorded 1,050 kidnappings this year, 23 times as many as took place in President Hugo Chavez’s first year in office, 1999. But household surveys by the National Statistics Institute, a state entity, suggest that thousands more might take place, many of them hours-long, terrifying ordeals that have made this one of the world’s most dangerous countries.
Whatever the number, Venezuela leads the region in abductions, far surpassing another country once notorious for kidnappings, Colombia, which last year recorded 282, a third of Venezuela’s total. As Chavez campaigns for reelection next year, opinion polls show that Venezuelans believe the problem has grown worse, a challenge for the populist leader as he tries to show that the state can protect the people from spiraling violent crime, said Luis Vicente Leon, a political analyst with Datanalisis, a Venezuelan polling firm.
“This year, 71 percent of those polled say security has gotten worse,” Leon said, “and that could begin to pose a problem for President Chavez.”
Years ago, Venezuelans began to realign their lives to the violent reality. The affluent protect themselves with bodyguards, their homes ringed by high walls and electrified fences. The poor head inside before dusk. Millions across the country carry firearms for protection.
According to government statistics released by private research organizations, homicides quadrupled from 4,550 in 1998, the year Chavez won office, to more than 17,000 last year, giving this country of 29 million a homicide rate higher than Iraq’s. In the capital of Caracas, the homicide rate hovers at 200 per 100,000 people, more than eight times the rate of Bogota, Colombia’s capital.
“In 2010, Caracas became the deadliest capital in the world with the highest murder rate in the world, averaging one murder every hour,” according to the State Department’s crime and safety report for U.S. diplomats.
Other crimes, including robbery and extortion, have also risen sharply. But the steepest increase is in kidnappings, doubling since 2008, according to Justice Ministry statistics released by the crime analysis group, Active Peace.
“The trend just keeps going up,” said Pedro Diaz, who raises cattle in Bolivar state in eastern Venezuela.
He recalled how years ago, one or perhaps two kidnappings would take place in Bolivar. Now, word filters through of a dozen or so each month, such as the abduction last week of Ricardo Bocardo, a cattleman whose brother had been killed in a kidnapping two years ago.