VALENCIA, Venezuela — Alvaro Ochoa remembers it happening fast: a car cutting off his, then gunmen swiftly kidnapping him and his girlfriend. The two were left bound in a roadside shack, while their captors demanded tens of thousands of dollars in ransom money.
Freedom came relatively quickly but not with the kind of action-film rescue that delivered Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos from his abductors on Friday. Instead, Ochoa’s anguished father negotiated quietly with the people who had snatched his son and paid up, with no police involvement.
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.
“I live on a farm, and truth be told, you are so fearful, you do not want to sleep out here,” Diaz said.
Such testimonials, and criticism from opposition politicians, have led to a forceful backlash from the government.
Last year, a court ordered one of the country’s main daily newspapers, El Nacional, to discontinue publishing images of violence after a front-page picture showed homicide victims in the Caracas morgue. Last month, the government leveled a $2.1 million fine against Globovision, the only anti-Chavez television station still on air in Venezuela, for its coverage of a prison riot that left more than 20 inmates dead.
For the government, the quick rescue of Ramos, who was home to play in Venezuela’s winter league, was positive news that received national and international coverage. On Friday night, Venezuelan commandos wrested him from his kidnappers after a shootout at a remote cabin.
“Here is the national government facing up to its responsibilities,” Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said Saturday at a news conference with Ramos. He added that authorities are dedicated to resolving “each case of violence, of homicide, or whatever crime that the Venezuelan family suffers.”
Criminologists, though, place much of the blame for the skyrocketing kidnappings, as well as homicides, on an ineffective government. Corruption is rife among police agencies. The judicial system lacks independence and is controlled by the president. The government has also armed militias in the slums, and Chavez’s rhetoric emphasizes class warfare.
“The government has not been able to control it,” Luis Cedeño, director of Active Peace, the criminal analysis organization. “The state does not give any type of priority to this issue of crime.”
For many kidnapping victims, the only path to freedom is paying up or escape. The government’s own data show that 23 people escaped in 2009, the last year for which such figures are available, and another 166 bought their way to freedom. Since 2005, at least 100 have died in captivity.
A possible violent end was certainly on Alvaro Ochoa’s mind as he and his girlfriend were taken to an isolated shack in a poor district of Caracas, he recalled. One of his captors threatened to shoot him unless his family cooperated. Another, a woman, “would talk more like a mother, more calmly,” he recalled.
“They use diverse strategies,” Ochoa, 28, recounted. “It was a psychological game.”
Ochoa, who has written a manual on kidnapping, said he remembered to remain calm. Negotiations with his father, meanwhile, progressed, with the kidnappers settling on a few thousand dollars.
Hours later, Ochoa and his girlfriend were released.
“I think the people who kidnapped me weren’t specialists,” Ochoa said. “They were common criminals, and what they did to me one day they probably did to someone else the next.”