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Venezuela 2014 Crime and Safety Report

Western Hemisphere > Venezuela; Western Hemisphere > Venezuela > Caracas

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

The U.S. Department of State rates the criminal threat level in Caracas as Critical. Mexican non-governmental organization (NGO) Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal) listed Caracas as the third most violent city in the world -- up from sixth place in 2012 -- and another Mexican NGO, Security Justice and Peace, ranks it number two. A number of factors explain the pervasive criminality in Caracas including poorly paid, under-armed, and often corrupt police forces; an inefficient and politicized judicial system; a system of violent and overcrowded prisons that are frequently managed with impunity by prison gang leaders themselves; and country-wide saturation of millions of illegal weapons.

Crime Threats 

Venezuela remained one of the deadliest countries in the world for 2013. There is no evidence to indicate criminals are specifically targeting U.S. citizens. Much of Caracas’s crime and violence can be attributed to mobile street gangs and organized crime groups. The poorest areas (“barrios”) frequently provide safe havens for criminal gangs, which use barrios as a base of operations. A majority of violent crimes in Caracas, and Venezuela in general, occur in barrios, but criminal “ownership” of some of these neighborhoods often prevents police from entering. Caracas is notorious for the brazenness of high-profile violent crimes, like murder, robbery, and kidnapping, committed in neighborhoods across the city, at all hours. Even relatively affluent residential Caracas neighborhoods in Chacao, Baruta, and El Hatillo (where many government leaders, professionals, business-people, and foreign diplomats reside) see regular incidents of kidnapping, home invasion, and armed robbery. Widespread vehicle ownership and inexpensive gasoline also allows criminals the mobility to operate in the more affluent areas, where wealthier victims can be targeted.

Violent crime is the greatest threat in Caracas, affecting local Venezuelans and foreigners alike. Although the government claims that the murder rate decreased by 18 percent in 2013, this statistic is widely believed to be unreliable. Reliable official statistics are hard to come by, but since 2005, the Venezuelan NGO Venezuelan Violence Observatory (VVO) has tracked violence. VVO’s December 30, 2013, annual report states that Venezuela had 24,763 homicides in 2013; a rate of 79 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. This number is up from VVO’s reported rate of 73 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012. In Caracas, the rate is even higher, with a Security Justice and Peace report reflecting a rate of 134 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. By comparison, neighboring Colombia reported a homicide rate of 31 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, and Mexico reported a homicide rate of 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012.

After homicide, the crimes of greatest concern in Caracas are kidnapping (see Kidnapping Threats below) and robbery (carjacking, street robbery, and home invasions). Kidnappings and robberies often become homicides, as victims who resist are killed. Robberies are known to happen across Caracas and at any time. This is especially true of street robberies. Armed criminals rob pedestrians (standing or walking along the side of a road) and motorists (parked or stopped in traffic) alike. Often the criminals operate from a motorcycle, pulling up alongside their victim before brandishing a firearm and demanding valuables, such as a cell phones, purses, or jewelry. Robberies (and scams) are also common at public ATMs. There have been several reported incidents involving victims who had been robbed, and sometimes subsequently killed, after making large withdrawals. This suggests close surveillance of banks and/or possibly complicit bank employees. Robberies at banks and ATMs are increasingly common during the holiday season.

Home invasions remain worryingly common in Caracas. Home invaders primarily use one of two tactics. 
In the first tactic, an individual or small group targets a house or apartment, convincing the doorman (“vigilante”), maid, and/or resident that they are coming to perform some service (home goods delivery, a telephone installation, etc). Once inside the home, the criminals brandish weapons, threaten the occupants, and steal valuables. This tactic sometimes involves an insider who tips the criminals off to the presence of valuables and/or helps them to scam their way into the home. 
The other tactic involves larger groups of heavily armed criminals forcing their way into a house or apartment. This approach can be carried out by threatening the doorman, accosting the victim as s/he waits to enter the building, or “piggy backing” behind the victim (following close behind as the victim drives into his/her protected garage or parking area). 
Home invasions are occasionally accompanied by gratuitous violence. Victims appear to be selected because of their perceived wealth, either from the home or neighborhood where they live or the car they drive. Home invasions have occurred in the buildings where diplomats live. 

Although ineffective policing is often cited as one of the primary factors behind the high numbers of violent crimes committed in Venezuela, police themselves are frequently the victims. Criminals often kill police officers simply to take the officer’s firearm. Open-source reports state that 266 Venezuelan security officers (police and soldiers) were murdered in 2013, and nearly half were killed simply to steal their weapon, vehicle, or belongings.

Pickpockets and grab artists operate throughout the greater Caracas metropolitan area but are especially active at busy bus and metro terminals, in the historic downtown city center, in the area of Plaza Simón Bolívar, the Capitolio, the Sabana Grande neighborhood, and Parque Los Caobos.

Overall Road Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions 

Driving regulations are similar to those in the United States, although drivers frequently do not obey them. Defensive driving is an absolute necessity. It is common practice to ignore red traffic lights, especially after dark. Motorcyclists frequently weave in and out of lanes, pass on the right and the left, and drive into the oncoming lane to get around traffic jams. Motorcyclists also frequently drive between the lanes on the freeway, especially when the cars around them are stopped in traffic. Traffic in Caracas is heavy at most times, as an abundance of vehicles running on heavily subsidized gasoline fill the aging infrastructure beyond capacity. Such overuse produces wear-and-tear on roads and freeways that authorities are often slow to fix. Since public works departments are slow to respond, road damage is often marked by passersby with a pile of rocks over a pothole or a stick protruding from an uncovered manhole. 

Given the poor state of the roads and local aggressive driving habits, it is not surprising that traffic fatalities are a common occurrence. Venezuelan traffic law mandates that those involved in a traffic accident do not move their vehicles until the traffic police arrive. Police can sometimes take several hours to arrive, and those involved in the accident have been known to negotiate a settlement among themselves or flee the scene rather than wait for the police to arrive. Nonetheless, it is strongly recommended that people involved in an accident remain at the scene unless they feel their life may be in danger.

Traffic accidents involving motorcycles are extremely common due to the reckless manner in which they are operated and due to the infrequent use of safety equipment. Occasionally, groups of motorcycle operators will congregate around the scene of an accident involving another motorcycle. Depending on the severity of the incident, these instances have the potential to escalate into a dangerous situation for the occupants of the other vehicle involved, regardless of fault.

Checkpoints are a common sight, especially during inter-city trips. They are generally operated by local police or by the Bolivarian National Guard. Stopping at checkpoints is mandatory, and drivers should be prepared to show vehicle registration paperwork, proof of insurance, and an identity document (“cedula” or passport). Police or guardsmen may search vehicles at checkpoints.

Travelers should ensure that their vehicle is in good working order before departing on a trip, paying special attention to their engine, brakes, tires, head/tail lights, horn, and fluid levels. Additionally, those planning an extended road trip should travel with a cellular phone (and charger), drinking water, non-perishable food items, tools, a first-aid kit, jumper cables, a spare tire (with jack), flares/road reflectors, and a flashlight. Gas stations are occasionally without fuel or unexpectedly closed. Drivers should plan ahead and not let their tank get too close to empty. The Embassy recommends maintaining at least half a tank of gasoline at all times. Drivers may want to consider bringing along some extra fuel, in case of emergencies, but should investigate the safest way to transport it. The Embassy strongly recommends against inter-city travel during hours of darkness.

Venezuelans travel in large numbers before, during, and immediately after their major civil and religious holidays (including Carnival, Easter, Christmas, and New Year’s Day). Roads are more congested, and travelers should anticipate increased delays.

If possible, drivers should avoid parking on the street. Where possible, drivers should park inside a residential compound or attended parking lot or use valet parking. Where these options are not available, drivers should seek to park as close to their destination as possible. Keeping your vehicle in your line of sight should deter potential car thieves, and the less time spent walking from a car to the destination, the less chance criminals will have to target the pedestrian. In 2013, several prominent victims of kidnappings were attacked while walking from their vehicle to their destination. When you leave your vehicle, ensure that all bags, purses, and/or valuables are out of sight. This is true when parked in ostensibly secure locations, as thieves have been known to enter protected parking garages and break into parked vehicles.

Carjackings are another concern. In 2012, Caracas saw more than 3,300 carjackings and 2,800 forcible motorcycle robberies. These numbers are in addition to the approximately 2,800 cars and 2,900 motorcycles that were stolen. No statistics are available for 2013, but since all other crime-related statistics have increased, there is little evidence to suggest that those pertaining to carjackings have decreased over the past year. Carjacking victims have included business executives and foreign diplomats in Caracas. Carjackings are more likely to occur during evening and nighttime hours, and carjackers seem to prefer newer SUVs, especially with four-wheel drive. However, carjackings are committed at all hours and against a full range of vehicles. Many carjackings are committed by specialized gangs.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

The Embassy is unaware of any large-scale terrorist attacks or actions recently carried out in Venezuelan territory.

The continued operation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its initials in Spanish, FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) along the Venezuelan-Colombian border remain the greatest terrorist threats in the region. Both groups have been designated by the U.S. Secretary of State as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, and media reporting indicates both use Venezuelan as a safe haven. They both operate with near impunity in the region and are known to be involved in various criminal enterprises in the region, including kidnapping, drug trafficking, and murder-for-hire.

Venezuela has also occasionally been accused of harboring members of the Basque terrorist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA). In October 2010, the Spanish government requested the extradition of a Venezuelan citizen in connection with a Spanish investigation into links between ETA and the FARC. The Venezuelan government denied that ETA members had been receiving training in Venezuela and refused to extradite the suspect on constitutional grounds.

According to the State Department’s annual country report on terrorism, as recently as 2011, individuals linked to Lebanon-based Hizbollah were conducting fundraising operations on Margarita Island. Venezuela and the United States have not exchanged financial intelligence information since 2009, making tracking terrorist financial operations difficult.

Civil Unrest 

Civil disruptions are common in Venezuela, in general, and in Caracas, in particular. Demonstrations tend to occur at or near university campuses or gathering places such as public squares and plazas. Also, in Caracas the occasional march through a busy thoroughfare causes major traffic disruptions and can bring the city to a near standstill. Candidates for political offices also called supporters to marches and public gatherings during the national electoral campaigns of 2012 and 2013 and the municipal electoral campaigns of 2013. 

Venezuela experiences protests and work stoppages by unions across both the public and private sectors. Sporadic union protests (in some cases violent) have disrupted operations at some companies, including auto assembly plants, since 2009 and forced the temporary shutdown of various oil drilling operations and oil service companies.

One major area of concern is the continued prominence of pro-Chavismo gang-cum-militias, known as “colectivos.” These colectivos (such as “La Piedrita,” Los Tupamaros,” and “Alexis Vive”) self-identify as socialist, anti-capitalist, and “anti-imperialist.” They are armed and have expressed a willingness to use their arms to “defend Chavismo,” although it is not always clear what they identify as the threats facing Chavismo, or how they would seek to defeat the threats. In past elections, media outlets reported incidents where pro-Chavista gangsters on motorcycles (known by the Spanish word in Venezuela for motorcyclist: “motorizado”) would surround voting centers in opposition-leaning neighborhoods to intimidate voters. 

Religious or Ethnic Violence 

Approximately 92 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. There are occasional reports of violence against Venezuela’s small indigenous population, but they are sporadic and unsystematic.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards 

Venezuela is prone to both earthquakes and landslides.

In September 2009, an earthquake near Caracas (that registered 6.3 on the Richter scale) injured 14 people and damaged many buildings. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the buildings in Caracas lack necessary reinforcements to withstand a serious earthquake. Also, an earthquake would likely cause widespread damage to the poorly maintained infrastructure. A medium- to large-scale earthquake would likely overwhelm local emergency response services.

In order to prepare for an earthquake, the Embassy recommends residents:

Develop an earthquake safety action plan for your family, identifying places that can provide the highest amount of protection during an earthquake and an escape route and off-premises meeting place. Teach family members how to shut off water, gas, and electricity. Prepare an emergency supply kit, including a three-day supply of drinking water and non-perishable food, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a battery-operated radio, and extra batteries. Secure heavy objects (e.g., televisions, stereos, computers, dressers, armoires) to walls with brackets and/or safety straps. Secure picture frames, bulletin boards, and mirrors to the wall using closed-eye screws into wall studs. Anchor large appliances to walls using safety cables or straps. Tack down glassware, heirlooms, and figurines, with putty. Install latches on kitchen cabinet doors to prevent items from falling out.

During an earthquake:

If you are indoors, stay indoors. Do not go outside unless the building you are in is determined to be unsafe. At the first sign of an earthquake, drop and take cover under a sturdy piece of furniture, underneath a door frame, or against a sturdy inside wall, away from windows, shelves, furniture, or other objects that may fall. Stay on the floor and use your arms to cover and protect your head and neck. Stay inside until the shaking has stopped and you are sure it is safe to exit. If you are in a high-rise building, stay away from the windows and the outside walls. Do not use the elevator. If you are outdoors, move to the nearest open area far from buildings, electrical lines, walls, and trees. If you are driving, pull over and stop. If you are on an elevated or raised road (e.g. a bridge or an overpass), continue driving until you can get down to solid ground. Do not stop under an overpass and try to avoid stopping near electrical lines. Stay in your vehicle until the shaking has stopped. If you are in a crowded public place, do not rush for the doors. It is likely others will be doing just that, and you risk getting injured by a mass of panicking people. Instead, crouch up against a wall or under a sturdy piece of furniture and use your arms to protect your head and neck. If you are in a mountainous area or near unstable slopes or cliffs, be alert for falling rocks or other debris. Earthquakes often trigger landslides.

After an earthquake:

Monitor local radio and television stations for emergency instructions and the latest information.Expect aftershocks. Aftershocks can occur as soon as a minute, or as late as a month, after a quake. Aftershocks are also sometimes more powerful than the earthquake that preceded them. Get everyone outside if your building is unsafe. Do not use elevators; instead use the stairs. Aftershocks following an earthquake can cause additional damage, occasionally collapsing already unstable buildings. Be aware that fire alarms and sprinkler systems often activate in buildings during an earthquake, even when there is no fire. Check for and extinguish small fires. Check for fire hazards, and use flashlights instead of candles or lanterns. In the case of a larger fire, exit the building using the stairs. Fire is the most common hazard following an earthquake. Open closets and cabinets cautiously, as contents may have shifted during the earthquake and could fall, causing further damage or injury. Check your telephones. Cellular telephone infrastructure may be damaged, and cellular networks will likely experience greatly increased call volume after an earthquake, making it difficult to send or receive calls. Fixed-line telephones may, however, still function. Look for damaged utilities. Clean up spilled chemicals, gasoline, or other flammable liquids as soon as it is safe to do so. Where such a cleanup would be unsafe, evacuate the building using the nearest stairs Avoid loose or dangling electrical power lines, smell for any signs of a gas leak, and report all problems to the proper authorities. Where possible, turn off any utilities that you suspect to be damaged. Look for injured victims and administer first aid.

Landslides are common during major rainstorms. One of the deadliest landslides occurred in December 1999 in the state of Vargas (near Maiquetía “Simón Bolívar” International Airport). The number of dead was never confirmed, as bodies were buried under tons of earth, but estimates range between 10,000 and 30,000 victims. Although there has not been a major landslide tragedy since then, landslides continue to kill, and the unrestricted and uncontrolled nature of development in some parts of the country seems likely to exacerbate the risk.

Although it is difficult to predict when a landslide may occur, the following are some warning signs of a possible imminent landslide:

Changes occur in the landscape such as patterns of storm-water drainage on slopes (especially the places where runoff water converges), land movement, small slides, flows, or progressively leaning trees. Doors or windows stick or jam for the first time. New cracks appear in plaster, tile, brick, or foundations. Outside walls, walks, or stairs begin pulling away from the building. Slowly developing, widening cracks appear on the ground or on paved areas such as streets or driveways. Underground utility lines break. Bulging ground appears at the base of a slope. Water breaks through the ground surface in new locations. Fences, retaining walls, utility poles, or trees tilt or move. A faint rumbling sound that increases in volume often indicates that a landslide is approaching. The ground slopes downward in one direction and may begin shifting in that direction under your feet. Unusual sounds, such as trees cracking or boulders knocking together (which might indicate moving debris).

Once a landslide has already begun:

Move away from the path of a landslide or debris flow as quickly as possible. The danger from a mudflow increases near stream channels and with prolonged heavy rains. Mudflows can move faster than you can run. Look upstream before crossing a bridge and do not cross the bridge if a mudflow is approaching. If you are near a stream or channel, be alert for any sudden increase or decrease in water flow and notice whether the water changes from clear to muddy. Such changes may mean there is debris flow activity upstream, so be prepared to move quickly. Curl into a tight ball and protect your head if escape is not possible.

After a landslide:

Stay away from the slide area. There is frequently danger of additional slides. Monitor local radio and television stations for emergency instructions and the latest information. Watch for flooding, which may occur after a landslide or debris flow. Floods sometimes follow landslides and debris flows because they may both be started by the same event. Check for injured and trapped persons near the slide, without entering the direct slide area. Direct any rescuers to their locations. Look for and report broken utility lines and damaged road/railways to appropriate authorities. Reporting potential hazards will get the utilities turned off as quickly as possible, preventing further hazard and injury. Check the building foundation and surrounding land for damage. Damage to foundations or surrounding land may help you assess the safety of the area. Replant damaged ground since erosion caused by loss of ground cover can lead to flash flooding and additional landslides in the near future. 

More information about earthquake and landslide preparation can be found at www.ready.gov.

Industrial and Transportation Accidents 

Caracas is the economic and commercial center and most populous city in Venezuela. Caracas sees its share of industrial and transportation-related accidents. Although vehicle accidents involving the transportation of hazardous chemicals are rare, when they occur, roadways can be shut down for significant periods of time while clean-up takes place. Because of the mountainous terrain, tunnels are an essential way to navigate Caracas. When accidents occur inside these tunnels, the flow of traffic can be blocked or severely restricted for hours. In general, infrastructure has suffered years of neglect and is deteriorating across the country. Bridges occasionally collapse, and roads sometimes crumble or are washed away, creating major traffic disturbances in the affected region.

On August 25, 2012, an explosion at one of Venezuela’s main oil refineries in the state of Falcón killed at least 48 people. It took emergency services almost three days to control the resulting fires.

Pursuant to U.S. law, the Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) is required to conduct technical security visits to all international airports from which U.S. and foreign airlines provide direct service to the United States. With host-government collaboration, TSA reviews airport operations using standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization. TSA last visited the Caracas airport in January 2005 and Maracaibo and Valencia in November 2004. In September 2008, the Department of Homeland Security posted public notices at U.S. airports stating that TSA had been unable to assess the safety and security standards of Venezuelan airports. Passengers flying directly from Venezuela to the U.S. must also pass through an additional security screening immediately before boarding the airplane.

In 2013, an emergency landing drill was held at Maiquetía Airport. The plan was to simulate an evacuation after a crash landing. The pilot was the first person to slide down, and as soon as he jumped, he reportedly fell to the ground because the slide had not been attached correctly. Firefighters with ladders had to help everyone else off the plane. As a result of his fall, the pilot suffered a back injury and was taken the closest hospital. This hospital, likely charged with attending to mass casualties in the event of an air disaster at Maiquetía Airport, reportedly lacked the equipment or medicines necessary to treat this single injury.

Though the government has recently announced a goal of improving Venezuelan civil aviation, the sector remains deficient in many ways. The average age of its domestic fleet is 25 years, and there have been several aviation accidents in recent years. For example, in 2010, 15 people were killed when an airplane operated by Conviasa crashed six miles from the airport in Puerto Ordaz. On August 23, 2011, a Laser Airlines flight was forced to return to the airport due to electrical problems in the cabin. On September 26, 2011, an Aeropostal passenger plane sustained substantial damage, breaking both engine mounts off the fuselage in a hard-landing accident in Puerto Ordaz. The European Union prohibits Conviasa from flying its aircraft to Madrid due to safety concerns. The government announced the goal of reducing the average age of the domestic fleet to 10 years, but currency controls make it difficult for airlines to purchase new planes.

Economic Espionage/Intellectual Property Thefts

The World Economic Forum’s World Competitiveness Report 2013–2014 ranked Venezuela 134 out of 148 countries in strength of intellectual property rights (IPR) protection. Venezuela was also listed on the Priority Watch List in the U.S. Trade Representative’s 2013 Special 301 Report. Key concerns relate to the deteriorating environment for the protection and enforcement of IPR. IPR protection is hindered by the lack of adequate resources for the Venezuelan copyright and trademark enforcement police (COMANPI) and for the special IPR prosecutor's office. Because of a shortage of personnel, limited budget, and inadequate storage facilities for seized goods, COMANPI has had to work with the Bolivarian National Guard and private industry to enforce copyright laws. COMANPI can only act based on a complaint by a copyright holder; it cannot carry out an arrest or seizure on its own initiative. In the past, the government’s tax authority (SENIAT) has been more successful at enforcing IPR laws. It has taken action against some businesses importing or selling pirated goods based on presumed tax evasion. While such actions on the part of SENIAT have decreased over the past few years, SENIAT does continue to take action against pirated goods. Copyright piracy and trademark counterfeiting remain widespread, however, including piracy over the Internet. Pirated software, music, and movies are also readily available throughout the country.

The Embassy is unaware of any confirmed cases of industrial espionage in Venezuela.

Privacy Concerns

The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and personal privacy, but in some cases, government authorities infringe on citizens’ privacy rights by searching homes without judicial authorization, seizing properties without due process, or interfering in personal communications.

Regional Travel Concerns and Restricted Travel Areas/Zones

Because of continued FARC and ELN activity, along with the presence of fuel smugglers and other organized criminal groups along the 1,000-mile border between Venezuela and Colombia, Embassy employees are prohibited from traveling within 50 miles of the border without prior authorization.

Because of safety and security concerns, the following neighborhoods of Caracas are off-limits to American employees of the Embassy unless they have special permission:
In the western part of Libertador municipality: El Retiro, 23 de Enero, Blandin, La Vega, La Rinconada, Las Mayas, Tazon, Oropeza Castillo, Lomas de Urdaneta, Propatria, Casalta, Lomas de Propatria, Carapita, Antimano, Tacagua, Ruiz Pineda, Caricuao, La Quebradita, El Atlantico, Sarria, La Candelaria, San Martin, Coche, El Valle and La Yaguara.
In the eastern part of Sucre municipality: Barrio Piritu, Barrio La Rubia, Barrio Altavista, Petare, Caucaguita, La Dolorita, Paulo Sexto, and El Llanito.
In Baruta municipality: Las Minas, Santa Cruz del Este, Ojo de Agua, La Naya, and Las Minitas.

The Embassy also mandates that all American employees travel in an armored vehicle to and from Maiquetía “Simón Bolívar” International Airport near Caracas. The Embassy judges the airport road especially dangerous after receiving numerous reports of robberies and murders in the areas around the terminal (street, parking lot, etc.).

Drug-related Crimes

The continued presence of the ELN and FARC in the Venezuela-Colombia border region continues to be a serious concern. Along with kidnapping and smuggling operations, both groups use the drug trade to finance their operations. Lack of international counternarcotics cooperation, along with a shift in trafficking patterns in the region has made Venezuela one of the biggest drug-transit countries in the region. There is also evidence of involvement in the drug trade by some high-level Venezuelan government officials: in 2008 the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated three high-level Venezuelan officials (including two who were elected in 2012 to state governorships). 

Drug traffickers use the Maiquetía airport as a transit point, and CICPC and ONA frequently arrest travelers attempting to smuggle illegal drugs out of the country. Although the press regularly reports seizures by Venezuelan law enforcement, large quantities of illicit drugs continue to flow through Venezuela to markets in the United States and Europe. On September 11, 2013, French authorities seized 1.3 tons of cocaine aboard an Air France flight that originated in Caracas.

Kidnapping Threats

Kidnapping remains a major criminal industry. Kidnappings in Caracas happen primarily during the nighttime hours but are not uncommon during the day. The government does not track kidnappings but has stated that in 2012, 583 kidnappings were reported to the authorities. Given current crime trends, it is safe to assume that this number during 2013 also increased. At least one prominent criminologist has estimated that up to 80 percent of kidnappings in Venezuela go unreported. Kidnappings frequently happen in front of victims’ homes, as they are leaving hotels, when using unauthorized taxis, when taking taxis from Maiquetía “Simón Bolívar” International Airport, and when walking in wealthier areas with limited vehicle and foot traffic. Kidnappers, like all criminals in Venezuela, continue to operate with little fear of arrest, prosecution, or incarceration.

Recent investigations by the Criminal, Penal, and Scientific Investigation Bureau (CICPC) have identified multiple, heavily-armed criminal gangs specializing in express kidnappings that operate in the wealthier neighborhoods of Caracas. CICPC’s specialized unit aimed at combating kidnapping has had some limited successes but has failed to reduce significantly the number of kidnapping incidents. A majority of kidnappings in Venezuela are “express,” lasting less than 48 hours (sometimes as short as two hours). Express kidnappings involved the victim being driven around and forced to withdraw money from various ATMs until all their cards had been emptied or locked out; however, changes in law and banking practices have restricted daily withdrawal amounts, making the practice less lucrative. In recent years, it has become more common for kidnappers to drive their victims around for several hours, disorienting the victim and giving the victim’s family and friends time to gather a ransom payment. Paying ransom for kidnapped victims is against Venezuelan law. 

The Embassy also has had reports of “virtual kidnappings” and “inside kidnappings.” “Virtual kidnappings” are when family and/or friends are persuaded to a pay a ransom by scammers using information about a “victim” whom they claim falsely to have kidnapped. “Inside kidnappings” are when an insider, usually a domestic employee, is paid money or promised a share of the proceeds for keys or information to facilitate a kidnapping.

Police Response

Police attempt to patrol most parts of Caracas but are unable to provide sufficient coverage to deter violent crime, especially at night and in the poorer parts of the city. While investigative follow-up is intermittent and perpetrators of crimes are rarely caught, the police will generally respond to ongoing emergency situations. Police are generally slow, however, to respond to the scene of a crime (or to a traffic accident) and often do not arrive until many hours after they are called.

Corruption, inadequate police training and equipment, and insufficient central government funding, particularly for police forces in states and municipalities governed by opposition officials (which includes the state of Miranda), reduce the effectiveness of the security forces. Media report occasions of police abuse and involvement in crime, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and excessive use of force. The public defender’s 2011 annual report noted complaints that agents of the former Metropolitan Police were involved in kidnappings and robberies at fraudulent police checkpoints. Also, on September 10, 2012, the Public Ministry charged one member of the Bolivarian National Guard, along with four others, for allegedly kidnapping a 10-year old child in Barquisimeto, Lara state.

The government’s budget in 2013 cut funding for public safety and internal security by 38 percent and for the judicial system by 17 percent and plans to lay off over 3,100 (36 percent) of the Bolivarian National Police officers employed by the Ministry of Popular Power for Interior, Justice and Peace. This last figure is especially significant because, although municipal police are generally the first to respond to crimes, it is the Bolivarian National Police who have responsibility for criminal investigations and prosecutions.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

Harassment of U.S. citizens by airport authorities and some segments of the police are limited but do occur. Any incident should be reported to American Citizen Services (ACS) Unit at the U.S. Embassy. The ACS Unit can be reached by telephone at +58 (212) 907-8365 or by e-mail at ACSVenezuela@state.gov.

Where to Turn to for Assistance if you Become a Victim of Crime

If you are the victim of a crime, contact local police using the designated emergency response number: 171. These calls will not be answered by English speakers; Venezuela’s national language is Spanish.

Various Police/Security Agencies 

The Bolivarian National Police (PNB) answers to the Ministry of Popular Power for Interior, Justice and Peace and is responsible for general crime prevention and patrolling around government buildings and diplomatic facilities. Although a national police force, outside of Caracas the PNB only operates in a few cities across Anzoátegui, Aragua, Carabobo, Lara, Táchira, and Zulia states. Where the PNB operates, it is the first responder for major demonstrations and riots and is responsible for traffic safety and patrolling major roads and highways. The government plans to increase the size of the PNB so that it can operate across the country, but there is no clear timeline for the proposed expansion.

The Bolivarian National Guard is part of the armed forces and reports to the Ministry of Popular Power for Defense. They provide support for drug investigations, anti-drug operations, and security at Venezuela’s borders, ports, and airports.

CICPC is part of the Ministry Interior, Justice and Peace. As Venezuela’s main national investigative body, CICPC is sometimes thought of as a Venezuelan equivalent to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is responsible for investigating most crimes (property crimes, violent crimes, fraud, kidnapping, etc.). CICPC has specialized units responsible for dangerous arrests and hostage situations. It also serves as Venezuela’s representative to INTERPOL.

SEBIN (Bolivarian National Intelligence Service or Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional) serves as a “political” police force, investigating crimes against the government and providing protective details for government officials. SEBIN has specialized tactical units and an explosive ordinance disposal capability. SEBIN serves as the government’s civilian intelligence and counterintelligence agency.

The ONA (National Antidrug Office) reports to the Ministry of Popular Power for Interior, Justice and Peace and provides counter-narcotics intelligence and analysis support to various other law enforcement agencies. It also supports drug rehabilitation centers and coordinates the government’s anti-drug campaign.

Medical Emergencies

There are many U.S.-trained and/or English-speaking physicians available. Their staffs often do not speak English. The medical infrastructure is quickly deteriorating ,and as public facilities fail, private clinics have become severely overtaxed and crowded. Getting in to see a physician can be a trying experience and often requires a minimum of several hours in a waiting room. Medical supplies are strictly controlled by the government; medicines and medical equipment availability at local facilities is unpredictable. 

Rescarven
Telephone: +58 (212) 610-0000

Ayuda24
Telephone: +58 (212) 731-0930
+58 (414) 183-9519
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http://www.ayuda24serviciodeambulancia.com/

Salud Baruta
Telephone: +58 (212) 944-2357 and 171

Contact Information for Recommended Local Hospitals and Clinics

Private clinics/hospitals are the only facilities recommended to be used by U.S. government personnel.

Urológico San Roman
Calle Chivacoa, Sección San Roman
Las Mercedes
Telephone: +58 (212) 999-0111 and 992-2222
www.urologico.com

Centro Medico Docente La Trinidad
Av. Intercomunal La Trinidad
Telephone: +58 (212) 949-6411
El Hatillo
http://www.cmdlt.edu.ve/

Policlinica Las Mercedes
Av. Ppal. De Las Mercedes Con Cl. Monterrey, Caracas,
Telephone: +58 (212) 993-2911

Clinica El Avila
Av. San Juan Bosco and 6ta. Transversa
Altamira
Telephone: +58 (212) 276-1111 and 276-1052
www.clinicaelavila.com

Instituto Medico La Floresta
Av. Principal de la Floresta and Calle Santa Ana
La Floresta
Telephone: +58 (212) 209-6222
www.clinicalafloresta.com

Hospital de Clinicas Caracas
Av. Panteon and Av. Alameda
San Bernardino
Telephone: +58 (212) 508-6111
www.clinicaracas.com
 
Centro Medico de Caracas
Av. Eraso, Plaza el Estanque
San Bernardino
Telephone: +58 (212) 555-9111
www.centromedicodecaracas.com.ve

Recommended Air Ambulance Services

AeroMed
Av. Libertador, Edf. 75 Ofic., PH-2B
La Campiña
Telephone: +58 (212) 761-6998
http://www.aeromed.com.ve/

Aeroambulancias Silva
Av. Venezuela, Edf. EXA, PB Local 17
Telephone: +58 (212) 953-1195
www.aeroambulanciassilva.com.ve

Life Flight
Av. Orionoco and Calle Mucuchies Centro Medico
Telephone: +58 (212) 992-3665
lifeflight@cantv.net

CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

The CDC’s maintains a webpage with health information for travelers to Venezuela: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/venezuela.htm.

The CDC recommends that travelers ensure they have the following up-to-date vaccinations at least four weeks before traveling to Venezuela: Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR), Diphtheria/Pertussis/Tetanus (DPT), Polio, Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid, Rabies, and Yellow Fever (only for travelers over nine months of age and not recommended for travel to states of Aragua, Carabobo, Miranda, Vargas, Yaracuy, Distrito Federal, Falcón, Lara, Margarita Island. See CDC’s website for more information).

Travelers should also be aware that dengue fever and malaria are endemic in some parts of Venezuela. Both are transmitted through mosquito bites. Travelers will want to procure antimalarial drugs before arriving. There are no vaccines to prevent infection by the dengue virus. In both cases, the most effective measures are those that prevent mosquito bites. See the CDC’s website for a map of affected areas and for more information on both illnesses.

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Crimes/Scams

Criminal activity at the Maiquetía “Simón Bolívar” International Airport is significant. Both arriving and departing travelers are sometimes victims of personal property thefts and muggings. The Embassy has received credible reports that individuals in official uniforms or bearing realistic (or real) credentials have been involved in the facilitation and perpetration of these crimes. The Embassy has also received occasional reports of airport officials (or individuals representing themselves as airport officials) attempting to extort money from travelers as part of the check-in or boarding process for departing flights.

Transit to and from the Maiquetía airport is risky. A number of travelers in airport taxis have been robbed or kidnapped by taxi drivers and their accomplices. Travelers have even been robbed when taking a taxi from the international terminal to the domestic terminal and vice versa. There have been occasional instances of airport shuttles operated by local major hotels being robbed by armed individuals. 

Areas to be Avoided 

The Embassy prohibits American employees from traveling to certain barrios without special permission (see Regional Travel Concerns and Restricted Travel Areas/Zones section for full listing). These neighborhoods are some of the highest crime areas of the city, and law enforcement is known to patrol these areas with less frequency.

Best Situational Awareness Practices 

Travelers should be wary of all strangers, even those who represent themselves as airport officials. Travelers are also urged not to pack valuable items or documents in their checked bags, storing such items instead in their carry-on luggage. Travelers should not accept packages from anyone and should keep their luggage with them at all times. Use of airport taxis is strongly discouraged. The Embassy requires its American employees travel to and from the airport in an armored vehicle. Private travelers are encouraged to prearrange airport pickup or drop-off with reputable companies. When arriving on an incoming flight, travelers should also set up a meeting place inside the terminal where they can safely connect with their driver. The Embassy encourages travelers to arrive and depart during daylight hours when possible.

Do your best to maintain a low profile, avoiding activities or actions that would unnecessarily draw attention to you. Remain alert to what is going on around you whenever you are in public. Avoid suspicious individuals who may be looking for potential victims. If possible, seek a safer location, like a nearby store or bank. If there are no safe locations nearby, cross the street and alter your route.

Where possible, vary daily departure times and routes. Avoid setting a regular pattern that can be used against you. Keep friends and colleagues apprised of your daily plans, and ensure they have a way of reaching you in an emergency. Do not carry or wear valuable items like jewelry or watches that will attract the attention of thieves. Keep valuables (such as MP3 players, cellular phones, etc.) out of sight, especially when traveling around Caracas. Do not physically resist a robbery attempt or a kidnapping. Statistics show that victims who resist are more likely to be injured or killed by their attackers. 

Do not use international credit cards while traveling in Venezuela, except in an emergency situation. Credit card fraud has been reported even at respected local restaurants and major hotel chains in Caracas. ATMs inside hotels and banks are considered safer, though ATM users should always be aware of their surroundings when withdrawing money. The same holds true when withdrawing money from inside a bank via a teller.

Keep the doors and windows closed and locked at all times in your residence and your vehicle. Check your vehicle interior and exterior for irregularities and abnormalities before getting in. When stopped in traffic, leave space between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you to allow you to maneuver in an emergency situation. When driving at night, use well-traveled, well-illuminated streets. Plan your route before you leave. Maintain at least half a tank of gasoline in your vehicle at all times. If your residence has a garage gate, remain on the main street as it opens. This prevents you from potentially being pinned between the gate and a vehicle from the rear.

Only use legitimate radio-dispatched taxis at designated taxi stands or have your hotel call a reputable taxi company directly. Most mall (centro commercial) taxis have also generally been reliable. Do not hail a taxi on the street.

Make sure your entire family is aware of security threats and is prepared to act appropriately in case of an emergency. The U.S. Embassy recommends that all family members, domestic staff, and doormen be instructed not to open doors or accept deliveries from unknown or unexpected strangers. The Embassy recommends that all houses and apartments have a working alarm system and solid external doors installed with a deadbolt-type lock.

Travelers are advised to take common-sense precautions, avoiding large gatherings and demonstrations wherever they occur.

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information 

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation 

Calle F and Calle Suapure
Urbanizacion Colinas de Valle Arriba
Baruta, Miranda, Venezuela

The Embassy is open Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., except for Venezuelan and American holidays.

Embassy Contact Numbers 

Regional Security Office (RSO): +58 (212) 907-8403
Embassy Operator: +58 (212) 975-6411
ACS: +58 (212) 907-8365
Marine Post One: +58 (212) 907-8400

The after-hours Embassy Duty Officer can be reached by calling Post One.

OSAC Country Council Information

Venezuela has an active OSAC Country Council that meets on a monthly basis. The local point of contact is:

Juan Carlos Pocaterra A.
Office: +58 (212) 208-5248
juan_pocaterra@cargill.com