It almost became an international incident when thugs kidnapped the Mexican ambassador and his wife this week in Caracas, shocking the country’s diplomatic community and embarrassing President Hugo Chavez as Venezuelan crime rates continue to soar before October’s presidential election.
Typical of Venezuelan “express kidnappings”, four armed men seized Carlos Pujalte and his wife as they left an evening reception in the city’s well-heeled Country Club neighbourhood on Sunday. The kidnappers released the couple in a nearby slum before dawn.
“What makes this especially worrying is that the Mexican ambassador knows how to handle security issues,” says one senior western diplomat who is now reviewing security procedures.
“In the past we assumed diplomatic plates meant more protection,” adds another western diplomat. “Now it seems criminals are getting more confident, which increases the hassle factor.”
In a country marked by great oil wealth but also great poverty, diplomats and the well-to-do have long sought to insulate themselves by driving armoured cars and living in houses ringed by high walls topped with barbed wire – even if not always with great success: the Chilean consul was shot and beaten when kidnapped in November.
Ransoms for such high-profile figures “can run into millions of dollars,” says Luis Cedeño of Active Peace, a Venezuelan non-governmental organisation which estimates that kidnappings have risen 18-fold since 1990 and reached 673 cases in 2009.
But the Mexican ambassador’s kidnapping also underlined broader Venezuelan fears about growing crime, which voters say repeatedly in polls is their single greatest concern.
Last year, gunmen kidnapped major league baseball star Wilson Ramos, a catcher for the Washington Nationals, on a visit to his parent’s home.
He was rescued two days later when security forces stormed the kidnappers’ stronghold.
“I get scared every time I drop my children off at school,” said Gloria Duran, a 43-year old mother of two, who runs a small coffee stall in the town centre.
“People now flinch in the streets if you ask them the time or directions,” said Michelle Castro, a housewife recently returned to live in Caracas after 10 years living abroad.
Mr Chávez’s revolutionary government, which came to power in 1999, recognises the problem but lays the blame on social problems inherited from previous administrations and media coverage. It has ordered an investigation into one recent scandal which showed newspaper photographs of pre-teens brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles at a pro-Chávez urban militia event. Organisers say the guns were plastic replicas.
Critics instead point to Venezuela’s eviscerated judiciary, a corrupt police force often accused of being involved in serious crime, and rising drug trafficking. They say government initiatives, such as creating anti-kidnapping units and a new national police force, only run into the sand.
“There is a widespread sense of impunity,” says Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual.
Businesses spend an average 2.5 per cent of sales on security, according to one World Bank study, three times Mexico’s level. Even so, a stroll through Caracas’ bustling streets belies notions of a country under siege. Nor has rising insecurity traditionally hurt Mr Chavez’s popularity. A January poll by Hinterlaces put his approval rating at 64 per cent.
Nonetheless, the local head of one Asian oil company is taking no chances in a country where the official homicide rate is 48 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, South America’s highest. Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an NGO, estimates it is closer to 60.
“It’s like being in a prison,” says the nervous businessman who has imposed a 7pm curfew on all staff. “The nights I used to go out are just a lovely memory.”