5 Weird Things You Learn in the World's Deadliest City
Venezuela is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and Caracas is one of its most dangerous cities. An estimated 24,000 Venezuelans were murdered in 2013 (the United States, a country with over 10 times the population, had about 14,000 murders). Kidnapping, robbery, and other crimes are rampant. There's about one gun for every two people, and the economy is experiencing borderline hyperinflation. In other words, Venezuela is Tarantino's cinematic universe come to life.
Needless to say, life there is a little bit different from life in suburban Minnesota. Oswaldo A. Badillo was born and raised in Caracas, and said ...
Your Loved Ones Could Get Snatched off the Street at Any Moment
Here are two fun facts for you: In 2011 there were 1,150 kidnappings reported in Caracas. It's also believed that about 70 percent of kidnappings go unreported, either out of fear for the safety of the victim, an assumption that the police can't do anything, or concern that the police are actually the ones behind the kidnapping. That's an urban legend I've heard since I was a kid: someone going into a police station to report a kidnapping only to see one of the kidnappers sitting at the desk. It doesn't matter whether it's true -- kidnappers just need to use the idea. Telling someone "don't go to the police; we are the police" is powerful when the preceding sentence was "we have your child." Sorry, I guess neither of those facts were very fun.
With kidnappings as common in Caracas as annoying street performers are in other cities, we had a special name for them: Kidnap Express. It's like Pizza Hut Express, except instead of getting pizza, you get kidnapped. So they're actually not like each other at all. Sorry. Anyway, express kidnapping is almost stupidly simple. You either get forced into a car, or someone jumps into your car, waves a gun in your face, and tells you to start driving. Maybe they'll call your family and demand a ransom, or maybe they'll take you from ATM to ATM and store to store, maxing out your withdrawals and credit cards before ditching you somewhere. It can all be over in just a few terrifying and exhausting hours.
"LET US TO THE FRONT OF THE LINE! I'VE GOT A HOSTAGE!"
"Dude, we've all got hostages. Wait your turn."
More serious kidnappings can last for days, weeks, or even months. In 2009, a banker was nabbed and held for almost a year by kidnappers who kept him locked in a room where cameras watched him and music blared to prevent him from hearing anything. He never even saw his captors. In a movie, they would turn out to be flamboyant psychopaths, or members of some apocalyptic cult -- who else could do that to a person? But in Caracas, it's just business. They were professional and detached. The human being they subjected to a year of unimaginable psychological torture and deprivation was just ... merchandise. That's how it is there.
"I hit my yearly quota, thanks to you!"
And like any business, there are always innovators. It has reached the point where they don't even have to kidnap someone to get ransom money -- if they can steal someone's phone for a few hours, they can call their family, claim responsibility for their inability to communicate, and get ransom money in return. It's all the profit with slightly less of the human misery! Another common tactic is basically a form of telemarketing that's somehow even more annoying than being told there's a special offer on a new credit card waiting just for you. Kidnappers know how to data mine, so if a bunch of rich kids go to a movie, one of their parents might get a call along the lines of, "We know your son drives a black SUV, we know he's watching the latest Nicolas Sparks films because he's not afraid to get in touch with his feminine side, and if you don't give us some money, we'll kill him before he learns the big plot twist." The bad guys barely have to leave their sofa.
"We also have his call logs and browsing history and ... I dunno ... just, maybe, have a talk with the boy, OK?"
People can go into debt to pay ransoms, even though it's technically illegal to pay (and there's no guarantee you'll get your loved one back). And if you're wondering why we just aren't more cautious about kidnappings, well, what can we do? A locked car door isn't going to save me from a guy with a gun. If you're one of those lucky folks who live in a place where kidnappings aren't happening every few hours, it's not because you're careful -- it's because would-be kidnappers know they probably won't get away with it. In, say, Portland, kidnapping is a very high-risk, low-reward business -- the captors will go to pick up the ransom money and get tackled by a bunch of cops with ironic mustaches. That simply isn't the case in Caracas.
You Become Paranoid (of Motorcycles)
Unless a bunch of angry tigers just escaped from the zoo, you'd assume the scariest sound you could hear in Caracas would be either gunshots or someone shouting "Dame la cartera." That's "give me your wallet" in Spanish, although it also kind of sounds like a Hogwarts spell that will stab you if you don't hand over your belongings. But the scariest sound is actually approaching motorcycles, and not just because The Terminator instilled an unhealthy fear of them in me.
You see, much like playground allegiances, most motorcycle drivers in Caracas fall into two camps: cops and robbers. Motorcycles are perfect for gangsters, because they can rob someone and promptly escape to the overpopulated barrios. No one, including the police, will dare follow them in. And they're perfect for police officers because they're mobile, and I guess they probably make them feel cool.
"Well, he's going way too fast for me to bother catching."
You can generally tell which is approaching based on the sound. If you hear fewer than four, you've got cops incoming, while if it's more than four you better say your final goodbyes to your wallet. If it's four exactly you can take bets with your friends while you wait to see if you'll lose all your shit.
I was robbed three times by gangsters on motorcycles, and when you have that sort of experience, you naturally become afraid of the sound of them -- especially when you hear them past sundown when, like in a horror movie, it's unwise to be out. This leads to embarrassing situations when you're out late in another country. I'm still scared to death by midnight pizza delivery drivers who are only armed with cholesterol.
"Give me all of your money or your doctor will have some stern words for you at your next checkup!"
Once, on vacation in Portugal, I was standing on a sidewalk late at night when a motorcycle pulled up alongside me. My first thought was "oh shit," but then I realized that he was just stopping at a red light with absolutely no traffic. This was unfathomable to me -- in Venezuela lights are basically suggestions, at least once it's dark out. Stopping at one is a good way to announce that you don't feel too attached to your valuables. Even though I was in a much safer country, I couldn't shake my instinctive fear of them.
Your Life is Full of (Ridiculous) Crime Prevention Techniques
As I mentioned earlier, there's only so much you can do to stop a determined bad guy. With a constant threat of being robbed or worse, you'd think that people would carry around Tasers or something for protection. But a Taser isn't going to do much against a guy with a gun, except piss off his two equally armed buddies, and that's assuming you even have time to pull it out. So anti-crime measures tend to be less about fighting back and more about turning yourself into a shitty, unprofitable target.
That's actually the third richest man in the city, taking his dog out for his morning walk.
The first time I was mugged, my cousin and I were in an alley, and those few minutes off the street and away from the cops were all some dudes who probably watch too much Sons of Anarchy needed to surround us. My cousin stuffed his phone down his boxers and insisted that he had nothing of value. I was less than thrilled that he was playing chicken with gangsters, but in the end, he still had his phone and I didn't. I couldn't stop shaking afterwards, and I would have called him to tell him he was dumb for feeling proud if, you know, I had a phone. But let that be a lesson to you if you're ever walking through a dangerous area -- the robbers won't know you own a nice watch if you're wearing it around your balls (or using it as a panty liner).
Which is a remarkably quick way to see the flaw in interlocking metal links and switch to a leather watchband.
Thankfully, there's another way to prevent your phone from being stolen that doesn't involve the risk of accidentally sexting your dad. The trick is to have a nice phone that you make calls and take duck face pictures with in the comfort of your own home, and then a decoy phone that you use when you're on the street.
The decoy should be older and out of date, so no one's tempted to steal it, but it shouldn't be too out of date or else a robber will get suspicious and demand your real phone. At the same time, if you err on the side of caution, you're going to grow attached to your expensive decoy, which defeats the entire purpose. It's a surprisingly delicate balance for such an absurd situation, and it can all be ruined if you forget to silence your real phone and an Alvin and the Chipmunks ring tone starts playing from your crotch.
"Of course this is my real phone! I, uh ... love the classic design."
Venezuela is full of odd little crime-avoidance tactics like that. If you're taking a backpack on a bus, you'll wear it on your front like one of those slings people carry their babies around in. Does it look incredibly stupid? Yes. Does it prevent people from ripping it off of you and running away? Also yes. It's an easy choice. Once I took off my shirt and started going through the trash so motorcycle riders would think I was homeless. Here's the story of a woman who, upon leaving the bank, waves her receipt around to let any would-be thieves know that she made a deposit, not a withdrawal. Of course, they could always just kidnap her and force her to make withdrawals for them ...
So why in the world does Caracas seem to have more criminals than Gotham City? The answer is complicated, but ...
The Criminals Aren't Always Who You'd Expect
In Venezuela, not all criminals are doing it out of desperation: Many make good money, have big TVs, and drive nice cars. I know this, because I know some of these criminals. I have a middle-class background, and that didn't stop some of the friends I grew up with from turning to crime. Their families had money and gave them opportunities, but for whatever reason, a career in kidnapping proved too attractive to pass up.
"Why did I kidnap you? Well, I thought about law school for a while but decided that the culture just wasn't for me, you know?"
It's important to understand that not every criminal gets into it because they have no other choices -- they're doing it because there's something about it that's almost intrinsic to our culture. Some kids I grew up with just liked violence -- they were always the ones who got into fights at school for the stupidest things. In the United States, kids like that can grow up to be bouncers or maybe just settle down and turn into the office bully. But in Venezuela, you can make more money and command more respect by turning to crime. It's a legitimate career option.
My friends who turned to crime weren't doing poorly in school, and they weren't social pariahs. I think at some point, they looked around and thought to themselves, "I can get shot or I can be the one with the gun," and when you're already inclined to violence in a culture that rewards it, that's an easy choice to make.
"Wait, so you're saying if I point this at people, they'll just give me stuff? Awesome."
I'd like to think they know what they're doing is wrong, but maybe they don't. Everyone treats them the same, and they feel powerful and comfortable because of it. It's not like I ever confronted them about it when we were growing up; I just started avoiding them. Who am I to tell an impulsive guy with a gun that he's made a bad life choice?
We're influenced by the same pop culture you are -- we also watch Scarface as teenagers and completely miss the point of the movie by thinking he was so badass. But Venezuelan kids who see a glorified lifestyle of guns and motorcycles can actually go out and live the dream.
Pictured: The dream.
Remember, for us, crime isn't an exotic thing that either happens in the movies or in sensationalized headlines -- it's part of your everyday existence. In other words ...
Crime Becomes Part of the Background Noise of Your Life
I said I'd been mugged three times. I didn't report any of them, simply because there was no point. I wasn't going to get my stuff back (they took my phone each time), the robbers almost certainly weren't going to get caught, and even if they were, they probably wouldn't get punished. I didn't even tell my mom after the second time, because she got so worried about me. Instead I just told her I managed to lose my phone (twice). She must think she raised an extremely absentminded child.
"Everything's fine, Mom. I just got, uh, really drunk and threw up on it. Yeah."
I live in Ireland now, and people here think I'm playing up my experiences to make Venezuela sound like a nationwide action movie. My Venezuelan friend laughed as he told our class about how people broke into his house at gunpoint and stole a bunch of his stuff, and everyone reacted with a mix of fascination and horror. They're shocked by how casually we talk about crime, because if they get robbed at gunpoint, they can go to the police and then get therapy to deal with the trauma. We just have to accept it and move on.
"They took everything, so I don't have to organize that damn garage sale now!"
Still, if two Venezuelans run into each other while backpacking in Mongolia and start talking about Pokemon, at some point the conversation will turn to crime. It's the one thing we all have in common -- if two Alaskans meet in Hawaii, they're going to start talking about the weather. Crime becomes your cultural touchstone.
"You know, having coffee with you really reminds me of when I was robbed at a coffee shop."
And it doesn't matter where you're from, or how much money you make. In university, I had several friends who came from a Scrooge McDuckian background. One of my friend's families bought a huge mansion in a perfect and secure community (presumably in an attempt to see if she could harness the angry glares from other students as a form of energy), and yet all she and her friends could talk about was their fear of kidnappings. They almost can't enjoy being rich, because they're living in terror. Having money and influence just makes you a target, which you're reminded of whenever you flip on the news and learn that, say, a senator was killed in his own guarded home.
It's easy to get nihilistic and conclude that there's no point in applying yourself. Or, you know, doing anything at all. Yet, despite the massive crime rate, Venezuela is continually ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world, and I think I know why. We're very open and honest about how much we love and appreciate our friends and families, because deep down we know that they might get taken away from us at any time.
It certainly forces some perspective when you're tempted to get mad that Starbucks ran out of scones.
I love Venezuela. I see how strong people are in the face of what they see every day there. The amount of people I see volunteering and working on initiatives to improve their communities is staggering. Venezuelan youth are especially active, regardless of the cost to them personally. We were born into a country where we can disappear without a trace one day, and given the choice between understandably cowering in fear or standing up, saying "fuck that noise" and trying to make a difference, we choose the latter.
Over 70 percent of the country's workforce is under 35, and they've turned the country into a fertile ground for entrepreneurship. Venezuela is a powerhouse in the model U.N. world, and if that sounds nerdy, keep in mind that I got invited to a conference in Harvard because of my team's desire to see social change (so yes, it is nerdy, but in an awesome way). It turns out that when you dump a bunch of youth into a lousy situation, sometimes they'll work as hard as they can to make it better, like an army of less-mopey Katniss Everdeens. Even if that means you risk getting kidnapped.
"Can't take all of us, assholes. Who'd be left to pay ransom?"
Oswaldo A. Badillo also loves video games and wants to make games that can have a social impact. You can get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Realities of Life When Your Brain Wants You to Murder and 6 Ways Movies Get Space Wrong (by Astronaut Chris Hadfield).
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Better spread this experience, just in case the whole country goes Detroit-in-Robocop bad sometime soon.