Letter From Caracas: Did You Hear About the American Diplomat Carjacked in Venezuela?

Jon Lee Anderson has a piece on What has Hugo Chávez wrought in Venezuela? (see Letter From Caracas, Slumlord, New Yorker, Jan 28, 2013). Anderson reports:

“Caracas has deteriorated beyond all measure. It has one of the highest homicide rates in the world; last year, in a city of three million, an estimated thirty-six hundred people were murdered, or about one every two hours. The murder rate in Venezuela has tripled since Chávez took office.”

That New Yorker piece prompted a note to this blog about the carjacking of an American diplomat in Caracas last October.  Did I know about that? No, I did not. Fortunately, the criminals only took the vehicle and the FSO was not harmed. Here is what we’ve learned about that incident:

On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, at approximately 7:50 p.m. an American employee of Embassy Caracas was carjacked in the Sebucan neighborhood of Caracas. The perpetrators were three or four men armed with handguns. The victim’s house keys, wallet, and cell phone were in the cup holders located between the vehicle’s two front seats at the time of the carjacking. They were taken with the car. The victim was unharmed, and with the aid of friends living in a nearby building, was able to contact the Regional Security Office which then dispatched an embassy roving patrol to pick up the victim. The victim stayed the night in the home of another embassy employee.

Apparently, the neighborhood of Sebucan, where the carjacking took place, is notorious for its difficult to navigate narrow streets. The victim had stopped his/her vehicle in front of a friend’s apartment building on one of these narrow streets, waiting for his/her friends to come down, when he/she saw another vehicle coming down the street. The victim attempted to maneuver his/her vehicle closer to the curb, in order to allow the other vehicle to pass, in effect boxing his/her own vehicle in. Instead of passing, the other vehicle pulled right up to the victim’s bumper, and three or four men got out of the vehicle, brandishing handguns. The whole time the attackers had their weapons pointed at the victim. The victim was divested of his/her cell phone and later frisked as if searching for weapons.  The attackers then got into their own and the victim’s vehicles, and drove both vehicles away.

After the carjacking, the US Embassy in Caracas reportedly sent out a notice to all mission employees with several suggestions to “help future potential victims stay safe” and with the following interesting tidbit:

“Being forced from your vehicle at gunpoint by multiple armed men and left on the side of the road is a harrowing experience. It is the criminals who conduct these crimes, not their targets, who should be held responsible, and RSO has no interest in “blaming the victim.” 

Uh-oh! If that got into the notice, does that mean “blaming the victim” went around the block five times over and round and round within the mission that the RSO had to distance itself from it?

Our Caracas note writer had some rather strong words for the mothership, which we are reprinting in part below:

“The State Department has not done much to assist the community in Caracas in dealing with issues like this, and Caracas is still a ZERO percent danger post.[…] The 20% hardship pay is also low considering the difficulty of living here, the security no-go areas, the government’s open hatred of the US, the crazy artificial exchange rate and highest inflation in world, and the lack of infrastructure. The department has not done anything to boost the low morale.”

As of January 27, 2013, Caracas is a 42% COLA, 20% hardship post and indeed, a 0% danger post.

We’ll have a related post later on danger pay designation because it has been coming up with more frequency. In the meantime, maybe one of our readers from Foggy Bottom can flag this post for WHA A/S Roberta Jacobson  and please tell her there are stuff going on in her Caracas shop?

For sure, WHA is aware that between July 2010 and October 2011, US Embassy Caracas had two interim chargés, and relied upon a series of acting DCMs, which contributed to inconsistency and confusion regarding internal direction within the mission. This was in the 2012 IG inspection report.  But of related concern to that, the embassy has a good number of first tour officers.  This potentially can be a most memorable tour for those officers, but not in a good way meriting fondness and inspiration.

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State Dept Issues El Salvador Travel Warning: Critical Crime and Violence

On January 23, 2013, the State Department issued a new Travel Warning for El Salvador detailing the crime and violence in the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America.  For a while there, El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world. It was  dislodged from the #1 spot by Honduras in 2010. In 2011, there were 82.1 murders per 100,000 people in Honduras.

The Crime and Security Report for 2012 issued by the embassy’s Regional Security Office says that “El Salvador is considered one of the most violent countries in the world. The effect and threat of violent crime within San Salvador, including the neighborhoods in which many Americans live and work, leads to greater isolation and the curtailment of recreational opportunities.”  Part of that report described the robbery at gunpoint of an embassy officer and spouse while stuck at a traffic circle near the embassy:

“In 2011, armed robberies continued at the accelerated 2010 pace and arguably could be the single greatest security threat facing U.S. embassy staff and business persons. As an example, in April 2011, an embassy officer and spouse were robbed at gunpoint at a traffic circle less than a mile from the embassy while stuck in late rush hour traffic. In this instance, two unidentified men approached the driver’s side of the car, pointed a gun at both occupants, and demanded their belongings. The couple complied with their demands, and the attackers fled the scene on foot. In another example, a U.S. tourist was robbed at night by two individuals with machetes directly outside a popular private beach club that is frequented often by embassy staff and other Westerners.”

US Embassy San Salvador, El Salvador

US Embassy San Salvador, El Salvador

Below is an excerpt from the new Travel Warning:

The Department of State has issued this Travel Warning to inform U.S. citizens about the security situation in El Salvador.

Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit El Salvador each year for study, tourism, business, and volunteer work. However, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country. In 2011, El Salvador had the second highest murder rate in the world: 71 per 100,000 people (by comparison, the murder rate in Massachusetts, with a similar geographical area and population, was 2.6 per 100,000). In 2012, a truce between El Salvador’s two principal street gangs contributed to a decline in the homicide rate. However, the sustainability of the decline is unclear, and the truce had little impact on robbery, assaults, and other violent crimes. Most of these crimes go unsolved. In March 2012, as a result of an administrative review of the security situation, Peace Corps El Salvador substantially reduced the number of its volunteers in country.

U.S. citizens do not appear to be targeted based on their nationality. However, 22 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador since January 2010. During the same time period, 230 U.S. citizens reported having their passports stolen. Armed robberies of climbers and hikers in El Salvador’s national parks are common, and the Embassy strongly recommends engaging the services of a local guide certified by the national or local tourist authority when hiking in back country areas, even within the national parks. In 2000, the National Civilian Police (PNC) established a special tourist police force (POLITUR) to provide security and assistance to tourists, as well as protection for the cultural heritage of El Salvador. It has officers located in 19 tourist destinations.

A majority of serious crimes are never solved; only five of the 22 murders committed against U.S. citizens since January 2010 have resulted in convictions. The Government of El Salvador lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases and to deter violent crime. The PNC is still developing into a modern and effective police force that can protect the public. While several of the PNC’s investigative units have shown great promise, routine street level patrol techniques, anti-gang, and crime suppression efforts are limited.

Transnational criminal organizations conduct narcotics, arms trafficking, and other unlawful activities throughout the country and use violence to control drug trafficking routes and carry out other criminal activity. Other criminals, acting both individually and in gangs, commit crimes such as murder-for-hire, carjacking, extortion, armed robbery, rapes, and other aggravated assaults. El Salvador, a country of roughly six million people, has hundreds of known street gangs totaling more than 20,000 members. Gangs and other criminal elements roam freely day and night, targeting affluent areas for burglaries, and gang members are quick to engage in violence if resisted.

Extortion is a particularly serious and common crime in El Salvador. Many extortion attempts are no more than random cold calls that originate from imprisoned gang members using cellular telephones, and the subsequent threats against the victim are made through social engineering and/or through information obtained about the victim’s family. U.S. citizens who are visiting El Salvador for extended periods may be at higher risk for extortion demands. Hitting its peak a few years ago, extortion has dropped in the last two years; however, recent reports show that there is an increase in the level of violence associated with extortion cases, including media reports of extortion victims and witnesses being killed. Extortion attempts can be transnational in nature and can include kidnapping of victims. For example, in 2011, a 2 year old U.S. citizen was kidnapped from the home of his grandparents in El Salvador by 8 to 10 armed men. Ransom demands made to family members in both El Salvador and the United States were traced back to a local prison used exclusively to incarcerate gang members.

Read in full here.

In 2011, police statistics also show an average of 12 murders and three carjackings reported daily to the police. While  El Salvador is a 10% COLA and 15% hardship differential post, it is as of this writing not listed as a danger pay post.

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