On May 31, 2012, most teenagers were wishing for school to be over and were already planning their summer. For Mercy Benzaquen, this was the day she found out her brother had been kidnapped.
The Benzaquen family lives in Caracas, Venezuela, a country where kidnapping happens all too often. For Mercy’s brother, Simon, it occurred as he was riding home from the airport with a family friend, Pedro.
Their car was intercepted by another vehicle. Four armed men emerged. Simon and Pedro had been riding in a seemingly bulletproof car, which is common for protection in Venezuela, if someone can afford it. They were not sure if the bulletproof material would protect them in this situation, though.
After deciding that they did not want to take that chance, Simon and Pedro opened their doors and were thrown into the back of a van, along with two others that had been previously kidnapped. The kidnappers then called the Benzaquen home, getting the number from Simon. Jose Benzaquen, father of the family, answered the phone. Along with asking for the equivalent of $15,000, the kidnappers threatened they would kill Simon if Jose did not pay it immediately.
The Benzaquens struggled to gather the money. By reaching out to family and friends they managed to collect it all within a matter of hours. The only communication they had with the kidnappers was through phone, and they did not have a telephone number. They simply had to wait for a second call.
What happened next was a stroke of luck for Mercy and her family. Jose had called the police as well, which resulted in a car chase with the van and other vehicles the kidnappers had taken. When shots began to be fired from both sides, the kidnappers decided to end the capture. They left Simon and Pedro in a village in the mountains. There, Simon was able to find a phone and return home safely.
Mercy said that her brother’s case was a rare one. The police do not always pursue or even recognize these incidences, which leads many Venezuelans to believe the police system and the government are corrupt.
These forms of “express kidnappings” happen all the time, according to Mercy. The kidnappers hold their captives for a few hours, scare the family into giving a large sum of money, and then move on to someone else. It happens quite frequently, and the people of Venezuela wonder why it is not better policed when the government knows it happens.
More complicated kidnappings occur as well. These are detailed, organized, and target the wealthy. Victims could be held for months while a sum of millions of dollars is negotiated. In either type of kidnapping, however, those with money are always the targets.
“In Venezuela, a hate started to happen between the social classes that just created all this,” Mercy said. “These kidnappers know exactly who to go after and how to do it.”
Mercy blames much of this hate on Hugo Chávez, the former President of Venezuela. Chávez came to office in 1999 and stayed there until his death in March of 2013. The kidnappings, along with thefts and robberies, have steadily gotten worse and are now a normal occurrence.
“Chávez wanted to give a good life to the poor people. That idea is amazing, and I support it entirely. He wanted to create social justice. But he didn’t go about it in the right way,” said Mercy. “He created hate. The people in lower classes started to think that the rich were taking advantage of them.”
According to the CIA World Factbook, a 2011 estimate showed Venezuela’s poverty rate at 31.6%. While this is lower than when Chávez came into office, Mercy said that many still blame him for the state of the country, and it is the poor who are doing the majority of these kidnappings, thefts, and robberies. Homicide is another crime that is common in Venezuela. In 2012 there were 26,692 murders.
Kidnapping and robbery is what most people look out for, even though crime of all sorts is frequent. For Mercy, she has come to set certain guidelines for herself when at home; such as making sure she is home by 6 PM. She studies journalism and communication disorders at Emerson College in Boston, MA, and her style of living here is much different.
“Sometimes I go out and I get back to my dorm at 2 AM and that’s something I don’t even imagine doing at home,” she said. “If I go in the streets of Venezuela and I dress fancy or have my iPhone out, you’re going to see people looking at you. Here I don’t see people judge you in that way.”
The culture in the United States is certainly different. In the US, kidnapping is a rare crime, where at home she said it has happened to a lot of her friends’ families. It is usual in Venezuela.
The rest of Mercy’s family lives in many different places. Simon will soon graduate from Pennsylvania State University, and is looking for jobs outside of Venezuela. Additionally, her brother Isaac is living in China, and her sister Alys is hoping to move from Venezuela to Panama with her husband. Mercy’s parents, Jose and Emmy, remain in Venezuela where her father works.
As for changing the nature of this crime and the country, Mercy thinks it could happen, but it will be a challenge. Venezuela neighbors the country of Colombia, where similar crime was once rampant. Now their government has changed and crime is down. It is a place Mercy even considered going to school
“I think it can change in Venezuela,” Mercy said. “The people have to fight for the country, and the problem is that the people don’t have a feeling to fight. People got tired.”
According to Mercy, the problem is that people have tried to oppose the government before, but the protesting became too violent. She is hopeful in that in the future this change will happen, but it will take a large effort.