Inspector Hector Ramirez flattens himself on top of my colleague, reporter Kiki King. Beretta 9mm pistol in hand, he’s peering over her ballistic helmet down into the gully below, growling at us in Spanish to stay low. As Ramirez crawls over her, lifting his head, another burst of automatic gunfire whips through the air above us, the stuttering reports deadened by a silencer this time, flattening us further into the grass.
We’re under fire at dawn in El Valle – a barrio slum on the outskirts of Caracas – capital of Venezuela and kidnap capital of the world. Each day more than five people are kidnapped for ransom in Venezuela – a per capita abduction rate higher than anywhere else on earth.
Hector Ramirez is head of the Venezuela police force’s elite anti-kidnap squad technical team. We’ve been embedded with him for three weeks with unprecedented access to his unit, and now we’re being shot at by the city’s most notorious kidnap gang.
Led by El Viejo (“the Old One”), a prison escapee and convicted serial killer who Ramirez has been hunting since January, the gang took its latest victim two days before and the race is on to release him before El Viejo kills him.
With five new murders to his name in as many weeks, “neutralising” El Viejo – as the objective of the mission to apprehend him is described – has become the anti-kidnap squad’s overriding priority, and Ramirez’s personal obsession.
Inspector Ramirez’s men and the kidnappers have been exchanging fire sporadically for half an hour, the climbing sun gradually illuminating the makeshift houses and muddy tracks snaking around the flat patch of grass where we’re lying prone. Below, where the ground falls away into the ghetto beneath, another cascade of shots gives way to victorious whistles and excited shouting.
I lift the camera to film three bodies being dragged from a house, manhandled in bloodied winding sheets through the winding streets towards waiting ambulances, newspaper headlines and the quiet relief of the city’s richer residents.
Black-clad members of a police special force’s unit, swathed in body armour, toting battering rams and bolt croppers and assault rifles, stare on calmly while Ramirez and his men exchange high fives and valedictory back-slaps.
But the hubris of success and survival are short-lived – for Ramirez at least. El Viejo was gunned down in bed while reaching for his pistol, according to the marksmen that shot him. Two of his gang were also killed. But so was their latest victim – a middle-aged money lender from an eastern suburb of Caracas – who, it turned out, had been executed on El Viejo’s orders the day before.
There are a lot of scared families in Caracas, and a lot of grieving loved ones. Venezuela boasts many unhappy superlatives: with an annual total of around 20,000 homicides (the government refuses to release accurate statistics) the country competes yearly with half-a-dozen other unfortunate places for the world’s highest murder rate; there is reported to be one firearm in circulation for every two citizens, making Venezuela the most weaponised environment on earth; and every year there are, according to the police, at (the very least) 2,000 kidnaps for ransom nationwide.
Again, the exact figures of how many people are kidnapped are unknown: in a country notorious for local police corruption, most abductions are not reported, and ransoms are paid quietly – and illegally – out of the glare of official scrutiny.
Between 2008 and 2009, the National Institute of Statistics in Venezuela estimated that there were a staggering 16,917 kidnaps nationwide. These findings were suppressed by the government, but not before they were leaked to the Venezuelan press.
Whatever the real figure, one thing is certain: Caracas is in the grip of a kidnap crisis. Whether it’s for a few hours tied up in the back of their own car, or taken hostage for days, weeks or even months in a slum safe-house, dozens of people are being kidnapped in the city every month.
Almost everyone we spoke to knows someone who’s been taken. And the fear that generates has permeated every aspect of life in the violent urban sprawl of Venezuela’s chaotic capital.
Businesses, families and groups of friends run kidnap kitties, putting money aside in the event that cash is needed fast to pay the ransom of an abducted colleague or relative. Richer residents are investing in armoured cars and hiring bodyguards; the vulnerable middle-classes vary their routes to work, leave their jewellery at home and never (ever) walk anywhere.
Not even the working class – lionised by the country’s late President Hugo Chavez as the vanguard of his socialist Bolivarian revolution – are safe from the endemic threat of kidnap for ransom. Desperate, pleading and out of cash, we filmed a car mechanic beg for the release of his co-worker on the phone to his kidnapper: having pawned his wife’s necklace and sold his motorbike, he had nothing left to offer.
Serial-killing kidnappers like El Viejo are rare: for most gangs, kidnapping is a business – with most victims released shaken, scared stiff, but alive. Times are changing though: rape, murder and the abduction of children, once almost unknown, are now increasingly common.
Venezuela’s kidnap crisis began a decade ago, fuelled by organised crime from neighbouring Colombia and the release of thousands of violent prisoners by Chavez during controversial reforms of the criminal justice system.
Demanding ransoms from wealthy Venezuelans carried minimal risk for the kidnap gangs that mushroomed across the country: the Socialist government showed little interested in the plight of the middle class.
Far more lucrative than simple robbery, abduction for ransom became the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme for petty criminals and seasoned crime lords alike.
By the time the government wised up to the fact that now everyone was vulnerable, it was too late. With every ransom paid, the gangs grew stronger and, swamped by thousands of cases, the police grew increasingly ineffectual.
Enter Inspector Hector Ramirez: a new breed of police, recruited by Venezuela’s CID. Marksman, karate black belt and athlete, Ramirez is every inch the hard-boiled cop – but he’s also a telecoms engineer and IT expert. And as much as he relies on his Beretta in the barrios, it’s his BlackBerry that’s his main weapon against the kidnap gangs holding his city to ransom.
Nicknamed “the engineer”, Ramirez runs a highly skilled technical team whose office looks like a set from HBO’s drama The Wire. Painstakingly tracking down the phone numbers the kidnappers use, following their handsets as they move across the city and triangulating the whereabouts of the gangs from the information he can glean from cellphone masts and telecoms company records, Ramirez heads an impressive intelligence unit that, however outnumbered and often outgunned, is chipping away at the hold the kidnappers exert on Caracas case by case.
Sitting on the tailgate of his squad car, sweating from the long hike back up to the top of the slum, Ramirez spoke quietly. “We feel bad because what we thought would happen did happen: El Viejo killed another victim. For him it was his last, and we know the city is safer without him. But it’s sad that now my colleagues will be telling another family that it’s the body of their loved one that’s been recovered.”
James Brabazon and Kiki King’s film 'Unreported World: Venezuela’s Kidnap Cops' will be shown on Friday on Channel 4 at 7.30pm