Venezuela - high crime, big risk: what you need to know

Venezuela is not a place you'd go to for your first overseas holiday. It's not a place you go to for beach time and pina coladas. It's a place you go for an adventure.

Violent crime is rife in both the capital Caracas and the interior, and as a foreigner you are a prime target. Don't go expecting justice if you are a victim of crime - only a very small percentage of crimes result in trials and convictions.

What Could Happen?

The country has one of the top five highest per capita murder rates in the world.

Kidnappings have increased approximately 50 per cent from 2008 to 2009, and armed robberies are common.

Kidnappings of foreign nationals occurs from homes, hotels, unauthorized taxis and the airport terminal.

Express Kidnap

In recent years a frightening phenomenon called "express kidnapping" has emerged. These kidnappings are short-term opportunistic abductions, aimed at extracting cash from the victim.

Victims are normally selected at random and held while criminals force them to use their cash cards to empty their bank accounts. Once the maximum amount of money is extracted the victim is released. It lasts an hour, but it comes with the threat of or actual violence, and is terrifying, as well as really inconvenient to be cleaned out.

(From "Secuestro Express" a Venezuelan movie. Real villains are never as handsome.)

Be aware also of "virtual kidnappings". Locals never complete questionnaires or surveys because these are scams to collect contact information on family members.

People who have handed over these details have been subjected to threatening calls demanding ransom for abducted children. Even though there's been no actual kidnapping - what's terrifying is you don't know if it's real, and who wouldn't hand over bank details if they thought their loved ones were in danger?

Also "inside kidnappings" are on the rise, in which domestic employees are paid for keys and information so criminals can enter foreigners' accommodation and kidnap children for ransom.

Road Bandits

But it's not just in your hotel or home that you must take precautions - obviously on the road you are even more exposed.

Carjacking is also a problem by day and night.

Carjackers tend to target expensive-looking vehicles, especially 4x4s. Armed gangs ram their intended victim's vehicle from behind, or attempt to flag them down in order to rob them.

Resistance to robbery has resulted in victims being shot dead.

Be aware well-armed criminal gangs operate widely, often setting up fake police checkpoints.

Travellers should be aware of chokepoints inside tunnels and avoid obstacles in the road.

Taxi drivers in Caracas are known to overcharge, rob or injure passengers.

When sightseeing or on foot you should wear as little jewellery as possible, including expensive looking watches. Also avoid displaying expensive camera equipment.

Cash & Money Exchange

Due to currency regulations, hotels cannot provide currency exchange, so invariably you will have to use ATMs. Malfunctions are common and it is not unknown for ATM data to be hacked and used to make unauthorized withdrawals from user's accounts. (Reports suggest hand-held scanners are also used by thieves to steal account details)

Also travellers should be careful only to use ATMs in well-lit public places as to avoid being targeted by street gangs.

Other Hot Spots

Even popular tourist attractions, such as the Avila National Park, are increasingly associated with violent crime.

The poor neighborhoods, barrios (read slums) that cover the hills around Caracas are extremely dangerous. These are seldom patrolled by police and should be avoided.

In these areas, and other parts of the city - gangs of thieves will often surround their victims and use a chokehold to disable them, even in crowded market areas where there is little or no police presence.

Pickpockets are also a problem - they concentrate in and around crowded bus and subway stations in downtown Caracas.

Subway escalators are favored sites for "bump and rob" petty thefts by roving bands of young criminals. A person in front of you will "drop" something, then bend down to retrieve it, which then blocks the traffic on the escalator. The person behind you pushes against you in the chaos of bodies - and in so doing picks your pockets. Many of these criminals are well dressed to allay suspicion and to blend in with crowds using the subways during rush hour. Robberies also occur frequently on buses and trains.

Poison Letters & Drinks

Finally, when out and about in the street or in major shopping centres, do not accept pamphlets.

There have been incidents where these flyers have been impregnated with potent and disorienting drugs that permeate the skin.

Drink spiking has also been reported - so be careful to not accept food or drink from strangers who may befriend you in bars or restaurants.

Hotels Safety

As for accommodation - Sabana Grande is not a safe area in which to stay in Caracas; cheap hotels can be found in safer areas such as Chacao, La Castellana and Altamira.

Theft from hotel rooms and safe deposit boxes is a problem, and theft of unattended valuables on the beach and from rental cars parked near isolated areas or on city streets is commonplace. A guarded garage or locked trunk is not a guarantee against theft.

Airport Safety

And believe it or not you will actually need to be on your guard the second you arrive in Venezuela. Even the airports and their surrounds are considered dangerous.

Corruption at Maiquetia Airport, the international airport serving Caracas, is rampant. Both arriving and departing travellers, including foreigners, have been victims of personal property theft and muggings.

Some of these crimes are committed by people wearing official looking uniforms - so be wary of any strangers who approach you.

Casually dressed travellers are more often approached, so dress smartly.

There are known drug trafficking groups working from the airport. Travellers should not accept packages from anyone and should keep their luggage with them at all times. It is also wise to lock your luggage.

There are reports that uniformed airport officials are attempting to extort money from travellers as they go through the normal check-in and boarding process for departing flights.

Others are approached as they arrive and are escorted to a separate area for a bag inspection. Victims are then instructed to sign a document in Spanish that they do not understand. If you are forced to sign a document you don't understand, just write in English "I do not understand this document".

Also be aware of being approached at the airport by individuals offering to exchange foreign currency. You may be given forged local currency.

The road between Maiquetia Airport and Caracas is known to be particularly dangerous.

Visitors traveling this route at night have been kidnapped and held captive for ransom in roadside huts that line the highway. Because of the frequency of robberies at gunpoint, travellers are encouraged to arrive and depart only during daylight hours.

You should make advance arrangements for travel from the airport to your accommodation.

Airport Tax Scam

Also be aware of being overcharged when paying airport tax for both international flights and domestic flights within Venezuela.

Always check the amount printed on the receipt issued for the tax (normally a sticker affixed to the back of your ticket) before handing over any money. Currently the domestic airport tax, including journeys from Caracas to Margarita Island, is BsF 38.

International passengers must pay two taxes to exit the country. The international departure tax increased in February 2011 to BsF 228 (from BsF 195) but it is usually, although not always, included in the cost of the airfare ticket. (If you purchased your flight tickets before February, you may be asked to pay the difference by the airline when you check in, which should be BsF 33.)

There is also an airport tax of BsF 190 that must be paid in cash (Bolivars) after check in at the airport (at one of the tax payment booths). Check with your airline before agreeing to pay anything extra.

What To Do

In case of theft it is wise to make two photocopies of your passport, tickets, visas and travellers' cheques. Keep one copy with you in a separate place to the original and leave another copy with someone at home.

Clearly traveling in Venezuela is not for the feint hearted. So consider if your travel is essential, be prepared for a challenge and exercise extreme caution.

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19 Comments

  • Karen said

    I travelled to Venezuela about three years ago with my teenage daughter so that she could attend a swim club training camp. What happened to me was my own fault for being naive and not reading any travel advisories before I left. I had put my $250.(cdn) spending money in my passport wallet for safe-keeping before I left tucked into one of the pockets. Upon arrival at the airport and going through customs with my daughter I handed my whole wallet over to the customs agent. I couldn't see behind the counter as he was looking at it and stamping it. He kept looking up at me and I thought the whole exchange seemed a little suspicious but it wasn''t until we arrived at the hotel and I went to look for my money that I realized he had taken it. There was nothing I could do, how could I prove it and I probably wouldn't be abe to identify him. I was stupid enough to think that all "officials" at an airport would be trustworthy. My fault, although it ruined the rest of my holiday.

  • Terry Harris said

    Thank you for writing this post. To the commenter who lost her money to the official at the airport, thank you for writing also. It's now 2016 and I've been hearing so much about the economic collapse in Venezuela that I googled "crime in Venezuela" and this article came up. It's really an eye-opening article. I had no idea of any of this stuff; I thought it was just an economic mess they had down there, however, now I understand how a bus driver has become their Presidante and is a strong-man criminal. Good Lord.

  • Charlie said

    If you hand over your wallet in any Central or South American country, even the USA, that is plain foolish. A friend of my Venezuelan best friend was kidnapped. The family is poor. That did not matter. She was found dead the next day. Life is worthless over there. I was intending to go when Chavez was President, but not any more, the way it is under Nicolas Maduro.

  • Richard said

    My wife and I travelled to Venezuela for 3 weeks in December 2015 for a holiday, she has over 20 years experience in leading expeditions and has travelled to South America many many time and we both found it an extreme rollercoaster ride. One minute you felt safe the next not safe at all. There really is no law over there we took $2000 for spending money changed about $500 in all (don't use ATM do it through someone you can trust or a hotel at the airport don't show it in public) we started by using a Hotel near maqueita airport changed $50 and got 32500 bolivars from the hotel security in our room couple of bricks in size - hotel had airport transfer vehicle too. We stuffed money everywhere cutting slots on the inside of our rucksacks to hide it. We rented an apartment we found on a secure internet company before we went in Chichirivichie. We were the only ones staying in it!! a whole block some 50 apartments - our host who lived in Caracas, helped us to get private taxi's etc. You really do need some point of contact and one you can trust here. We then went to Merida 11 hours by taxi travelling at night and day bit nerve racking to say the least lots of check points and kids in army uniform with big guns. In Merida we used a contact Louis at Natoura (travel agency) who my wife knew via a UK Colleague luckily he pointed us towards Choroni as it was surrounded by hills and safe place to visit within reason.
    Basically this was an adventure not a holiday and it was dangerous but we knew that - we even thought of flying to Curucao or Abuja to get out of Venezuela at one point but could not get flights. On the way back the Lufthansa staff said they had all the alcohol taken off them so no drinks for us on the way home - they've stopped flying there as of last week! Anyway you have been warned

  • Roberto said

    Great article except that by no means use ATM's to obtain BsF. You should find a friend to help you change your US$ at the black market rate which is 5 times higher than official rate. If you do not have a friend in venezuela or a work colleague do not ever think to go there.

  • simon smith said

    I have been offered to visit Caracus as I enjoy travel and adventure. Am 66, and have done a lot of aid work. I have been reading reports, and I am an experienced traveller, latest was to Liberia, where I was told never to go. I found the people great, the government officials great, the country extremely poor. Being low profile, communicating and sensible, I have kept safe. Even though It has cost me several times, but not excessively.
    Cracus, unfortunately there seems to be no pattern, or handle, you can use, and say this will be safe. I always rely on having a local companion or people, for interpretation and help in situations. I never rely on the law as they tend to be a far worse problem in the end. I have lived in ghettos and not worried, but Caracus I think would really be pushing the boundaries, even for a relatively poor aid volunteer.. Thankyou for the information. Timely.

  • Viktor said

    @Charlie said Friday, June 10, 2016 3:47:26 PM "I was intending to go when Chavez was President, but not any more, the way it is under Nicolas Maduro."

    What are you!? Stupid?! A commie?!
    Usually I don't insult people, but this is legitimate question. That scumbag (Chavez) brought prosperous country with murder rate comparable to that in US (at the time), yet, here is what happened since then:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_in_Venezuela#/media/File:Number_of_kidnappings_in_Venezuela_1989_to_present_(Presidents).png

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_in_Venezuela#/media/File:1998_to_2013_Venezuela_Murder_Rate.png

  • Jeovani said

    I have a 21 hour layover at Barcelona Venezuela. I booked this trip 6 months ago and the goal was to get some food and sleep at a hotel. Any suggestions considering the status of the country?

  • Sandra said

    Venezuela is an incredible beautiful country. But at the moment its definitly an dangerous adventure to go there. I was there last year for four month. I went there in july with some kitesurfer friends. I always was with local people and without i would have been definitly lost. You always have to be very attentive. I have heard a lot of stories about people who got robbed and i have also seen people running after other who robbed them. And a lot of people have guns. I was one day in caracas and i really didnt like it. When i left Caracas by bus i had the choice to either wait for hours to the bus because of there was a large queue or waiting somewhere until somebody said that there arrived a bus behind the terminal(outside the terminal) and then all the people run to the bus through the whole terminal. And there are a loooots of military check points and they just want to bother you. Sometimes just the men had to show their ID or sometimes everyone had to leave the bus and unpack all the stuff. And that is what happen to you. But venezuelans have to do queues for every thing they need to buy if they even get it. You see queues everywhere. And they are large and people start doing them in the middle of the night. And supermakets are empty. You really feel the stress of the people because of the crisis. People are walking very unconfortable arond in the city uf they even walk. I highly recommend you to take taxis in tye cities go for even one block. I could write much more examples..
    It was extremly intresting and definitly another kind of travel but i dont recommend it at the moment. Its difficult as well additiobally to the insecurity. Booking flights or bus tickets are kind of impossible if you want to do it like an offical way.
    But I have learnt in venezuela as much as i had never before. I hope it will be better soon!!!

  • Igor said

    As for exhanging currency, definitely find a friend to exchange it for you in the black market. The official rate is 7 bolivars for a dollar, while you could get 1000 bolivars for 1 USD this summer.

  • Maximiliano said

    As an 18 year old wide-eyed teenager it's about as exciting as you can get.

    I spent a year in Caracas in 1994 as an 18 year old. What a blast! It was incredibly dangerous back then and I did plenty of stupid things. I survived with many, many stories to tell. I hear the food crisis has gotten very bad lately which is making things... badder. That's unfortunate, but when I was there it was just some other crisis. Venezuelans seem to embrace how their terrible situation is - and few seem to want to do anything about it, however passionately they speak about it.
    I went back in 2001 and it was pretty much how I remembered it, chaotic and full of life. I took a girlfriend back with me and regretted it. Not only because Venezuelan women are so beautiful, but I got really anxious about my girlfriend.
    I would not take my family there.
    Good advice to have a friend, or friend of a friend there if you're planning to go. Otherwise, it's your gamble. The only time I got robbed was by a policeman - stay away from them.
    A shame, it's such a rich, beautiful, wild, colourful, wonderful country, I really hope they get their act together one day. Without the crime it would just about be heaven on earth.

  • james said

    Venezuela is totally lawless and you are taking a risk with your life going there you can be killed at any moment. My wife is from there and two of her friends were shot one died. I went there twice and you just basically except you could be killed.

    So unless you have death wish or family don't go there

  • Nick Lilley said

    Such a shame, I went their with friends 25 years ago and Venezuela felt safe, four men in there late twenties mind you but all the same what I'm reading now I wouldn't dream of ever returning. In three weeks in Caracas, Isle to Margaritte and Puerto de la Cruz we saw virtually no beggars, and it had an almost almost European feel about it. We went out drinking every night, walked around unmolested, no problems at all. Compared to other places I'd been, Rio, Instanbul, Mexico City it was hassle free and seemed pretty prosperous in comparison.

    That being said, there was an attempted military coup while we were there led by non other than Hugo Chavez who was an army general at the time. Amazing how he managed to reinvent himself as a folk hero for the democratic left.

  • El Moreno USA said

    Didn't Miss Venezuela get blown away by some carjackers on a country road there a few years ago?

  • Red Flowers said

    This country is incredibly dangerous and has been so for years. It has gone full tilt communist now and the government is brutally repressive, even to the point of denying food to people who don't vote for the Chavistas. There is no basic medicine even for diabetics so if you get sick you are doomed. Stay away! This is not socialist paradise!

  • Stan Barker said

    After reading about all the crime and anarchy in Venezuela, how is it this small country seems to dominate in producing some of the most current best Major League Baseball players in the big leagues? For instance, consider the size of the US compared to this small repressed country? In comparison they dominate in producing quality players, how is this done?

    Thanks
    Stan Barker

  • Ondine said

    I grew up in Venezuela, and lived there for 25 years. Venezuela is an incredibly beautiful country, and its geography is more varied than anywhere else. Venezuela used to be a fun country to live in: people were relaxed, good humored, generous ("my casa es tu casa," always), and they used to have a tendency not to take themselves too seriously, as it is unfortunately the case in many other countries. But Venezuela has basically collapsed ever since Chavez took control of the country, and has gotten worse under Maduro. Even for someone like me, who knows Caracas like the palm of my hand, it is now a very dangerous, and tricky place to visit. As a Venezuelan once said, in Venezuela "la policía son malandros, y los malandros son policías..." (the police are the criminals, and the criminals are the police)! Unless you have friends there who can take care of you, and guide you every step of the way, I do not recommend going to Venezuela for now, which is really too bad...

  • Keith said

    Was planning a trip to Catatumbo-Maracaibo but all these posts have put me off

  • brett said

    Stan Barker, the U.S. has too many silver spoons. When you grow up living in a box and eating rice every day, it gives you some motivation, we just don't have here.... I knew many young baseball players here in the U.S. if they failed, oh well, their dad bought the 20 video games, go play 18 hours a day. life is good...

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