Friday, June 12, 2015

Guest Post: Getting Robbed in Caracas

by Keith Duke
Last month, I solicited articles from anyone having experience with surviving a hostage situation, terrorist attack, or other human-induced form of disaster. Keith Duke was the only one to reply (other than the obligatory "Does my divorce count" from the usual wags.) This is his story.

This article is an entrant in the 2nd Annual BCP Writing Contest.

This is a true story. It is also really long, as it details one of my four serious interactions with criminals.

2000, spring-ish. Life is mostly sucking at this point, as both my private & professional lives are pretty much in the toilet: I'm in the process of going through a divorce, and work is time consuming, difficult and very, very stressful. That's when I draw the short straw: I'm headed to Caracas, Venezuela to a trade show (PowerGen Latin America). Won't that be fun! 

It's not my first international trip, so I spend a good chunk of time reading all the state department travel advisories and such. I'm normally an aware traveler -- really  -- and while it's my first trip to Caracas, I've traveled to other South/Central American destinations. It should be a piece of cake, right? 

Heh. I can laugh about it now...

I meet the owner of my then-employer's Mexican subsidiary at the Caracas airport, as arranged. My Spanish is spotty, at best: I can follow along reasonably well as long as the speaker doesn't go too fast and doesn't use a lot of slang, so I'm letting him handle the things like transport and such.

First big mistake: I'm not paying enough attention, because he travels through Caracas all the time, and I trust/expect he's much more aware of any local hazards.

We gather up our bags, get through customs with no problems and pass into the general area, which is huge, very loud and packed to the gills with people - the cavernous echoes of the terminal make conversation difficult. My compatriot negotiates with a cabbie. They come to an agreement and we follow him out to 'the upper taxi deck'.

Second mistake: I didn't know this at the time, but there is NO upper taxi deck in the Caracas airport, only a remote cab waiting queue. But hey, the guy is wearing the required uniform, the required ID card, and so on, so he should be legit, right? He leads us to a real cab in a line of cabs at the airport. He's really a cabbie, dang it!

We get to the cab and... there's a driver already in this cab, also wearing the correct uniform/hat/ID. So, also a cabbie, yeah? The first guy explains that he gets a cut for bringing passengers out to the driver. He smiles and talks to the driver while he starts loading our stuff into the cab. They're discussing soccer/football, and once we get all situated the shill asks the driver if he's done for the day. The driver says "Yes, hop in and I'll drop you off since I'm leaving with these two gentlemen anyway." The driver asks if it's okay with us and -- third mistake -- we say "Yeah, sure."

I'm actually twitching by now, as this just doesn't seem right, but the guy with the complete command of the language and all its nuances isn't concerned at all. He and the two guys up front are chatting away about the shill's girlfriend, local places to eat, soccer and such, so I decide that I'm probably just being paranoid.

We pull out, the driver waves to the security guard -- who waves back -- and we leave the airport and turn left towards Caracas as the signs say. Which is good, because the travel advisory warns that if they turn right you should immediately start trying to get out of the cab and away from them -- a series of robberies and robbery/murders over the past year happened when the cabs headed away from the city -- so the fact that we're going the right direction make me think "Okay, it's good, I was just being paranoid, actually nothing to worry about."

Heh. I laugh again.

It's approximately a half-hour cab ride from the airport to the hotel we're booked into, and about 20 minutes into it, the shill/passenger turns around to my friend and speaks some high-speed Spanish that I didn't quite catch. It sounds like "I've got a gun, give me your wallet."

Ah, crap.

He proceeds to tell us that he's going to take our laptops, valuables in the luggage etc., but we'll be unharmed as long as we cooperate. Now this was in a lot of ways a very professional kidnapping-robbery. The driver drove carefully, and the shill didn't point the gun at us, just showed us he had it: .45 auto, 1911 pattern, hammer back, magazine in, thumb safety on, lying to hand on the seat, but not actually in his hand.

This guy is about 5' 6", a little stocky/wiry but not anything I'd be scared of in a fight. (I'm 6' 3", and at the time was in quite good shape, as well as having some experience in that sort of thing.) It crosses my mind that given the physical arrangement, I can almost certainly hit this guy so hard his daddy is going to feel it for a month. He apparently comes to the same conclusion because he leans way back and says, in broken English, "Now don't be stupid. The car directly behind us has four guys in it and they've all got machetes."

I said something along the line of "Bullshit." (I know -- so witty!) He said, "I'll have them flash their lights so you know they're with us right.. now..."

And they did.

Well then.

So, right there I discovered something about myself: The prospect of possibly getting shot seemed pretty bad, but unless I was really unlucky, it's probably survivable. However, the prospect of being chopped up with machetes and being left to bleed out seemed much less so. 

So we both hand over wallets and passports etc. The shill goes through them, picks out all the cash, looks at the credit cards and passports, and then hands back everything except the cash.

A minute or so later, he tells the driver to pull over. (Yes, the other car pulled over too, and kept the lights on bright, but we could see that there were indeed four people in the car.)

They chuck us out of the cab at a pedestrian pass-through in one of the barrio walls and... well, here's where it gets sort of surreal: the driver pops the trunk, and carries our bags -- making three trips! -- to the sidewalk, and then starts to stand there like you would for a tip! Then he catches himself, and without a trace of irony or a smirk or anything, he tips his hat!

The driver and the shill (who has the gun in hand at this point) get back in the cab, and both cars pull away with me standing on the sidewalk, laughing like a maniac, while my associate watches me like I have lost my ever-loving mind, at the complete cognitive dissonance of the whole hat-tip thing...and yes, in relief at being alive, and unharmed. 

All told, they held us for like half an hour, but in the end it came out okay. No thanks to anything we did, no virtue on our part; we were just lucky. And feeling pretty creeped out by the thought of being chopped up had things gone wrong.

So now, we're walking along in the barrio, talking to each other in a sotto voce "I can't believe this crap" tone, when a guy comes up the walk. My companion opens his mouth and he doesn't even get a change to speak before the other guy turns around and not-quite yells that he's not interested, can't help, doesn't want to get involved. 

With  a bit of wheedling and cajoling, he stops long enough to hear us out. "Sorry, I don't have a car, can't help you." Then further wheedling discussion follows, to the end effect that he says, "But my cousin does. I can't promise anything but he'll be here in a few minutes and maybe he'll give you a ride. Maybe."

So we follow this guy back through the wall into the barrio proper. Which was, in retrospect, certainly mistake number four.
We're standing there on the sidewalk inside the wall, when I notice maybe 50-60 yards away there's a crowd of 100-150 young men and women. They are obviously partying -- drinking, shouting, carrying on. 

One guy looks over his shoulder, then turns back around.A couple of minutes later, 15-20 guys look over their shoulder at us, and then turn back around. About that time the guy's cousin pulls up in this tiny little Toyota, probably 20 years old, rusty, and limping along. And did I mention tiny?

Anyway, the cousin, flat out says no, can't, got things to do. My companion offers a larger inducement, and I say I'll match it. No dice. 

Right about that time, the whole damned crowd turns towards us as one body, and I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that we were dead. Toast. 

The driver looks over at the crowd, looks at us and sighs. "Get in. NOW!" Which we do with alacrity, managing to get away from the still-closing crowd with a huge sigh of relief. 

As we to travel to our hotel, the conversation with the driver goes something like "I have things to do, but I couldn't have your deaths on my conscience. That's the only reason I agreed." 

We get to the hotel, get cash advances (since the robbers were kind enough to leave us everything but our traveling cash), and we give him a couple of hundred US dollars apiece, plus an invite for an all-expense paid trip to my associate's guest ranch in San Luis Potisi. (Which is a really nice place.)

Once in the hotel, we report everything to the police who assure us they "would look into it" (we all know they won't), and then we retire to the bar for much drinking and talking.

That was just the first night. Oh yes, my friends -- there's more, much more...

I get up in the morning, eat breakfast, get in the blacked-out bus with the armed security guards, go set up the booth, work the tradeshow, eat lunch, go back to the hotel, have dinner out that night with local customers. A pretty normal tradeshow day, all in all. There was a good deal of ribbing from other exhibitors about the robbery, but that sort of thing is expected.

But right around 2:00 AM, I wake up to the sound of significant automatic weapons fire. It sounds like an AK-47. Well, okay, it sounds like several AK's. 

Screw it. I roll over and go back to sleep. If they want to shoot me, they're going to have to come dig me out of my room -- I'm not going to a gunfight armed only with harsh words.

In the morning, we ask the security guys to tell us how those lines of bullet holes got in the facade of the hotel, and how all that broken glass happened. It turns out that the hotel security staff were shot at by a carload of folks in a little drive-by, except that the drive-by guys didn't do any recon. The only way in or out of the hotel is the same driveway. When they turned around to drive out past the guards they had just mag-dumped at, the hotel security guys shot the vehicle to hell and killed them all.  End of the night: Security guys 3, drive-by shooters 0. 

The next day, nothing happened. Amazing!

The third day is the last day of the tradeshow. It starts off with the bus being widely re-reouted and we are told to make sure that all the curtains are closed and NOT to look out. It turns out that they're rioting at the airport. (It was Hugo Chavez's first re-election, if I recall correctly.) There are burning trucks blocking everything, both and rowdies AND soldiers are running a bit amok. No killings, but foreign devils - like me! - have been pulled from their vehicles and badly beaten/robbed.

Put me down for "Not interested", m'kay?

Anyway, we eventually make the tradeshow, then break down the booth, pack it up, and so on. We don't leave the hotel for dinner, as the streets are just too dangerous because of the election the day after tomorrow. One of our fellow tradeshow guys was critically injured & hospitalized when he tried to go down the street for dinne, and was hit on the head with a coconut (of all things) thrown at him from an upper floor balcony. Another was beaten pretty badly by a group of locals. The city is nervous and tense, and there's widespread gunfire in the distance pretty much all night.

The next morning, it's finally time to head home. Hooray! Bright and early, we get a cab, "A good cab!" the bellman assures/teases me, all the way out to the airport -- where I ran into The Helper.

"Senor, you need someone to assist you with the paperwork. Let me help you."

"Nope, I got it."

"But Senor, you don't want to make any mistakes and miss your plane. Let me help you."

"Look dude, go away. I don't want any help thankyouverymuch."

"But senor, they're going to find drugs in your luggage unless I help you, I promise you."

<Fish eyed glare> "What? "

"Senor, there will be drugs in your luggage. It just happens that way, so you should let me help you so it doesn't."

<F**K!> "OK, how much is this "Help" going to cost me?"

"Senor, it only costs a nominal tip." 

"And how much is that?"

"Just a nominal tip, senor."

"OK. Let's go. Do your thing. The sooner I get out of your country back home the better I'll like it."

So, he fills out the frigging simple paperwork, and I hand him a $10.

"Senor, that is not a nominal tip."

"Cut to the chase - what do you want?"

"Just a nominal t-"

"Shut up and quit playing. Here's another $10. Now get out of my sight or I swear before God that I'm heading to the nearest policeman and taking my damned chances."

"That's a nominal tip senor."

And he saunters off to run the same scam again, and again, and again -- all day long -- extorting $20-$30 per person he "helps", so they don't 'find drugs in the luggage'. (And for what it's worth, one of the guys from the US did get caught with drugs in his suitcase. I don't know if they were really his or not, but it was a big scene.)

Anyway, The Helper says as he walks away : "When you go through customs Senor, do not go to the female customs agent, go to the man on the right."

Which is my normal plan anyway . But I guess it turned out to be good advice, worth double or even triple what I'd paid him. You see, everyone who went to the female customs agent got a body cavity search.... 

Yeah, I was really glad to get home.

And while this article is intentionally humorous, my experience was pretty terrifying. I've been robbed before, and experienced some other 'interesting things' with criminals, but never at such truly disadvantageous odds in both numbers and weapons. The sight of the group of people turning and coming towards us as one was actually even more terrifying. I might have been able to outrun 6 guys, but there was no way in hell I could outrun that many guys.

I definitely do still kick myself from time to time for not paying attention to my gut. It was talking to me, and I was too stupid to listen. Part of it was cultural; I was unsure of what was normal, and the language barrier added some confusion. Had it been in the US, I'm pretty sure that it wouldn't have happened, at least not that way, simply because culture and language wouldn't have been at issue at all.

But it was definitely a learning experience.

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