John Pate used to drive around Caracas in a bullet-proof Volkswagen. As an American expat with more than 35 years of experience living in Venezuela, Pate avoided going out at night, kept quiet about his political views, and even dressed modestly to disguise his wealth.
But all those safety measures ultimately failed. On Aug. 9, the American lawyer was stabbed to death by criminals who broke into his girlfriend’s home.
“It feels like a lottery with bad odds,” his son Thomas says of the violence in Venezuela's capital. “The case is still under investigation and the authorities have been helpful. But this also shows you how Venezuela has become an increasingly dangerous place.”
Venezuela was once a country where people parked their cars without alarms, and strolled the streets at night, stumbling merrily from one bar to the next. But with kidnappings, robberies and murders spiking throughout this South American county, residents — including the dwindling community of foreign expats — feel increasingly vulnerable and frightened.
And not without good reason. As the Venezuelan economy tanks amid inflation and a steep devaluation of the local currency, some think that criminals are increasingly targeting foreigners who are thought to have U.S. dollars.
The crime wave has taught Americans and other expats who are still braving it out in Venezuela to take all sorts of new precautions to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Things that used to be a normal part of life in Venezuela — using public transportation or hitting the clubs at night — are now avoided by many foreign residents. The mood is grim as many expats feel their lives in Venezuela have become increasingly restricted by worsening security problems.
“It’s not like a war where people don’t have fun anymore, but people are constantly on edge, and there just isn’t much nightlife anymore,” said an American businessman, who refused to have his name published.
“I used to take the metro but now I never use it,” said John Kvarnback, a Swedish biologist who has lived in Venezuela for the past 12 years.
“Everyone around here drives cars with tinted windows,” the American businessman added. “And at night you don’t stop at red lights because it can be dangerous.”
The Venezuelan government has not released official statistics on murders or other types of crime for the past 10 years, which makes it hard to tell if foreigners are being increasingly targeted by criminals, or if it just seems that way.
In the past two months an Italian and a Spanish businessman have been kidnapped in Venezuela. The Spaniard, who lived in Venezuela for two decades, was murdered even though his family made a ransom payment.
“Criminals assume that foreigners have access to U.S. dollars,” said Roberto Briceño, the director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a local non-profit group. “That makes them a higher-value target when it comes to kidnappings or robbery attempts.”
Venezuelan investigators say the more recent murder of U.S. lawyer John Pate, seems to have stemmed from a botched home robbery. The thieves who killed Pate apparently broke into his girlfriend’s apartment with the help of the building's gardener. They removed the apartment’s security cameras, and were careful to avoid the buildings outer security cameras. Investigators think the criminals attacked the couple after they were recognized.
“It shows you how crime in Venezuela is getting more sophisticated,” Briceño said.
For the past few years, those who can afford to have also been trying to run their businesses from abroad.
Russ Dallen, an investment banker who moved to Venezuela in 2000 and has owned a brokerage firm in Caracas for the past decade, says nowadays he only spends about one week a month in the Venezuelan capital. The rest of the time he's in Miami with his wife and son.
“You really feel the pressure off your shoulders when you’re back in the states,” says Dallen, who's Caracas home was broken into a few years ago while he was away on business.
Dallen has a vintage 1962 Ford Thunderbird parked in his garage, but doesn’t dare take it out for a spin in Caracas. “I’m waiting for the day when you can drive a convertible again,” he said.
He might have to wait a long time. Caracas now has the second-highest murder rate in the hemisphere, according to non-profit groups. And some 50 cars are stolen every day, sometimes at gunpoint.
Some expats are hopeful that things will improve. John Pate’s son, Thomas used to vacation at his mother’s family home in Lima back in the 1980s when the Peruvian capital was hobbled by hyperinflation and guerrilla attacks. Today Lima is a bustling and attractive city in South America’s fastest-growing economy.
“I guess I’m optimistic because of my dad,” Thomas said. “He was worried about the security situation here, but he still thought that Venezuela was a place with opportunities. He thought that at some point things would change for the better.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.