MAIQUETÍA, Venezuela – Erich van der Kier didn’t hesitate to spend a big chunk of his savings to fly from the Netherlands to the South American nation last month after he’d been warned by family and friends about the lack of personal security in the country.
“Since I saw them in a book during elementary school, I have always been fascinated by Angel Falls,” said van der Kier, a 31-year-old accountant, referring to the world’s tallest waterfall, located in southeastern Venezuela.
But the fears of his loved ones materialized shortly after he stepped out of the immigration control hall at Simón Bolívar International Airport. The airport serves the violence-ridden Venezuelan capital of Caracas and is located in the beach town of Maiquetía in the state of Vargas, 26 kilometers (16 miles) north of the city’s center.
A man dressed in a dark suit quickly approached van der Kier, offering in perfect English to exchange his euros at a rate almost eight times above the official $5.65 bolívares rate, set by the government under a tightly controlled currency-control scheme in 2003.
“I was tired and overwhelmed after almost 16 hours flying” said van der Kier, who flew to Caracas from Amsterdam with a stop in Lisbon, Portugal. “I was an easy target.”
After the money was exchanged, the man offered him a taxi ride to his hotel in Caracas for $100 bolívares (US$23), well below the average of $350 bolívares (US$81) authorized taxi companies charge at the airport.
Van der Kier noticed something was wrong almost immediately.
“The driver, a different man, did not put my bag in the trunk, saying it was already full. He drove fast, constantly talking on the phone in Spanish, a language I do not understand,” van der Kier said.
The driver suddenly stopped at the side of the busy highway that connects the airport to Caracas, and slowly drove through a hidden dirt road to a small plateau overlooking the Caribbean Sea, van der Kier said.
Two men then jumped out of the bushes and opened the door of the car. They threw van der Kier from the vehicle, beat him, grabbed his bag, camera, money and laptop and in a final insult, removed his clothes.
“I could not believe it,” said van der Kier, who requested anonymity because the assailants, who have not been caught, also took his passport. “I’d been saving all my life for this trip.”
Residents of a nearby slum called an ambulance and he was taken to a Venezuelan hospital, where he spent weeks recovering from broken ribs and bruises. Recently he returned to the Netherlands.
What happened to van der Kier occurs almost daily at Simón Bolívar International Airport, where 10 passengers on average are assaulted daily, according to media reports. The government hasn’t made official data public.
The 68-year-old airport has become a hotbed for crime because it has national and international flights, with nonstop domestic connections to Maracaibo, Margarita Island and Canaima, where Angel Falls is located. It also offers international flights to Miami and Houston in the United States; Amsterdam in the Netherlands; Lisbon, Portugal; Paris, France; Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lima, Peru; and Madrid, Spain.
In 2011, 5.12 million passengers used the airport – three million on national flights and 2.12 million on international flights – according to the Instituto Autónomo Aeropuerto de Maiquetía (Autonomous Institution of the Maiquetía Aiport, I.A.I.M. by its acronym in Spanish), a government entity overseeing the airport’s operations.
The I.A.I.M. has certified four taxi companies to serve the airport: UCAMC, Taxi Tours, Astrala and UTAC.
The vehicles are mostly SUVs with a company logo, tinted windows and other security features. Drivers wear uniforms and identification cards.
But unauthorized taxis also use SUVs with fake logos, and drivers wear uniforms and carry counterfeit identification cards to deceive their victims, said Rolando Narváez, a legal taxi driver at the airport who didn’t want the name of his company made public for security reasons.
“Because of the fake ID’s, they get into our dedicated passenger boarding zone and lure passengers, taking 10, 20 bolívares off the price of the ride,” he said. “Many kidnappings and robberies stem from this reality.”
Ariel Mujica, who has been working at one of the certified taxi companies for 30 years, agrees with Narváez.
“A few days ago, an unauthorized taxi driver pointed a gun at me as I was putting a passenger’s bags in the trunk,” he said. “He then forced the passenger to ride with him.”
Mujica called authorities, who later detained the taxi driver on the outskirts of Caracas. The passenger, a foreign national, was unharmed.
Authorities, however, are trying to make the airport safer, which is why they’ve launched a security initiative that will focus on bolstering the number of law enforcement agents, enhancing monitoring and making sure passengers, workers and crew members comply with all safety measures.
“This is Venezuela’s flagship airport, so coordination among all security and government agencies is fundamental to increase security,” said César Martínez, director of planning and administration of air traffic for the Ministry of Aquatic and Air Transportation.
Law enforcement’s main tool to prevent crime at the airport is a video surveillance system that was installed last year. It has led to the arrests of 39 suspects after they were caught on camera committing crimes.
The system “is operating 24 hours a day and the feed is available to all security agencies of the government,” said Jesús Viñas, the airport’s general manager.
In coordination with the country’s National Guard, security has been enhanced with checkpoints at the airport’s car entry point and along passenger taxi loading areas at the national and international terminals, said Col. Alexander Hernández, commander of Venezuela’s National Guard Post 53, which monitors the airport.
Lt. Col. Juan Ramos Farías said he’d get more agents for his anti-drug unit, which has seized 83 kilograms (182 pounds) of cocaine and arrested 16 on drug-smuggling charges during the first trimester of 2012.
Van der Kier is confident the increased security measures will work, as he holds no ill will toward the Andean nation.
“I still believe [what happened to me] was an isolated incident,” he added. “I want to believe Venezuela is a wonderful, hospitable country.”
* Xavier de la Rochelle contributed to this report from Geleen, the Netherlands.