QUITO, Ecuador – There had been 510 express kidnappings – an average of 11 per week – in Guayaquil, the country’s second-largest city behind the capital of Quito, which reported 17, from January through Nov. 11.
The 527 express kidnappings in the nation’s two biggest cities were 46 fewer during the same period in 2011, but authorities remain focused on lowering that number as a top priority. At least 70% of the express kidnappings – abductions in which victims, mostly from the middle class, are taken for a short time and often are asked to empty their bank accounts – occurred between 6 p.m. and midnight.
Authorities said express kidnapping victims lost a total of US$184,811, an average of about US$362 per victim, and the majority of the abducted were taken upon getting into official taxis, according to the Public Safety Observatory of Quito.
There are 13,000 authorized taxis in Quito and 12,000 in Guayaquil, but there also are 4,000 illegal taxis in the nation’s capital and 6,000 in Guayaquil, according to officials in the respective cities.
María Gabriela J., who requested anonymity for safety reasons, was the victim of an express kidnapping on Av. González Suárez, north of Quito, on Oct. 17.
She and a friend got into a taxi that appeared to be registered, as it was yellow. But during their trip, the driver took a detour and when the vehicle stopped at a traffic light, two assailants entered the taxi, took the passengers’ belongings and forced them to withdraw money from a nearby ATM.
“I could only give them money from one account, because I couldn’t remember the pin codes,” said Gabriela, who immediately filed a complaint with the Judicial Police, but no suspects have been detained.
Express kidnappings are the third-most committed crime in Ecuador, behind robberies and assaults, which together totaled 7,324 last year.
Police received 527 reports from victims of express kidnappings nationwide, but the number of victims is likely considerably higher, as a large number don’t notify law enforcement, according to the Public Safety Observatory of Guayaquil.
The government is trying to curtail express kidnappings through a series of campaigns to educate the public not to take taxis between 6 p.m. and midnight and to make sure the driver isn’t talking on the phone or taking alternate routes to a destination.
Quito’s Safe Passenger campaign, which was launched on Oct. 15, allows passengers to see whether a taxi is in compliance with the law by sending a text message with the license plate information to the number 2468, according to Quito Councilmember Macarena Valarezo, who created the campaign.
“We want people to regain confidence and not worry about taking taxis,” she said in reference to the Safe Passenger program, which is supported by the Ministry of the Interior, the National Federation of Taxi Drivers and the National Police.
A total of 120 police officers nationwide are being trained on the techniques used by kidnappers, who often employ the same strategies as those in Colombia, where victims are abducted during what are known as “millionaire runs” (paseo millonario), according to Juan Carlos Iza, the commander in charge of the Ecuadoran police’s Kidnapping and Extortion Unit (UNASE).
Meantime, Ecuadoran lawmakers are debating whether to reform the country’s Criminal Code so it would enable judges to take the victim into account when sentencing those convicted of express kidnappings. Currently, those found guilty of using a vehicle to carry out a crime face between three and 25 years in prison, with the maximum sentence given when the victim dies as the result of the crime.
Article 94 of the new bill, which the government hopes will be approved in the coming months by the legislative assembly, states that “those who illegally deprive one or more persons of their liberty for a specific amount of time in order to commit another crime to benefit themselves or a third party, will be punished with five to seven years in prison.”
“It’s the same whether you’ve been kidnapped for a day or a month,” said lawmaker María Paula Romo, who supports the bill. “What we are focusing on are concepts, such as whether the victim was injured or abused.”
Currently, there is a penalty on the books for kidnapping, but it comes into play only when a ransom has been demanded; otherwise, the crime is classified as auto-kidnapping or disappearance, punishable up to five years in prison.
How to prevent an express kidnapping
Col. Juan Zapata, a spokesperson for the National Police, said here’s how you can avoid becoming the victim of an express kidnapping:
When taking a taxi, make sure that it is authorized and has all of the official seals, from the police and municipal authorities;
Never get into a taxi alone;
If the driver appears to be acting strangely, immediately call for help;
Closely observe the actions of the driver, particularly for signs of nervousness or actions that might be intended to contact criminals;
Do not leave valuable objects in plain sight, such as expensive cellphones and jewelry, which might attract attention. Avoid wearing flashy, expensive clothing or brands that reflect wealth;
The best way to avoid an attack is to anticipate it, so remain alert to your surroundings;
Keep an eye out for suspicious situations or people, or vehicles that might be following you.