It was 8 a.m. on March 11 when I was awoken by a call on my
cell phone. Is that Mr. Mitchell? a man asked, in
Spanish. Yes, I said. In a serious voice, the man told me he
was calling on behalf of the local commander of the regional
paramilitary force. His boss was afraid that a group of people
wanted to harm me. His chief could protect me, the man said, if
I handed over 100,000 bolivares ($15,900 at the official
exchange rate, $1,540 at the black market rate). To rub in the
gravity of the threat, he proceeded to tell me a series of
intimate details about me that only a tiny number of people
know. Shaken, I put the phone down.
I immediately went to visit a well-connected friend,
lets call him Pedro, who sides with the government
politically. Pedro runs a travel agency in the center of
Mérida, the beautiful Andean city (metro area population
350,000) where I have lived for the past three and a half
years. As soon I started telling him my story, he knew exactly
where it was heading. Two years ago he had been the victim of a
similar extortion attempt. As we were talking in his office, I
received another call from the extortionist, who asked why I
had hung up earlier. I said I did not want to speak to him and
was going to the police. He asked me which branch. I did not
respond and hung up.
Pedro told me to stay calm and took me to visit some of his
friends with the National Intelligence Service, called Sebin.
In the parking lot of their building, I met two hard-looking
men. When I began telling my story, they laughed as soon as I
said that the caller claimed he was acting on behalf of the
paramilitary commander. Apparently, this line is used a lot in
extortion attempts. The agents did not even bother to take down
the callers number. If he called again, they advised, I
should be aggressive and tell him to get lost. Later Pedro told
me that those Sebin agents had a reputation of taking half the
stolen goods of the people they arrested, and beating up the
people in their care.
I tried to remain calm throughout the day despite getting
another five calls from the extortionist, none of which I
answered. That evening I went with friends for dinner in one of
Méridas best restaurants, La Chistorra. The
journey normally takes only 10 minutes from my apartment, but
this night it took 45 minutes.
Mérida is at the center of opposition protests
against the government of Nicolás Maduro, who took over
as president in April 2013 after the death of his predecessor
and mentor, Hugo Chávez. The protests are being led by
students who have erected barricades that block two of the
citys main thoroughfares, Los Próceres and Las
Américas. The resulting traffic jams are terrible.
After dinner, we couldnt find a taxi. The citys
taxi drivers were on strike, we discovered, because an unknown
group had stolen two cabs earlier that day. La Chistorras
owner gave us a lift home.
As we got out of his SUV a Venezuelan friend, lets
call him Ricardo, took a call on my phone from the extortionist
(this time he was calling from a different number). As we
entered my apartment, the man started to describe how we were
dressed and how we had returned to the apartment. We had been
followed. He said that if I did not hand over the money within
48 hours, I would be killed. Ricardo eventually put the phone
down after agreeing to talk again in the morning to get the
details of how we should hand over the money. Panicked, we
phoned family and friends, including Pedro again. In fear for
our lives, I telephoned the Foreign Office in London (I am
British) and was put through to the Global Response Centre,
where a man advised that the official recommendation in
extortion cases is to contact the local police.
Ricardo was opposed to this. In Venezuela, he said, life is
worth little and the police were likely to do nothing
that is, if they werent in cahoots with criminals. I was
inclined to agree. Two and half years ago, four friends and I
were assaulted and robbed by two armed men in my apartment; the
police did nothing to investigate.
For me, the extortion threat was the last straw. I knew
Latin America well. I had already spent seven and half years
living in Buenos Aires and one year in Santiago. When I first
moved to Mérida, I fell in love with the place. It is a
university city with 70,000 students, located in a stunning
lush green valley. I entered a relationship quickly and made
many friends. Most Venezuelan people are extraordinarily warm
and charming and exhibit a Caribbean love of life. I thought I
would spend many years living there.
I had experienced petty crime in Latin America before, but
as I soon discovered, Venezuela is in a whole different league.
For a foreigner with some financial means, Mérida and
the city of San Cristóbal, in the neighboring state of
Táchira, have become virtually uninhabitable over the
past few months. Life is becoming increasingly difficult for a
large chunk of Venezuelas middle class, but most of them
are trapped without the money to escape.
Escape is what I did. On March 13, two days after the first
call and having received a further 15 calls from the
extortionist in the meantime, my friend Ricardo and I packed
our bags and took a taxi to a farmhouse owned by Ricardos
family, two hours outside Mérida. The next day we took a
flight from the local airport in El Vigia to Caracas, the
capital. On Saturday we flew out of the country, with no idea
of when or if we will return.
During the past few weeks, I had started to seriously
question whether I could continue living in Venezuela. On
return from a trip to Colombia at the start of February to
story for Institutional Investor, I found
Mérida in a state of upheaval. That week student
demonstrations in San Cristóbal to protest police
inaction following the rape of a student had triggered much
wider protests throughout the country, especially in opposition
strongholds such as Mérida, the city of Valencia and
parts of Caracas and Maracaibo.
From the balcony of my apartment in the center of
Mérida, I witnessed a confrontation between students and
the police, with students hurling rocks and the police
responding by firing tear gas.
Students had erected barricades made of smoldering tires and
tree branches in the citys middle-class districts, only
ten minutes on foot from where I lived. The students said they
were protecting the neighborhoods from Tupamaros or
colectivos, groups of paramilitary vigilantes on
motorbikes whom Chávez had promoted as a vanguard of the
so-called Bolivarian revolution.
Just after my return from Colombia, I witnessed the menace
of these vigilantes when a group of approximately 100 of them
rode past my building wearing balaclavas and waving guns in the
air. One of them shot at my balcony as I looked on with
friends. Many opposition supporters say the colectivos
are employed by the state to terrorize and repress them, like
the Basij in Iran.
Two weeks ago, on the back of a motorbike taxi, I visited
the barricades on Los Próceres and was shocked by the
eerie silence and the sense of desolation and terror. It was no
longer clear whether those manning the barricades were students
in balaclavas or mercenaries of some kind. We had to pay a
small sum to get past one of the barricades, which I understand
increases to around 200 bolivares for residents seeking passage
in the early hours of the morning.
On March 9 Mérida was in a state of shock after
Gisela Rubilar, a 47-year-old Chilean woman studying at the
University of Mérida, was shot dead trying to clear a
barricade near her home on Las Américas. She was an
ardent Chavista who was fed up with the blockade disrupting her
I asked a friend, an English professor at the university who
lives on Las Américas, whether she preferred the
presence of the barricades or not. After a moments pause,
she said it would be better if they remained. She was concerned
that the colectivos could break through and rob the
residents, something that had already happened in another part
of the city in February. Like many young Venezuelans, however,
she just wants out of the country; she is
contemplating moving to the Colombian capital of
Bogotá, where she has relatives. I feel sorry for
her, being cooped up in her apartment in the evenings with
fear. Every night there are running battles between
colectivos on motorbikes and the people manning the
barricades; often both groups are armed.
In the early-morning hours of Saturday, March 9, three days
before I received the extortion call, two friends a
British man and a Venezuelan woman were attacked in the
street close to my building by a group of six young thugs. The
man was able to fend off three of them, but they got away with
the womans wallet and smartphone, reducing her to tears.
Sadly, this has become an all-too-common occurrence in the