Venezuela: Is It Safe?
by Sally Erdle
“By any reasonable argument Venezuela ought to be the preferred destination for yachts heading south for the hurricane season. There are over 1,100 miles of coastline to cruise, 80 offshore islands to visit, and South America’s third largest river, the Orinoco, to explore. If that is not enough to tempt you, then ashore Venezuela can offer a choice of 32 national parks, 15 percent of the world’s bird species, 5,000-metre-high mountains and the Angel Falls, the world’s highest with an uninterrupted drop of 807 metres. With very little imagination you can picture Venezuela as being the major, year-round yachting centre of the Caribbean with yachting there a multi-million dollar industry. But isn’t, and it’s not likely to be — unless some changes are made…
“It will not be easy to improve matters. Amongst Venezuelans there is a sense if not of complacency, then of acceptance: this is the way Venezuela is, and if you choose to visit Venezuela then you must accept it. Well, boaters do not like being hassled for no good reason, or robbed simply because they are there.”
Those words were written by cruiser Alastair Buchan — in 2000. But in the subsequent 13 years, rather than developing its fabulous cruising grounds, marinas, chandleries and boatyards into a regional yachting powerhouse, Venezuela became something of a cruising ghost town. What happened?
In a word, crime.
A Wave of Armed Attacks
Starting around the early 1980s, Venezuela was a favorite Caribbean destination for both cruising and boat work — and then it plummeted “from hero to zero” in the wake of a tsunami of violent crimes against visiting yachts that began in 2000 with the reported attack on a boat called Dutch Concrete.
It is true that the Venezuelan cruising grounds span an end-to-end distance roughly equal to that from Trinidad to Puerto Rico, and yacht-related crimes also do happen along the island chain. But from 2007 to date, there were 32 assaults on visiting yachts in Venezuela reported to the Safety and Security Net (see www.safetyandsecuritynet.com/venezislands.htm and www.safetyandsecuritynet.com/venezmainland.htm) involving injuries, often by gunshot, to and/or physical restraining of crew in the course of a robbery; there were four deaths. This compares with ten reports of such assaults on yachts in all of the Lesser Antilles in the same period, and no deaths. Although we can compare numbers of crime reports from the island chain compared to numbers of reports from Venezuela, we don’t have yacht arrival statistics for Venezuela, so we can’t compare actual crime rates — but it‘s doubtful that over recent years Venezuela hosted three times more yachts than the entire Lesser Antilles.
Regardless, as the cruisers’ online resource Noonsite (www.noonsite.com) said, “It is not so much the number of attacks [in Venezuela] that cause concern, but the violent nature of these attacks.”
Certain parts of Venezuela were especially problematic. As early as 2001, Venezuela’s Organización Nacional de Salvamento y Seguridad Marítima (National Organization for Rescue and Maritime Safety, a.k.a. ONSA) began to advise all boaters to avoid the coastal areas east of the yacht-service hub of Puerto la Cruz, unless traveling in company. Reports in 2003 and 2004 spurred ONSA to increase the threat level for the Paria Peninsula, which runs eastward from Carúpano toward Trinidad (see map on page 20), to “high risk”. Melodye Pompa of the Caribbean Safety and Security Net wrote to Compass in January of 2008: “…it is noteworthy that every report received by the Caribbean Safety and Security from the Paria Peninsula for the past seven years involved assault and robbery — a distinction unique within our cruising grounds.”
In 2008, it was reported that the Venezuelan Navy and Coast Guard had stepped up their patrols to combat acts of piracy. Nevertheless, 2008 turned out to be a very bad year. According to Noonsite, in September 2008, the yacht Chrysalide was anchored outside Marina de Caraballeda, west of Puerto la Cruz near Caracas. Four men attacked, and in resisting the attack, skipper Philip Armand Leudiere was shot several times in the head. Philip’s wife, Catherine, remained captive until the robbers finished their looting.
That November, Ken and Cathy Peters were anchored at Isla Borracha near Puerto la Cruz aboard their yacht, Chill, along with another boat, I’Lean, with fellow cruisers Steve and Gloria Davis aboard. At approximately 1730 a piñero (pirogue) with three men aboard approached the two yachts asking for water. When one of the crew came back up from below with water, the men shot Ken and attempted to kill Steve. Steve apparently then shot at the pirates, killing one and injuring another. Ken was killed and Steve was shot in the thigh. Noonsite noted: “This is the fifth shooting incident in Venezuela that has been reported to Noonsite this year (plus numerous boardings and thefts).”
The beat went on with the 2009 attack and shooting up of the yacht Navarna III off Cabo Tres Puntas, the 2010 armed boarding and gunpoint robbery of the crew of Boldly Go between Los Testigos and Margarita, and, in 2011, the boarding and assault of the crew of Bikini at Porlamar, Margarita, resulting in the skipper’s hospitalization.
By February 2010, Angelika Gruener (herself the victim of a firearm attack with her husband and son aboard the yacht Angelos at Punta Pargo in 2008) wrote, “Only the bravest sailors are still cruising in Venezuela.” Yet, as recently as last year, the following incidents were reported on Noonsite:
In January 2012, the crew of the yacht Akat were attacked and boarded off Carúpano while underway bound for Grenada. The crew were wounded and the boat ransacked.
In June 2012, the catamarans Pélagie and Bella Ciao were subject to an armed robbery on the Caño Guamal, a side stream of the Mánamo River. “At half past seven in the evening a speedboat with four man arrived. These men were of Hispanic appearance, about 35-40 years of age; one wore army trousers (camouflage type)… All of them wore leather boots. All four [boarded Pélagie] with three pistols pointing…” After the robbery of both boats, the crews proceeded to the nearest Guardia Nacional: “We asked them to sign our written report (in Spanish) of what had happened the night before. They refused to do so, saying that [according to jurisdiction] they were not able to do this.” A source subsequently informed them, “The men who robbed you were indeed policemen. After they had robbed you they attacked tourists at the lodges and the lodge owners insisted that the authorities investigate.”
In August 2012 those aboard the catamaran Feline Good were robbed at gunpoint by five men while at anchor between Puerto la Cruz and Mochima National Park.
Ellen Birrell, victim of the 2010 attack on Boldly Go between Los Testigos and Margarita, recently reported, “French friends who reside in slip at Puerto la Cruz were on anchor in Porlamar last year along with two other French boats. The three boats were attacked simultaneously one evening and one woman was shot in the leg. Also in 2012, Peter, who lives aboard in Porlamar and owns restaurant and dinghy-building companies there, was boarded and shot in the arm.”
Have Conditions Changed?
Should cruisers worry about incidents that happened half a decade ago, or even last year? That depends on whether or not conditions have changed. For many years cruisers avoided Colombia because of the crime risk there. Today the Colombian coast guard patrols the coastline and has been sensitized to yacht security and the value of yacht tourism; increasing numbers of cruising boats are calling there (see related news item, “US Boating Associations Target Colombian Market”, on page 7). There may be fewer crime reports these days from Venezuela, too, but is that because crime against yachts is getting under control or because there are fewer yachts to prey on?
We don’t know. But in a wider context, Venezuela is now “far and away the most dangerous country in South America”, according to a study reported in the December 28th, 2012 issue of the Christian Science Monitor, citing a homicide rate of 73 per 100,000 of the population. (For comparison, neighboring Trinidad & Tobago recorded 27 homicides per 100,000 in 2012.) The article notes, however, that much violent crime in Venezuela is centered in the capital, Caracas, a place cruisers don’t frequent. And in any big country there are bound to be safer and not-so-safe areas, as well as gang-related crime that does not much affect visitors. Cruisers can attest from their own experience that they have found parts, at least, of Venezuela to be safe (for examples, see the stories on the following pages). But the overall picture of the country is not encouraging. The CSM article says, “These figures [showing a marked increase in violent crime] are just part of a wider pattern that began… in 1999. The blame for this lies on both internal and external factors. The internal factors include rampant corruption in almost all branches of the security forces, a lack of investment in the police force, weak gun control that has led to a proliferation of arms, and a lack of coherent security policy…. On the external side, there is the fact that Venezuela has become a principal transit nation for Colombian cocaine. This has led not only to the presence of Colombian criminal networks in Venezuela… but the development of Venezuelan organized crime. Principal among this homegrown organized crime is the ‘Cartel of the Suns’, a powerful drug-trafficking network allegedly led by senior members of the military.” (Note that a French cruiser reported that in 2003 he and his crew were boarded, beaten and robbed while at anchor in Puerto Santos by “several men in military battle gear, guns in hand… a squad of six young men with bad intentions and a big motorboat, equipped with automatic guns and bulletproof vests, wearing hoods to hide their faces and gloves to leave no fingerprints. Because of the quality of their equipment… they could be renegade soldiers.”)
As Angelika Gruener wrote in 2010, “Of course, criminals exist and attacks can happen everywhere. But one difference between crime against yachts in the Eastern Caribbean islands and Venezuela is this: in many of the islands the officials try to get the bad guys who are detrimental to their tourism industries, while currently in Venezuela it seems that nobody is taking care of the yacht crime. The attackers can get away with impunity, and they know it.” Have things changed since then?
Cruiser, marine surveyor, former operator of a boatyard in Venezuela, and long-time Venezuela resident Cris Robinson says, “I would say security-wise things have got worse, as far as the mainland coast and Margarita are concerned. The media is not reporting bad news any more but nothing concrete has been done to improve security in coastal waters, a problem that would be difficult to remedy even if anybody was concerned.
“Local boats are armed to the teeth and ready to defend themselves. Don’t come unless you are prepared to do the same.
“Most boats heading west now avoid the mainland coast and Margarita and go direct to Roques, then Aves, which seem to be okay so far regarding piracy, but the level of bureaucracy and the associated fees and ‘commissions’ is rising. One can avoid Gran Roque (the west end of Los Roques is great, and there’s nobody there) and the guard post on Sotavento (Barlovento is still paradise) and be okay.
“Good news is the dollar exchange; it is high and rising on the black market. The boatyards are struggling on and you might get a cheap job, labour-wise, but you should probably bring your own materials or make sure the yard has your favourite antifouling in stock.”
Ritchie Laesker of the Venezuelan Marine Supply (Vemasca) chandlery says, “Due to the general situation in the country it could be a little irresponsible to invite yachties to visit. I don’t necessarily mean there is a risk to them only; everyone there has been, or has someone in the family who has been, a victim of some sort of violence. There are no authorities or higher instances where you can go and ask for help or protection.
“On the other hand, the infrastructure improved a lot. A new boatyard was built in Margarita. There are two now: Astilleros del Caribe (65-ton Travelift) and Astivamar (100-ton Travelift). Both are mainly working with fishing boats and Venezuelan yachts. Puerto la Cruz, Higuerote and La Guaira are servicing Venezuelan customers as well.
“My recommendation would be, if someone needs to go, stay in a marina, don’t walk around and never go anywhere at night. Note that international check-outs must be submitted three days in advance as boats must be inspected (for drugs) prior to leaving.”
Venezuelan writer Oscar Hernández, a contributor to Chris Doyle’s Cruising Guide to Venezuela and Bonaire, tells Compass readers, “With my hand on my heart I would encourage visiting yachts to visit the country only if they take all precautions regarding their personal security. It is a lottery. Our visitors will be in the same statistics that we have in the country: very high criminal rates and along the coastline fewer authorities and piracy once in a while. For years we have tried to encourage government to understand the benefit of visiting yachts for the economy and the generation of employment. But Venezuelans have not yet understood the value of tourism in this oil-producing country.
“Of course the country is beautiful and Los Roques is the best. My recommendation is to follow Chris Doyle’s book, avoiding the mainland. Sailing near the Carúpano coast is not safe. The best thing is to sail the northern islands and as far as Los Roques. There is nothing to look for on the mainland unless you pay the fees in a marina in Puerto la Cruz and leave the boat there to see the country by bus or plane. Forget overnights in Mochima.
“I recommend that a telephone is available at all times and to use the contacts in the sidebar of this article in case of emergency.”
As Brenda Webb says in her article on page 22, “Going to Venezuela is a very personal choice to make and we wouldn’t advise for or against. At the time we went we felt it was worth the risk — but because the situation is changing constantly we would urge sailors to research as much as possible before deciding whether or not to go.” Each cruiser will have to decide for him or herself.
• Maritime Emergency telephone: +58 (212) 715-7105 or +58 (424) 231-3300 or +58 (269) 416-4686
• ONSA’s online emergency report forms: www.onsa.org.ve/sar
• If you have an emergency position indicator e-mail transmitter (i.e. SPOT Satellite Tracker), you can sign up at ONSA’s Maritime Emergency Net (www.onsa.org.ve/spot) for an immediate mSAR response.
• Caribbean Safety and Security Net: www.safetyandsecuritynet.com. As well as reports of crimes against cruisers, the website includes a list of safety tips accumulated throughout the nearly 17 years of the Net’s existence.
• Noonsite: www.noonsite.com/Countries/Venezuela and www.noonsite.com/General/Piracy
• Caribbean Security Index: freecruisingguides.com/caribbean-security-index-csi
• ONSA (Venezuelan National Organization for Rescue and Maritime Safety) www.onsa.org.ve
• Chris Doyle Guide updates: www.doyleguides.com/updatesvenez.html
• Venezuela Cruisers on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/547046078683243
• Compass has published numerous articles about cruising in Venezuela over the years. Go to www.caribbeancompass.com, scroll down to Caribbean Compass Back Issues Archive, and type “Venezuela” into the search field.
• There is also a relevant blog entry at http://indigomoon.us/triplog/tr021.html.
• Phil Chapman: If anyone would like to ask us any questions regarding our experiences of Venezuela you can e-mail us on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our blog at www.blog.mailasail.com/chaser2.
• Oscar Hernández: My son, Oscar Jr., and I can be contacted in case of a specific need for traveling inside the country or any recommendation for our friends the cruisers while traveling: email@example.com, or tel +58 (412) 234-8007 (Oscar Sr.), +58 (414) 265-9555 (Oscar Jr.).
||Top of Page
Copyright© 2013 Compass Publishing