February 15-21, 2006

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Venezuela Ride

'Secuestro' means kidnap, and the whole movie is about the carjacking and abduction of a wealthy couple from the streets of Caracas

By Novella Carpenter

MY SPRING BREAK plans are really shaping up. Venezuela, people. No, not the northern region with all of those beautiful waterfalls and canyons, and no again to the spectacular Venezuelan National Park. I'll be going to Caracas, that sweaty, seedy city.

Though it's not my first choice, and Bill would rather I go to Death Valley with him, I have to go for a school project. I'm researching how the government-run oil industry has shaped the art scene in Venezuela. Some of the petro-dough is going toward building a cinema production facility, fostering literacy programs and, in a strange twist, passing out 1 million free copies of Don Quixote. It's fascinating, and I want to document the changes. To get myself psyched up for the trip, I rented Secuestro Express, recently released on DVD. It's made by a hot new Venezuelan director who just got a two-picture deal with Miramax and is a major celeb in Venezuela because of the gritty movie about Caracas.

Bad idea. After the credits hit, I was ready to cancel my trip. "Secuestro" means kidnap, and the whole movie is about the carjacking and abduction of a wealthy couple from the streets of Caracas. Almost the entire movie is filmed inside a moving vehicle. The five characters—three kidnappers, two victims—proceed to beat each other, ingest all manner of drugs and have run-ins with crooked cops. The claustrophobic effect is amazing. And even though I had to read subtitles, I could even imagine the bad smell developing in the randy SUV.

The director, Jonathan Jakubowicz, based the movie on events that happened to him. In the director's interview on the DVD, Jakubowicz explains the movie is based on a crime that is sweeping Latin America: the secuestro. The kidnappers oftentimes, as in the movie, come from poor families and struggle to make ends meet. Venezuela is a country with an elite, who become victims of these type of crimes. The kidnappers often target those people driving nice cars and wearing fancy clothes. At one point in the movie, one of the kidnappers asks the rich woman why she would choose to drive a late-model vehicle and "rub your wealth in our faces."

Elite families in Mexico and Venezuela aren't—as I would be—driving crappy cars in order to hide their wealth. They are driving armored vehicles or being chauffeured around. Victims are carjacked as they come out of clubs or parties drunk or stoned. The abductors make them withdraw money from ATMs and buy items at stores. Jakubowicz said that his attackers eventually ran off with his car, his cell phone, his shoes and his clothes, and left him on a corner.

The characters in the movie come to a much more dramatic end. Actress Mia Maestro said in her interview that while the filming was going on, a member of her family was carjacked. Secuestros seem like an almost everyday occurrence in Caracas.

I had the chance to talk to an expert on Venezuelan politics, associate professor Michael Coppedge at Notre Dame. I asked him if this movie seemed realistic. "It's a fairly accurate description of how the situation would unfold," he said. "What's misleading is how often these things happen." So I should have no worries in Caracas? "No, you still have to be careful. There are some parts of Caracas you shouldn't go to at night. During the day, it's fine—well, there are even some places you shouldn't go to during the day. But there is a rise in the number of secuestros." Great.

Why doesn't the secuestro happen here? "We have better police," professor Coppedge said. "Even I had to bribe police in Caracas. They are extremely corrupt." The professor paused. "I won't let my wife watch that movie—if she saw it, she'd never let me go to Caracas again." Billy, cover your eyes!

So, go rent Secuestro Express and think of me in Caracas—with pity.

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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.