Four men were sitting in a living room. One of them, a journalist, asks the other two, kidnappers, what is your preferred type of victim? The kidnappers response brought a solemn quietness to the room: people who look exactly like you… The fourth guy was me, a local fixer, and luckily I had the expertise to operate around such dangerous people.
Being born and raised in one of the most risky places on the planet gives you a peculiar set of skills. This situation happened when my good friend and correspondent for The Times of London, James Hider and I were working on a story about the modus operandi of a kidnapper in Caracas. We walked away from those kidnappers safe house with nothing but the adrenaline rush of a gun pointing at your face but it could have been so much worse. I knew exactly what to say and how to say and James knew how to behave so they wouldn’t see us as potential victims.
The work of a fixer in a country like Venezuela is not restricted to setting up logistics for foreign correspondents. It involves an ability to handle a range of uncomfortable situations and to offer your employer a certain level of trust. The craziest things can happen when the fixer and the reporter are not on the same page. For instance, I was visiting a very tricky slum in west Caracas by jeep with a female journalist and, knowing the dangers, explicitly told her not to take any pictures unless I said it was fine to do so. Once we arrived she was so impressed by the environment she decided to ignore my warning and took a picture with the flash on. A couple of minutes later we had four guys surrounding us, threatening me that they knew exactly who I was and where I lived. I could do nothing but apologise and hope they were not on a bad mood that night.
To work in a slum in Caracas it is mandatory for a foreigner to have local insight. Even if you speak flawless Spanish, it could be really easy to say something inappropriate and upset someone. I have dedicated the last six years of my life to helping people work inside these peculiar places and none of the people who I’ve worked with have suffered any injuries. It is, as I see it, a combination of ability and luck.
Jim Wyss, correspondent for the Miami Herald was here working on a gang story. I fixed that for him and after finishing the story in west Caracas, I decided to take him to his hotel in the east which is known for being the wealthy and safer part of the city. We were walking a couple blocks from the metro station and because it was a nice area I had slipped into my comfort zone. Suddenly two guys grabbed Jim and pushed us apart saying aggressively: “Give us everything you have”. I started telling them to take it easy and don’t hurt us, and within seconds the whole situation took an unexpected turn when another guy randomly came out of nowhere and pushed the thugs away, pointing his own gun at them.
One of the guys dropped Jim’s bag with his recorder and camera inside so I immediately grabbed it and told Jim to run with me out of there. We never thanked the guy who saved us but to be honest, we weren’t sure if he was someone to trust. After that I realised there is no soft spot in my city and whoever walks around it should be extra cautious.
The immense majority of the journalists I have worked for are very professional and willing to follow my humble advice when walking around the city. But sometimes, luck has nothing to do if you want to leave Venezuela unscathed…
Here’s a couple of tips I give to the people I work with:
1. Try not to look like a foreigner
For some of the non-Latin people out there this might sound crazy. However, this means that if you try to look comfortable with your surroundings you won’t draw the attention of undesirable people.
2. Never walk around with fancy equipment. Inflation rates are so high in Venezuela that an IPhone can cost 100 times minimum wage here. So it is really easy to understand why anyone would try to rob one of those, or a camera for example.
3. Never offer to pay in dollars for small services. Riding a bus or taking the subway can be interesting if you visit Caracas, but your trip can get easily ruined if someone realises you are carrying dollars. Again its all about not drawing much attention.
4. Always hire someone if you’re going to a slum. Inside a slum every corner has a story and everyone knows everyone. Make sure you walk with someone who knows the place to avoid any inconvenience. In most of the cases, if you walk alone you’ll be lucky to leave with all your belongings.
5. A fixer or a guide would prefer to be your friend than your employee. All through my career I have found amazing people to work with, and even though I like to be very professional with them I rather being part of the job rather than just a ‘useful person’.
The most important thing about coming to Caracas or any part of Venezuela is to recognise this is not an easy place. To fear Venezuela wouldn’t allow you to work properly but to respect it will give you a wider perspective and will, almost always, keep you safe.