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Foreign executives take measures to beat crime in Caracas

September 22, 1997

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ When Timothy Routledge got ready to move into his new apartment this weekend, his supplies for the bathroom didn’t include just toothpaste and shampoo but canned food, a radio, candles and a rope ladder.

He fears burglars may one day break in and threaten his family. His plan: Flee to the bathroom, slam the multilock door and wait out the intrusion or escape by hanging the ladder out the second-floor window.

``A little bit of paranoia is very healthy,″ Routledge, a Nabisco Co. executive, said last week at a seminar on safety for foreign executives and their families who are moving to Venezuela.

Routledge’s plan isn’t totally paranoid. Crime is soaring in Caracas, and executives from the United States, Europe and other regions who are moving here in growing numbers, largely because of an oil boom, are taking precautions.

Thomas Flores, a retired U.S. Army intelligence and security specialist who ran the seminar, said Caracas is as dangerous as any big U.S. city, although not as bad as Bogota, Colombia.

Nationwide, murders more than tripled in the last decade, from 1,501 a year to 4,961, said Flores, now a Caracas-based security consultant. Annual thefts jumped from 12,798 to 85,613 during the 1986-96 period.

Caracas newspapers routinely carry Monday morning headlines reporting a dozen or more weekend murders. Earlier this year it was 30 or 40.

Most of the killings are in the capital’s slums, but crime is up in all parts of the city of 5 million people.

The situation ``has dramatically deteriorated over the last couple of years,″ said Geir Ytreland, an oil executive from Norway who pays a bodyguard to drive his three children to school.

Despite the worrisome trend in crime, foreign business executives are flocking to Venezuela, which already is the No. 1 foreign supplier of oil to the United States and is doubling its oil production capacity to 6 million barrels a day over the next decade.

Caracas’s stock market is one of the hottest in the world this year, jumping by 59 percent in dollar terms.

The real estate market is booming in affluent neighborhoods like Valle Arriba and Los Naranjos. The monthly rent paid by foreign executives jumped an average 30 percent in the last year, the newspaper El Nacional reported.

The security seminar, sponsored by the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, was aimed at giving newcomers tips on how to avoid becoming a crime statistic.

Among the advice: Learn Spanish quickly. Live in an apartment instead of an isolated house. Carefully check a maid’s job and character references from previous employers.

The security experts stressed that if you live in a handful of neighborhoods, resist the urge to drive a luxurious four-wheel drive vehicle, remove jewelry before going to public places, and in general use common sense you’d use in any big city, your chances of being a target drop markedly.

Routledge, 49, who moved from New Canaan, Conn., to Caracas in June, said he plans to use four different routes to get to work to throw off would-be kidnappers or robbers.

His 19-year-old son has his own cellular telephone so he can stay in touch with the family at all times. Their apartment in the Baruta section of eastern Caracas is in a building where half the residents are U.S. Embassy employees, giving an extra sense of safety, he said.

After living in the United States, ``you tend to get complacent,″ he said. In Venezuela, ``you have to be more aware all the time.″