By Carlos Camacho
Latin American Herald Tribune
CARACAS – So far this year, 20 Venezuelans have been murdered by criminals trying to rob them of their ever pervasive Blackberry cell phones, Venezuelan National Assembly lawmaker Ricardo Sanchez said Thursday.
If you consider that the murder rate is projected to surpass 20,000 murders this year in Venezuela, or that, according to Sanchez, there are 110,000 cell phones stolen every MONTH in the country (of all brands, not just Blackberries), the 20 Blackberry murders may not seem like much.
Venezuela, a country of 27 million, has over 28 million mobile phones.
But Sanchez, a former student leader elected to the National Assembly on an anti-Chavez platform, insists that cell phone theft and accompanying murders are a very serious problem indeed. “Seven out of 10 robberies overall, in the country, are cell phone related,” Sanchez said during a phone interview.
Running the gamut from a “mere” snatch job by a “motorizado” on a busy Caracas street to a short-term kidnapping (“Secuestro Express” as it is called in Caracas, where the kidnappers take you around to all your banks and ATMs to make all the withdrawals you can make) or even murder by firearm if the victim resists, cell-phone related crimes seem to dominate the already violent panorama of Venezuelan lawlessness.
Sanchez claims his figures are better than that of the CICPC criminal investigation police because he obtained them directly from the three Venezuelan cell phone operators. Most people who get their cell phones stolen, on the other hand, do not even bother telling a police force largely considered ineffective if not dangerous, so the thefts usually don’t show up in the statistics, Sanchez reasoned.
The lawmaker is the head of a commission set up inside the National Assembly that seeks to enact legislation to “at least diminish” cell-phone crime in the country. “We will seek to have the phone blocked by all three cell phone service providers as well as for international phone service. The idea is to make the phone unusable once it is stolen,” Sanchez said.
The crime of taking a cellphone may even be formalized in the upcoming Penal Code reforms, the lawmaker said.
Meanwhile, Venezuelans are wary of flashing their Blackberries in public and trade tips on how to go undetected by criminals, like switching off options such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Smart phones have found wide acceptance in Venezuela, particularly Blackberry – so much so that Venezuela is the number one country in Latin America for Blackberry handsets, according to Blackberry maker RIM.
The Blackberry remains a status symbol in Venezuela, and it is widely assumed by users that the government is unable to eavesdrop on their conversations, email use, and Blackberry instant messaging because of its encoding – something a host of embarrassing recorded conversations of Opposition leaders played on government TV has done little to debunk.
Venezuela's government owns the country's main telephone company and internet provider CANTV after re-nationalizing it in 2007, as well as its mobile phone subsidiary MovilNet.