A Portrait of Leonardo, Passport Fixer

I have to pay Bs.200 for the information. Upset, Leonardo —not his real name— agrees to have coffee with me close to “his office”: the headquarters for the Administrative Service of Identification and Migration (SAIME), the ID office in Plaza Caracas. He agrees to talk on the condition that I don’t “ruin his business” — I have to “understand,” he says, that Venezuela’s the land of “survivors” now.

Leonardo is a fixer. He started his business two years ago, obtaining Apostilles and registering birth certificates for relatives. “Many of them were leaving the country but they had no time to go through the whole process. I offered my services because I was in university and I needed the money. I’d go to the ministries of Education, of Higher Education, and Foreign Affairs. I stood in line, and got appointments online and I kept my ears open. That’s how I got the contacts that are helping with my business now.”

These contacts are the reason he charges Bs.25,000 to Apostille a birth certificate, Bs. 35,000 for a high school diploma, and Bs. 50,000 for a university diploma. The setup is simple: he asks for 50% up front. Once he has the money in his account, he gets in touch with his contacts in the respective public offices via WhatsApp.

“The guys at Principal Registry to process birth certificates are the ones who charge me the most, also in the Foreign ministry, to obtain Apostilles. They want to take 75% of what I charge. I have to bargain,” he says, “there’s no margin for me otherwise.”

At 25, he dropped out of UCV, where he was studying Law, and his calendar is now wall-to-wall appointments. For the last year, most of his work is focused on one thing: passports.

“This is a whole new system,” he says. “It’s totally different to most of the documents I’m used to. The mafias within SAIME are selective, so you have to get on the good side of one of the bosses at headquarters or in one of the branch offices if you want to get paid,” he says.

Luckily, one of his uncles is a high ranking official in headquarters, and he’s the one who lets him know how many passports he can process daily without the need to wait six months or even a year for “el material” to arrive. Once a client contacts Leonardo, he charges them between $500 and $600, depending on how fast they need the passport. If they put up half the cash up front, he calls his uncle to give him the client’s information. He can get you your document within 24 hours.

“I don’t hand it over until the client pays the balance,” says Leo.

You realize that you deserve to be called a bastard for what you do, right?

And the story about ‘el material’? 

“It’s bullshit,” he says. “They just hoard it so they can make more money. It’s easier to make people pay up when they’re desperate.”

“Yes, doesn’t bother me that you say it. I know I’m a son of a bitch, but I also know that my mom and my wife go to bed every night on a full stomach. That we don’t have to worry about paying the rent, that we’re survivors of this crisis,” he tells me, still drinking his café con leche.

“I don’t keep all the dollars. Half of them go to my uncle, and I spend about $100 to bribe SAIME guards, policemen, even the guys who take the passports photos. It’s a web everybody has a stake in. That’s the only way the clients can get their documents without appointments or impossible waits.

And the story about ‘el material’?

“It’s bullshit,” he says. “They just hoard it so they can make more money. It’s easier to make people pay up when they’re desperate.”

Corruption within Saime is an open secret, Leonardo says.

So much so that some of his clients get referred to him by other fixers who don’t have the contacts he does. Many of these people are desperate: they have to leave the country shortly, or they’ve been waiting for more than a year to get their passports.

Leo’s business model is built on their desperation.

“A lady has been stranded in the country for seven months now. She arrived from Panama to visit some relatives and her passport expired. She thought it would be easy for her to renew it. She’d left her business, her husband and her life in another country. Everyday I saw her struggling in Saime until one day, I approached her and told her that I could get her the passport in a day for $200. She didn’t know whether to trust me, at first, but when I told her that she only needed to pay me half up front, she looked relieved. Now she’s my friend; she sends me clients.”

Leo has a wall full of these stories. One time, two siblings came to him because they had to travel to the United States right away. Their grandmother, who lived in Chicago, had died.

“Both of their passports had expired. And they were necessary for an emergency visa. They got in touch with me because I had helped their mom renew hers some months before. They told me on a Tuesday that they needed to travel the following Friday. I told them to be at the Plaza Caracas office on Wednesday, and they had their passport that same afternoon. They gave me $1200. And when they returned, they gave me chocolates for the help. Many of these people, they ones who’re ready to pay, are relaxed. And if I treat them well, we end up being friends.”

Leonardo wants to leave the country with the money he makes. He wants to go to Chile. His wife has a degree in Accounting and “according to some friends I have there,” she can make a lot of money in that line of work in Santiago.

“I’m saving up. I helped a lady who came from Yaracuy with her ID card, because the Saime regional office there hadn’t even opened in three weeks. She told me to see my job as an opportunity. She told me that I was young and that I had to invest everything I had on a better future. A future where I could redeem myself for what I was doing. I don’t wanna lay it on too thick, but honestly, that got to me.”

I tell Leo that some days ago, I put in a passport for my two-month old son at the Saime office at Santa Mónica. They gave me the appointment two days later and the whole process was smooth. The only problem was when I asked how long it would take for me to get the document: between six and seven months.

“I don’t know anyone in that office. If I did, I could help you. I do all my work in headquarters because that’s where my uncle is. It’s harder in other offices because each of them has its own boss. I could refer you to a fixer who works there. But he might charge you more than I would.”

Prices, it turns out, are all over the place. Leonardo says he’s heard of guys charging $1,000 to get a passport in a matter of hours, while others charge much smaller sums in bolívares because “they don’t know how to handle dollars and they’re afraid of getting scammed.”

“I’m diversifying,” he says. “I’m trying to get into the consulates of Spain, Italy and Colombia to see if I can do some business there.”

He tells me that he knows the case of a fixer in Aragua who did business with a National Guard officer, and it was horrible. “The Guard asked for three passports: for his wife, for his daughter and for himself. The fixer charged him $200 for each and told him that he’d have the documents in three days. When he went to the guy’s house to give him the passports, SEBIN —the secret police— was there waiting, because the Guard was mixed up in drug trafficking. That’s what I call bad luck. They sent the fixer to Tocuyito prison, but he got out fifteen days later. It cost all his savings to get out.”

As we talk, Leonardo keeps checking his three cell phones non-stop. The next day, he has to take two passports to the house of a Banco de Venezuela honcho, and he has to figure out a way to get a contact in the Italian Embassy to get a consular appointment for a friend.

“I’m diversifying,” he says. “I’m trying to get into the consulates of Spain, Italy and Colombia to see if I can do some business there.”

Unfortunately for me —and many others— Leonardo has become a lifeline for those who want to leave Venezuela; an inevitable alcabala in our me iría demasiado dreams.

He knows this, and it makes him smile.

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