A Portrait of Leonardo, Passport Fixer

50

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.

50 COMMENTS

  1. This crap has been going on for years. Some years ago, a friend had to get her passport stamped with a certain date – no problem, gave it to a gestor and job done. Later on, she needed her cedula expedited – no problem, gave it to another gestora who arranged to have it signed and laminated in her private office. All kinds of stories out there.

    • It was going on decades ago. A little slip of brown paper with some fancy engraving, and “Listo!” Worked for traffic violations, too, un aguinaldito. The scope and organization may be broader today – I don’t know.

  2. Leonardo is a passport coyote, an immigration service bachaquero and a cuanto hay pa eso

    He is a real vivo, he deserves acknowledgement for his business acumen and clear example to follow if you want to “survive”.

    Honesty and integrity are for “bolsas” (douchebags). That is the triumph of the chavista model, the formation of the “new man”.

  3. I don’t see it as black and white as some of you do. The problem is not Leonardo, the problem is the ones that work inside SAIME, the system is set up for people to take advantage of it. It’s like buying and selling dollars… how many of you think using your CADIVI cupo for your travels, and selling the rest off at black market rate is the same as doing what Leonardo is going?

    In theory, both are against the law, but you still do it (or did it when CADIVI was available)… right now there are people that have to decide if they steal from others, or eat from the trash… what would you do?

    • Also i know from people inside ¨ the System¨ that you either go with the flow or be ready for your life to become a living hell and eventually lose your job and leave with quite a few enemies in the process, like i always said one of the most powerful glue the government got to keep the pieces of PSUV and country together is a widespread net of corruption, where everyone interest is tied between each other making it easy is to keep everybody together.

    • The same applies/applied to bachequeros. Is it the system at fault, or the people who take advantage of it. I would argue that the primary fault lies with the system and the people who put that system in place.

  4. This has been going on forever in Venezuela–just more expensive now in absolute $, and, particularly relative to the $ value of typical Venezuelan Bs. salaries–it is a lesser-developed country part of the cost of living for travelers/ex-pat residents/et. al. As someone said, get his cel number-I know someone who paid $300 9 months ago for a 1-year renewal of his resident Cedula ID card .

  5. I am currently reading a book on Spain: Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden Past. I learned that Spaniards use a slang word that is also used in Venezuela – enchufados.– to describe contacts used to get what one needs done which should have been done simply by someone’s doing his job. ( Though currently enchufado is also used in a slightly different context in Venezuela- to describe Chavista insiders.)

    While Chavismo may have exacerbated the need for contacts to get something done, this is a long-standing practice inherited from mother country Spain

  6. This is nothing new. It has been going on in Venezuela so long it is just part of the accepted and built in culture. It was there is there in the good years. It is just more painful, costly, and in demand these days as a result of the current situation in Venezuela.

    I lived in Venezuela in the early 1980s. Our company had a representative, we gringos called the “FIXER”. He was a retired senior military officer and he provided the same services describe in the article. A group of expats in our company needed driver’s licenses. He took us to the Driver’s license agency … we all were issued drivers licenses and “health certificates” without taking any tests. My annual health certificate just appeared every year at the company front desk w/o the required exam.

    When I needed to renew my Transeunte visa he took me in his car to the official renewal office. During the drive he pulled out a pistol and set it on the car seat. He told me that we had to pass thru some dangerous areas of Caracas to get to the office and he wanted to be prepared just in case. When we arrived at the office, he took my passport and disappeared for about 15 minutes. When he returned the passport contained the visa renewal. He did the same thing with the required Taxes paid certificate that I needed to produce whenever I traveled out of the country.

    Later, he explained that it was illegal to own and carry a pistol in Venezuela without permission from the highest authorities. He showed me his authorization card for the gun. It was signed by the president Luis Herrera Campins. He also said that if I felt the need for protection; he could arrange a gun and a permission card for me. (Of course this came with a fee that I would need to pay)

    Again this is not new, it has been around for a very long time. It seems to have been an accepted Venezuelan cultural norm. The issue is the current state of the country has made it just that much more expensive and difficult to deal with.

    • My experience in Venezuela is similar to yours.

      When you arrived at a public office in the 80s I would observer the circulation. Within half an hour you would see the ‘gestores’ route. You would then engage them with deference, after all you needed the ‘favor’.

      I still remember my father-in-law went three consecutive days for a document, and failed to get it, and he is Venezuelan born and bred! I went one morning, and was done before lunchtime. Of course I was poorer for it.

      I’ve always rationalized that this endemic corruption were the implicit law of the land so I would have no qualms.

      Funny thing is that in the US to obtain a passport you have recourse to expedite a passport with increasing fees inversely proportional to the turnaround time.

      Lina Ron was a gestora. I guess you have to have certain type of person for this job. I lump them with the people that kill puppies at the pound.

  7. He is what he is: an opportunistic, morally-flexible businessman making a killing out of an allowed crisis.

    So basically, a bachaquero. Hated by the many who can’t, loved by the few who can.

    As usual, this guy is not the problem. He’s just another consequence of the rotten system.

    • He, and the others like him, ARE the problem. Apparently, there’s no scarcity a materials to issue the documents. They are just stealing? it to create a problem that would not exist otherwise.

      • Both he and bachaqueros are the visible elements of the trickle-down economy that such systems enable, the last pieces of their respective corrupted machineries.

        Don’t get me wrong, they are a problem and its impossible to condone their behavior, but they’re far, far from being THE problem. He’s not creating the scarcity, but only the one taking advantage of it.

        My point is, they won’t go away until you throw a bomb into the machinery. Until then, business will be business. Attacking the little guy is a waste of time.

        • They are, according to Leonardo creating the scarcity “They just hoard it [the material] so they can make more money. It’s easier to make people pay up when they’re desperate”. They are all a bunch of corrupts that only want to get rich as soon as possible, with the minimum amount of effort and if that causes pain to other people they just don’t give crap.

          • It probably wasn’t clear from my text.

            I mean Leonardo is not creating the scarcity himself, but profiting from the ones creating it. When I refer to “they” on the second and third paragraph, I mean “both he and the bachaqueros”.

          • There are inside guys stealing the goods and there are guys selling the stolen goods. Neither practice can be justified, they’re both as guilty. In Venezuela there’re way too many people that think there’s nothing wrong with these and other practices — maybe beccause they do it themselves or because they’re jut too used to see it happening around them. And if one doesn’t take advantage of these screwy ways, then that person is considered a “gafo”. That’s why no matter who’s in power, the country will never “echara pa’ ‘lante”. Everybody wants a quick profit, sin importar a quien se llevan por delante.

      • No, he is not the problem. The problem is the system: government employees who will do nothing unless they get a bribe. If government employees were honest there would be no need for his services.
        Should government employees be paid more so that they wouldn’t feel the need to solicit bribes? I leave that question to those better informed than I.

        • It’s the corruption dilemma. They won’t feel the need to solicit bribes when:

          1. The risks involved overwhelmingly surpass the expected gains.
          2. Their wages don’t automatically make them think of additional income.
          3. They get into their heads that bribes are wrong and despicable.

          Three “simple” steps, sorted from easier to harder.

          The first step is already currently impossible, given the current state of law enforcement by those toying with the gavels.

  8. Leer esto me puso en un trance grotesco. Hace un tiempo tuve que ir 11 veces al saime de plaza Caracas para que me sacaran el pasaporte. Que desgraciados los Leo de Venezuela que solo ven a las clientes ricos para lo cuales 500$ no representa meses o incluso años de trabajo arduo, ojala tuvieran que enfrentarse a todos nosotros, los anonimos que se quedan en el limbo burocratico, y nuestra desesperacion por salir de la prision en que se ha convertido Venezuela.

  9. Otro ejemplo de la escoria malnacida a la cual se supone que “hay que tratar bien para que voten por los nuestros”.

    “Sí, sé que estoy robando y que soy una mierda, pero mi esposa e hijo se van a dormir con la barriga llena”, este miserable es un ejemplo de la frase más infame y desgraciada de Chávez, razón por la que es al chavismo al que se le atribuye toda la putrefacción agusanada de hoy en día: “SI YO TENGO HAMBRE ENTONCES PUEDO SALIR A ROBAR”

    Ojalá y le lancen ese culo a cualquiera de las cárceles guillotina de la lunática iris varela y tenga que empeñar hasta los interiores de los hijos para salir de ese peo.

  10. Does anyone get a passport without going this route? We applied for passports for our 3 grandchildren a month ago. How long does it take if you just wait?

    • Back in 2014 me and my family had our passports renewed. I don’t remember the timeframe but it was more or less what the article mentioned, about 6 months, maybe up to a year.

    • I had to wait about 8 months to get mine a couple of years ago, so, yeah, if you’re in a hurry, these leeches will suck the blood from you.

    • In february 2016 I managed to get my passport renewed without needing to use a middleman just by showing up at the Saime in Plaza Caracas every day for 5 days straight and insisting that I needed my passport ASAP because I lived abroad and needed to get some paperwork done. If you rub the agents there the right way, they’ll usually treat you well and get in touch with the SAIME office where you got your appointment to see if there are any updates on your passport.

      However, I imagine the situation is a lot worse now, one year later.

  11. I liked how he is not ashamed of offering that ‘service’ to his own relatives.

    Imagine during the Sunday’s family lunch> “Hey, grandma, me and uncle Lou here can get that passport you’ve been waiting for more than a year. Well, for the right price! 50% now, 50% later. If you don’t pay us, we are taking the TV.

    A few days later>

    https://www
    .youtube.com/watch?v=2zGF_WD–Nk

    Poor grandma…

      • To be fair, he is profiting with his relatives’ suffering too.

        Read again:

        “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 really feel I need to point out that I do not condone any part of the process: Not the higher ups, not the service provider and not the clients. All of them are at fault for enabling or supporting this system.

            HOWEVER, I do want to say that you guys are missing the point entirely.

            “Suffering” here is highly relative. This is a service made mainly for those who CAN pay and are WILLING to pay $600 to get their passports ASAP. It’s people living abroad or family of people living abroad mostly, not the ones earning 40k to what? 400k bolívares a month? This service is not tailored to their needs, even if some of them are going through the hoops of getting their hard earned cash to get their passports quickly.

            The real victims here are those going through the regular channels, having to wait months for something that used to take a week or two, tops, BECAUSE of systems like these.

            I seriously doubt anyone paying Leonardo holds any grudge to him. As I said above, he’s probably seen as a savior of sorts to 95% of his clients. They’re probably elated they have “a guy” within SAIME, just like anyone would love to have “a guy” in any bank, supermarket or basically any institution.

          • So, Victor, I assume that you wouldn’t see any problem charging your own parents, were you their doctor; or asking for money, were you your grandparents’ lawyer.

            If that’s the way Venezuelans think in general, it would help explain a lot of the bad things going on in Vnzla.

            Keep charging your mother, father, uncles, grandparents, brothers, cousins.

            Hell of a way to go through life, mate.

          • @marc, You are drawing way too many conclusions without being properly informed. Did I accidentally hurt your little socialist feelings or something?

    • The game was created by the players who by stealing the materials for the new passports, etc, created scarcity so that they could charge outrageous prices. And now only those well to do can afford having their documents on time. Those of us who cannot pay their prices have to sit, wait and suffer.

  12. You should have published his name, take a picture, spit in his FUCKING coffee. This disgusting piece of human garbage deserves having his mother and wife killed in front of him.

  13. All the people directing their anger at “Leonardo” really just don’t it. All he is doing is taking the advise of Henry Kaiser, “Find a need and fill it.” Your anger needs to be directed much higher at the people who invented this corrupt system and who profit the most from it.

    • They, Leonardo and the people are SAIME, are NOT find a need, they are creating it. If peoplelike Leonardo didn’t exist, then the thieves at SAIME wouldn’t exist either. It’s like saying that people who sell stolen goods, knowingly, are not guilty os anything. THEY make things as difficult as possible, so they can jack up their prices.They are all as bad, they are all as guilty. I have my passport appointment this Monday, and when they tell me that it’ll take up to a year to get it, all I’ll be thinking about will be Leonardo and his gang …. and they won’t be pretty thoughts.

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