Have Cars, Will Travel

You're driving down South Dixie Highway. It's a blissfully cool fall day in Miami. Traffic is crawling, but you're taking advantage of the slow pace to look around. The Metrorail snakes overhead, and palm leaves rustle above a Burger King. You approach Le Jeune Road, and what's this? A parking lot filled with deep-green Guardia Nacional trucks and a small army of white-and-blue police cars emblazoned with the name Estado Cojedes.

You take another look. Is some broke South American country preparing a fire sale? Is this the latest trend for the fashionable car set? Instead of an SUV (sport utility vehicle), you can now own a PMUV (paramilitary utility vehicle). Hey, they go great with cargo pants.

Not quite, informs a Deel Ford mechanic washing the cars in the lot until they shine like a dictator's mirrored sunglasses. "They're going to Venezuela."

It is yet another reminder that Miami is really the northernmost city in South America. Deel Ford recently put together a multimillion-dollar contract to outfit the Venezuelan National Guard with 583 modified Ford trucks and vans. The dealership will also provide 34 new Explorer and Crown Victoria police cars to the police in Cojedes, a mostly rural state west of Caracas. Where else in the United States do car dealerships inadvertently become involved in international politics?

Human Rights Watch, a group based in Washington, D.C., issued a report last year claiming some Venezuelan authorities had exhibited a pattern of police brutality and "extrajudicial killings." Cojedes was not mentioned, but the national guard was. In June HRW sent a letter to Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera asking him to help curb these abuses. On December 6 the country will hold elections to replace Caldera, and the front-runner is Hugo Chavez, a former lieutenant colonel who was jailed after a failed coup attempt in 1992.

"The police may need the vehicles because they are anticipating some kind of civil unrest," remarks George Sutija, a Florida International University business professor and former head of the Ford Foundation in Venezuela. "People are scared of Chavez, and many are moving out of Venezuela with their money."

Pointedly avoiding such issues is the salesman who clinched the car deal, Ricardo Callado, a 54-year-old Cuban American with a paratrooper's willingness to be on a plane at a moment's notice. "I just go straight to business. I normally don't get involved in their activities or ask too many questions," he notes.

(HRW representatives wouldn't comment about the sale one way or the other.)
Callado notes the Cojedes force is in dire need of new vehicles. In the past few months, he states, the entire fleet has been reduced to one battered Mitsubishi. There are 1100 officers on the force. They walk a lot.

The police cars are equipped with standard radios and lights. The national guard trucks, modified Ford F350s and F800s, are covered in the rear for troop transport. Callado would not divulge the value of the contract.

New Times was lucky to talk with the itinerant car salesman. Callado returned from Caracas and Maracaibo, answered a few questions, then discovered he had to fly south again. He's traveled to the region regularly since 1995. "It's an ordeal. But, hey, that's what makes it fun," he says. Callado has sold police cars and even fire trucks in Venezuela.

Now he's become a booster of his client nation. "The economy is not so bad right now, and there are a lot of new and good things happening in Venezuela," he chirps before signing off. He has a plane to catch.


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