Caracas, Venezuela – With some 19,336 murders last year, Venezuela has become one of the western hemisphere’s most violent countries and one particular criminology expert had a front row seat the other day, experiencing the overwhelming insecurity first-hand when robbers stuck a gun in his face as he rode home on the bus.
“Several men came onto the bus with guns,” said the expert, a professor at a major Caracas university, who did not want his name used for fear of violent reprisal. “They took everyone’s money. It wasn’t rich people riding on the bus – it was poor people trying to get home from work,” he told Al Jazeera.
With an average of 53 murders per day in 2011, according to the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, a watch-dog group, the country has a murder rate of about 67 per 100,000 inhabitants. Neighbouring Colombia, in contrast, has a murder rate of 38 per 100,000 while Mexico – where some regions are gripped by deadly drug violence – has a rate of about 15 per 100,000.
Long a scourge of urban Latin America, it is unclear why violent crime has become so bad in Venezuela. In the Americas, only El Salvador and Honduras have higher murder rates, according to data released by the United Nations in late 2011.
In central America, criminal gangs known as Las Maras have thousands of members, said Luis Cedeno, founder of the Investigative Institute of Citizen Security, while “in Colombia, the problem is drug trafficking”. Mexico’s border regions have drug wars, the security expert and sociologist told Al Jazeera, but in Venezuela “there is no cause; it is a multifactorial model “.
Winning presidential elections for a third term on October 7, populist president Hugo Chavez has said he wants to see “preventative, scientific and community-based police… to fight against the crime that causes so much damage to society”. But the problem has gotten exponentially worse since Chavez first took office and his government has been slammed by critics for its security record.
“Crime is supported by the government,” Augustin Reyes, a 63-year-old carpenter living in a “barrio” or slum in Caracas told Al Jazeera, in an allegation frequently made by Chavez opponents. If the situation keeps getting worse, the government must be behind it, they believe.
Abductions increased 20-fold between 1999 and 2011 to 1,105, according to official figures cited by InsightCrime, a security website.
Sources close to Chavez and his socialist party told Al Jazeera that senior government planners generally assumed – like leftists the world over – that crime is caused primarily by poverty and inequality. Address the root causes, they reasoned, and crime will decrease. But the data hasn’t borne out those conclusions, leaving many scratching their heads.
Poverty dropped from 50.4 per cent in 1998 when Chavez was first elected to 28.5 per cent in 2009, according to the World Bank, an impressive decrease by any standard. Government supporters credit the redistribution of oil wealth – Venezuela has the world’s largest petroleum reserves – for reducing poverty.
Venezuela’s Gini coefficient – an index that measures inequality by placing countries on a scale from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (perfect inequality) – moved from 0.498 in 1999 to 0.412 in 2008, “a drop unparalleled in Latin America”, according to the Brookings Institute.
“The Venezuelan numbers are surprising,” Andromachi Tseloni, professor of criminology at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, told Al Jazeera. “Inequality is [normally] highly correlated to murder rates. I haven’t seen another country where inequality has dropped sharply and homicides have risen sharply.”
Venezuela is now described as “upper middle income” by the World Bank, but it has a far worse murder rate than Haiti -the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
So, if people are more equal and generally better off economically, why are murders rising at an alarming rate?
“Political polarisation [between supporters and opponents of the Chavez government], institutional impunity among the police, justice system and inside prisons, a massive circulation of weapons, poor illumination in public areas, alcohol consumption, drug trafficking and organised crime,” are all responsible, Cedeno, the sociologist, told Al Jazeera.
Between 1999 and 2011, the Bolivarian Republic experienced more than 144,294 murders, according to Paz Activa, a security organisation, and the murder rate has increased more than three-fold since Chavez took office.
“Security is the most important thing for me,” Juan Ramirez, a student carrying a skateboard in Caracas told Al Jazeera. “I have been robbed and the police didn’t do anything.”
Police incompetence and corruption is nothing new in Venezuela, or other parts of Latin America. Government critics, however, believe the notion of “class war” espoused by the far-left has taken impunity to new levels.
In poor areas, street gangs are sometimes allied to the socialist party, acting as pro-government thugs while the police turn a blind eye to their criminal exploits, the political opposition says. One street gang leader in Barrio 23 de Enero, an area notorious for gang violence, expressed interest in doing an interview, but later declined, apparently because he “had a meeting at the ministry of defence”.
Inside story: Why is Venezuela so violent?
“Everything in our judicial system [can be bought] for the right price,” Adriana Vigilanza, a politically connected lawyer and government critic, told Al Jazeera. “Socialism is only present in Chavez’s speeches, but the cruelest capitalism is present in our jails.”
Many of the country’s penitentiaries are essentially controlled by inmates, who can run their criminal operations from jail.
Government supporters acknowledge crime is a problem and say they are working to combat it while improving the lives of average citizens by redistributing the country’s oil wealth and reducing poverty.
“The private media [which is anti-Chavez] highlights crime to an enormous degree,” Greg Wilpert, author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Presidency, told Al Jazeera. “It is an area the government has neglected” he said as it was “generally assumed that decreasing poverty would decrease crime”.
“That didn’t work… and the government started developing a new national police force.”
The new police force is part of Venezuela’s massive political transition, as the country consolidates “21st century socialism” by expropriating some businesses, opening universities and forging new international relations with countries such as Iran.
Opponents of the government deplore these developments, but they lost October’s election by a significant margin, meaning the majority of the population seems to back the moves. For criminal justice, however, this transition could be problematic.
“In a stable democracy, or a stable dictatorship, citizens and [government] agencies know the rules,” Tseloni said. “When things are changing, there are more opportunities to do things you wouldn’t normally do.”