The Venezuelan government has admitted to deliberately refraining from releasing crime statistics to the public, while asking the media to cooperate in "improving the perception of security" in one of the most violent countries in the world.
In an illuminating interview with Caracas newspaper El Nacional, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez was asked why statistics on homicide, kidnapping, and other crimes had not been made public. The minister replied he had recommended to President Nicolas Maduro that this policy should change -- but apparently only because there was some good news to report.
"I told him that at some point he had to start releasing the figures, because these are in tune with what we want," said the minister. "Murders have gone down five per cent." Last month he claimed they had gone down 61 percent.
Rodriguez said he had asked the media to cooperate in stopping political diatribes about citizen insecurity. "When the media sit down with me and tell me that they are going to be sincere, that we are going to work together in favor of security, we will be able to talk openly," he said.
The minister also responded to criticism of the recently-implemented Plan Patria Segura, in which armed forces are being deployed on the streets to fight crime. "There is no militarization here," he said. "The National Armed Boliviarian Force is meeting with community councils. You tell people in El Valle (...) you're going to take the Army away and they will revolt, because they love their Armed Forces."
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InSight Crime Analysis
The Venezuelan government stopped publishing weekly crime figures in 2005, and since then it has been near impossible to get any accurate data. The only consistent thing about murder figures in recent years has been that they have always differed wildly according to different sources.
According to the Venezuela Observatory On Violence, a respected Caracas-based NGO, murder rates have more than tripled over a decade. According to UN figures, they have doubled. At the end of April, figures released by national police agency CICPC indicated homicides reached another record high in the first four months of 2013, with an average of 58 murders per day. A few weeks earlier Roderiguez' predecessor, then-Interior Minister Nestor Reveral, had presented conflicting data claiming the average was actually 38 per day, an illustration of just how skewed information on insecurity has been. It was not the first time CICPC figures far exceeded the government's.
Rodriguez' comments suggest that keeping crime figures out of the public eye has been a part of Chavismo strategy as it has struggled to cope with dire levels of violence. Given that the major drivers of violence include rampant corruption within the security forces and a poor judicial system seriously weakened by politicization, it is easy to understand why the state may not have seen honesty as the best policy.
However analyst David Smilde told InSight Crime that offering public data was simply not part of the Venezuelan government's military-like culture. "There is very little tradition of transparency or the people's right to know," said Smilde. "The military assumes it is the moral backbone of the country, and Rodriguez is a military person. From their perspective, the only reason you would release information is if it supports what you're doing. The government assumes it has the right to release or not release information, in the best interests of the country."
Typically for Venezuela, the issue of insecurity is highly politicized. The opposition has sought to keep it at the top of the agenda, and studies have found that the public perceives crime levels to be even higher than they really are, possibly as a consequence. Countering that perception of insecurity has been a key part of the government's strategy, as much as dealing with the violence itself.
"The government says the media is using citizen insecurity as a political tool, highlighting it to damage the government, and that is actually true," said Smilde. "However, that doesn't mean the media is lying about the insecurity. Like many things in Venezuela, both sides are right. There is a dramatic problem with insecurity and it has been the weak spot of the Chavez government. The opposition has exploited that."
Meanwhile, official figures regarding crime reduction have become a farce. "Any given year if you add up the percent reduction in crime that the government claims, you would end up with zero crime at the end of the year," said Smilde. "But it's hard to call out as it's always so unclear what they're actually referring to. They give very ethereal figures."
A slew of different security initiatives were implemented under Chavez without much success, although an ongoing effort at police reform has made some important advances. Maduro is now trying to implement a new initiative, Plan Patria Segura, in which soldiers are patrolling the streets alongside police. Roderiguez proudly announced that crime had dropped 53 percent one month after the plan was implemented.