As both Venezuela’s government and the opposition battle over the significance of the country’s rising murder rate, neither side seems to be focusing on its causes. InSight looks into possible explanations for the country’s crime wave.
Violence and insecurity have plagued Venezuela for years, so much so that the government stopped publishing crime statistics in 2005 in an effort to stem criticism from the opposition. Despite the lack of official data, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country have presented their own alarming statistics about homicides.
Last August, the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV) reported that the number of murders in the country had nearly quadrupled during the course of President Hugo Chavez's eleven years in power, going from 4,550 in 1999 to 16,047 in 2009.
According to Spanish news agency EFE, this week saw a rare official acknowledgment of homicide statistics since the government stopped publishing its data, as Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami announced to the National Assembly that government estimates put the murder rate at around 48 homicides for every 100,000 people. While lower than the Observatory’s estimate of 57 per 100,000, the rate is still higher than that of both Mexico and Colombia, making Venezuela one of the most violent countries in Latin America and the world.
One key factor behind violence may be Venezuela’s police force, which has a reputation for corruption and bribery rather than crime prevention. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, El Aissami himself admitted in 2009 that 20 percent of all crimes in the country, including kidnappings and extortion, were committed by police.
The police force’s dirty reputation is also fueled by allegations of extrajudicial executions and acts of torture committed by police officers. In 2010, the Venezuelan Program of Action and Education in Human Rights (PROVEA) registered 39 complaints of missing people captured by the police or military personnel.
Another possible explanation for the wave of killings is Venezuela’s judicial system, which has a long history of a corruption and inefficiency. Although Chavez was elected in 1999 in part because of his promises to reform the country’s unpopular courts, his "reforms" have amounted to politicized appointments of federal judges, which have ultimately weakened the judiciary as an independent branch of government.
As was the case before Chavez's rise to power, the vast majority of crimes committed in Venezuela – including 90 percent of all homicides – are met with impunity.
But perhaps the most ironic contribution to Venezuela’s high crime rate may lie in the failure of Chavez’s government to fully deliver on the egalitarian promises of his own "Bolivarian Revolution." Violent crime has never been completely absent in Venezuela, as the country endured soaring murder rates throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In a rush to create a socialist transition, the government may have mistakenly blamed the violence on poverty alone; it has channeled much its resources into social programs that focus on health, education and food but has neglected public security spending, perhaps expecting it to decline as the poverty rate decreased.
After El Aissammi’s announcement in the National Assembly, one minister berated him for this inaction, declaring that "if we put the coffins of those who have been killed in a straight line, we’d be burying a dead Venezuela; it would make a line of bodies exactly 310.5 kilometers long," noting that he had been given the figure from a local morgue. In turn, El Aissami pointed out that the Chavez administration has implemented sixteen national security plans over the course of the past decade, with “varying success.”
Such dramatic posturing is common, and has been picked up the local and international media, turning Venezuela’s crime rate into more of a political talking point than a focal point of critical analysis. While none of the above factors fully may explain the rise in homicides over the past decade, one thing is clear: the continued use of Venezuela’s murder statistics as a political football does absolutely nothing to address it.