Venezuela's social and economic disarray has resulted in a sharp increase in the amount of children involved in crime, spotlighting the importance of security issues for voters ahead of upcoming elections.
According to the Venezuelan children's rights group CECODAP, the number of crimes perpetrated by minors (those under 18 years of age) increased 70 percent in 2014, while one youth was murdered every 10 hours, reported Reuters. UNICEF also states that, after gang-plagued El Salvador and Guatemala, Venezuela is the third worst country worldwide for youth homicides.
In certain neighborhoods, an estimated 30 percent of local youths take part in criminal activities, with children as young as eight being used as drug mules. Some of the most high-profile murders of 2014 were committed by teenagers, including that of former Miss Venezuela and a local folk singer. Furthermore, while the government has doubled prison sentences for violent crimes committed by minors aged 14 and older, children younger than 14 are protected from legal action, even for serious crimes, according to Reuters.
Serious economic issues, a 90 percent impunity rate, and inadequate social and rehabilitation programs were indicated as factors behind the rising involvement of children in criminal activities.
In one particular case, a 17 year old gang member said he earned at least 150,000 Venezuelan Bolivars ($23,800 at the official exchange rate) per month -- or 15 times the minimum monthly wage -- and that a single paid assassination could earn him 200,000 Bolivars ($31,700).
A 16 year old living in a poor suburb in the city of San Felix shed light on why he and other youths may be tempted to join the gangs: "They killed my two brothers here in the barrio. I wanted revenge," said Jesus. "Then I thought 'I've not met anyone who turns to crime and escapes death.' To die or to suffer, those are the options."
InSight Crime Analysis
As the December 6 National Assembly elections approach, sky-high crime rates remain one of the main preoccupations among Venezuelan citizens. And reports of the widespread involvement of children in murders and thefts highlights how Venezuela's social and economic deterioration is afflicting some of its most vulnerable citizens.
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A recent survey by the Observatory on Organized Crime demonstrates the ease for ordinary people to become involved in crime owing to the country's current climate of insecurity. Of those questioned, 42 percent thought it was "easy" or "very easy" to get a gun in their neighborhood, while 36 percent gave the same answers regarding how easy it was to have someone killed.
Daily manifestations of common crime have galvanized popular frustrations surrounding the country's suffering economy, a series of high-level corruption scandals, and fears of political violence. This chaotic social and political situation in Venezuela could spell electoral defeat for the incumbent PSUV party -- which according to recent surveys only has 28 percent of voter support -- wresting significant power from the socialist regime for the first time since 1999.