Caracas beat another unenviable record in August 2011, when 563 dead bodies were carried into the city's Bello Monte morgue. 85% of them were murder victims. On the last weekend of the month, Venezuela’s capital saw one violent death an hour on average.
While Latin Americans are shocked about massacres in Mexico and used to violent news from Colombia, the fact that Venezuela has reached almost double Colombia’s homicide rate and over three times Mexico’s has practically escaped the world’s attention. So have the risks that - in the deeply polarised and militarised society that increasingly lacks institutional conflict-resolution mechanisms - criminal violence could turn into political violence.
The former interior and justice minister Jesse Chacón recently claimed the government had inherited the problem from former administrations. Fair enough: when Hugo Chávez took over the presidency in 1999, homicide rates had already tripled over the previous decade. But what Chacón did not mention is that they almost quadrupled in the following twelve years, from 4,550 in 1998 to 17,600 in 2010.
Victims in Venezuela are predominantly young, male, urban and poor. They are killed for as little as a cellphone, or as a result of a stray bullet, police brutality or the settling of accounts in deprived neighbourhoods.
The massive numbers of arms in civilian hands are clearly part of the problem. There are an estimated 12 million weapons circulating in this country of 29 million people.
The complete lack of arms control became evident when some 1,000 inmates took over El Rodeo prison near Caracas earlier in 2011, preventing the National Guard from retaking the facility for nearly a month. When the dust finally cleared, security forces found 50 kilograms of cocaine but also sophisticated weaponry, such as assault-rifles and sub-machine guns, widespread among prisoners.
Impunity is one, if not the principal cause for the escalation of criminal violence. In 2009, according to NGO numbers, 91% of murder investigations did not lead to the arrest of a suspect. A police chief reports that in some communities, neighbours protest when criminals are arrested because they expect they will be easily released, and then return to their barrios, where they will punish those who did not defend them.
If anything, the police are part of the problem. Cases of extrajudicial executions by the police are allegedly in the thousands, most of them left untouched by a justice system which has lost its independence, is overloaded, ill prepared, politicised and corrupt.
In a context of lax law-enforcement and high corruption levels, it is no surprise that Venezuela has become a major centre of operations for organised crime. This development is directly and indirectly contributing to increasing homicide, kidnapping and extortion rates, and fuels small-scale drug trafficking and related gang activity in poor neighbourhoods. Groups ranging from Colombian guerrillas, paramilitaries and their successors to mafia gangs from Mexico and elsewhere all benefit from widespread corruption and complicity on the part of some elements of the security forces.
The existence of the so-called Cartel de los Soles (the Sun drug cartel, a reference to the suns on the epaulets of generals) is an open secret; it was further highlighted when the alleged Venezuelan drug kingpin, Walid Makled, was accused of having had forty active Venezuelan generals on his payroll.
A question of accountability
The government’s response to the insecurity problem, which has become the number-one concern of all Venezuelans regardless of their political affiliation, has been mostly incoherent or ambiguous; though individual security reforms - such as the creation of a national police force to be ruled by new and better standards for recruitment, promotions, training, control and operations - deserve credit, and a presidential disarmament commission is currently developing a policy proposal for the control of arms and munitions.
These steps cannot, however, eliminate the impression that violence and the threat of it have at the same time become instrumental to President Chávez’s political project.
The proof of this goes beyond the violent discourse of the head of state himself. The fact that the government is arming civilian militias "in defense of the revolution" undermines the credibility of any arms-control initiatives. The government has also displayed a dangerous ambiguity towards armed groups that profess loyalty to the Bolivarian revolution, even when they use violence and undertake criminal activity, as in the case of the colectivos of the 23 de Enero slum district. No serious attempt has been made to disarm or to dismantle the colectivos or to prevent the Bolivarian Liberation Forces, a pro-Chávez paramilitary organisation from establishing control over a vital sector of the border with Colombia.
In October 2010, the president announced a "violent revolution led by the revolutionary military and the Venezuelan people" should there be an opposition government. Has the state’s capacity to effect peaceful and democratic change been entirely eroded and is the country on the brink of serious political violence?
The prospects of the presidential elections in 2012 - in which opposition candidate Leopoldo López announced his intention to stand on 25 September 2011 - could avert such a scenario. However, the entrenched levels of violence together with the degree of militarisation and polarisation in Venezuelan society are more likely to undermine the chances for any one of three options: peaceful regime continuity, Chávez’s handover to a successor, or a transitional arrangement.
The daily killings in Venezuelan cities so far do not seem to have significantly affected President Chávez’s popularity. His government’s pro-poor discourse and policies, which stand in sharp contrast to his predecessors, have empowered thousands and made them believe that they are or will be better off under his leadership. But as the president claims poverty levels have sunk, his key argument that poverty is the main cause of crime and violence in Venezuela is obviously a half-truth used in an attempt to reinforce ties with his constituency.
It is time for Venezuelans, starting with victims - most of whom come from poor and urban families, the core Chávez constituency - to hold their government to account for the daily death-toll, and to push authorities to implement comprehensive security policies, enforce the rule of law and root out corruption in state institutions. Effective measures to disarm and dismantle criminal structures and the economies that nurture them would be a good start.