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Homicides in Venezuela let's go over the figures again

On 22 January, an official press conference was held without detailed data and reports on crime statistics in the country. The following are some keys to their analysis, which we have already mentioned on other occasions, in very similar circumstances. Español

Keymer Ávila
1 April 2020
Opposition rally ends up in clashes with the police forces in Caracas, Venezuela, on April 8, 2017
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Fabiola Ferrero/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

It is important to first emphasize that since the 1960s there has been a consensus within all of Western criminology that the official figures are not reliable. Firstly, because not all the incidents defined as crimes are known to the institutions of the penal system (the so-called hidden figure). Secondly, because the institutions that construct the data are more aware of their own bureaucratic processes and categories than of the real phenomena, and furthermore they do not always consider the variables that are of interest for the analysis. Finally, because these data are not accessible to researchers nor are, they subject to verification or contrast.

It is important to note that when talking about crimes in general, this does not tell us anything. Crime can be anything that the legislator, who in this country it is no longer clear about who they are, can think of.

When official figures for crimes are presented, they are most useful to indicate the confidence that people have in the institutions of the penal system and whether they report crimes to the polices. Therefore, in a context of deep mistrust towards these institutions, it seems predictable that they will report fewer crimes. This does not necessarily mean that crimes have decreased; one interpretation is that people have stopped trusting these institutions.

It is hoped that this is less relevant in the case of homicides, not only because of the seriousness of the crime but because there is also a body and the formal process of a death certificate, which in principal should always be provided. Even in these cases it’s not so simple.

In this regard, there are four key aspects that must be taken into account to understand the debate on Venezuela's homicide figures:

1) The different bureaucratic categories through which homicide can be defined

Traditionally, the Scientific Criminal Investigation Body (CICPC) has been the main source of information on the number of homicides in the country. This institution for the construction of data on these crimes works through three main categories:

1) Homicides are cases defined by the Criminal Code in which a person intentionally kills another person;

2) Resistance to authority: Formally, this is a group of offences established in the Criminal Code, which cover various cases ranging from threatening a public official or his or her relatives, disrupting meetings of public bodies, to obstructing an official in the performance of his or her duties. In no standard scenario is death considered as a result of these. However, it is under this generic definition that the CICPC, administratively and discretionally, also groups together cases of deaths at the hands of the State security forces (clashes, extrajudicial executions or executions), regardless of the legality or justification of the latter.

3) Investigation of death: this category would include deaths from apparently violent external causes, in which there is no initial certainty that they are homicides, and may include a series of different assumptions such as suicides, traffic or firearm accidents, deaths by drowning, etc.

With these categories, the authorities can use their discretion to make up for or reduce the number of homicides. Especially in cases of deaths at the hands of the police, bureaucratically called "resistance to authority". In 2018 they accounted for a third of all homicides in the country.

2) Deaths at the hands of security forces (so-called resistance to authority)

During the last decade, the lethality of the state security forces has increased considerably, especially from 2013 onwards, with big jumps in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

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Versión actualizada de Gráfico publicado originalmente en: Ávila, K. (2019:41).

Between 2010 and 2018, which is the period in which the official information is best organized and continuous, some 23,688 people have died at the hands of the State security forces. Sixty-nine per cent of these cases occurred between 2016 and 2018. The death rate per 100,000 inhabitants is between 19 and 16. This is higher than the homicide rate of most countries in the world. In 2010 the rate was 2.3 and in 2018 it reached 16.6, an increase of 622%.

The percentage of deaths in the hands of the security forces as part of homicides in Venezuela is also increasing: in 2010 it was only 4%, eight years later it has reached 33%, which means that currently one out of every three homicides that occurs in the country is the result of the intervention of state security forces. The OVV's estimates for 2019 are even higher.

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Actualización de gráficos presentes en: Ávila, 2017, 2018 y 2019.

To get an idea of the scale: in Brazil these cases only account for 7% of its homicides. During 2017 Venezuela had more deaths from these causes than this neighbouring country, which has seven times our population.

The Ministry of the Interior has been excluding these deaths from its figures in recent years, which considerably alters the total number of homicides in the country.

3) The economic situation and daily lives of people in the country

Since 2018 a range of factors have contributed to Venezuela’s almost complete economic paralysis, production levels and social life. In 2019 almost all of the country was without a consistent supply of electricity for at least three months. This suspension or reduction of "normal" activities or "daily life" has had an impact in various ways. Because everyone has at home, without going out at night and the value of currency has fallen, opportunities for illegal street activities have diminished. The consequence is that criminal behaviour is directed towards other types of activities.

4) The Venezuelan exodus

Another aspect that should be taken into account is the phenomenon of migration of Venezuelans that has occurred in the country in recent years. UNHCR and IOM report that there are some 4.5 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants in the world, that is, more than 13 per cent of the population, and estimate that by the end of 2020 this figure will rise to 6.5 million, or 20 per cent of the population.

Applications for asylum and refugee status have also risen sharply over the past four years, by over 600 per cent. This situation is affecting the actual number of people in the country. The calculations of the homicide are made based on the population estimates from the census more than a decade ago, without considering the significant amounts of migration. This could result in an overestimation in the population and consequently an underestimation f both the homicide rates and the deaths at the hands of the State security forces. That in no way means that there is less violence or greater security; on the contrary, it shows the intensity and extent of the structural violence that we Venezuelans suffer every day.

What is structural violence?

Following the ideas of Galtung (1998) and Baratta (2004), structural violence is social injustice, the repression of real needs and therefore of human rights. Other manifestations of violence, whether direct or indirect, frequently have their origin in structural violence. Institutional violence is violence that is carried out by a state institution, a government, the army or the police. Institutional violence is an instrument for the reproduction of systematic violence. This characteristic, unfortunately, is neither new nor exclusive to Venezuela today; the interrelationship between systematic and institutional violence has been present in our history. What we can see is an aggravation of both phenomena as a result of the economic, social and institutional crisis we are experiencing.

Finally, the most basic and simple thing, if there are fewer people in the country than in previous years, the number of deaths is also supposed to be lower. However, this hasn’t been the case here, as already explained: deaths in the hands of the security forces are not decreasing.

Originally published in: Efecto Cocuyo

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