Crime and Punishment in Venezuela

Letter From Caracas

An opposition supporter holds a placard reading, "Brother, do not shoot. You too are a victim of this government" during a rally to promote peace in Caracas, February 20, 2014. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Courtesy Reuters

On a recent breezy Sunday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro stood in downtown Caracas and called on the few thousand people gathered before him to bring peace to his South American nation. In one sense, his message -- “Ya basta de violencia” (enough of violence) -- was unremarkable. Owing to its ever-growing homicide rate, Venezuela is among the most dangerous countries in Latin America and the world. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in murders per 100,000 people, the country is surpassed only by Côte d’Ivoire, El Salvador, and Honduras. In another sense, however, the rally was surprising; it surfaced a deeper social conflict that the government has refused to face for too long.

Venezuelans have always been obsessed with security. In every national survey, they list personal safety and violent crime as top concerns. And, this year, those fears have reached new heights. In January, Mónica Spear, a former Miss Venezuela, and Henry Berry, her husband, were murdered while on vacation in the country. And now, the speed with which ongoing protests by the Venezuelan opposition have given way to violent clashes has reminded observers that firearms are readily available to those that want them, including the motorized paramilitary militias known as colectivos, which have been out in full force to guard the late Hugo Chávez’s leftist politics.

Yet Venezuelans’ broad consensus that crime is a problem does not mean that they agree about its causes and severity. The government and the political opposition bitterly dispute the statistics. For example, whereas the opposition has claimed that government impunity is the main reason for the rise in crime, Chávez always downplayed the violence, attributing it to previous governments that abandoned the most impoverished sectors of society. Another cause, he often claimed, was television, which propagated consumerist values and violent behavior.

Chávez’s successor, Maduro, has tended to gloss over security issues as well. And when he does speak to them, he generally

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