Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Courtesy Reuters 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.

Crime and Punishment in Venezuela

Letter From Caracas

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 sticks to Chávez’s line. “We [the Chávist government] have been creating equality by overcoming poverty and improving education, but it’s not enough,” he said in January. “We have to attack another type of poverty that’s even worse: the poverty of the soul that capitalism’s anti-values have instilled in us.” To that end, in his annual message to the National Assembly in January, Maduro presented his best evidence -- in the form of a colorful hodgepodge of charts and graphs -- of the Chávista movement’s supposed progress in the struggle against poverty and inequality.

For many Venezuelans, such platitudes have fallen flat. If the government has in fact made significant progress reducing inequality, and if, as Chávez believed, violence is derived from social injustice, what explains the recent surge in crime?

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Thanks to ubiquitous crime reporting, many Venezuelans believe that violence is endemic in all segments of society. But official statistics contradict that. According to the National Survey of Victimization, crime is far more frequent in the shantytowns of the country’s main cities than anywhere else. In 2009, 64 percent of the country’s homicides took place among the poorest segment of the population. The majority of criminals and victims were men between the ages of 18 and 44. All this is to say that, not surprisingly, crime is concentrated in the areas where work and education are hard to come by, guns are easily available, and violence serves as a pathway to power and social status.

Maduro’s response -- blaming capitalism (criminal behaviors are small-scale reproductions of the capitalist system, he says, and lawbreakers enemies of the people and the revolution) and poverty -- has done little to quell the violence. According to Andrés Antillano, a social scientist at Venezuela’s Central University, “this vision justifies an increase in repression.” After all, in Maduro’s view, those who commit crimes are also ideological enemies of the state. That attitude and the resulting repression pushes armed young men in slums further toward the margins of society.

Making matters worse is the government’s belief that its socialist efforts to combat poverty will improve security. Largely thanks to oil-funded handouts, Venezuelan families are generally less poor than they were before Chávez. But that is no match for the continuing lack of work and educational opportunities brought on by his government, which can push marginalized youth to violence. Verónica Zubillaga, a professor at the Simón Bolívar University and one of the most important researchers of criminal violence in Venezuela, calls this phenomenon a “paradox of inclusion,” referring to the improvement of the general conditions that allow individuals and groups to empower themselves to take part in society but accompanied by the deterioration of law and order. On the one hand, she points out, “there is improvement in the basic living conditions for the vast majority due to public investment from the extraordinary oil revenues; on the other, violence disproportionately affects these same vulnerable groups.” In other words, the policies of Venezuela’s hybrid autocratic regime punish and reward the same group.

For Zubillaga, who has participated in several presidential committees on security, the gun violence is not increasing solely because of economic inequality -- other factors are the erosion of the police force, the militarization of security, and the increase in drug trafficking. Indeed, the state of Venezuela’s security sector is woeful. Despite the severity of the country’s violence problem, in 15 years of Chávista rule, there have been 13 ministers of internal affairs and justice and nearly two dozen official national security strategies. Such ever-changing security policies have made it hard for any efforts to pick up steam. And, all the while, Zubillaga argues, there has been “absolutely no policing or effective arms control.” The only constant policy has been the so-called midnight crackdowns on crime -- enormous but spasmodic displays of government force, mostly in slums and poorer urban areas.

WORKING TOGETHER

Beyond its security policies, analysts say, Venezuela needs to rethink its system of punishment. Over 90 percent of crimes go unsolved, which means that most criminals get off scot-free. In theory, reducing impunity would reduce the crime rate. Yet, over the last decade, even as the country’s prison population has tripled its murder rate has skyrocketed. A major problem is that detention and jail sentences are given most frequently for minor crimes that don’t involve gun crimes or deaths. As Antillano points out, the government needs to instead turn its focus on “punishing crimes that affect people’s ability to co-exist.” A judicial clampdown, however, would not be enough on its own to drive down crime rates; it would have to be accompanied by a successful strategy for preventing crimes before they happen and actually solving more of them when they do.

At least the government has begun to recognize that it cannot address Venezuela’s crime problem on its own. Last month, Maduro announced a new strategy for combating violence. The so-called Social Pacification Plan has ten lines of action and focuses on coordinating all of Venezuela’s armed forces to fight crime more effectively. The president declared that he would “deactivate” armed groups and gangs (referring not only to bands of criminals but also to paramilitary groups called revolutionary collectives), promising to make them “exchange their guns for rackets and violins.” The same month, the government, in association with the district mayors of Caracas, launched an aggressive policing program called “intelligent patrolling.”

Maduro’s new plan also called for creating new jails and rehabilitation services, strengthening social and sports programs, and creating new TV programming to promote values that could counteract the poison of capitalist culture. “Though poverty is the breeding ground for the growth of criminal violence, it’s not the reason for it,” Maduro said. Poor values, hard drugs, and “the cult of violence and firearms” were instead to blame. Finally, he announced the creation of a new secret security force “to investigate, combat, and neutralize” the Colombian drug traffickers and paid assassins that the Colombian paramilitaries and criminal groups brought into the country.

Maduro even called on state governors who are members of the opposition to take part in its implementation. Even with their official participation, however, Maduro is unlikely to win the broad political support that he will need to carry out his plan successfully. Every day, the gap between the Chávista government and the opposition grows wider, making it hard to coordinate elementary security measures such as gun and ammunition control. Maduro should not underestimate the damage that political polarization continues to inflict on Venezuelan society. A comprehensive security strategy to confront the problems underlying violence is necessary to curb homicides and crime in Venezuela, but its success will ultimately depend on the willingness of both the government and the opposition to collaborate constructively with each other.

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