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Published: Saturday, 8/28/2010

Murderous reality grips Venezuela

NEW YORK TIMES

CARACAS - Some here joke that they might be safer if they lived in Baghdad. The numbers bear them out.

In Iraq, a country with about the same population as Venezuela, there were 4,644 civilian deaths from violence in 2009, according to Iraq Body Count; in Venezuela that year, the numbers of killings climbed above 16,000.

Even Mexico's infamous drug war has claimed fewer lives.

Venezuelans have absorbed such grim statistics for years. Those with means have hidden their homes behind walls and hired foreign security experts to advise them on how to avoid kidnappings and killings. Rich and poor alike have resigned themselves to living with homicide rates that have remained low on the list of government priorities.

Then a front-page photograph in a leading independent newspaper - and the government's reaction - shocked the nation and rekindled public debate over violent crime.

The photo in the paper, El Nacional, shows a dozen slaying victims strewn about the city's largest morgue, a sample of an unusually anarchic two-day stretch in this already perilous place.

While many Venezuelans saw the picture as a sober reminder of their vulnerability and a chance to effect change, the government took a different stand.

A court ordered the paper to stop publishing images of violence, as if that would quiet growing questions about why the government has been unable to close the dangerous gap between rich and poor and make the country's streets safer.

"Forget the hundreds of children who die from stray bullets, or the kids who go through the horror of seeing their parents or older siblings killed before their eyes," said Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of another newspaper, mocking the court's decision in a front-page editorial. "Their problem is the photograph."

Venezuela is struggling with a decade-long surge in homicides, with 118,541 since President Hugo Chavez took office in 1999, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a group that compiles figures based on police files. (The government has stopped publicly releasing its own detailed homicide statistics but has not disputed the group's numbers, and news reports citing unreleased government figures suggest human rights groups may be undercounting killings).

There have been 43,792 homicides in Venezuela since 2007, according to the violence observatory, compared with about 28,000 deaths from drug-related violence in Mexico since that country's assault on cartels began in late 2006.

Caracas is almost unrivaled among large cities in the Americas for its homicide rate, which stands at about 200 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to Roberto Briceno-Leon, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela who directs the violence observatory. That compares with recent measures of 22.7 per 100,000 people in Bogota, Colombia's capital, and 14 per 100,000 in Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city.

As Mr. Chavez's government often points out, Venezuela's crime problem did not emerge overnight, and the concern over homicides preceded his rise to power.

But scholars here describe the steady climb in homicides in the past decade as unprecedented in Venezuelan history; the number of homicides last year was more than three times higher than when Mr. Chavez was elected in 1998.

Reasons for the surge are complex and varied, experts say.

While many Latin American economies are growing fast, Venezuela's has continued to shrink. The gap between rich and poor remains wide, fueling resentment. Adding to that, the nation is awash in millions of illegal firearms.

Police salaries remain low, sapping motivation. And in a country with the highest inflation rate in the hemisphere, some officers supplement their incomes with crimes such as kidnappings.

But some crime specialists say another factor has to be considered: the Chavez government. The judicial system has grown increasingly politicized, losing independent judges and aligning itself more closely with Mr. Chavez's political movement. Many experienced state workers have had to leave public service or even the country.

More than 90 percent of killings go unsolved, without a single arrest, Mr. Briceno-Leon said.

But cases against Mr. Chavez's critics - including judges, dissident generals, bankers, and media executives - are common.

Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda, a state encompassing parts of Caracas, recently said Mr. Chavez had worsened the homicide problem by cutting money for state and city governments led by political opponents and then removing thousands of guns from their police forces after losing regional elections.

But the government says it is trying to address the problem. It recently created a security force, the Bolivarian National Police, and a new Experimental Security University, where police recruits get training from advisers from Cuba and Nicaragua, two allies that have historically maintained homicide rates among Latin America's lowest.


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