A surge in violent crime in recent years has given Venezuela one of the highest murder rates in the world, and is forcing the country to search for solutions as the crime rate continues to remain high.
The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV), a local NGO that monitors crime, says 2012 was the most violent year in Venezuelan history, with over 21,000 murders last year, and a rate of 73 per 100,000 people.
According to OVV, the murder rate has tripled in the last 12 years, a situation that it blames on a high level of impunity, and a lack of response by the government.
The Chavez government denies OVV’s murder statistics, but has not published its own murder statistics for several years now.
The government has admitted that the murder rate is above 50 murders per 100,000 people, a rate that is still much higher than neighboring Colombia (31), and about double Brazil’s (26), and Mexico’s (23).
Government officials assure they are addressing the problem, and recently reported a 15 percent drop in the murder rate for 2012, but did not offer any numbers to back the claim.
“We have pushed hard against impunity, against delays in the justice system, and have adjusted our activities in line with state policy,” said Attorney General Luisa Ortega earlier this week.
In a presentation before the National Assembly, Ortega reported on many of the government efforts to reform the justice system and increase the state’s ability to crack down on crime.
But she offered few details about how the government is addressing the high murder rate, only briefly mentioning a pilot plan with new strategies for tackling homicide and an increased number of investigators dedicated to murder cases.
“This plan has truly been a success. It has allowed us to advance in the fight against impunity for murder, especially in Caracas,” she said.
But the murder rate in Caracas continues to grow, reaching 122 per 100,000 people in 2012 according to OVV, a number that unofficial numbers from the CICPC, Venezuela’s equivalent of the FBI, seemed to confirm.
Various initiatives have been launched by the Chavez government in recent years to fight the rise in crime, including efforts to expand and improve the justice system, the training of hundreds of new forensic technicians and detectives to investigate homicides, and a program to destroy all guns that are confiscated by police forces.
The government is also intervening in and restructuring various state police forces, investigating and dismissing police officers involved in corruption or other criminal activity.
The Bolivarian National Police force was formed in 2009 as a way to bypass the chronically underfunded and corrupt local police forces, which, according to the government, are responsible for one in every five crimes committed in Venezuela.
This new national police was initially deployed in the Caracas neighborhood of Catia, where the government claims it has succeeded in lowering violent crime rates.
But more than three years later it is unclear if the national police force is having an impact anywhere else, as the murder rate remains high while arrests for murder have remained flat.
In 2011, there were only 1,600 detentions for homicide, whereas about 19,000 murders took place that year. In other words, about 9 out of 10 murders went unsolved.
This low arrest rate could be partially due to the fact that state security forces often kill suspects before capturing them. The government registered nearly 3,500 killings due to “resistance to authority” in 2010.
Government officials say the Bolivarian National Police is based on a new model that focuses on closer relationships with the community and a reduced use of force.
“This is a model that focuses on prevention instead of repression,” said Soraya El Achkar, one of the creators of the national police.
But some think this approach might be part of the problem. Director of OVV Roberto Briceño claims the rise in crime in recent years is due to the government’s unwillingness to be tough on crime.
“Since Chavez came to power the police have been restrained, in part to stop police abuses, which is reasonable, but also because the government thinks it helps their popularity,” he said.
“The government thinks that violence and crime have their origin in poverty and capitalism. They think that if you decrease poverty then you reduce violence, but that hasn’t been the case. Inequality isn’t the explanation [for crime]. For us the explanation is in the institutions that govern society,” said Briceño.
Pro-Chavez political analyst Nicmer Evans seemed to agree with this sentiment in an editorial this week. Responding to a massacre in one of Venezuela’s prisons last week, Evans accused the government of being weak and inefficient.
“These types of problems happen because the government hasn’t been strong enough, neither now nor before [Chavez],” he said.
“The state must be forceful. Respect for human rights can’t mean a lack of justice or a limit to the state’s ability to exercise its authority,” he said.