Surviving a surge in street violence in Venezuela

E. Eduardo Castillo/ AP Writer

On their daily cable car rides to and from home in Venezuela’s capital, Maria Gonzalez and Jose Rafael Suarez soar in a bubble of safety far above the deadly, trash-strewn streets below.

Untouchable for 17 minutes, they peer at the expanse of dank, narrow alleys and the zinc roofs of shanties, some built four stories tall. Stray bullets and thugs on motorcycles fly through the streets, and people scurry home as soon as night falls.

“There are a lot of kids in the street using drugs, with guns,” said Gonzalez while riding the newly inaugurated cable car one afternoon to the plastics factory where she and Suarez work.

Her 27-year-old friend gazed down at the sea of slum roofs.

“It’s very hard to change all this,” he said.

That frustration defines this 28-million-person country, which has seen shootings, kidnappings and other crime infiltrate every aspect of daily life. Whole neighborhoods that used to buzz with street life are abandoned at night, while foreign diplomats and working-class Venezuelans alike fall prey to so-called express kidnappings that whisk victims away to the nearest cash machines.

Amid a list of woes, including double-digit inflation and crumbling infrastructure, rampant crime is seen by many as the main failing of the late President Hugo Chavez’s government, and one that a whole swath of this shell-shocked country has lost hope of correcting.

Just last week, the U.N. Development Program found that Venezuela suffered the world’s fifth highest homicide rate, with 45 out of every 100,000 people killed in 2010, trailing only Honduras, El Salvador, the Ivory Coast and Jamaica. The nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimates the homicide rate was much higher last year, at 73 per 100,000 people.

That murder rate has doubled since 1999, when Chavez was first elected president, officials say. And kidnappings increased 26-fold from 1999 to 2011, according to a study by the civic group Active Peace, which studies safety issues.

The government not only can’t rein in the problem, it won’t even say how bad it is. Officials stopped releasing official crime statistics in 2005, leaving it to nonprofit groups to sort through the casualties.

“I calculate that 20 to 25 years back, we had a problem that was moderate to grave and became a critical one in the last 15 years,” said Active Peace’s director Luis Cedeno. “We are at war with each other.”

Now, the violence has emerged as a top campaign issue as opposition Gov. Henrique Capriles challenges Chavez successor Nicolas Maduro in an April 14 election to replace the late leader.

Capriles has repeatedly blamed Maduro for failing to stop the killings and assaults, although he has offered few details on the campaign trail about what he would do.

“We are living the worst situation of public safety in the history of our country in the last 100 days,” Capriles told thousands of supporters Saturday.

Capriles campaign public safety coordinator Luis Izquiel said the opposition plan advocates spending more federal money on the fighting crime, depoliticizing the criminal justice system and building more prisons.

In a Twitter message Monday, Maduro acknowledged the “doubling of homicides” nationwide, but said it was also happening in the state of Miranda where Capriles is governor. The message was later removed from Maduro’s account.

“The government is conscious that insecurity and social violence is not a game,” Maduro said on national TV Sunday. “Because of this, we are going to attack this plague with strength. We are going to exchange firearms for musical instruments and for sporting equipment.”

When explaining the reasons behind the bloodshed, experts focus on one concept: impunity, and not just for street thugs, but also for police and politicians who many say have aggravated the problem.

Only 9 percent of homicides result in an arrest, according to the nonprofit Venezuela Violence Observatory. And even the government estimates police commit as much a quarter of the country’s crimes.

The extreme politicization of the Chavez years has also made it impossible for federal, state and municipal officials to work together on basic strategies such as neighborhood watches or cross-jurisdiction police patrols.

Small-time gangs and criminals commit most of Venezuela’s violence, as opposed to the well-financed drug cartels that have terrorized Mexico and Central America as they fight over lucrative trafficking routes.

“There’s been a situation where an opposition governor doesn’t have a way to coordinate with mayors that come from Chavismo to fight crime,” said Marino Alvarado, general coordinator of the human rights group Provea. “It’s just impossible in Venezuela to create a public policy without convoking all the sectors.”

The 3.5 million-person capital is a perfect example of the broken chain of command.

The city used to run its own police force, in conjunction with those of its five independent municipalities. After Caracas’ mayor began clashing with the president, Chavez replaced citywide police with a national force but brought on only 12,000 officers, most of them based in Caracas. By contrast, the phased-out force had nearly double the personnel.

That’s left Caracas bleeding. In 2011, the city suffered a homicide rate of an astounding 99 killed out of every 100,000 people, making it the sixth deadliest city in the world, according to the Mexican public safety group Security, Justice and Peace.

Chavez’s government certainly tried to show it was tackling the problem, launching 16 public safety plans in 14 years, with the last one, dubbed Mission to All Life Venezuela, coming out in June. That strategy allocated money to expand training programs for police, grow a fledgling national police force and target law enforcement resources in high-crime areas.

Yet the efforts have always broken down in the execution, casualties of a government that distrusted any outsiders with power, Alvarado said.

And while Chavez did control countless neighborhood “collectives” that enforced political loyalty, those same groups often participated in street crime rather than protecting residents, Cedeno said.

“Chavez was very strong with the opposition of course and he was strong politically,” Cedeno said. But at the same time, “public security policy in Venezuela has been very weak. … Chavez almost never talked about security issues, and he was very lenient with those collective groups and even criminal groups.”

What Chavez did say about the crime problem often boiled down to political rhetoric, as he argued that criminality was a result of poverty, which was a consequence of capitalism.

Yet poverty rates have fallen in Venezuela, from 49 percent in 2002 to 30 percent in 2011, partly as a result of oil-revenue-funded social programs, according to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“If you tell me that poverty is related directly to crime, if it has fallen, why hasn’t crime fallen?” Cedeno asked.

Motorcycle courier Emerson Hernandez, who lives in the poor neighborhood of Catia, said all Venezuelans were to blame, from the ruthless thugs to thieving police.

His job means risking potholes and traffic everyday while fearing assault at every turn. He said thieves have stolen his motorcycle seven times, the last instance six months ago.

“Improving public safety means changing the behavior of Venezuelans,” Hernandez said as he leaned against his front doorway while holding his infant son in an arm. “It’s not a matter of policies.”

Suarez said he had to quickly learn how to survive after moving to Caracas from western Venezuela at age 22. That meant commuting for four hours every day through treacherous slums to get to work, even as other young men in the neighborhood robbed and killed to survive.

“There is work, although it’s a pain to find it,” Suarez said. “But the situation is everyone has his own ideas and these guys look for the easiest work and the easiest is stealing.”

Associated Press writer Jack Chang contributed to this report.