Crime is soaring in Venezuela, and it's not too hard to identify the reason: Hugo Chávez and his pursuit of unbridled political power.
- By Kevin Casas-ZamoraKevin Casas-Zamora is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He served as vice president of Costa Rica from 2006 to 2007.
If, despite the best efforts of President Hugo Chávez’s electoral sorcerers, the Venezuelan opposition captures a significant share of the seats in this Sunday, Sept. 26’s legislative elections, there will be no dearth of explanations for the government’s debacle. In more ways than one can count, Venezuela is in a dire predicament. Amid daily blackouts and the highest inflation in Latin America, the International Monetary Fund expects the Venezuelan economy to contract yet again in 2010, alone among the region’s booming economies. Few narratives, however, will be as compelling as the country’s descent into crime hell.
Only a few days ago, Chávez stated unequivocally that "it is not true that Venezuela is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, nor is it true that today there is more violence here than there was 11 years ago." Facts, however, are stubborn things. Since 1999, when Chávez took office, no Latin American country has seen a more acute deterioration in personal safety than Venezuela. The country’s homicide rate has gone from 20 per 100,000 people in 1998 to 49 per 100,000 in 2009 — nine times as high as in the United States. This places Venezuela solidly among the world’s most violent countries, alongside chronically bad cases such as Jamaica and Guatemala. In the capital city, Caracas, the rate is 122 per 100,000, a figure comparable only to that of Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican border town where drug traffickers are literally waging a war against the state and one other. Car theft rates, a good barometer of property crime (unlike other crimes, stolen cars are usually reported to the authorities), have also exploded from 69 per 100,000 people in 1998 to 155 in 2009.
No wonder, then, that crime — according to nearly every opinion poll carried out in the run-up to the election — tops voters’ concerns by a large margin. In August, the Venezuelan Institute for Data Analysis (IVAD) reported that 84 percent of voters mentioned insecurity as a major concern, while less than half that percentage mentioned unemployment, the second most important issue to voters. With the vote just around the corner, the opposition is running neck and neck with Chávez’s party and has a fighting chance of capturing a majority of the popular vote, though not of the heavily gerrymandered seats.
The government’s anxiety is palpable. Since 2004, it has refused to release official crime figures, leaving the task of compiling them to NGOs. In August, the government-controlled judiciary cautioned El Nacional, an opposition newspaper, against publishing images related to "blood, weapons and terror messages." The warning followed the newspaper’s controversial decision to publish a large cover photo of wounded corpses in Caracas’s main morgue. True to form, Chávez has oscillated between blaming the remnants of capitalism for the mess and claiming that "the United States has infiltrated Venezuela … to kill, to kidnap people and then to say that Chávez can’t [govern effectively]" — that is, when he’s not denying that crime is a problem altogether.
The true causes of Venezuela’s crime explosion are more prosaic. Most glaring is the collapse of law-enforcement institutions, which have grown riddled with corruption and politicization under Chávez’s rule. The judiciary, turned by the president into an appendage of his administration, has become a dysfunctional instrument, able to persecute political opponents but not criminals. The result is impunity on a scale that is bad even by Latin American standards — only 2 percent of murders are solved by the Venezuelan authorities. It is hardly mystifying that, according to the Iberoamerican Governance Barometer (a regional public opinion survey), a mere 15 percent of Venezuelans trust the police, while 18 percent trust the Supreme Court. In the region, only Paraguay produces worse results on questions of trust.
The president’s conscious effort to undermine local governments and recentralize public policies has only compounded the breakdown of law and order. Practically all of Latin America’s recent successes against crime, in places like Bogotá, Colombia, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, have been led by dynamic local authorities. Yet Venezuela’s local governments, systematically deprived of resources and prerogatives by Chávez, have become a shadow of their former selves. Their weakening is no accident: Approximately 45 percent of the country’s population lives in states or cities governed by the opposition.
The hollowing out has reached its most farcical extreme in Caracas. Last year, the city’s mayoralty, controlled by the opposition since the 2008 local elections, was summarily emasculated by a law that transferred most of its functions, funding, and personnel to a new Venezuelan "capital district" led by a Chávez-appointed official.
Finally, there is Venezuela’s increasingly visible role in the drug trade, a phenomenon that has decisively impacted crime rates elsewhere. According to the 2010 U.N. World Drug Report, "Venezuela has emerged as a prominent trans-shipment location for cocaine destined for Europe and the United States." In fact, more than half of intercepted shipments of cocaine bound for Europe from 2006 to 2008 started their journey in Venezuela. Even without accusing the country’s armed forces of complicity in the narcotics trade — as some of Chávez’s most vociferous critics have done — this much can be said: Venezuela’s increased role in drug trafficking owes much to Chávez’s longstanding decision to abet Colombia’s narco-insurgency, the FARC, in its war against the Colombian government. (Two months ago, the Colombian ambassador to the Organization of American States laid out a robust and detailed indictment of the Venezuelan government for allowing the existence of 87 FARC camps well inside its territory. Years of evidence have suggested that some of the FARC’s top officers have lived unperturbed in Venezuela and had access to the highest echelons of the Venezuelan state.)
Chávez’s indulgence of the FARC and his tolerance of pervasive corruption among Venezuelan authorities, may now be coming to haunt him. Where drug trafficking becomes entrenched, crime rates soar. Just look at Mexico and Central America.
In any society, the causes of crime are exceedingly complex. Yet in Venezuela’s case, a few of them can unequivocally be traced back to government policies. Long ago, Hugo Chávez made a decision to politicize law-enforcement bodies, undermine local governments, and befriend narcoterrorists. For the sake of political expediency, he made a pact with the devil. Now, disguised as burgeoning crime rates, the devil has come around to collect his due. Sunday may well be the day when Chávez starts paying him back.