- By Juan Cristóbal NagelJuan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution.
A city landfill is on fire. Fire fighters rush to the scene, and when they arrive they find several squatters living amidst the garbage. When the firemen rescue them and begin to put the flames out, the squatters, members of a local mob, rob them at gunpoint.
This dystopian scene is not fiction. It happened a few days ago in the Venezuelan tourist island of Margarita.
When the fire in the El Piache landfill began a few days ago, firefighters rushed to the scene. After the ungrateful welcome they received, they are now hesitant about returning — for fear of their lives. Authorities are afraid the fire may grow out of control, and engulf nearby populations.
Sadly, these kinds of stories have become common in Venezuela, a country overrun by crime.
Venezuela ranks at the top of most crime statistics. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, its murder rate is the highest in South America, the deadliest continent in the world. Local NGO Provea — the government stopped publishing official crime statistics years ago — estimates that in 2011, there were 75 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. This figure is three times higher than that of Mexico, a country that is immersed in an all-consuming drug war. There are hundreds of kidnappings per year in Venezuela. And, according to the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence (VOV), at least one police officer is shot and killed each day.
Nobody is immune from the violence, as it hits poor and rich alike.
Just a few days ago, Julián Cumplido, an accountant in a local publishing house, was driving his SUV through downtown Caracas. A group of men in a motorcycle shot and killed him while he was talking on the phone. Nothing was stolen, so authorities suspect it was a contract killing. According to the VOV, 36 percent of Venezuelans believe hiring someone to commit a murder is "easy."
A few days later, Jean Piero Bravo, a 33-year-old baker, was shot and killed at 7 p.m. in front of a shopping mall in a poor section of Caracas. The burglars took his phone and ninety dollars in local currency. Bravo’s story has become more common. It used to be that shopping malls and other heavily guarded areas were safe from the crime wave. However, the local Caracas press is reporting an increase in armed robberies inside shopping malls, particularly focused on jewelry and cell phone stores.
Not even the dead are safe from the crime wave. In the past few years, Venezuelans have increasingly turned to strange shamanic rituals, some of which sometimes involve human body parts. A few days ago, a band of tomb raiders was discovered. According to authorities, they confessed that a human skull for these rituals costs a paltry ten dollars.
Venezuelans blame the crime wave on an increasing state of lawlessness. Police forces are overrun, but more likely they seem to be part of the problem. President Nicolás Maduro himself has said that police officers are responsible for "90 percent" of the kidnappings in Caracas — although he made the point to state that the criminal police officers belong to the Miranda state government, headed by Maduro’s main rival, Henrique Capriles.
This suggests another severe problem: the excessive politicization of the judiciary. The government does not seem to be interested in prosecuting common criminals nearly as much as it is seeking to put opposition leaders behind bars. Just this week, the prosecutor general — a loyal chavista — announced that charges would be filed against an opposition lawmaker.
The spike in crime coincided with Venezuela becoming one of the main traffic points for illegal drugs headed for the United States and, mainly, to Europe. Venezuela is not an important drug producer, but it has become an important transit route. Only a few days ago, France seized an enormous haul of cocaine that was shipped in unmarked suitcases in the hull of a Caracas-Paris Air France flight. While the seemingly embarrassed government has charged several people with drug trafficking charges, members of the military and other high-ranking officials have been spared. It is highly unlikely the three tons of cocaine could have been shipped without complicity from someone high up.
Public opinion polls show that crime is Venezuelans’s main concern, although not everyone blames the government. Still, the Maduro administration has announced plans to militarize certain areas with the hope of bringing crime rates down. It has even blamed video games for the surge, and moved to ban them. Meanwhile, common sense policies such as the disarmament of civilians and improving public spaces have not been implemented.
A few years ago, former mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York and his former chief of police, William Bratton, were hired to solve Caracas’ crime problems. They suggested a number of common sense measures, but were never taken seriously. In the years since, the problem has only gotten worse. Fueling Venezuelans’ sense of despair, it would seem as if there is no end in sight for the country’s death spiral.