Why Is Venezuela so Violent?

Why Is Venezuela so Violent?

Mónica Spear seemed to have it all. A former Miss Venezuela, she was beautiful and talented, and her career as a soap-opera actress was on the rise. A few years ago, she left Venezuela looking for broader horizons, and fleeing the crime wave sweeping the nation. She returned home for the holidays and spent the first days of 2014 crisscrossing the country with her British husband and five-year-old daughter, all while faithfully uploading pictures of her trip on Twitter.

On Monday, Jan. 6, Spear’s car broke down on the highway near the central city of Puerto Cabello. As they waited to be towed, they were approached by thugs. The details are sketchy, but in the end, she and her husband were gunned down, senselessly murdered. Their daughter was wounded, but survived.

Spear’s horrific story is part of a broader trend. Venezuela has become one of the most dangerous countries on Earth. The reputable Venezuelan NGO Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia reports that in 2013, there were 24,763 murders in Venezuela, up from 21,600 a year earlier. The murder rate was 79 per 100,000 inhabitants. As a comparison, the rate in Mexico last year was 22 per 100,000 people. (Tellingly, the government does not publish reliable murder statistics.)

The worst part about this problem is that it is only getting worse. In 1998, before Hugo Chávez first took office, there were 19 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Back then, Venezuela was dangerous, but only slightly more so than the average Latin America country, and certainly less dangerous than places like neighboring Colombia. Last year, Colombia’s murder rate was 50 percent lower than Venezuela’s. (In the photo above, a policeman guards a building shortly after a fatal shootout in Caracas.)

There are numerous explanations for why Venezuela has gotten so dangerous.

Venezuela is awash with guns. The problem, though, is with who owns the guns. No matter where you stand on the gun control issue, even the most conservative, gun-loving person in the world would have to agree that irresponsible gun ownership and complete lawlessness is a dangerous combination.  Many Venezuelans who own guns are engaged in drug smuggling, gasoline smuggling, and other sorts of black market activities — a fact that only highlights the complete breakdown of law and order. The police force, if at all present, is simply there to be bribed.

The problem is compounded in the justice system. According to the Organization of American States, Venezuela has far fewer prosecutors — 2.47 per every 100,000 inhabitants — than a country of its size requires. It also has only 6.86 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, far fewer than it should have, a way below the norm on the continent. In comparison, Chile, a less violent country, has 50.41 judges per 100,000 inhabitants.

And the few judges Venezuela has face enormous pressures to keep people out of jail. Venezuela has one of the most overcrowded, and hence violent, prison systems in the world.

The result is that the justice system has simply stopped working. That is why roughly six out of every ten crimes goes unreported. It is also why few of the crimes that are prosecuted end in a conviction.

In spite of this tragedy, not all Venezuelans accuse the government of being soft on crime. A recent opinion poll showed that while roughly 60 percent of Venezuelans blame the government for the country’s electricity crisis, only half blame it for the crime wave.

Venezuela has recently renewed efforts to promote tourism in the country. In one of the saddest ironies of the Spear saga, Ms. Spear’s late husband was involved in promoting sustainable tourism in the country through his ownership of a local travel agency. My country indeed offers amazing sights. But when popular celebrities are gunned down for no reason, one has to conclude Venezuela has become completely unsafe for tourists — or anyone else for that matter.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, co-editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.