Transitions

Venezuela Needs International Help to Tackle Crime

Last week, a shootout took place between Venezuelan police and a government-sponsored paramilitary gang known as a "colectivo." The colectivos even managed to kidnap several police officers and held them for several hours until the police stormed the hostage-takers. When the smoke finally cleared, five people were dead. A number of others were wounded. Few ...

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, a shootout took place between Venezuelan police and a government-sponsored paramilitary gang known as a "colectivo." The colectivos even managed to kidnap several police officers and held them for several hours until the police stormed the hostage-takers. When the smoke finally cleared, five people were dead. A number of others were wounded.

Few Venezuelans showed concern. Events like this have now become part of the country’s daily routine. The gunfight came just days after a pro-government lawmaker, 27-year-old Robert Serra, was killed in his home in downtown Caracas.

As the crime wave continues to grow, it becomes clear that the government has no answers. It’s time for the international community to take an active role.

Venezuela is now one of the most dangerous countries in the world, but the government seems unable to do anything about it. Last week, during a memorial service for Serra, President Nicolás Maduro said a woman confronted him, asking him to do something about crime. "What do you want me to do?" he responded.

Maduro’s honesty was both refreshing and disturbing. After multiple failed "safety plans" and hundreds of announcements promising to stem the tide of violence, the government has run out of ideas. (The photo above shows Maduro inspecting a gun at a disarmament event in August 2013.) Venezuela is now the most dangerous country in South America.

The government is so embarrassed about this that it has stopped publishing official murder statistics. Private estimates put the murder rate at 48.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in the world and certainly the highest of any large country. Just this year, more than one hundred Caracas police agents have been murdered. Murder is the number one cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 19.

Most of the crimes are linked to drug gangs. Venezuela has become an important transit point for international drug routes, and this has brought money and weapons. The country’s general climate of impunity means organized crime has found a perfect environment. The government, in turn, has put weapons in the hands of armed militias to "defend the revolution."

After 15 years in power, there is no hope the Venezuelan government will change this reality. That is why the international community must get involved.

During the 1980s, the international community tried to solve the Central American civil wars. Venezuela, for example, was instrumental in setting up the "Contadora" Group of Nations, which provided a blueprint for the agreements that finally brought peace to that region.

Venezuela, with more than 200,000 murders since the Bolivarian Revolution came to power, is in civil war territory. It may not be a civil war in the classical sense, with two organized groups vying for power, but its inhabitants feel as if it were.

The legal precedent for the international community’s involvement is the Responsibility to Protect. This norm came about after the international community reflected upon its inability to act in the face of genocide in the 1990s, particularly in Rwanda and in the Balkans. Several initiatives have been brought forward. One of the proposed frameworks for this doctrine specifies that nations have a responsibility to protect a population when they are suffering serious harm as a result of, among other things, state failure.

In 2009, the U.N. Secretary General provided a blueprint for applying this norm. He emphasized that Responsibility to Protect applies to cases involving serious problems like genocide and ethnic cleansing, and the norm has been cited as the basis, in some cases, for military intervention.

Venezuela does not qualify according to these criteria, but this should not stop the international community from coming to the aid of the Venezuelan people. There is ample precedent for these types of interventions in the country.

Between 2002 and 2004, a political crisis engulfed the country. A "group of friendly nations" intervened diplomatically to try to solve the impasse between the government and the opposition, and prominent diplomats took residence in Caracas while hosting talks between the two sides. Earlier this year, several South American nations pushed for dialogue between the government and the opposition, and their foreign ministers participated in the talks.

If foreign diplomats can be moved to act in order to tend to a political crisis, it is even more pertinent to ask for their help in solving a dramatic social one. South American governments — particularly Venezuela’s neighbors — can assist Venezuela in tackling its crime problem by providing technical assistance, benchmarks to measure progress in key areas such as judicial reform, and suggesting changes to Venezuelan legislation, among other things. They can also supervise disarmament programs as well as assist with innovative policing techniques.

South American nations would find it in their best interest to get involved. The crime wave frequently hits foreign diplomats based in Caracas. A few years ago, the Mexican Ambassador was held for ransom along with his wife. Foreign tourists are also frequent targets. Several embassies have cited the country’s dramatic crime situation as a reason for leaving altogether. As the problem gets worse, thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing: The Colombian media are reporting that one million Venezuelans now live in that country.

One of the themes Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed in his speeches is the concept of the "globalization of indifference," which leads people to only concern themselves with the problems inside their own borders. As Venezuela descends ever deeper into chaos, with its government unable or unwilling to stem the tide of violence, it is time for its South American neighbors to react.

The continent can no longer remain indifferent to what amounts to Venezuela’s undeclared civil war.

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

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