Welcome to the Bolivarian Venezuela of 2008, a 21st century socialist state where someone is kidnapped every 24 hours, someone is murdered every 60 minutes, and armed robbery or carjacking happens every 10 minutes, according to official Interior and Justice Ministry statistics.
No one is immune, but poor Venezuelans suffer the worst abuses at the hands of violent criminals. Among the various hats I wear professionally, I supervise a team of 25 security officials at a branch of major food wholesaler/retailer in Caracas. All of the team’s officials live in the poor barrios of Petare and western Caracas. In the past five days, from April 21-25, two members of this team were victimized by violent criminals. A male official was assaulted and beaten badly by several young men who stole his shoes and cell phone while he was commuting to work. And a female security official suffered the horror of seeing her mother shot in the head and killed during an armed robbery. Both crimes were witnessed by over 100 witnesses, but the police say they have no investigative leads and do not know the identities of the criminals.
In 1998, before Chavez was elected president of Venezuela for the first time, a total of 4,550 people were murdered nationally, but in 2007 a total of 12,257 people were murdered, according to official government data. However, the official data is deliberately incomplete. The Interior and Justice Ministry does not include data for violent deaths of known criminals by other criminals who “settle accounts,” suspected criminals killed while “resisting” police, violent deaths still “under investigation,” and prison inmates killed by other inmates in the country’s jails.
Including these statistics in the official homicide data for 2007 and 1998 shows that
17,614 persons were shot, stabbed, strangled, and bludgeoned to death last compared with 8,620 persons killed in crime-related violence during 1998. Crime and insecurity have been the top concern of Venezuelan voters since the 1980s, according to every issues opinion survey done over the past 25 years. However, during the nearly ten years Chavez has been in power, officially reported crime-related deaths have increased 104.3%.
The government’s published figures on violent deaths also omit another very important official fact. For every murder that occurs in Venezuela, up to 40 persons are shot, stabbed or beaten in crimes. Firearms are the leading cause of violent death, responsible for 84% of murders in poor Caracas municipal districts like Sucre and Libertador, which have chavista mayors and municipal governments. This implies that up to 704,560 inhabitants – 80.43 persons every hour – were shot, stabbed, beaten, etc. in 2007 as a result of criminal violence. In other words, approximately 80.43 people per hour were injured by violent criminals during 2007.
Less than a decade ago, Colombia, Brazil and El Salvador were significantly more violent countries than Venezuela. But today Venezuela is the most violent country in Latin America, and its capital city Caracas is the most violent city in the Western Hemisphere. Last year the national homicide rate was 65 per 100,000 inhabitants in Venezuela, while the homicide rate in Caracas was 95 per 100,000 inhabitants. And this is not a recent development. Venezuela’s national homicide rate in 2005 was 58 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 38 murders per 100,000 inhabitants for Colombia and 22 murders per 100,000 inhabitants for Brazil, according to UNESCO.
The explosion in violent crime Venezuela has experienced during the years Chavez has been in power was under way during the 1990s, long before he has elected president. But violent crime has reached pandemic levels during the Chavez regime, a period in which Venezuela has earned over $400 billion in oil export revenues by some estimates, thanks mainly to rising oil prices which reached nearly $120 a barrel in the past week.
Local security experts have many theories and explanations about why Venezuela is so violent today. For example:
· The violent public discourse employed daily by President Chavez has encouraged a state policy of criminal violence against ordinary citizens. Chavez always threatens violence against his local and international enemies. He revels in launching public personal insults laced with vulgarities. He encourages the hungry and homeless to steal food and invade privately-owned properties.
· The Bolivarian government’s state policy of criminal violence against the Venezuelan people is practiced daily by practically all national, regional and local law enforcement and judicial institutions. Throughout Venezuela, local police forces tend to be politicized, corrupt, and infiltrated by criminals. Police officials and occasionally military and National Guard personnel are frequently implicated in kidnappings, according to officials with specialized anti-kidnapping groups created by the government.
· The worst law enforcement abuses against law-abiding (and generally poor) citizens in Caracas are committed by PoliCaracas (Libertador Municipality) and the Metropolitan Police (now controlled directly by the Interior and Justice Ministry, but before that by Greater Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto), followed by Polisucre (Petare) and Polibaruta. PoliChacao is the only respected civilian law enforcement agency in Caracas.
· The Chavez government has systematically criminalized all legitimate private business and individual endeavors since 1999. Currently there are 85 laws which explicitly establish over 1,200 criminal offenses, many relating to business practices which the government has enacted laws against. At the same time, institutions like the Supreme Court and National Assembly have decriminalized many criminal activities including money laundering, organized crime and even homicide.
· All State entities have been sanitized legally for criminals by the National Assembly, because many of the legal “reforms” to the penal code enacted by the Chavez government explicitly exempt State entities, and hence State employees, from criminal investigations, indictments and prosecutions for alleged crimes, including corruption.
· Pandemic criminal violence in Venezuela is linked directly to chronic socio-economic underdevelopment.
· State institutions directly responsible for maintaining public order, combating crime, enforcing the law, and dispensing justice transparently and impartially are dysfunctional, corrupt, politicized, and incapable of carrying out their constitutional and legal obligations.
· Crime victims have no rights in Venezuela, although the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 and its predecessor, the Constitution of 1961, explicitly guarantee and protect the rights of all Venezuelans including victims of crimes. Most Venezuelans are unaware that legal “reforms” enacted by the Chavez government since 2005 have eliminated many procedural rights that were meant to protect citizens
· Legal “reforms” enacted in the past three years have created a network of inquisitorial procedures and norms which allow the State to conduct secret criminal investigations of anyone deemed to be a person of interest by the state. Anyone can now be investigated and charged with criminal offenses secretly, and then arrested and jailed before they are notified officially that they are suspected criminals under Bolivarian law.
Companies in today’s Bolivarian Venezuela have a powerful economic incentive to move their operations out of the country. The systematic criminalization of private business threatens the freedom and assets of investors, managers and even workers at companies targeted for penal action by the State. Moreover, the malignant proliferation of laws designed deliberately to criminalize and hinder most normal business practices makes it very cost-effective to relocate to investor-friendly countries whose laws and governments respect private enterprise and private property.
But if your business is violent crime, especially homicide, Venezuela is definitely the place to operate nowadays. An astounding 97% of all homicides reported in Venezuela are never prosecuted. In other words, anyone who wantonly and deliberately murders someone in Venezuela has a 97% probability of going free. Only 13% of reported murders result in arrests, and only 3% of individuals charged with homicide are convicted and imprisoned.