Crime in Venezuela
Crime is a pervasive issue across Venezuela. Venezuela was ranked the most insecure nation in the world by Gallup in 2013 with the United Nations stating that such crime is due to the poor political and economic environment in the country. The country's murder rate is also one of the highest in the world. In 2008, polls indicated that crime was the number one concern of voters. 2014 Gallup polls showed that only 19% of Venezuelans felt safe walking alone at night, with nearly one quarter of the respondents stating that they or a household member had money stolen from them in the past year. The U.S. State Department calls Venezuela "a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor". Crime rates are higher in 'barrios' or 'ranchos' (slum areas) after dark. Petty crime such as pick-pocketing is prevalent, particularly on public transport in Caracas. As a result of the high levels of crime, Venezuelans were forced to change their ways of life due to the large insecurities they continuously experienced.
In 2009 the Venezuelan government created a security force called the Bolivarian National Police and a new Experimental Security University. Human rights groups suggest that the government's policing efforts are too "timid". In May 2013, President Maduro initiated Plan Patria Segura to reduce crime and provide security throughout the country, though the plan had to be reinitiated a year later after the dismissal of the Minister of the Popular Power for Interior, Justice and Peace. According to the United Nations, the Venezuelan government is lacking 20,000 investigative police.
- 1 Drug trade
- 2 Murder and violent crimes
- 3 Corruption
- 4 Kidnappings
- 5 Human trafficking
- 6 Foreign Visitors
- 7 Crime Prevention
- 8 See also
- 9 Bibliography
- 10 References
Venezuela is a significant route for drug trafficking, with Colombian cocaine and other drugs transiting Venezuela towards the United States and Europe. Venezuela ranks fourth in the world for cocaine seizures, behind Colombia, the United States, and Panama.
In 2007, authorities in Colombia claimed that through laptops they had seized on a raid against Raul Reyes, they found documents purporting to show that Hugo Chávez offered payments of as much as $300 million USD to the FARC. According to Interpol, the files found by Colombian forces were considered to be authentic.
Independent analyses of the documents by a number of U.S. academics and journalists have challenged the Colombian interpretation of the documents, accusing the Colombian government of exaggerating their contents. According to Greg Palast, the claim about Chavez's $300 million is based on the following (translated) sentence: "With relation to the 300, which from now on we will call 'dossier', efforts are now going forward at the instructions of the cojo [slang term for 'cripple'], which I will explain in a separate note." Palast suggests that the "300" is supposedly a reference to "300 prisoners" (the number involved in a FARC prisoner exchange) and not "300 million".
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Treasury accused two senior Venezuelan government officials and one former official of providing material assistance for drug-trafficking operations carried out by the FARC guerrilla group in Colombia. In the same year, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, testified before the U.S. Congress that "there are no evidences [sic]" that Venezuela is supporting "terrorist groups", including the FARC.
In March 2012, Venezuela's National Assembly removed Supreme Court Justice Eladio Aponte Aponte from his post after an investigation revealed alleged ties to drug-trafficking; on the day he was to face questioning, Aponte Aponte fled the country, and has sought refuge in the U.S., where he began to cooperate with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Department of Justice. Aponte says that, while serving as a judge, he was forced to acquit an army commander who had connections with a 2 metric ton shipment of cocaine. Aponte also claimed that Henry Rangel, former defense minister of Venezuela and General Clíver Alcalá Cordones were both involved with the drug trade in Venezuela. Venezuelan officials have also been allegedly working with Mexican drug cartels.
In September 2013, an incident involving men from the Venezuelan National Guard placing 31 suitcases containing 1.3 tons of cocaine on a Paris flight astonished French authorities. On 15 February 2014, a commander for the Guard was stopped while driving to Valencia with his family and was arrested for having 554 kilos of cocaine in his possession.
Murder and violent crimes
Venezuela is currently among the countries with the highest murder rates in the world. According to Gareth A. Jones and Dennis Rodgers in their book Youth violence in Latin America: Gangs and Juvenile Justice in Perspective, the murder rate according to PROVEA figures in 1990 was 13 per 100,000 and increased to 25 per 100,000 in 1999. Jones and Rodgers continue by stating that "With the change of political regime in 1999 and the initiation of the Bolivarian Revolution, a period of transformation and political conflict began, marked by a further increase in the number and rate of violent deaths" showing that in four years, the murder rate had increased to 44 per 100,000.
Recently, the murder rate in Venezuela is the subject of some dispute according to the Associated Press, since Venezuelan government has slowly denied access to homicide statistics. According to the Venezuelan government, the homicide rate in 2013 dropped 50 to 39 per 100,000. A non-governmental organization known as the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV), which collects crime data from seven different universities around the country, also provides data of homicide rates in the country. The OVV puts the homicide rate for that year at approximately 79 per 100,000 and the murder rate in the capital Caracas at 122 per 100,000 residents. In 2014, the OVV's murder rate data showed an increase of the rate to 82 per 100,000.
In 2010, Simon Romero of the New York Times used data provided by the OVV and the group Iraq Body Count to argue that Venezuela's body count of the previous decade mimicked that of the Iraq War and in some instances had more civilian deaths. The OVV's methodology has come under scrutiny by Stanford Ph.D. candidate Dorothy Kronick, and some analysts say that the group Iraq Body Count provides "an inaccurate measure of the magnitude" of Iraq's actual death toll. The World Health Organization, for example, estimates that the death toll in Iraq is three times higher than the numbers provided by the Iraq Body Count. However, The New York Times states that according to news reports, data from human rights groups, such as the OVV's statistics, may actually be undercounting the number of those murdered in Venezuela.
According to the Venezuelan non-governmental organization PROVEA, unlike other NGOs, the Venezuelan government excludes homicide data that includes fighting or police related deaths in its murder rate statistics. PROVEA figures provided in the UN's 2014 Global Homicide Book put Venezuela's homicide rate at 53.7 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, closer to the Venezuelan government's 2012 estimate, but still the second highest peacetime murder rate in the world after Honduras (estimated at 90.4).
Other homicide data
According to Sanjuan, 95% of Venezuela's homicide victims are men with 69% of them being between ages 15 and 34. In 2000, the homicide rate for young men was 225 per 100,000 for young men. Sanjuan data from 2000 shows that in the capital city of Caracas, 92% of homicides are due to firearms and that 83% of homicide victims died near their homes, 55% in public altercations and 55% of the homicides occurred on the weekend. A more recent 2014 UNICEF report titled Hidden in Plain Sight, it was stated that in Venezuela, along with other Latin American countries, the leading cause of death for males between 10 and 19 is murder.
Venezuelan government deterring media
In 2009, it was reported that Venezuelan authorities would assign judicial police to Caracas area morgues to speak with families. At that time, they would advise families not to speak to report the murder of their family member to the media in exchange to have the process of recovering the victims body in an expedited manner. It was also reported that police would intercept the families of the victims and take them to the library of the University Institute of the Scientific Police (IUPOLC) where authorities offered families ways to "streamline procedures and advise them not to give information to the press in return for their aid". The cover ups were possibly performed following an El Nacional cover story showing piles of corpses scattered throughout a morgue in Venezuela.
Corruption in Venezuela is high by world standards, and was so for much of the 20th century. The discovery of oil had worsened political corruption, and by the late 1970s, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso's description of oil as "the Devil's excrement" had become a common expression in Venezuela. Venezuela has been ranked one of the most corrupt countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index since the survey started in 1995. The 2010 ranking placed Venezuela at number 164, out of 178 ranked countries.
According to some sources Venezuela's corruption includes widespread corruption in the police force. Many victims are afraid to report crimes to the police because many officers are involved with criminals and may bring even more harm to the victims with a 2013 Gallup study showing that only 26% of Venezuelans have faith in their local police. Human Rights Watch claims that the "police commit one of every five crimes" and that thousands of people have been killed by police officers acting with impunity (only 3% of officers have been charged in cases against them). The Metropolitan Police force in Caracas was so corrupt that it was disbanded and were even accused of assisting some of the 17,000 kidnappings. Medium says that the Venezuelan police are "seen as brutal and corrupt more likely to rob you than help".
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Director James Brabazon, stated "kidnapping crimes had skyrocketed ... after late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez freed thousands of violent prisoners as part of controversial criminal justice system reforms" while also increasing due to Colombian organized crime as well. He further explained that criminals felt that the Venezuelan government did not care for the problems of the higher classes, which in turn gave them a sense of impunity that created a large business of kidnapping. Both the rich and poor are victims of kidnapping, with criminals even fearing of being kidnapped by more powerful gangs.
In leaked government INE data for kidnappings in the year 2009, the number of kidnappings were at an estimated 16,917, contrasting the CICPCs number of only 673, before the Venezuelan government blocked the data. According to the leaked INE report, only 1,332 investigations for kidnappings were opened or about 7% of the total kidnapping cases, with 90.4% of the kidnappings happening away from rural areas, 80% of all being express kidnappings and the most common victim being lower-middle or middle class Venezuelans and middle-aged men.
In 2011, the Venezuelan government's statistics reported an average of two kidnappings per day, while other estimates showed 50 kidnappings per day. According to the BBC article, 4 of 5 kidnappings are express kidnappings which are not included in government statistics. The article also explains the problem of police involvement with kidnappings, with the Venezuelan government admitting that 20% of crimes involve authorities and criminologist Mármol García stating that 90% of kidnappings go unreported in Venezuela. In 2013, consulting firm Control Risk ranked Venezuela 5th in the world for kidnappings, only behind Mexico, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. The report stated that 33% of kidnappings occurred in the capital city of Caracas and that hundreds of kidnappings happen every year. News.com.au called Venezuela capital "the kidnap capital of the world" in 2013, noting that Venezuela had the highest kidnapping rate in the world and that 5 people were kidnapped for a ransom every day.
False or "virtual" kidnappings are also used in Venezuela. Criminals will cut off access to family members and then report to the family that they have been kidnapped, demanding a ransom without actually imprisoning an individual. In Venezuela's prisons, inmates will use "telemarketing" strategies, creating fear in individuals so that they will pay before possibly being kidnapped.
Authorities involved in kidnappings
Many kidnappings are not reported to police in Venezuela since they are not trusted. According to Anthony Daquín, former adviser to the Minister of Interior and Justice of Venezuela, "[s]taff of the Directorate of Military Counterintelligence and SEBIN (Bolivarian National Intelligence Service) operate these bands kidnapping and extortion". According to experts, kidnappings and torture by the Directorate of Military Counterintelligence increased during the 8 year tenure of Hugo Carvajal.
According to Brabazon, businesses, families and friends gather money and put it aside for possibly being used to pay kidnapping ransoms. Wealthy Venezuelans invest in armored vehicles and bodyguards while middle class Venezuelans change routes to work, never wear jewelry in public and never travel by foot alone. Since police are not trusted by Venezuelans, kidnappings are usually not reported and cannot be combatted by authorities.
According to the Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 by the State Department of the United States, "Venezuela is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor". The State Department also states that the "Government of Venezuela does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking" explaining that Venezuelan authorities trained government officials about trafficking, but the Venezuelan government "did not publicly document progress on prosecutions and convictions of trafficking offenders or on victim identification and assistance". Due to the Venezuelan government not complying to the standards of stopping human trafficking, the State Department placed Venezuelan on its "black list" as a Tier 3 country, which opened the possibility of Venezuela facing sanctions.
Venezuela is especially dangerous toward foreign travelers and investors who are visiting. This is due to Venezuela's economic problems. The United States State Department and Government of Canada has warned foreign visitors that they may be subjected to armed robbery, kidnapping and murder. Most visitors have been murdered during robberies and criminals do not discriminate against their victims. Recently, former Miss Venezuela 2004 winner Monica Spear and her husband were murdered with her 5 year old daughter being shot while visiting, and an elderly German tourist was murdered only a few weeks later.
In the World Report 2014 by Human Rights Watch, the organization stated that "Venezuelan prisons are among the most violent in Latin America". They explained that "Weak security, deteriorating infrastructure, overcrowding, insufficient and poorly trained guards, and corruption allow armed gangs to effectively control prisons". They also mentioned that hundred of violent deaths occur at Venezuelan prisons each year. In 2014, the UN called the state of the Venezuelan prison system "a tragedy".
In Venezuelan prisons, there are reports of prisoners having easy access to firearms, drugs and alcohol. According to Alessio Bruni of the United Nations Committee against Torture, "a typical problem of the prison system is gun violence, nearly circulating freely within prisons, causing hundreds and hundreds of people killed every year" with the UN committee alarmed at reports that between 2004 and 2014, 4,791 inmates were killed and 9,931 injured.
Carlos Nieto, head of Window to Freedom, alleges that heads of gangs acquire military weapons from the state saying, “They have the types of weapons that can only be obtained by the country’s armed forces. ... No one else has these.” Use of internet and mobile phones are also a commonplace where criminals can take part in street crime while in prison. One prisoner explained how, “If the guards mess with us, we shoot them” and that he had "seen a man have his head cut off and people play football with it.”
In a Journeyman Pictures documentary titled Venezuela - Party Prison, a reporter visits San Antonio Prison on Margarita Island. The prison is described as a "paradise", with a community including pools, bars, a boxing ring and many other accommodations for any visitor of prisoners who can stay the night at the prison for up to three days per week. San Antonio Prison is controlled by El Conejo (The Rabbit), a powerful jailed drug trafficker who makes his "enforcers" patrol the prison. In an interview with Prison Minister Iris Varela, the minister explained how all prisons were under her control and that there was no anarchy. Varela was also known to be acquainted with El Conejo, as critic Carlos Nieto showed the reporter a photo of Varela with El Conejo on his bed. Professor Neelie Perez from the University of Caracas explained how it is difficult for the government to control prisons without resorting to violence, therefore recognizing and legitimizing high ranking prisoners as heads of prisons. Perez also states that evidence shows that crime is organized from within these prisons.
Edgardo Lander, a sociologist and professor at the Central University of Venezuela with a PhD in sociology from Harvard University explained that Venezuelan prisons are "practically a school for criminals" since young inmates come out "more sort of trained and hardened than when they went in". He also explained that prison are controlled by gangs and that "very little has been done" to control them.
In Venezuelan prisons, inmates partake in gladiatorial matches to settle disputes. In 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States denounced the practice of "The Coliseum" saying "The Commission reiterates to the State the need to take immediate and effective steps to prevent such incidents from happening again" after 2 inmates died and 54 more were injured from these practices.
According to Alessio Bruni of the United Nations Committee against Torture, on average, Venezuelan prisons hold 231% of their capacity. Bruni stated as an example that the Tocorón prison in Venezuela holds 7,000 prisoners despite the designed capacity for 750.
Venezuelan rights groups report that the 34 prisons in Venezuela hold 50,000 people but are only supposed to hold about one-third of that. In 2012, La Planta, a prison built in 1964 with a capacity of 350 inmates, held almost 2,500 inmates with most armed with heavy weapons.
State crime prevention initiatives
During the presidency of the Hugo Chávez, more than 20 programs were created attempting to deter crime, though insecurity continued to increase following their implementation. Chávez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, has also initiated programs trying to combat crime.
Ley contra el Secuestro y la Extorsión
In 2008, the National Assembly passed the Law Against Kidnapping and Extortion (Ley contra el Secuestro y la Extorsión), a law that penalties of up to 30 years in prison to address a kidnapping situation that was not covered by a specific law. Despite the introduction of the new law, the majority of cases are not resolved and only received the Venezuelan government's attention in high-profile cases.
Plan Patria Segura
On 13 May 2013, President Nicolas Maduro initiated Plan Patria Segura saying "we have decided to fight to build a secure homeland". The plan, created by Miguel Rodríguez Torres, included the placement of 37,000 authorities throughout the country. The goal of Plan Patria Segura to disarm, prevent organized crime and drug enforcement. The methods of accomplishing these tasks were through surveillance, checking documents, verification checkpoints and to help guide communities. Some have criticized Plan Patria Segura calling it a failure after crime continued to increase following its implementation.
Days after the replacement of the plan's creator Miguel Rodríguez Torres by Carmen Melendez Teresa Rivas as Minister of the Popular Power for Interior, Justice and Peace, Melendez announced that the Venezuelan government would relaunch Plan Patria Segura for a second time.
In 2013, it was reported that Venezuela was one of the most weaponized areas in the world, with one firearm per two citizens. On 22 September 2014, President Maduro announced that his government would invest $47 million to create 60 new disarmament centers, and $39 million to fund a plan under which soldiers would patrol the most dangerous neighborhoods. In a Cabo Vadillo (es) episode revealing crime in Caracas, it is stated that at the time of recording in 2014, there were over 5 million illegal firearms in a city of about 5 million people. Colectivos in Venezuela stated to the Venezuelan government that they were not going to participate in the disarmament plan, stating that they were groups involved with the Bolivarian Revolution and that criminal gangs should instead be focused on.
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