Crime in Venezuela
Crime in Venezuela is widespread, with violent crimes such as murder and kidnapping increasing annually. The United Nations has attributed crime to the poor political and economic environment in the country, which has the second highest murder rate in the world. Crime has grown so pervasive in Venezuela that the military is ordered to avoid public places during nighttime hours since criminals often attempt to steal their weapons, with robberies in the country often targeting unaware individuals using a kill first, steal later method.
Rates of crime increased rapidly during the presidency of Hugo Chávez due to the institutional instability of his Bolivarian government, underfunding of police resources and high inequality. Chávez's government sought a cultural hegemony, promoting class conflict and social fragmentation in order to establish a hegemony, which in turn encouraged "criminal gangs to kill, kidnap, rob and extort". By the time Chávez died in 2013, Venezuela was ranked the most insecure nation in the world by Gallup.
Crime has also continued to increase under Chávez's successor, President Nicolás Maduro, who continued Chávez's policies that had disrupted Venezuela's socioeconomic status. By 2015, crime, which was often the topic Venezuelans worried about the most according to polls, was the second largest concern compared to shortages in Venezuela. Crimes related to shortages and hunger increased shortly after, with growing incidents of looting occurring throughout the country. Most crime in Venezuela remains unpunished according to Venezuela's Prosecutor General’s Office, with 98% of crimes in Venezuela not resulting in prosecution.
- 1 Petty crime and thefts
- 2 Organized crime
- 3 Corruption
- 4 Drug trade
- 5 Homicide and violent crime
- 6 Kidnappings
- 7 Human trafficking
- 8 Foreign visitors
- 9 Crime prevention
- 10 See also
- 11 Bibliography
- 12 References
Petty crime and thefts
Crime rates are higher in 'barrios' or 'ranchos' (slum areas) and after dark. Petty crime such as pick-pocketing is prevalent, particularly in public transport terminals 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. 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.
While Venezuelans were suffering from shortages in Venezuela, the occasional looting of trucks full of goods became more common in the country with the robberies being committed by criminal gangs. Originally, looters would wait for trucks to crash and loot the scene, though recently trucks have been attacked instead. In one incident involving a crashed truck, hundreds of men, women and children looted the vehicle. In July 2015, BBC News stated that due to the common shortages in Venezuela, every week there are videos shared online showing Venezuelans looting supermarkets and trucks for food. In June 2016, it was reported that the town of Cumaná was under effective curfew after an outbreak of mass looting. In 2017, it was revealed that even military personnel became targets, with criminals instead beginning to just kill all of their victims before stealing their belongings, introducing a more violent face to theft in the country.
There was little history of organized crime in Venezuela until the start of the Bolivarian Revolution. The Bolivarian government was seen as being lenient on crime and justifying the criminals by saying they were poor and exploited. In 2013, the government negotiated with large criminal gangs on how to prevent violence and agreed to avoid policing gang territory in what were known as "peace zones", reinforcing criminal behaviors and making gang practices de facto law. According to InSight Crime, there are over a dozen mega-gangs in Venezuela, with some having up to 300 members.
Due to the largely unofficial economy that exists in Venezuela in which nearly every citizen participates, organized crime thrived as smuggling has been assisted by Colombian gangs, the Bolivarian National Guard and government officials.
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".
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", as Raul Reyes was one of the Farc's main negotiators for prisoner exchanges.
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.
Two nephews of Maduro's wife Cilia Flores, Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas, were involved in the narcosobrinos incident and found guilty for their alleged involvement in illicit activities such as drug trafficking in November 2016, with some of their funds possibly assisting President Maduro's presidential campaign in the 2013 Venezuelan presidential election and potentially for the 2015 Venezuelan parliamentary elections, with the funds mainly used to "help their family stay in power". One informant stated that the two would often fly out of Terminal 4 of Simon Bolivar Airport, a terminal reserved for the president. Due to the fact that the "sobrinos" (nephews in Spanish) of Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores were arrested for narcotics trafficking, the media described the nephews as the narcosobrinos.
Homicide and violent crime
In the early-20th century, Venezuela was limited to violent crimes occurring in rural areas. In the 1950s, the rapid urbanization of the population saw some rises in violent crime. In the 1960s following the restoration of democracy, insecurity rose when FALN leftist guerrillas participated in violent confrontations with the government, though such clashes subsided due to lack of public support for the guerrilla movement. Between the 1960s until the late-1980s, the murder rate stood between 8 and 10 homicides per 100,000. Following the "institutional crisis" surrounding the Venezuelan government and the socioeconomic issues shown during the Caracazo riots in 1989 and Hugo Chávez's 1992 coup attempts, homicides increased in Venezuela. This introduced to the Venezuelan population the notion of not following the societal rules and using violence to achieve goals, such as widespread looting during the Caracazo or by attempting to commit undemocratic coups such as in 1992. By 1993, Venezuela's murder rate stood at 21 homicides per 100,000 people. In 1994, when Rafael Caldera became president, he attempted to strengthen Venezuela's "institution", staying in the center of political issues, performing both conservative and reformative actions that resulted in the increase of the murder rate stopping; though his popularity and the public's trust in the political system decreased.
Under Hugo Chávez, the "institution" of Venezuela deteriorated, with political instability, impunity and violent government language increasing. According to Gareth A. Jones and Dennis Rodgers in their book Youth violence in Latin America: Gangs and Juvenile Justice in Perspective, "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 from 25 per 100,000 in 1999 to 44 per 100,000 in 2003. The Bolivarian Revolution attempted to "destroy what previously existed, the status quo of society" with instability increasing. The Bolivarian government then believed that violence and crime were due to poverty and inequality, though while the government boasted about reducing both poverty and inequality, the murder rate continued to increase in Venezuela. The rise of murders in Venezuela following the Chávez presidency has also been attributed by experts to the corruption of Venezuelan authorities, poor gun control and a poor judiciary system. The Chávez government banned private gun ownership in 2012 but overall crime rate has kept increasing since.
Venezuela is currently among the countries with the highest murder rates in the world. Recently, the murder rate in Venezuela is the subject of some dispute according to the Associated Press, since Bolivarian government slowly denied access to homicide statistics. A non-governmental organization known as the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV), which collects crime data from seven different universities around the country, provides data of homicide rates in Venezuela. The OVV puts the homicide rate for 2013 at approximately 79 per 100,000 and the murder rate in the capital Caracas at 122 per 100,000 residents. In 2015, the OVV's murder rate data showed an increase of the rate to 90 per 100,000 with an estimated 27,878 Venezuelans murdered adding up to nearly 20% of murders in the Latin American region. According to the Venezuelan government, the homicide rate in 2013 dropped from 50 to 39 per 100,000. However, in 2015, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz stated to the United Nations that the rate was 62 per 100,000 for 2014, nearly twice as high as claimed in 2013.
In 2010, The New York Times stated 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. 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.
Censorship of violence
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.
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% 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 on 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 the Government of Canada have warned foreign visitors that they may be subjected to armed robbery, kidnapping and murder. In 2014, 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.
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. In 2009, the Venezuelan government created a security force called the Bolivarian National Police as well as a new Experimental Security University. Human rights groups suggest that the government's policing efforts are too "timid". The United Nations has stated that the Venezuelan government is lacking 20,000 investigative police.
Chávez's successor, Nicolás Maduro, has also initiated programs trying to combat crime. Under his administration, extrajudicial killings rose dramatically with over 8,000 Venezuelans being killed by state authorities between 2015 and 2017.
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.
Venezuela's judicial system has been ranked the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International and according to the World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index 2015, Venezuela had the worst rule of law in the world; having the third worst justice system in the world and the worst criminal justice system in the world.
The majority of Venezuelans surveyed in the Rule of Law Index 2015 believed the judicial system was corrupt with 98% believing the correctional system was ineffective while 100% thought the government had improper influence in the criminal justice system. The majority of Venezuelans also believed that there was a poor due process of law while also thinking that the criminal justice system was not timely and judgement was ineffective.
Venezuelan prisons are led by "pranes" or criminal bosses that operate while jailed. During the tenure of Minister of Prison Services Iris Varela, pranes were given control of prisons with the belief that they would maintain leadership and lower violence. Instead, pranes run criminal organizations outside of prisons and receive security within their facilities.
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 hundreds of violent deaths occur at Venezuelan prisons each year. In 2014, the UN called the state of the Venezuelan prison system "a tragedy".
There are a total of 34 prisons in Venezuela holding about 50,000 inmates. According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (OVP), from 1999 to 2015, there were 22,998 violent incidents, with 16,417 injured and 6,581 inmates killed. Their occupancy level is at a shocking 153.9% according to 2016 studies. In the year 2000, the rate was only 58 per 100,000 people. Jumping to the year 2014, the rate was 166, and as of 2016 the rate was at 173 
In 2018, Minister of Prison Service Iris Varela stated that when "[c]omparing the Venezuelan prison system with other penitentiary systems in the world, I can guarantee that this is the best in the world, because there have been no incidents", ignoring at least the April 2, 2018 riot that occurred in the jails of a police station in the state of Carabobo, where 68 people died per official figures. 
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 was 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 many armed with heavy weapons.
By 2018 deep into the crisis in Bolivarian Venezuela, prisoners suffered from starvation and communicable diseases in addition to violence as a result of the mismanagement and overcrowding of prisons.
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