Why Crime is on the Rise in Venezuela

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Marco Werman: One of the biggest issues facing the next president of Venezuela is the country's soaring crime rate. Shootings and kidnappings have become commonplace in Caracas, and the number of murders in the country is now twice what it was when Hugo Chavez first became president back in 1999. In fact, according to the UN, Venezuela now has the fifth-highest homicide rate in the world. Jeremy McDermott is with InSightCrime, a think tank that studies organized crime in the Americas. He's in Medellin, Colombia. Jeremy, what's led to these high statistics in Venezuela?

Jeremy McDermott: There are several different elements which came together during President Chavez's administrations which have led to this epidemic that we have, not just in murders and kidnappings, but also drug trafficking. And that's perhaps the big change. Up to 200 tons of cocaine is believed to transit Venezuela on its way to the United States. This has led to an increasing involvement of corrupt elements of the Venezuelan security forces. This is the national guard, the army, and the various different police forces. We call them 'the cartel of the suns.' The suns refer to the stars that Venezuelan generals wear on their shoulders. Now this is obviously going to have a massive knock-on effect because if the people who are supposed to be fighting organized crime are also involved in it, well, then impunity and toleration of criminal activity is going to become widespread, and that's what we're seeing.

Werman: But Hugo Chavez himself was a soldier. How did he allow the murder rate and this crime rate to just gallop away under him? He was a populist with a strong arm. It seems he'd have kept his eye on such basic human needs as public safety.

McDermott: He first of all politicized the military in an enormous way, and indeed, the constitution that he introduced in '99, any promotions to lieutenant colonel or above had to be signed off by the president. You will find either serving or ex-military officers in almost every organ of the state. So he couldn't really challenge the military.

Werman: What you're telling us sounds like potent ammunition for the opposition in this upcoming election.

McDermott: Certainly. The one thing that was interesting when President Chavez was still alive is that the opposition tried to hammer this point, and it would seem like a political no-brainer, but they never gained any traction. And there was this strange phenomenon where even though Venezuelans were aware and complained heartily about the worsening situation in crime, they did not blame Chavez for it. They blamed incompetent advisors, they blamed corrupt elements in the police and security forces. I don't think Nicolas Maduro is going to escape as unscathed as President Chavez did.

Werman: Just socially, what happens with crime rates when they get this high in a place like Venezuela? Won't people just start to leave and isn't that going to decimate the economy?

McDermott: Let's talk, for example, about the kidnapping element. Most of the kidnappings, and it's anything up to 40 a day in Caracas alone. This has become an almost accepted risk. Some companies and hospitals, they have a fund. Every month you have to put X amount of money into the kidnapping fund so that if and when you are kidnapped, this fund within the company, obviously an informal fund, will pay your ransom. It has become part of the daily fare of the people of Caracas, this threat.

Werman: Jeremy McDermott, with InSightCrime, a think tank that studies organized crime in the Americas. Thanks very much, Jeremy.

McDermott: Thank you.