LIMA, Peru — Besieged by one of the world’s highest murder rates, Venezuelans are hoping against hope that new gun controls may finally halt the violent crime wave engulfing their country.
The new Disarmament Law will restrict purchases of guns and ammunition to the army, police and the country’s booming private security industry. Previously, anyone with a permit could legally buy a gun in Venezuela.
Signed into law in June by President Nicolas Maduro and due to take effect in September, it also gives current gun owners six months to ensure their papers are in order, and punishes illegal arms trafficking with between 20 and 25 years behind bars.
Maduro has described the law as an “instrument of peace” and said that by putting it into effect he was complying with an order from his ailing predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who died from cancer in March.
National assembly leader Diosdado Cabello said Chavez would have been “happy” with the measure, adding: “The indiscriminate selling of weapons and ammunition in the street is over.”
The move is the latest in a series of desperate government measures to quell the slaughter that makes Venezuela statistically more dangerous than Iraq or Afghanistan.
Through the years, there have been several amnesties for illegal firearm owners to hand their weapons over to the authorities. Yet they've barely made a dent in the daily bloodbath on Venezuela’s streets.
And in 2010, the government even banned the publication of photos from the nation’s public morgues after one, showing the corpses of 12 murder victims, sparked international headlines.
No one appears to know for sure how many guns are on the streets in Venezuela, a country of nearly 30 million people. Gunpolicy.org, a think tank that tracks firearm violence and laws around the world, estimates that Venezuelan civilians own between 1.6 million and 4.1 million guns. Of those, 1.1 million to 2.7 million are thought to be illegal. They include everything from pistols to outlawed semi-automatics.
Meanwhile, according to United Nations figures, Venezuela’s official murder rate of 49 homicides per 100,000 residents is the highest in South America and the fifth highest in the world.
But despite being roughly 10 times the homicide rate of the US — itself easily the worst of any industrialized nation — independent researchers believe the Venezuela figure is actually an underestimate.
Roberto Briceno-Leon, a sociology professor and head of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a nonprofit that researches violent crime, told GlobalPost that the real numbers could be as much as 40 percent higher.
He says, for example, that the figures exclude thousands of slayings by the police, officially categorized as “resisting authority,” and others where the precise circumstances of death have never been officially determined.
Watch GlobalPost video: On Location in murderous Caracas
The killing has left most Venezuelans effectively living under curfew, afraid to even go out at night. Polls show that it is the only issue that worries them more than their country’s economic woes, with 30 percent inflation and shortages of everything from food staples to toilet paper.
Briceno-Leon even blames the bloodshed on the late Chavez, whose 1999-2013 presidency saw the national murder rate double, for deliberately encouraging gun ownership among its supporters.
That, he said, was a direct response to the failed 2002 coup against “el Comandante,” allegedly backed by the George W. Bush administration and sections of Venezuela’s armed forces.
“Any effort towards disarmament is welcome, but on its own this law is clearly insufficient,” Briceno-Leon told GlobalPost. “Laws only work if they are complied with. The question is whether this law will ever be enforced?”
“It does not have legitimacy in the eyes of many Venezuelans. And it does nothing to disarm criminals. The only ones who will comply are honest citizens.”
Meanwhile, the opposition — which still refuses to recognize Maduro’s victory in the April presidential elections — has suggested the new law may not be applied to the government’s own armed supporters.
Venezuela’s polarized politics might explain why it is easily the most violent nation in South America. Yet it also fits within the alarming trend that has made Latin America and the Caribbean the world’s most murderous region.
According to the UN figures, Honduras occupies the top spot — with a mind-boggling 82 murders per 100,000 residents per year, 40 times more than in the United States. El Salvador is runner up and Jamaica is third. The only country not from the region in the global top five is fourth-placed Ivory Coast.
And more than 80 percent of Latin America’s slayings are committed using firearms, Peruvian sociologist Lucia Dammert said.
So, it may be no surprise that many Latin American countries have gun controls that, compared to the United States, are strict.
The region’s efforts to make it harder to carry firearms come as US federal and state legislators continue wrangling over gun law reform after recent major shootings revived the national debate on the issue.
GlobalPost in-depth: The global race to bear arms
Yet Latin America is awash with illegal guns, while law enforcement is often inept and corrupt — complicating comparisons with gun crime and controls in the United States.
The cycle of violence here, experts say, has much to with not just poverty but inequality, where the rich and poor live side by side.
Yet, says Dammert, the cause is also inefficient law enforcement and justice systems. In Peru, for example, just 10 percent of murders result in a conviction.
And the consequences could hardly be more serious, with the authorities losing credibility with the public who often end up calling for authoritarian solutions.
“Killing becomes cheap,” she says. “It is a vicious cycle. People start to say [of suspected criminals], just jail them, kill them. It doesn’t matter. Or they take the law into their own hands.”
And nowhere in South America is murder cheaper than in Venezuela, a devastating trend that will likely require far more than the Disarmament Law before it is turned around.