Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

VENEZUELA: Not Even Funerals Safe from Flying Bullets

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Sep 6 2007 (IPS) - At the wake of Yeison Mendoza, a 25-year-old construction worker shot dead in Petare, a poor neighbourhood on the eastside of the Venezuelan capital, prayers, tears and flowers set the atmosphere until hooded gunmen on motorcycles fired a hail of bullets into the Zambrano funeral parlour, killing three people and wounding another five.

Yeison’s friends had sworn to avenge him, but their rivals in the “Los Picachú” gang beat them to it that Sunday. “Both gangs are responsible for their own victims,” Antonio Zambrano, director of the funeral home, told IPS. He regretted that violence should intrude on “this space of meditation, mourning and family togetherness.”

Sometimes, gang members “hijack” the funeral cars en route to the cemetery, to take the deceased to visit places they had frequented together, such as their favourite gaming salon, bar or brothel. “We have to deal with this every day,” Carlos Estévez, at the El Cristo funeral home in Catia, in the west of Caracas, told IPS.

“Because of the lack of safety, we close at 10 p.m., and we come to an arrangement with the mourners’ friends when they want to make detours en route, in order to reach the cemetery in time for the burial,” he said.

One day, Erick was passing a bakery on the central Albañales street when he saw Manuel “Carlitos” Díaz inside, whom he blamed for his brother’s murder two years earlier. He fetched his friend “El Nani” and, from a motorbike, they fired at the shop, killing Díaz, an elderly woman and a teenage girl.

“The number of drive-by shootings has increased so far this year. If there are accounts to settle with someone, the criminals turn up at the party, the bakery, the street or the funeral parlour where the wanted person happens to be, and fire indiscriminately on everyone present,” security analyst Marcos Tarre told IPS.

Another day in August, three security vans transporting valuables were attacked on the highway at Maracaibo, a city in the northwest, at El Vigía, to the southwest, and at Charavalle, east of Caracas. In Charavalle, the attackers killed two members of the National Guard who were escorting the van on motorcycle.

“We find that crime is evenly spread throughout society. It extends from the boldest criminals who are at the top of the pyramid, who rob banks and armoured vans with long-barrelled weapons and acetylene torches, to those who engage in petty theft or ‘express’ kidnappings,” Tarre said.

On Aug. 27, in the Ribas de Petare district, four burglars, one of whom was a woman, beat Ana Leal to death in her humble home. Aged 77, and a devout Catholic who prayed constantly against violence in the neighbourhood, she had already had items like a blender and a length of pipe stolen in previous robberies.

“There’s been an increase in needless, furious violence, like an explosion of hatred and rage. Two months ago a young man was riddled with 62 bullets, and a taxi driver was killed with 40 shots,” Tarre said. “This indicates how easy it is to obtain weapons and ammunition. Murders committed with revolvers and one or two bullets are a thing of the past.”

A record 12,257 murders were committed last year in Venezuela, which has a population of 27.5 million, compared to 9,964 in 2005 and less than 5,000 a decade ago, according to police statistics. But there were also 1,192 deaths of suspects who allegedly “resisted authority” and a further 4,165 deaths in police custody that are under investigation, making a grand total of 17,614 lives lost to violence in 2006.

Taking into account the 12,257 murders so classified by the police, the homicide rate in 2006 was 45 per 100,000 population, but when the other violent deaths are included it rises to 65 per 100,000 – much higher than the rates in war-torn Colombia (38 per 100,000) and Brazil (22 per 100,000), and one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world.

Tarre also remarked that teenagers and very young people are caught up in the spiral of violence, either as victims or perpetrators.

Although it is not a new phenomenon, criminal violence has replaced unemployment as Venezuelans’ most pressing concern, as the economy has improved, according to public opinion polls. The small but numerous social protests that take place every day, usually involving road blocks, are mainly against insecurity and the housing shortage.

These expressions of discontent transcend the sharp political polarisation that has divided Venezuelan society for the last decade. On Aug. 17, residents of 27 sectors of Los Jardines del Valle, in southwest Caracas, barricaded the Pan-American highway for more than three hours to protest against insecurity, led by Evelyn Uzcanga, the spokeswoman for the neighbourhood mothers’ committee.

In a red beret and shirt with the initials PSUV (for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela which President Hugo Chávez is in the process of creating), Uzcanga told IPS that “what we are demanding is the right to life, because criminal elements from this and other neighbourhoods hold up, kidnap, and kill people, and steal from them when they go out to work.”

Interior Minister Pedro Carreño said that 176 people had been kidnapped between January and July 2007, and hired killers have murdered dozens of trade unionists in the construction industry, where rival factions fight to control the allocation of jobs on public and private building sites.

A study commissioned by Leopoldo López, the mayor of Chacao, one of the five subdivisions of Caracas, found that barely seven percent of murders lead to conviction and sentencing of those responsible. The rest go unpunished.

Meanwhile, 30 severely overcrowded prisons house 19,500 inmates, 57 percent of whom are on remand pending trial. Violence is the way of life here, too, and more than 400 prisoners a year are killed.

“The prisons reflect a society which lacks the political will to eradicate violence,” Humberto Prado, head of the non-governmental Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP), told IPS.

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