Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Fifty-Two Violent Deaths a Day, and No Respite in Sight

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, May 23 2008 (IPS) - On the day a report was released ranking Venezuela as one of the most violent countries in the world, a local anti-drugs prosecutor was murdered, a mob lynched a suspected criminal in the capital, and gunmen fired 20 shots, killing another suspect.

In the 72 hours leading up to the publication of the Global Peace Index (GPI), 70 murders were reported in the metropolitan area of Caracas, which has five million residents.

One of the victims was Oskel Rubio, a mechanic who maintained the motorcycles used by President Hugo Chávez’s bodyguards. He was killed by thieves who stole his car in the densely populated western area of the capital.

His mother, Elizabeth Rubio, complained that police at the entrance of the hospital where her seriously wounded son was taken delayed his admission to the medical centre and stole some of his belongings.

In the 24 hours prior to the publication of the GPI report on Tuesday, five minors were shot to death, including a six-year-old girl who was shot in the chest as she played at home in western Caracas at breakfast time, and an 11-year-old boy riding in a bus who was killed by cross-fire between rival gangs in an eastern part of the city.

Colombia and Venezuela are the only countries in the Americas coloured red on the map of the GPI, a peace and violence ranking based on 24 variables in 140 countries, compiled by the Intelligence Unit of the British news magazine The Economist, in conjunction with the Institute for Economics and Peace.


At the most violent end of the spectrum, with more than 3,000 points, is Iraq, accompanied by Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Israel, while the most peaceful countries, coloured blue on the map, are Iceland, Denmark, Norway, New Zealand and Japan, with less than 1,400 points.

Within Latin America, the least violent countries are Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Panama.

In the report, Venezuela is in 123rd place with 2,505 points, close to Colombia, in 130th place with a score of 2,707. Between them in the ranking are Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Pakistan, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"The difference is that Colombia has experienced an acute armed conflict for 50 years that has given rise to criminal paramilitary groups, drug traffickers and hired killers, which is not the case in Venezuela," Luis Cedeño, of the non-governmental Caracas-based Institute for Research on Coexistence and Citizen Security (INCOSEC), told IPS.

Between August 2006 and September 2007, 395 teenagers and children in Venezuela met violent deaths, including 21 who were killed by the security forces, 20 who were caught in the crossfire and nine who were killed in accidental shootings, Oscar Misle, of the children’s rights organisation CECODAP, told IPS.

"Violence among teenagers is rising, reaching into schools and making them unsafe places. Among its causes are issues like drugs, family instability, lack of coordinated policies to deal with the problem and the proliferation of firearms," said Misle.

Amnesty International reported in April that in Venezuela, a country of 27 million people, there are some six million guns, of which only 1.5 million are legally registered. "There are too many, and the authorities don’t have precise estimates of how many there actually are," retired former chief of the judicial police Pablo Guzmán told IPS.

Interior and Justice Minister Ramón Rodríguez said that in the first quarter of 2008, the number of homicides in Venezuela decreased by 7.7 percent compared to the same period in 2007, when 621 murders were committed.

Two weeks ago a motorist had a fatal crash in front of the ministry as he fled from assailants who wanted to steal his car.

According to judicial police records, there were 13,156 murders in 2007, another 1,579 deaths for "resisting authority," and a further 4,264 fatalities "under investigation," giving a total of 18,999 violent deaths.

"That is equivalent to 52 murders a day, and a murder rate of 48 per 100,000 population if legally confirmed homicides are considered, but if all the violent deaths are taken into account, the rate is 69 per 100,000 population. More than 95 percent of these deaths are from gunshot wounds," Cedeño said.

Nationwide, 12,257 homicides were recorded in 2006 (a murder rate of 45 per 100,000 population), 8,022 in 2000 (33 per 100,000), 4,481 in 1995 (21 per 100,000) and 2,474 in 1990 (13 per 100,000).

By comparison, the United States has a murder rate of 5.7 per 100,000 population, Canada 1.85 per 100,000 and Germany less than one per 100,000.

Caracas, with 130 homicides per 100,000 population, or 166 if all violent deaths are taken into account, has overtaken Recife, in northeastern Brazil, which has a murder rate of 158 per 100,000, as Latin America’s most violent city, said Cedeño.

Violence is a big problem in all of Venezuela’s big cities, and personal insecurity is the most pressing concern mentioned in opinion polls.

Criminologist and former judge Mónica Fernández told IPS that "cold-blooded and excessively violent murders, not with one or two bullets but 20 or 30, not only indicate serious pathology or drug use, but also a defiant attitude and rampant impunity."

Police investigations are completed on less than half of reported homicides, and only a small fraction of these lead to conviction and sentencing.

Violence in Venezuela is a long-standing problem, which the government of President Hugo Chávez, in office since 1999, has failed to adequately address, despite reforms of the prison system and a restructuring of the police forces.

Social psychologist Roberto Briceño-León said that "tolerance of impunity and the violent political climate encourage permissiveness. Potential criminals do not feel that if they commit a crime, there will be consequences."

"Violence is a sort of amniotic fluid in which Venezuela is floating," Magally Huggins, a criminologist and professor of clinical psychiatry and psychology at the Central University in Caracas, told IPS.

 
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