Updated 1 year, 4 months ago

Crime in Venezuela Justice decayed

IT STARTED with a shooting. Two men, apparently on a motorbike, attacked a Venezuelan army anti-smuggling convoy on August 19th, close to the main border crossing with Colombia. Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, quickly went on television and vowed to hunt down the “murderers” (though the four victims were injured, not killed). He decreed a state of emergency in six municipalities in the frontier province of Táchira and expelled more than 1,000 Colombians living in Venezuela. The Simón Bolívar International Bridge is closed until further notice.

The expulsions were summary and carried out brutally. But for once, the accusations levelled at foreigners, the usual scapegoats for any problem in Venezuela, were not entirely spurious. Colombians are certainly involved in the lively contraband trade in petrol and other goods, which are made artificially cheap in Venezuela by price controls and the weak currency, the bolívar. (Venezuelan mafias, some of them linked to its army, are equally enthusiastic smugglers.) But most Venezuelans, especially the 5m residents of its capital, Caracas, and its metropolitan area, worry more about home-grown killers and the country’s soaring murder rate.

For the middle class, crime is a bigger topic of conversation than worsening shortages of basic goods. On August 9th John Pate, an American lawyer, was stabbed to death in his apartment, in a gated building, apparently the victim of a botched burglary. The murder shocked Caracas’s dwindling band of foreign residents. The poor are not spared. Police routinely board buses in slums to search for weapons. “I was robbed twice at gunpoint last week,” said Santiago Baura, a handyman, as his bus was being checked in Petare, a slum on the outskirts of Caracas.

Reporting of crime statistics has been spotty since 2005, but the government admits there is a problem. The attorney-general said that Venezuela’s murder rate last year was 62 per 100,000 people, ten times the global average. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an independent research institute, says the rate is even higher than that (see chart). The murder rate in Caracas is the highest in the region for a country’s biggest city. According to one poll, less than a fifth of Venezuelans feel safe walking outside at night.

The government, which fears that crime will be a big issue in December’s parliamentary elections, blames Colombians for this, too. In his weekly television address (broadcast the day before the news of the Táchira shootings), Mr Maduro claimed that Colombian “paramilitaries”, not Venezuelan criminals, are responsible for the high murder rate. They “want to harm us and unleash a wave of deaths in our country,” he declared.

In fact, Venezuela’s populist regime, in office since Mr Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, assumed power in 1999, is a factor in the rising violence. Though the poor initially benefited from “Bolivarian socialism”, economic mismanagement has made them poorer. It has widened the gap between people who have access to dollars and those who subsist on bolívares. More have-nots are turning to crime.

The government has paved the way by allowing the institutions of law enforcement to decay. The police force is underfunded and mistrusted. Venezuela has many fewer prosecutors and judges than it should. Chile, a country with much lower levels of violent crime, has a third more prosecutors than Venezuela in relation to the size of its population. Courts are reluctant to sentence criminals to serve time in crowded and violent jails: 90% of murders go unpunished. Gun control is weak.

With elections approaching and the polls looking grim for the government, Mr Maduro is cracking down. In July the government launched “Operation Liberation and Protection of the People” (OLP), swoops on criminals by heavily armed teams of police and soldiers, often accompanied by television cameras. Mr Maduro sent an OLP team to the Colombian border after the soldiers were shot.

Some teams have apparently resorted to the brutal tactics that chavistas denounced before they assumed power. In August a video surfaced on social media that appeared to show uniformed police murdering at least one suspect, with corpses lying nearby. Five officers have been arrested. Not even Mr Maduro can blame Colombia for that crime.

The Economist