Crime and violence seriously threaten Venezuela’s medium and long-term stability, regardless of whether or not President Hugo Chávez retains power in the 2012 election.
Violence and Politics in Venezuela , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, analyses how the extensive presence of international organised crime, soaring impunity levels, millions of firearms in civilian hands as well as police corruption and brutality have entrenched violence in society. Positive steps such as constructive engagement with Colombia as well as some limited security reforms do not compensate for past failures. Prospects of political violence in the context of next year’s elections are increasing, compounded by uncertainties over the president’s health.
“The government needs to account for its ambiguity towards various armed groups and the failure to tackle corruption and criminal complicity in parts of the security forces”, says Silke Pfeiffer, Crisis Group’s Colombia/Andes Project Director. “It has to disarm and dismantle criminal groups and implement comprehensive policies to fight impunity and protect the population. A failure to defuse the time bomb would mean many more deaths and seriously threaten the country’s and regional stability”.
Chávez assumed power in 1999 with the promise to root out corruption and tackle violence, which had both increased under previous administrations. Twelve years later, criminal violence is out of control. More than ten people are murdered in the streets of Caracas every day, the majority by individual criminals, members of street gangs or the police themselves. By attributing the problem to “social perceptions of insecurity”, or structural causes, such as widespread poverty, the government is downplaying the magnitude and destructive extent of criminal violence. The massive, but temporary, deployment of security forces in highly visible operations, and even police reform and disarmament programs, will have little impact if they are not part of an integrated strategy to reduce crime, end impunity and protect citizens.
Venezuela has also become a centre of organized crime. Different groups, including Colombian guerrillas, paramilitaries and their successors, have been joined by mafia gangs from Mexico and elsewhere. They benefit from widespread corruption and complicity on the part of security forces, seemingly tolerated in the highest spheres of the government.
Having systematically co-opted the other branches of state and tolerated the decay of the justice system and the regular security forces, the executive has in large measure blocked peaceful and democratic mechanisms of conflict resolution. As citizen militias are armed and trained to defend the revolution by force together with heavily politizised armed forces, violence, or its threat, has become inherent to President Chávez’s political project. In the context of high levels of politicisation and militarisation of society, political violence has so far remained more a latent threat than a reality. This fragile equilibrium may not hold.
“In this highly charged environment, the prospect of a presidential election does not bring much relief”, says Javier Ciurlizza, Latin America Program Director. “On the contrary, whatever the result, it might unleash what is currently latent political violence and thus undermine either peaceful regime continuity, hand-over to a successor or any transitional arrangement. Moreover, the president’s problematic health has increased the uncertainties regarding short- and medium-term stability”.