Venezuela’s Republic of Crime

By , Project Syndicate, 15 Feb 2012

WASHINGTON, DC – The recent kidnapping of Carlos Pujalte, Mexico’s ambassador to Venezuela, has cast an unflattering light on the latter country’s declining public safety. Over the past year, several diplomats have suffered a similar fate in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital.

In recent years, Venezuela’s crime rates have increased more than those of any other Latin American country. In 1998, when President Hugo Chávez was first elected, 4,550 murders were recorded. By 2011, that number had skyrocketed to 19,336 – an astonishing figure that exceeds the total number of murders in the United States and the European Unioncombined.

Today, with a homicide rate of 67 per 100,000 people, Venezuela trails only Honduras and El Salvador. The situation is especially bad in Caracas, which has likely become the world’s most dangerous city. At approximately 210 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the city’s murder rate has now surpassed that of Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez – the front line in Latin America’s drug wars.

The Venezuelan security debacle is as enlightening as it is tragic. It offers a cautionary tale about the limits of easy explanations, prescriptions, and predictions when it comes to crime.

Standard narratives about high crime in Latin America put income inequality at the heart of the problem, and higher human-development levels at the core of the solution. Such assessments are not concocted out of thin air: there is a strong and positive empirical relationship between inequality and crime almost everywhere in the world.

Yet income inequality in Venezuela has fallen dramatically in recent years. The country’s Gini coefficient – a 0-1 scale used to measure dispersions of income and wealth – shows that inequality fell from 0.498 in 1998 to 0.412 in 2008, a drop unparalleled in Latin America. Meanwhile, human-development levels have improved consistently in the country; the United Nations’ Human Development Index showed a 1% increase every year during the past decade. No one would guess Venezuela’s crime crisis from looking at these figures.

In fact, even factors that are related to crime in general may have limited predictive power in certain circumstances. Crime tends to be idiosyncratic and linked to complex social dynamics that do not lend themselves to easy or uniform solutions.

Criminal violence is a syndrome in which many factors converge and reinforce each other in ways that generate problems greater than the sum of their parts. In Venezuela, some of these factors are attributable to Chávez’s policy failures, including the collapse of law-enforcement institutions, the systematic weakening of local governments, and the country’s increased role in the narcotics trade (owing in part to the Venezuelan government’s semi-official policy of sheltering the FARC, the Colombian narco-guerilla army).

But, while these factors may help to explain high crime rates, they are not the full story. Indeed, Venezuela shows that there simply are no easy explanations and blanket prescriptions for Latin America’s crime riddle. The situation is irreducibly messy.

Similar reservations apply to predicting the political ramifications of high crime levels. Perhaps the most vexing question in Venezuela is why Chávez has been largely spared citizens’ wrath. Crime was already the most important concern, by a large margin, for Venezuelans just before Chávez was comfortably reelected in 2006. Today, his approval rate hovers around 60%, despite the country’s horrific public-safety conditions. Venezuelans, it appears, care deeply about crime, but ultimately define their political preferences around other concerns, mostly related to economic welfare and ideological leanings.

Perhaps the deterioration of citizen security is less politically explosive than is often assumed. After all, there is scant support for the notion that violence-related issues are sufficient to move people to throw political incumbents out. It is difficult to think of a single instance in which the deterioration of public security sealed a governing party’s fate in Latin America. Venezuela’s crime problem, rampant as it is, will most likely not prove to be Chávez’s undoing.

Such political apathy points to a depressing conclusion: when it comes to crime, people adapt. They change their behavior, accept greater encroachment on their civil liberties, and embrace an increasingly cavalier attitude towards the rule of law. The real political implications of crime are to be found more in these beliefs than in potential support for coups, or electoral results.

According to the 2010 AmericasBarometer (a survey that focuses on democratic values and the economy in Latin America), 40% of Latin Americans support the idea that the authorities should be entitled to violate the law in prosecuting offenders, while 27% approve of individuals punishing criminals with their own hands. More than 100 million people in the region are thus reluctant to accept basic principles underpinning the rule of law and the state’s monopoly over the legitimate means of violence.

Such sentiments are the real threat – not to Chávez’s rule, but to the quality of democratic coexistence in Latin America. The fact that the threat is not readily apparent makes these attitudes’ corrosive effects all the more difficult to prevent or address.

Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former Vice President of Costa Rica, is currently Director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution.


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