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Venezuela - Crime

With a murder rate of 130 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Caracas is generally considered the most dangerous city in Latin America, if not the world. Over 90 percent of homicides in Venezuela go unpunished. By one estimate the country has the highest per-capita murder rate in the world. More than 11,000 murders were reported in 2003, as compared with only 2,000 in 1991. In mid-2004 Venezuela's estimated population totaled 26.2 million, which would be a murder rate of 42 per 100,000. Before President Hugo Chavez came to power, Venezuela had a homicide rate similar to that of Brazil and Mexico, of between 18 and 20 victims per 100,000 inhabitants. By 2008, those countries had maintained roughly the same homicide rate while Venezuela's had skyrocketed to 50 murders per 100,000 citizens.

In the mid-1970s Lesotho witnessed a murder rate of 141 per 100,000, while more recently Columbia's murder rate was variously estimate at between 63 and 84 per 100,000. At about 50 per 100,000 Washington, DC may have the highest murder rate in the developed world. Caracas, Venezuela reputedly has a murder rate over 100 per 100,000. [SOURCE] In early 2006 the murder rate in Baghdad appeared to be about 200 per 100,000 [SOURCE]

The staggering crime figures released by the Venezuelan government do not do justice to the actual number of murders committed in the country, because the government's figures do not include "deaths of unknown cause" nor "deaths from resisting authority." The government each year lumps several thousands of deaths into these categories to lower the official homicide rate. Corrupt Venezuelan police officers may be involved in some 20 percent of the "deaths from resisting authority" that the government tries to keep out of the official tally.

Armed robberies take place in broad daylight throughout the city, including areas generally presumed safe and frequented by tourists. Well armed criminal gangs operate with impunity, often setting up fake police checkpoints. Kidnapping is a particularly serious problem, with more than 1,000 reported during 2005 alone. There have been several high profile kidnappings that have resulted in murder, including the killings of three minor Canadian brothers, a wealthy Italo-Venezuelan businessman, and the daughter of a senior Venezuelan military commander. Investigation of all crime is haphazard and ineffective. In the case of high-profile killings, the authorities quickly round up suspects, but rarely produce evidence linking these individuals to the crime. Only a very small percentage of criminals are tried and convicted.

Prosecutors rarely brought cases against perpetrators of unlawful killings. When prosecutors investigated, they alleged that unsecured crime scenes, poor investigative techniques, and constantly changing or inexperienced personnel ensured that political and human rights abuse cases were delayed indefinitely or had a preordained result. In August the attorney general's office reported that of the more than 6 thousand police officers implicated in killings during the last 5 years, only 88 were convicted. Sentences frequently were light, and convictions often were overturned on appeal. Members of the security forces charged with or convicted of crimes rarely were imprisoned.

Chavez's penal code reform of 1999 led to 12,000 criminals being released from jail and put back on the streets without supervision. This was part of Chavez's efforts to show his concern for the poor and downtrodden of Venezuelan society. The mass release, however, quickly overwhelmed the capacity of police to maintain order. The penal reform also included provisions for the prosecution of any police officer found to have made an arrest "without cause." The practical effect of the penal code reform was to make police officers more hesitant to make arrests. After surviving the short-lived coup in April 2002, Chavez disarmed state and local police forces to prevent future uprisings. This left police across the country vastly out-gunned by narcotraffickers and other criminal groups. Chavez's public statements also serve to decriminalize delinquency, such as when he said that if he were as poor as many in Venezuela's vast slums, he too would commit crimes to help feed his family.

The criminal threat level is considered critical for the capital city of Caracas and all of Venezuela. Crime levels in the Greater Caracas area remain severe and widespread. Much of Caracas’ crime and violence can be attributed to mobile street gangs and organized crime groups. Caracas continues to be notorious for the brazenness of certain high profile, violent crimes such as murder, robberies and kidnappings. Armed assaults and robberies continue to be a part of normal everyday life. Every Caracas neighborhood is susceptible to crime. Reports of armed robberies continue to occur regularly, day or night, in the affluent Caracas residential sections of Chacao, Baruta and El Hatillo.

Caracas continues to have one of the highest incidents of murder in the world. While reported incidents of murder in Venezuela decreased slightly to almost 14,000, the number of reported murders in the State of Miranda (which encompasses the greater Caracas area) increased. In 2009, there were record levels of murders (nearly 1,500), robberies (3,000), and kidnappings (99) reported to the Police in Miranda. With a population of over 2.9 million inhabitants, the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants in the greater Caracas area was 71. By comparison, the murder rate for New York City is 6.4, 3.8 for Los Angeles and 18.2 for Chicago. Most violent crimes in Caracas, especially murder, involve firearms. There is no evidence to indicate criminals and gang-related activities specifically target U.S. citizens.

Crime in Venezuela can be attributed to several factors; poverty, retribution, drugs, gangs, and politics. Areas of Caracas suffer from extreme poverty which provides gangs and criminal elements with an environment that is conducive to crime. Subsequently, these areas are difficult to police. The majority of violent crimes in Venezuela take place in impoverished areas. However, due to their proximity to wealthy areas, it is relatively easy for gangs and criminal elements to infiltrate the more affluent neighborhoods. Within the embassy community, Venezuelan employees fall victim to crime far more frequently than their American employee colleagues. The elevated risk for local employees can be attributed to disparity between upscale expatriate neighborhoods and the rest of the city. Police are unable to protect less affluent neighborhoods, and as a result, crime is quite common and criminals operate with impunity.

The majority of crimes that dominate the environment in Caracas are express kidnappings, carjackings, robberies, and home invasions. Express kidnappings (secuestro express) have become more common than traditional kidnappings. They occur when criminals force their victims to extract cash from ATM machines or to make purchases with the victims’ credit cards until the card is shut off. All of this is done while driving the victim around the city for several hours. Traditional kidnappings also remain a security concern in Venezuela. The incidents of kidnappings in Caracas doubled in 2009 from previous years. Home invasions involve large groups of heavily armed criminals who take over houses or apartment complexes, and rob the owners or all the occupants.

Home invasions and other complex crimes are well planned and involve the use of a person with inside knowledge or a scam (such as impersonating police, delivery personnel, or utility company personnel) to gain access. Home invasions have occurred in buildings where U.S. Embassy employees reside. Levels of gratuitous violence are on the increase and the majority of criminals use lethal weapons in the course of carrying out their activities. Most robbery victims who have resisted criminal demands have usually been seriously injured as a result of their noncompliance. Therefore, it is common practice in Caracas to never resist an attempted robbery.

Cross-border violence, kidnapping, drug trafficking, smuggling, and cattle-rustling occur frequently in areas along the 1,000-mile long border between Venezuela and Colombia. Some kidnap victims have been released after ransom payments, while others have been murdered. In many cases, Colombian terrorists or local guerillas are believed to be the perpetrators. Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are active in Venezuela. Many unaffiliated criminals are also increasingly involved in kidnappings, either dealing with victim's families directly or selling the victim to terrorist groups.

Kidnappings, whether traditional, express or virtual, are a growing industry in Venezuela. Because groups that specialize in these types of crimes operate with impunity or fear of incarceration, more entrepreneurial criminals hit the streets. In 2009 reported kidnappings more than doubled from the previous year. Statisticians and police have openly stated that only 30-40% of all kidnappings get reported to the police. If the experts are right, for the year 2009 there was an alarming 9.2 incidents of kidnapping per 100,000 inhabitants in Venezuela.

Police support, both from the national and municipal levels, varies. Police authorities cite a lack of resources, under-staffing, payroll issues and lack of response by the judicial and corrections systems, as the key reasons why response times are delayed and a significant amount of criminals go unpunished. While municipal police are tasked with responding to crimes, it is the national police that are responsible for investigating and prosecuting the cases. Challenging infrastructure problems and prolific corruption within law enforcement and the judicial system, continue to be important factors with regard to crime response and prevention. Venezuelan law enforcement entities continue to look for creative policing strategies to overcome these obstacles, such as community policing base stations, motorcycle and bicycle patrols, augmenting traditional foot and vehicle policing.

Venezuela has 1.5 police officers per 1,000 residents, while U.S. cities average 3.8 per 1,000. According to the Public Ministry’s 2010 annual report, approximately 9 percent of the 378,108 cases involving common crimes resulted in the filing of criminal charges. While the police will generally respond to an emergency situation, investigative follow-up is intermittent and perpetrators of crime are rarely caught.





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