On April 14, Venezuela will hold presidential elections to choose the successor of the recently-deceased President Hugo Chávez. A plethora of polls have been conducted to predict who will win this coming Sunday. So far, interim President Nicolas Maduro appears to have a commanding lead, though recent polls may give a glimmer of hope to the opposition candidate, Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski. The global debate around this upcoming election has focused much more on Chávez and his legacy than the substantial issues facing whomever fills Chávez’s shoes. Among the most pressing and prominent of these is the question of citizen security, an issueCapriles and Maduroreturned to again and again throughout their campaigns. And with good reason: Venezuela is South America’s most violent country.
For several years, crime has been rampant throughout Venezuela’s major cities.The Ministry of the Interior and Justicehas reported that approximately 3,400 murders occurred nationally between January and April of 2013. Past statistics about the murder rate are equally discouraging. In 2012 there were over16,000 murdersacross Venezuela, an average of 56 murders per 100,000 citizens. The daily newspaperEl Universalreported in August 2011 article that 8,839 citizens were killed nationwide from January to June of that year — with 3,100 taking place in Caracas. A major problem for internal security is a lack of sufficient security personnel patrolling the streets. In February 2013, the government admitted that the CICPC, the police branch in charge of carrying out criminal investigations, has a deficit ofapproximately 6,000 officers.
Caracas’ strategy for dealing with this alarming crime has focused during the last years of Chávez’s reign on seizing weapons from civilians.In 2011, the government destroyed a reported 50,000 confiscated guns. (The weapons were melted to produce some60 tonsof iron utilized in public housing projects.) The post-2011 numbers show, however, that this failed to do much to ameliorate the crime rate — and in any case, Venezuela is riddled with black markets for weapons trafficking, a situation worsened by the fact that the country is next to Colombia, which makes it fairly easily for criminals to obtain guns.
It would be unfair to suggest that Chávez failed to enact any initiatives to improve citizen security. In September 2012,the government acquired 1,073 patrol carsfor police departments across the country. And as the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted that same year,these problems began long before Chávez came to power in 1999. Nevertheless, throughout his tenure, Chávez arguably did little to address internal security. The ICG has stated that there is a significant presence oforganized crimethroughout the country, the aforementioned massive quantities of weapons in the hands of civilians, as well as high levels of police corruption. The former president did support the infamouscolectivos(armed civilians street patrols, sort of an extreme neighborhood watch). But — as is the case with most vigilante organizations — the utility of these squads, many of whose members have been implicated in criminal activity themselves, is questionable at best.
It is informative to contrast this dismal domestic picture with the vigorous efforts Chávez made to improve Venezuela’s military capacities. Throughout his lengthy rule, the government spent billions of oil dollars on tanks, aircrafts and military technology from Russia, Spain and China (one need only look as far back as the end of March for an example: anunspecified number of Russian BMP-3 amphibious infantry vehiclesarrived in Puerto Cabello). A former military officer himself, Chávez’s goal was to strengthen his military in case of an inter-state war, either with the U.S. or Colombia. Such a war never materialized, and the post-Chávez government, whether under Maduro or Capriles, will inherit a country with plenty of tanks and warplanes — none of which are especially helpful for upping police patrols, cracking down on corruption within security forces, or reducing that sky-high murder rate.