By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday , February 27, 2000 ; A25
CARACAS, Venezuela –– Funeral homes hire security guards to prevent
mourners from being robbed. Late-night pharmacies
curtail opening hours. A man posing as a street vendor carjacks a woman and her daughter at a downtown traffic light. And the
governor of the Federal District laments that people in some of Caracas's poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods are
"slaughtered like animals."
Crime in Caracas and other urban areas in Venezuela has so worsened
in recent months that the Metropolitan Council of
Mayors convened a special meeting Wednesday at which members declared a crime "emergency" and analyzed how best to
deploy their overburdened police. The session was held less than a week after governors demanded that President Hugo
Chavez create an anti-crime task force and channel more resources to law enforcement.
The lawlessness, as well as the slow pace of recovery from December's
storm and mudslides, have eroded Chavez's
extraordinary popularity. After 13 months in office, the president's approval ratings have dipped below 70 percent, from a high
of around 90 percent. The slip comes amid criticism that he is more attentive to political matters than to the social and economic
tribulations of Venezuela's 23 million inhabitants.
Another consequence of the crime wave has been an increase in lynchings,
such as the one earlier this month in the Caracas
shantytown of La Agricultura, where a mob killed an alleged rapist and thief known as "The Pig" by beating him and then
stabbing him with his own knife.
Standing among the bustle of the Sabana Grande, a commercial walkway
near downtown Caracas, street vendor Enrique
Jiminez, 26, patted the .38-caliber handgun under his shirt that he bought recently after armed thieves robbed him of $35.
"It has gotten so bad that you cannot turn your back for a second. And
if you do, you better have a firearm to defend yourself
because this place is becoming like the jungle," he said. "There are few people around here who have not been robbed yet. I
hate to tell them, but it is just a matter of time until it happens."
Another result has been a boom in neighborhood watchdog groups and a
20 percent increase this year in the demand for
private security. More electronic surveillance equipment is being installed, and the number of guards nationwide has jumped to
about 200,000--at an estimated monthly cost of $154 million, according to industry figures.
Records show that in the Caracas metropolitan area, where the epidemic
is by far the worst, 8,683 criminal acts were reported
last month, up from 6,522 in December and 5,818 in November. For all of 1999, police registered 5,218 homicides, 33,685
battery cases and 40,940 robberies and car thefts.
The fallout from flooding, mudslides and rock avalanches two months
ago along Venezuela's northern coast has exacerbated
the insecurity. Besides annihilating about 40,000 homes, the worst natural disaster in memory destroyed countless businesses
and jobs. Looting has plagued storm-ravaged areas while many desperate survivors have moved to the congested capital, some
of them resorting to crime to subsist.
But the crime explosion also reflects Venezuela's entrenched economic
difficulties, which continue to worsen despite Chavez's
populist pledge to redistribute oil wealth and overhaul a country where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. Venezuela
is in the grip of its worst recession on record; 540,000 people became unemployed last year--although higher petroleum prices
are expected to provide relief.
"The increase in crime is a problem that has been caused by much misery
. . . while there has been a lack of coordination
among the various [state] security bodies," said Carlos Arturo Craca, general director of the prosecutor general's office. "They
have not applied the proper policy to protect the people."
Critics partly attribute the escalation in crime to Venezuela's new
penal code. Statutes were revised recently to reduce the
number of suspects jailed for long periods while awaiting trial and prevent police from detaining people without sufficient
evidence. Over a 45-day stretch beginning last January, only 200 of 7,000 people arrested were prosecuted. The rest were
"This is the worst crime I have seen in Venezuela in my life. Things
have gotten to a point to where they have just burst," said
Egildo Rujan, director of the security commission for Fedecamaras, Venezuela's largest business federation.
Others say violence in Venezuela stems partly from four decades of corruption
by traditional parties. "A lot of people think that
if top officials get money in this corrupt way, why can't they?" said Alberto Concha-Eastman, regional adviser on health and
violence at the Pan American Health Organization.
A study of residents in seven Latin American cities that was released
last year by the organization showed that those living in
Caracas were the most prone to take justice into their own hands. The survey found that of the 1,300 people interviewed, 30.6
percent said they had been victimized by crime in the previous 12 months, a figure that was surpassed only by San Salvador's