Crime: Where Hugo Chávez First Left His Mark

Venezuela had always been violent, but crime soared beginning in 1999. Waking up, late, to this reality, the government tried to fight crime with limitless violence. Two decades on, we’re the third most violent country on earth, and the second most murderous.

Photo: Meridith Kohut / Modográfico

In 1998, for every 100 homicides, 110 suspects were apprehended. In 2000, for every 100 homicides, 18 suspects were apprehended. In the years 2007, 2008 and 2009, for every 100 homicides, only nine suspects were apprehended—and in those three years, 91% of murderers walked free. In other words, impunity grew in huge strides since the start of the bolivarian revolution.

Hugo Chávez never spoke about crime. “He was innocuous, benevolent with crime. As he dismantled State institutions, police bodies and the justice system, crime had a free rein,” says criminal lawyer Luis Izquiel.

“Many have to go out and steal some bread for their kids so they won’t starve to death. How many resort to that? I think I would too,” said Chávez when he was still new to power. The homicide rate was 25 for every 100,000 inhabitants.

Chávez never spoke about crime. “He was innocuous, benevolent with crime. As he dismantled State institutions, police bodies and the justice system, crime had a free rein,”

In 2001, when the homicide rate rose to 32, the Criminal Organic and Criminal Procedural Organic codes were reformed, and the new National Plan of Citizen Security was put into motion. It was the first of a series of over 20 “crime-fighting” initiatives. Up until 2004, the government announced the Strategic Plan for the Prevention of Violence (2001), the Plan of Trust (2001), the National Weapons Plan (2002)—along with the Disarmament Law—the Pilot Security Plan (2003) and the Integral Plan of Security Mission Caracas (2004). All of them talked about a culture of prevention, increasing the number of police officers, defining priority attention areas, increasing patrols, gun control. The homicide rate reached 37 that year.

The government’s approach changed when three incidents rattled the cage. In November, 2005, the “Massacre of Kennedy” took place, a case of excessive police force in Caracas. Three months later, several individuals, including officers of the extinct Metropolitan Police, kidnapped and murdered the Faddoul brothers. In another police checkpoint, businessman Filippo Sindoni was murdered. The three cases shocked public opinion, causing protests and leading to the creation of the National Commission of Police Reform (Conarepol).

“But the plan had no political will. The Conarepol did a good job, but it didn’t continue when the minister was changed,” says lawmaker Yajaira Forero, former Metropolitan Police commissioner. In 2006, the homicide rate reached 45.

In 2008, Caracas started leading the lists of the most unsafe cities in the world so the Executive announced the Plan for a Safe Caracas, along with the Night Call on Crime Plan, the Safe Route Plan and the Safe Night Plan, only in the capital. The homicide rate rose to 52.

In 2008, Caracas started leading the lists of the most unsafe cities in the world.

In 2009, another Minister of Interior and Justice implemented the new police model. Tareck El Aissami, one of the only three civilians—compared to 11 military officers—who have occupied that post in the last 20 years, created the integrated police system and the National Bolivarian Police (PNB), clearing a debt. The National Constituent Assembly of 1999 charged Parliament with creating that body in a period no greater than a year after the new Constitution was approved, but nobody in chavismo complied with that for a decade.

The PNB’s creation was part of the new Framework Law of Police Service and National Police Corps which confirmed the “humanistic” character that would be imposed, including new uniforms in light, “friendlier” colors, according to Hugo Chávez. In 2009 and 2010, the homicide rate dropped to 49 and 48 respectively.

“With the PNB, a second phase began. But it ended up being the police force with the most vices, with many officers accused of corruption,” says Luis Izquiel. “The PNB had poorly trained boys, with low salaries and no social security,” Forero adds.

The A Toda Vida Venezuela Mission was born in 2011, when an ill Hugo Chávez was preparing to face his last presidential election. “It was, in theory, the best conceived plan, because it proposed actions to prevent crime, as well as to transform the judicial and prisons system. But it never left the paper,” says Izquiel. That year and the next, the homicide rate rose to 50 and 56, respectively.

Chávez died. Nicolás Maduro took over. The Peace Zones were created in 2013. “They ended up being spaces for impunity, which gave way to mega-gangs, so strong that even helicopters fought them.” The homicide rate rose to 60.

Additionally, citizen security became a military issue. “One of the Conarepol’s recommendations was prioritizing the natural leaderships of the police career to put an end to the militarized vision of public order.” But it never happened, said Rafael Uzcátegui, coordinator of the NGO Provea.

Additionally, citizen security became a military issue.

That year 2013, the Minister of Interior and Justice was Miguel Rodríguez Torres and Patria Segura was born, “the most militaristic plan in history,” says Luis Izquiel. In his view, with Maduro in power the government turned “toward the most repressive side, a massive violation of human rights,” which doesn’t end crime either. In 2014, the murder rate reached 62.Today, the top seat is occupied by Néstor Reverol (National Guard) as Minister of Interior and Justice and below him, the Vice-Minister of the Integrated Police System, National Guard general Edylberto Molina, and the Vice-Minister of Prevention and Citizen Security, National Guard general Alexi Escalona. Then, the head of the PNB, general Carlos Pérez Ampueda, also from the National Guard. Since 2013, the entire chain of command has been olive green. Even the National Experimental University of Security (UNES) is under the command of a National Guard general: Giuseppe Cacioppo.

The apex of that repressive policy arrived in 2015 with the OLPs (Operations for People’s Liberation) that left a balance of 500 people dead and 44 massacres. In 2016, the homicide rate reached 70.

When images of officers wearing skull masks made the rounds, international pressure and public opinion made the OLPs disappear from the official discourse. But their actions were now carried out by the Special Actions Force (FAES), “an extermination group,” as Yajaira Forero calls it.

Since 2005, the Ministry of Interior doesn’t formally offer official figures on homicides. In some occasions, it has issued unreliable data without reports, without segmentation. That happened again recently because the government says that the homicide rate in 2017 was 47 per every 100,000 inhabitants—a claim made by Pablo Fernández, executive secretary of the general police council. It’s hard to verify that figure, but it sounds unlikely when we know that three out of every ten homicides that took place that year were the consequence of the intervention of State security forces, according to the study titled “How to analyze the current criminal figures in Venezuela?” (2018) made by Amnesty International.

Since 2005, the Ministry of Interior doesn’t formally offer official figures on homicides.

In 2018, the impunity rate is about 92%, so it’s even more surprising when the executive branch says that the homicide rate for 2018 is 30 for every 100,000 inhabitants.Izquiel says that the authorities cover abuses by recording extrajudicial executions as “clashes”, discriminating them from the totals “because they consider them to be actions within the law.

This is Chávez’s greatest legacy: rampant, growing crime; a Stateless, militarized country; fear and violence.