The Hypothesis of the Decline of Crime

Beyond the violence on the borders or the increase of femicides, there’s a feeling that crime rate has gone down in the main Venezuelan cities. Three experts review how much truth there is to it, and what lies behind it.

Photo: Meredith Kohut / NYT retrieved

Citizens of Caracas are less afraid.

At least that’s what you see on Friday and Saturday nights: people walking down the streets of Sabana Grande as if unconcerned by bullets.

Although the curfew by criminals continues, the word on social and traditional media and on the street, is that crime in Caracas has gone down. That the country isn’t as dangerous as before.

Several experts in security agree, crime rate has actually gone down, and there are two explanations. One is that, in the past few years, some crimes have been traded for others. Two, recent migration has limited the number of victims, as well as the number of criminals.

Hints of a Decrease

To talk about personal safety in Venezuela is like walking with blindfolds, since reliable data is very scarce. The hypothesis that crime rate has decreased is born out of very shaky grounds.

Recent migration has limited the number of victims, as well as the number of criminals.

According to figures given by the Justice and Interior Ministry, in 2017 there were 14,389 homicides, 2,587 fewer than the 16,976 reported in 2016 by the same body. However, Venezuela continues to be the most dangerous country in South America, with 57 murders per 100,000 individuals, according to a study by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) published in July 2019. Above Venezuela, in the continent, sits El Salvador, with 62.1 murders per 100,000 individuals.

If we take those statistics by the UN as true, the number has decreased since reports by Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz in 2015, when she said that there were 17,778 homicide victims that year. That’s 58.1 murders per 100,000 individuals.

These numbers aren’t the only leads into “the crime-decreased” notion. Luis Izquiel, lawyer and specialist in personal safety, concurs that there’s an actual feeling among citizens, both from lower income residents and those who live in more expensive areas.

In the most vulnerable social class, this feeling stems from the rise in extrajudicial executions that come from raids like the Operaciones de Liberación del Pueblo (People’s Liberation Operations) and police squads like Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales (Special Action Force, FAES). There’s also another factor: many gang members have left Venezuela, as shown by reports of their capture in Chile, Colombia and Peru. In Lima, for instance, on June 5th, five members of the infamous “Los malditos del tren de Aragua” gang, one of the most powerful in Venezuela’s central region, were convicted for gun possession and drug dealing, after trying to rob a bank in the city.

Izquiel says that middle-class folks also feel the decrease, because the number of “express kidnappings” has gone down, too. In El Hatillo municipality, in South-Eastern Caracas, mayor Elías Sayegh mentioned that so far this year, they haven’t had any reports on this crime, which used to be particularly frequent: only in 2015, according to numbers given by PoliHatillo (local police force), there were over 200 kidnappings. Another reason behind this is that there are fewer potential victims; the capacity to pay ransoms has also decreased.

The Omnibus poll by Datanálisis, in 2018, established that personal safety and criminality went down from first and second place to fifth, when it came to the major concerns of Venezuelans; they were overtaken by hyperinflation. In spite of all these hints, Izquiel warns that you can’t say that people aren’t afraid anymore of walking down the street, carrying whatever they want.

Bullets Are Too Expensive

Javier Ignacio Mayorca, a security and crime prevention specialist, admits that if we take the numbers published by the Justice and Interior Ministry seriously, there’s no doubt that crime has gone down in Venezuela. But, keep in mind, the government makes this assessment based on figures from the 2011 national census.

Another reason behind this is that there are fewer potential victims; the capacity to pay ransoms has also decreased.

In Mayorca’s opinion, the main reason behind the lower homicide rates and kidnappings isn’t a prevention program that led to better safety conditions, but the mass migration. There’s simply fewer people in the country and therefore, less crime; at least reported crimes.

Specifically, what has gone down is the lethal violence, Mayorca claims. Crime, just like any legal economic activity, has been affected by the country’s woes: the same way that store owners went from selling clothes and cell phones to dealing with imported food on the streets and upscale grocery stores, common criminals have stopped killing someone to steal their phone or shoes, and turned to extortion over the phone or stealing food at a line.

The reason is financial. Criminals still generate income, but they don’t use it to buy guns that cost around $1000, or ammo that sets them back $50 a cartridge.

Fermín Mármol García has a similar outlook. The criminologist states that, according to projections made by the Instituto de Ciencias Penales y Criminalísticas (Institute of Criminology and Penal Sciences) of Santa María University, the number of kidnappings and homicides will show a decline, which he qualifies as significant, by the end of 2019.

He admits to ignoring some of the reasons for this, although the news from his studies aren’t very encouraging. “Murder rates could’ve gone down because, in several areas of Venezuela, there’s organized crime controlling territories, and in places with these types of criminal structures, when no one disputes their territories, be it rival gangs or law enforcement, there’s no violence.”

Mármol García explains that this pattern is mirrored in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where gangs have stated that, as long as there are no territorial feuds, there’ll be no deaths. The criminologist also says that, while murder and kidnapping rates have gone down, criminal activity has continued. It just shifted, to save face and financial status, to burglary, theft, rape, and extortion.

Daisy Galaviz

Journalist for El Pitazo and Monitor de Víctimas (Runrunes). Writes for Cosecha Roja, El Espectador, Revista Semana and Historias que laten.