Photo: Iván Ernesto Reyes.

Since March 12th, Venezuela has been in a state of alarm, as declared by Nicolás Maduro with the arrival of COVID-19 to the country. By March 23rd, the virus had managed to infect 84 people, according to official data.

Reporter and safety consultant Javier Ignacio Mayorca explains that this crisis, just like the blackouts of 2019, interrupts the methods by which the government counts criminal events, also changing the pattern by which crimes are committed. This new moment that Venezuela is facing can lead to a decrease in the frequency of burglaries, homicides and personal assaults, but other criminal endeavours (like extortion) will rise and “these are harder to notice, because they’re normalized”. For example, store owners will be under more pressure to pay police officers so that their stores aren’t shut down during quarantine, and folks outside “priority sectors” (food, safety, transport) will have to bribe agents for permits to move around.

Security expert Luis Izquiel believes that we’ll have to wait for the real impact of the quarantine when it comes to safety issues, although he agrees with Mayorca in that criminal activity will decrease because of transit restrictions. Criminals, he says, also have the ability to adapt to changes and since the first two cases were announced (on March 13th), “we have reports of criminals posing as health authorities making polls or disinfecting areas in order to try and enter people’s homes and rob them.”

This new moment that Venezuela is facing can lead to a decrease in the frequency of burglaries, homicides and personal assaults, but other criminal endeavours (like extortion) will rise.

Maduro’s state of alarm is written down in Article 338 of the Constitution, stating that it can only be applied in case of catastrophes, public calamities, or other similar events that jeopardize the country’s safety or that of its citizens. It has a 30-day duration, and once those are up, it can be extended. But Juan Manuel Raffalli, a constitutional lawyer, says that it wouldn’t be in the best interest to prolong this state of alarm too much, because all emergency decrees must be temporary, and if the pandemic isn’t controlled, new measures must be taken to harness the threat, always within the principles of law, reason, and proportion. In other words, the authorities must make sure that measures won’t cause more harm than the pandemic itself, and that they won’t affect the citizens’ rights (since no state of alarm can override basic rights, like freedom of speech).

Mayorca warns that a recent example of an inadequate state of alarm was declared in Maracaibo during the electrical emergency a year ago, when it caused riots that affected about 500 stores, according to a report by the Venezuelan Federation of Commerce Chambers (Fedecámaras). If law enforcement agents are focused on guaranteeing safety measures during quarantine, ignoring petty crimes, and at the same time circulation is restricted for extended periods (including citizens’ right to buy groceries and other basic needs), public order can be disrupted; we’re talking about a population that has to deal with a very difficult lifestyle, and is forced to stay home without food, water or medications.

Juan Manuel Raffalli, a constitutional lawyer, says that it wouldn’t be in the best interest to prolong this state of alarm too much.

An example of what could happen was what residents of Petare (Venezuela’s largest slum) did on the afternoon of March 23rd. With no water, cooking gas, and restriction of transit that hinders their work (a lot of them get by on daily trade and street vending), some people protested by blocking the bridge that gives access to their barrio. Maduro then ordered more isolation for Caracas, and Miranda and Vargas states, that added 59 confirmed patients, so FAES and National Guard officers have increased the number of checkpoints, closed down local markets and boulevards, and are making sure that only one person per household goes out for groceries. There’s little food left on the shelves (due to the lack of gas) and there’s no effective way to bring vegetables and produce from the fields in Táchira and Mérida to the rest of the country.

Venezuela is like a pressure cooker that’s rising each day. It’s a society that suffers from hyperinflation, low purchasing power, and most of its citizens live off what they make on a daily basis. These increased measures of isolation will only provoke more tension, without the police or military muscle to handle it.

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